I do believe that India needs a healthy and robust Left in its political arena. But that neither means that conditions have been right for the Left to flourish in our society nor does it mean that the mainstream Left is equipped or prepared to occupy its rightful place in the polity.
That is because even in their heydays they talked like a reincarnated pre-war communist party, both intellectually and ideologically. Their survival in politics was due to different set of circumstances and rules of the game, which they neither tried to understand nor did they have any intuitive feel for.
There have been a few exceptions though. Harkishan Singh Surjeet being the last of them. But he was seen by the Left as a maverick, good only for cutting political deals with little appreciation of communist theory or any deep interest in ideological matters. He was seen primarily as a fixer who could be useful but not someone the comrades could learn from.
Yet, as a party, CPM faithfully followed some of the same authoritarian rules that they accused their opponents of following. They too, like others, believed in placing their own people in every available vacancy—from vice chancellors to chowkidars to minibus drivers. West Bengal’s intellectual world has narrowed over the years. It was the Left that first turned JNU into a citadel of thought control and thought police. Like all ideological parties, they believed that ideology came before competence, that if you could outshout your opponents, you had won the debate.
In this respect, their true counterplayer is the BJP—both cadre based parties and both take into account the requirements of their cadres first, because both are political forces destined to play the role assigned to them by the inescapable, iron laws of history.
Whereas our politics required a new kind of theory of politics, where ideological postures should go beyond the kind of ideology that had powered the Left and the BJP till now, and move to a new trajectory where they would have seriously looked into the dynamics of Indian politics, particularly the country’s experiments with participatory democracy.
But both parties have remained stuck within ideological frames that meet the requirements of a psephocracy surviving from one election to the other-one stuck in Leninist ultra-positivism and the other in early 20th century European ultra-nationalism. Both are heavily obligated to Europe for their ideological moorings and for their visions of a desirable society. And both have conveniently forgotten to borrow anything from either Europe’s diverse traditions of conservative liberalism or from Europe’s dissenting traditions that have tried to break the shackles of obsessive Statism.
CPM faithfully followed some of the same authoritarian rules that they accused their opponents of following. They too, like others, believed in placing their own people in every available vacancy
All that these ideological parties can do now is raise the tempo of abuses and cross-accusations in a polity that has become the lynch capital of the world and where, with a few courageous exceptions, intellectual freedom and its scope and limits can only be discussed in hushed tones in the privacy of one’s home or, otherwise, if you have the time, energy and money, in the courts of the higher judiciary.
Yet, India’s Left is not merely a collection of divided, self-righteous, quarrelsome parties. It is also the name of a potentiality and a vision that have critical roles to play in redefining India’s future. That future is, at the moment, being defined by various strands of populism, heavily dependent on mass media, on charismatic figures who do not have identifiable, persistent, personality traits but are collections of popular slogans and imageries created by media experts and party propagandists. There is something insubstantial, transient and hollow about them. Yet, they continue to win elections and occupy positions of power against all odds. From President Donald Trump to President Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines, it has been the same story.
In such a world, is it possible for any serious political formation operating on the basis of a well-thought-out manifesto or, what optimists in India call, a common minimum programme, to survive or be even audible? I doubt it.
I do not think that ordinary voters nowadays take seriously even accusations of corruption, authoritarianism or fascism, anti-secularism, EVM-rigging or vote-purchasing seriously. Given half a chance all parties are expected to bend or flout the norms. The stock of the political class is truly low today. I sometimes wonder how they show their faces to their own children.
I sometimes suspect that a more modest, less ambitious principle of collective negation might work better in these dark times. We have all been brutalised and most of us have lost our capacity to trust politicians and political parties; we have been betrayed often enough. In such a situation, instead of promising an incorruptible, unemployment-free utopia, would it be better to concentrate on the few persons and formations that pose a real danger to civilised life in India. Hatred in any case goes farther than any fraternal sentiments in Indian politics. Perhaps one can bring together more parties and factions to agree on some of more notorious decivilizing influences in our polity and conspicuously avoid them in public spaces. To expect now the Leninist Left to play a bigger role in Indian politics is plainly naïve.
As told to Bula Devi