Tariq Ali's "street fighting years" may not be over yet. In the last chapter of his eponymous book, he had drawn up a balance-sheet of "heretics" and "renegades", in which he judged old comrades such as Regis Debray for having made peace with the turn of the wind. Mocking the sixties had become the past-time of former radicals, he had written.
His recent opinions seem to suggest that he is now walking the tightrope through the middle of his own radical report card. A writer, activist and publisher in the vanguard of the international radical left since the stormy sixties, Ali is not free of the anxieties that have gripped every militant soul ever since the Soviet collapse and communist China's capitalist turn. These are, of course, international obsessions.
His heart, however, is still with the people and their new struggles. In India, to deliver the Faiz Memorial Lecture, at the Habitat Centre, Delhi, on Monday, Ali pointed out how post '90s, the "picture has changed completely" and the talk of a global socialist revival is "esoteric". That is perhaps the reason why he is less ideologically demanding of the current popular protests, which he nevertheless affirms.
His praise for the victory of the eight-year-old Respect Party in the Bradford by-election in the UK on a left-democratic plank ("Respect is anti-Iraq, opposes privatisation of health and education services."), for instance, sits oddly with his support for Imran Khan, the Pakistani politician. Pakistan's army allegedly backs his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, to give other politicians heartburn. "Imran is no Leftist, but here's a man who is giving Pakistan hope. He talks of housing, free education, equality, corruption. The young go to his demonstrations. Imran," Ali points out.
In London, since his twenties, Ali has engaged with the subcontinent as a western intellectual. On the pages of the NewLeft Review, one of Britain's politico-literary institutions, of which he is an editorial consultant, South Asia is a strong focus. What does he think of the India growth story? Are her neighbours apprehensive about Indian expansionism? Can a South Asian confederation ever be a reality as long as such fears about the biggest and most powerful nation-state in the region prevail? Are those fears legitimate? "In all this, you don't mention Kashmir," Ali says with a calm stare. "Kashmir is a big stumbling block created by the Indian ruling elite. There are no more visionaries, only bureaucrats. I have attacked jihadis, too, in my writings," he adds. And he has. "But the principal issue is the failure to ask what Kashmiris want. This they were promised and it has not been delivered."
South Asian unity, he adds, hinges on asking other questions as well. "The Tamil question in Sri Lanka, for example. But the West ignores it because a pro-West government carried (the war) out." The Sri Lankan war, it is true, changed the way dissidents are viewed in the region. "The re-emergence of Maoism in India shows Maoists should be talked about. Not killed. It is easy to go after them with anti-terrorist legislation, but it will not go unchallenged," says Ali.
Anna Hazare or the Occupy Wall Street movements were, in his view, no challenge to the establishment at all. The first, he calls "unpleasant demagoguery". The second, he says, posed no demands at all. "If you have no demands, you can create no political alternative." But did he stand with them? Of course, he did.