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The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in India-II

In the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left in India has not renewed itself. In the context of the electoral debacle in West Bengal and the defeat in Kerala, this article revisits the issue and asks, what future now for the Left in the country? The Left certainly has a role to play in India but to be able to do so it needs to pay attention to the many general issues that currently afflict it.


The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in India-II

Pranab Bardhan

In West Bengal the resounding defeat of the Left Front, even with its history of considerable achievements in organising popular participation in meaningful land reform and rural decentralisation, is not just due to the peasant disaffection with its recent efforts at land acquisition, but

In the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left in India has not renewed itself. In the context of the electoral debacle in West Bengal and the defeat in Kerala, this article revisits the issue and asks, what future now for the Left in the country? The Left certainly has a role to play in India but to be able to do so it needs to pay attention to the many general issues that currently afflict it.

Pranab Bardhan ( is at the University of California, Berkeley, United States.

lmost exactly 20 years ago, around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, I wrote a piece in this journal titled “The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in India” (EPW, 19 October 1991). I wish I could say that the Left has been wiser in the intervening period. I used to think that once the gerontocracy at the helm of the Left parties moved on, the younger leadership would be more innovative and imaginative. Unfortunately, some of the younger leaders who have since been at the helm have turned out to be even more unthinking, dogmatic, and dense. With “democratic centralism”, which is mumbojumbo for tyrannical control by the leadership, the Left parties have also disabled themselves from easy course correction. Even though I am writing this after the Left debacle in West Bengal, and the marginal defeat in Kerala, in this article I will mostly talk about the general issues afflicting the Left, some of which, if paid serious attention to, can yet restore the legitimacy of what I believe to be a necessary role the Left can and should play in India.


I am always struck by the amazing capacity of the Left parties for self-deception in the face of a crisis, avoidance of the hard realities and resort to clichés and solace from sacred texts. In the context of a fast-changing world, their policy pronouncements continue to be obsolete formulae-driven and marked by chanting of catechisms: Market bad, State good; public sector good, private bad; leftist unions even when they act in reactionary, anti-poor and highhanded ways have to be defended; in foreign policy, America bad, China, Russia good (even when the latter countries now display rampant oligarchic, crony capitalism), even the theocratic-authoritarian regime in Iran has to be supported because it fights the evil American empire, and so on.

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more due to widely and intensely resented all-pervasive and oppressive party control of all aspects of local life. If you want a public hospital bed for your seriously ill family member, you have to be a supplicant with the local party boss; if you want to start a small business or be a street vendor you have to pay protection money to the party dada; if you want to ply a taxi or an autorickshaw you have to pay a tribute to the local party union; if you want a schoolteacher’s job you have to be approved by the “local committee” and pay them an appropriate amount; your children are to go to schools where the union activist teacher is often absent, compelling you to pay good money in sending them to his private coaching classes; if you want to build a house you have to employ party-approved construction workers and buy higherpriced or inferior-quality building materials from party-approved suppliers; if you want to buy land, you have to go through the party-connected “promoter”, etc.

All-Powerful Party

In the name of Marxism the long-ruling party essentially became the all-powerful local mafia. Of course, in true godfatherstyle they will often help you in emergencies, if you show your loyalty. This way of operating a party is not unique to West Bengal, the Shiv Sena does it all the time, but they do not add insult to injury by spouting revolutionary or anti-imperialist rhetoric, or chanting lal salam even as they fleece or intimidate you, while the police nearby show studied indifference.

The party leaders have a habitual way of explaining electoral defeats by saying that their cadres have “lost touch with the people”; the common people often wish they did.

Leninist Legacy

The overriding principle of supremacy of party control is a poisonous Leninist legacy,

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and its degeneration into local tyranny is a sad but inevitable consequence. The Leninist principle is often invoked for the sake of discipline. Apart from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] used to be the most disciplined political organisation in the country. No more. While the tightness of control over dissenting opinion at the top continues, it has now become flabby and unruly below, and in many local areas run by extortionists over whom the top leadership has very little control. Hopefully, after the party’s defeat in West Bengal and the subsequent end of police protection, the thugs will now look for greener pastures, and there is a chance now for the CPI(M) to cleanse itself.

