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Spot the Stalinist

So long as they are prepared to honour the verdict of free and fair elections, the BJP is not ‘fascist’, and the CPI(M) is not ‘Stalinist’, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Jul 16, 2008 17:57 IST

Some years ago, in an essay I published in a Delhi magazine, I argued that although there were very many bigots in the BJP, it was mistaken to see it as ‘fascist’. My reason for rejecting that label was that despite its views and orientations, the BJP had called a general election in the summer of 2004 and, when it lost the popular mandate, moved out of office and allowed the Congress-led UPA to take over the reins of government. If fascists call elections (which is rare), they take care to doctor them. Only death or defeat — whether at war, as with Adolf Hitler, or at the hands of a popular uprising, as with the Duvaliers of Haiti — has put paid to the political powers of totalitarian dictators.

My claim that despite its bigotry and intolerance the BJP was not fascist was met with rousing indignation by intellectuals of the Left. Letters were written to the magazine denouncing me as a right-wing reactionary. One young Marxist journalist went so far as to carry out a campaign among her colleagues to stop them from buying my books.

The fact that the RSS was modelled on paramilitary organisations promoted by Mussolini in Italy and by Hitler in Germany; that the demonisation of the Muslims was conducted in language similar to the Nazi villification of the Jews; that the BJP poster boy Narendra Modi had marked authoritarian tendencies; and that in Modi’s Gujarat, Muslims were marginalised, victimised, ghettoised, and brutalised — all these were for the Leftist intellectual proof enough that the BJP and its constituent elements were indeed ‘fascist’. Anyone who argued otherwise had (since to think in black and white categories is, to the Marxist intellectual, second nature) both betrayed humanity and played into the hands of the enemies on the right.

I, too, know of the European precedents of the desi swayamsewak; I too deplore their treatment of Muslims as second or third class citizens; and I too think that the conduct of Narendra Modi during and after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 was a blot on Indian democracy. But I would still urge caution in borrowing terms generated by a very different historical context. The BJP is insular; the RSS is bigoted. I would still not call them ‘fascist’.

By the same token, I do not consider the CPI(M) to be ‘Stalinist’, although that label is often used to describe them by Hindutva ideologues as well as by independent leftists. To be sure, the CPM publicly admires and even venerates Joseph Stalin. His is one of the four portraits that adorn the backdrop in a party congress (the others being Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and V.I. Lenin). And it is certainly true that the thought and practice of the CPI(M) is at times strikingly reminiscent of the tactics of Stalinist parties. Here, I am thinking especially of their doctoring of history.

In the CPI(M)’s rendering of 20th century Russian history, there was no Gulag, no mass extermination of peasants resisting collectivisation, no jailing or killing of dissident intellectuals. In their rendering of 20th century global history, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a liberation from imperialism, the construction of puppet regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s a victory for democracy and socialism.

These distortions are well known, and rightly deplored. The CPI(M)’s distortions of modern Indian history are less frequently commented upon. Historians close to the party have enjoyed a notable success in covering up the tracks of the extraordinary betrayal of the Indian people that occurred during and after the party congress held in Calcutta in March 1948. In books written by them (but often published under respectable mainstream imprints), the events of 1948-9 are represented in terms of ‘the brutal repression by the state’ of a popular peasant uprising. In fact, led by their new General Secretary B.T. Ranadive, and egged on from afar by the Soviet Union, the (then undivided) Communist Party of India declared war on the nascent Indian State. What were the officials of this State to do — lie on their backs and allow the communists to trample on them and plant the Red Flag in New Delhi?

The leaders and intellectuals allied to the CPI(M) are dogmatic and intolerant of dissent. They tend to be economical with the truth. They have slavishly worshipped some of the most brutal regimes in history. Still, they are not Stalinist. For, like the alleged ‘fascists’ on the other side, they have chosen to work within the political system mandated by the Indian Constitution, that is, multi-party democracy. In Kerala and Tripura, the CPI(M) has shown no hesitation in moving out of office when it is defeated in an election. There is no reason to believe that it would not do the same were it to lose the popular mandate in West Bengal.

The BJP is yet to disavow the ideal of the Hindu Rashtra, of a political system based on a single authorised interpretation of a particular religious tradition. The CPI(M) is yet to formally turn its back on the idea of a one-party Communist State. (Its official position is that in the present capitalist system, it has to work with other parties; but that in a future Socialist Utopia it shall be wholly in charge.) But so long as they are prepared to honour the verdict of free and fair elections, the BJP is not ‘fascist’, and the CPI(M) is not ‘Stalinist’.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India after Gandhi