In the all-India context the Left is now mainly effective as a lobby for public sector employees, and it occasionally flexes its muscles by calling bandhs (on a suitable Monday or Friday), which paralyse city life, give babus a long weekend, while starving the poor informal workers who depend for their daily livelihood on casual wage work or street vending. The image of the Left in the minds of the vast numbers of the poor is that of the union organiser for the corrupt or callous public employees whom they have to face as the potential recipients of the paltry delivery of basic social and administrative services.

Failure in Basic Services

In the history of communist countries while governments have miserably failed in many aspects of the economy, at least in basic health and educational services they have often done a much better job than in non-communist countries at the same income level (China, Vietnam, Cuba are obvious examples). But this does not apply to West Bengal. The party organisation was solidly based on unionised schoolteachers, health workers, clerks and other public employees — and they used their union clout to default in the delivery of public services. The coddled bureaucracy was allowed to be lackadaisical, files moved much slower than in secretariats of many other states, and the culture of u nion-protected impunity for public employees (including the police) thrived. The appointments and promotions in colleges and universities, directly orchestrated from the party office in Alimuddin Street and screened for party loyalty, decimated Bengal’s long-enjoyed advantage in academic, intellectual and professional pursuits.

Informal Sector Bypassed

A major failure of the Left in India is in not being able to organise, except in localised pockets, the overwhelming majority of workers who are informal, often selfemployed. The modes of organising these workers would have to be quite different: as home is often the workplace rather than concentrated centres like factory or office, wage or job security is not the main issue, welfare benefits and general economic security may be the more important ones, citizen rights may be more salient than worker rights, etc. Non-left non-government organisations with a citizen rights-based approach or Gandhian organisations (the most well-known of which is SEWA, organising a trade union of self-employed women) have often been more successful in this area. There needs to be a major reorientation in Left thinking on labour issues in this direction. In general Left thinking in India slurs over the contradictions within the labour movement (particularly between formal and informal workers) and the special organisational exigencies of the latter.

On land issues also the Left parties, which used to be at the forefront of movements, have largely run out of steam. First of all, on land distribution or tenurial security rights, the Left parties in both Kerala and West Bengal have found out in their bitter experience that peasants once having received those rights do not feel particularly obliged to continue to vote for the parties that originally won those rights for them. In politics gratitude for past once-for-all beneficial actions soon wears out. Second, particularly in West Bengal, over time small and middle farmer families have come to capture the rural leadership in the local party, and this has led to some weakening of the cause of agitating for the wage demands of landless workers; it is no coincidence that the wage rise of the latter hurts those farmers who hire labour.

Third, in densely populated parts of India the land-man ratio is declining fast, pushing a large part of the land below the minimum viable cultivable unit. So earlier radical slogans like “land to the tiller” do not resonate as much. The Left should be active in organising some form of joint management in cultivation of tiny plots, particularly in matters of water, energy, knowledge of new agronomic practices and land nutrient inputs, and in marketing. But it is hardly active in these matters. The history of the cooperative movement in agriculture is dismal in India. Cooperatives, when they exist, more often than not have degenerated into moribund bureaucratic entities or front organisations for milking state subsidies, or occasionally captured by the rich and powerful (as in the case of sugar cooperatives of Maharashtra). The successful cases of cooperative organisations like the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul) have very little to do with the Left. Yet the importance of cooperative marketing will loom larger as Indian agriculture shifts from traditional grain to high-valued produce (like fruits, vegetables, livestock and dairy products). Lack of progress on this front will only bring about the dominance of large retail companies (with enough resources to invest in cold storage and transportation) and contract farming, which the Left in India often reflexively opposes (though the Chinese Party has gone for them in a big way).

Fourth, as the productivity per person declines in agriculture and as its share in GDP gets very small, the overwhelming proportion of even farmers’ children (there is survey evidence for this) want to get out of agriculture. Yet the transfer of land to other more productive uses has given rise to politically explosive protests in different parts of India. In the case of Nandigram and Singur the attempts at land acquisition for industrial use has been resented by the people, partly because

(a) the Left Front government (following largely the obsolete colonial law) offered inadequate compensation; (b) unnecessarily and clumsily used force; (c) the battle (at least in Nandigram) was less about land acquisition (the state government announced quite early in the process that no land will be acquired there) and more about turf warfare between CPI(M) and Trinamool goons – the Left government did little to control the gangland warfare; and (d) the long-term Left neglect of the backward

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state of education made many peasants concerned that their children will not be qualified to get any jobs in the new factories.

The Left now should not draw the wrong lessons from their electoral defeat, as some in the CPI(M) are already urging. Even after the bitter experience of the recent past, farmers may give up land voluntarily if they are offered a substantial share in the surplus that will be generated from the alternative use of land (say in the form of a steady annuity income, rather than cash that tends to get frittered away), if local participatory and deliberative processes are used to inform and involve them, if the annuity flow is administered by a credibly independent and efficient organisation, and if enough arrangements for skill formation and vocational training for farmers’ children are made.

Dispossession and Displacement

Some within the CPI(M), and many to the left of the CPI(M) are understandably preoccupied with the general issue of dispossession and displacement effects of industrial and commercial development, particularly on the lives of the poor. Many of the abuses they point out are indeed egregious. There are difficult issues and trade-offs involved here. I can only make a plea for some balance between the need for economic development that creates productive jobs and enhances social surplus (which can potentially be redistributed) on the one hand, and on the other the need for minimising (and adequately compensating for) the dislocation by means of a process in which the local stakeholders can be full participants. The use of land and minerals by profit-seeking companies for non-traditional higher-productivity activities is in some ways historically indispensable (as Marx would have recognised) if we want any change in the miserable way of life that the peasants and adivasis have endured for centuries – as the Marxist economist Emmanuel once wrote, the horrors of capitalism fade in comparison with the horrors of pre-capitalism. There is too much romanticising of the traditional life among some otherwise well-intentioned activists (both of the Gandhian and far-left persuasion) and too little interest in assessing the complex trade-offs involved. On the other hand, in the current dis pensation the surplus generated in the process of development in these areas is grossly inequitably distributed, much of it grabbed by the corporate oligarchy, real estate tycoons, the mining mafia, and their political patrons and collaborators. We have to find a balanced, equitable, and sustainable way of dividing the surplus and minimising the loss (both private and social, including environmental). In this the democratic Left (as opposed to the misguided and violent extreme Left) can play a valuable role in espousing the cause of the deprived, increasing their awareness and information, catalysing their organisations and acting as watchdogs against the abuses of state violence and corporate power.

Associational Life

One important difference between Kerala and West Bengal is the much richer associational life in Kerala’s society, with a long history of literacy and solidarity movements for low caste emancipation, people’s science movements, civic organisations (including those related to churches) and, of course, a strong set of Left-led organisations of landless workers and small peasants. Civil society is much weaker in West Bengal, in spite of strong unions of clerks, schoolteachers and peasants (industrial unions are weak and demoralised in a string of declining sunset industries). Associational life has been largely hijacked by the party, explicitly discouraging the growth of nonparty c ivic organisations in its shadow. There are some lower caste associations (like those of the “matua” group, which the party in its desperation before the elections tried to appease, too late), but unlike in other states they have been marginal to the bhadralok-led politics. While bhadraloks presided in the upper echelons of the party, the lower level operatives used the party dominance to arm themselves and create their little mafia fiefdoms, which thrived with the neutered police looking away. In the absence of robust civic organisations, the local-level politics quickly fell into a vortex of violence. The Trinamool Congress fought an uphill battle with its own squads of goons, and finally won with the headwind of accumulated popular disgust at the tyranny of party control and peasant anxiety about their land.

But decentralisation which is supposed to have been a success in West Bengal should have provided a local-democratic arena for resolving conflicts and a check to the violence. While panchayats in West Bengal have not been captured by the landed oligarchy (as in many other states) largely on account of the prior land reform, and some of the welfare benefit programmes did reach sections of the














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poor, local governments are weak in terms of finance which mostly comes from above and local elections are fought not so much on local issues but more on state-level partisan issues. Benefits often went to sections of the poor who were in a clientelistic relationship with the ruling party. So the panchayats became just one more arena for bitter partisan battles, usually around the allocation of the scanty doles from above, from state-supported or centrally-sponsored schemes. Kerala panchayats have been given a lot more finance by the state government, decentralised planning is more participatory, and in some districts there is even a record of municipal governments running business enterprises (in collaboration with local private business and voluntary organisations) – something practically non-existent in West Bengal.

On Market Reform

Finally, the Left parties have to give up on their blatant hypocrisy on market reform. The reform policies pursued in Delhi are routinely described as “neo-liberal”, supposedly adopted under imperialist and World Bank influence, while basically similar policies are followed in Kolkata, Agartala or Thiruvananthapuram. Just as many decades back, after long and acrimonious debates, the communist parties in India reconciled to working under “bourgeois democracy”, they have to reconcile themselves to the market principle. These are both about competition, one in the polity, and the other in the economy. Markets have a large number of wellrecognised problems: market “failures” in resource allocation on account of externalities and imperfect information, inequalities that markets tend to facilitate, the instability, unemployment, and the economic and cultural dislocation that they often bring about, etc. But there are ways of mitigating these negative effects. The alternative to markets is often worse. The history of socialist countries has shown us repeatedly how without competition among producers and a mechanism for exit of chronically inefficient firms, no economy can attain or retain its vigour and dynamism. Political or bureaucratic allocation of resources and control of prices often lead to corruption, black markets and stagnation.

The inequality in wealth in socialist countries is between the privileged members of the party oligarchy (and their accomplices) and the rest, and unemployment takes the form of low-productivity “disguised unemployment”. Barring utopian projects on the drawing board of many wishful thinkers, no one has yet shown us in practice a consistently and durably viable and technologically dynamic economy for a large enough country that has been run on traditional socialist lines of controls and state monopoly. The socialist economies of eastern Europe and Russia collapsed largely on their own endogenous systemic weakness. Common people in capitalist South Korea are immeasurably better off than in socialist near-starvation North Korea (which started off with an initial industrial advantage over the South). For three decades now China has deliberately attempted following a comprehensive policy of state-guided capitalism (adapting the models in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and earlier Japan for their own circumstances) and has succeeded famously. In many respects Chinese policy has been much more “neo-liberal” than Indian. Vietnam is following policies similar to China.

Possible Priorities

I think the Left should concentrate on leading popular struggles against capitalist excesses and injustices (rampant inequality and the consequent capture of political processes, displacement of poor people, macroeconomic instability – most recently due to short-sighted recklessness of unregulated financial markets abroad, and environmental degradation). The required systemic modifications and regulations will not make the capitalists happy, but through democratic pressures one can work out a bargaining arrangement in which the social justice objectives are vigorously pursued, but the incentives for production and surplus generation are not hurt too much; and state and community-level coordination mechanisms are used to cope with various kinds of coordination failures in the economy without substantially giving up on the important coordinating and disciplining functions of the market. Such a bargaining equilibrium may or may not be called “social democracy” – a term which raises suspicion in many on the Left, while many on the liberal side smell too much socialism in it. Forgetting about the well-known European examples, even among developing countries, in Latin America a small country, Costa Rica, has a thriving democracy with a superb system of welfare benefits for the masses; in a large country, Brazil, under the Workers’ Party the erstwhile high inequality is going down (their index of income inequality is now about the same as in China), and education and health services have advanced a great deal and they are aiming at a form of social democracy, without giving up on the capitalist features of production. The Indian situation is, of course, different, but there are many international examples now to learn from (particularly in regulations and in provision of social services) and adapt to our circumstances.

Even within India, a non-Left state like Tamil Nadu has advanced in the last three decades much more than West Bengal under the Left, both in industrialisation and in delivery of social services. Kerala, of course, has been on top in terms of social services for many decades, both under Left and non-Left rule, but its production system has not been dynamic enough, and it is more of a remittance economy. In general, the Left has to think hard why it is now only a regional party, and why even in its regions of strength it is getting weaker.

When Marx in his last years was learning about Russian data and special conditions, he was quite open to changing his long-held ideas formed from his study of west European history (as he explicitly indicated to some of his correspondents), much to the consternation of some of his faithful followers. Sticking to old dogmas in the face of changing reality and new information is definitely un-Marxian.

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