Even as the Indian Left frets and struts over the nuclear deal, I wonder if it realises how much its own image has been transformed over the last three years.
The Indian middle class never really embraced communism as a guiding ideology (nor for that matter did the working class, much to the Left’s chagrin), but it has always treated Left parties and their leaders with a respect that sometimes (in the case of Jyoti Basu, for instance) borders on admiration.
<b1>Much of the Left’s standing comes from the perception that its members are men — and women — of integrity and principle. All parties shelter the odd crook (especially in states where they are in power) but both the CPI and the CPM are seen as being largely free of the corruption that plagues the Indian political system.
Moreover, the Left (outside of Bengal and Kerala) is the only grouping that doesn’t seem to care about power. Men
like Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury would have shone in government. Yet they have consciously opted for political careers that will keep them out of office.
When power has been offered to the CPM at the Centre, it has actually turned it down. The unnecessary general election of 1998 could have been avoided if Jyoti Basu had been made Prime Minister. (This was the time when Mulayam Singh said his party would not serve under a Congress Prime Minister, remember?) But though Basu was keen to take the job, the CPM Politburo overruled him and decided that the party would not join the government. (An angry Basu called the decision a ‘historic blunder’.)
In a political environment where only money and power seem to matter, the Left stands out as a grouping that believes in ideology and principle. Put the Politburo next to the Congress Working Committee or the BJP National Executive and even a child will be able to tell the difference in intelligence, stature and integrity.
It is the respect that educated Indians have for the Left’s leaders that has allowed the communist parties to fend off the traditional right-wing smears: that the CPI played no role in the freedom struggle; that it continued to take orders from the Kremlin till the CPSU collapsed; and that the CPM was set up by disaffected CPI members who wanted to support China rather than India during the 1962 War.
More significantly, it has also helped the Left sidestep awkward questions about the failure of global communism. With Eastern Europe cheerfully embracing capitalism and with the Chinese lusting after the Yankee dollar, the Left has run out of global models.
Plus, there are the accounts of global communist tyranny. Even as the CPI was singing his praises, Josef Stalin killed 20 million people — over thrice the number killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Figures for those who perished in China while the CPM was translating Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book into Bengali are harder to come by, but a number of 50 million seems conservative (many accounts say it was 70 million).
Perhaps as a consequence, communism is no longer an ideology that appeals to India’s young. There was a time — till the late 1980s — when young radicals would be drawn to the Left and to the idea of revolution. These days, however, the kind of university intellectual who would once have embraced the Left finds other causes to interest him or her: the environment, for instance, or the NGO sector. Rare is the bright young person who wants to join the Marxist parties. Communism is increasingly seen as a failed, undemocratic (tyrannical, even) system that epitomises bureaucratic dictatorship.
When the UPA government was elected, the Left had a historic opportunity to distance itself from the failures of global communism and to recast itself as a liberal force for good which held out against the power of multinationals, fought for the preservation of the environment, and defended the rights of the individual.
After several years of NDA rule, epitomised by crony capitalism and a desire to impress the West with the successes of the Indian middle class (India Shining, for example), the UPA represented an attempt to forge a new path: one that harnessed the entrepreneurial spirit of India and the technological expertise of the educated middle class but combined it with a sense of compassion for those at the fringes of our society who were to be benefited with rural employment guarantee schemes and the like.
It is possible to argue — as many right-wing critics have — that the government’s social welfare programmes are woolly-headed and misguided. It is possible also to argue that decision-makers at 10 Janpath are hostage to the NGO lobby and its perspectives.
But it is not logical to claim that this government has no concern for the poor or that it is too obsessed with the rich.
The Left’s best course of action — given its unique leverage — would have been to push for green agendas, to fight needless corporatisation and to set itself up as the champion of the little guy.
Sadly, the Left has blown this historic opportunity. It has been to the UPA what Jayalalithaa was to the first avatar of the NDA: willful, stubborn, bullying and guided only by ego.
A lot has been said about the Left’s opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal. And while the deal is complex, most educated Indians are convinced of two things. One: that Manmohan Singh is too much of a patriot to sell India’s interests down the river. And two: that the UPA took the Left into confidence before signing the agreement so the CPM’s current objections are no more than a politically expedient after-thought. (There’s a possible third point: these are people who took orders from Moscow and backed China against India, what credibility do they have when they talk about Indian sovereignty?)
That’s the first dent in the image of the Left: till now, we thought they told the truth. Now we think they are liars. They will agree to one thing at a closed-door meeting and then say another before the TV cameras.
The second dent in the Left’s image has to do with the nature of its interference in the functioning of this government. We saw Left leaders as reticent men of principle. Now, they come across as publicity hounds, ready to appear on any TV show to threaten to bring down the government on the basis of imagined grievances. They seem like little people, puffed up by a sense of their own importance, ready to threaten and bully only because they can: the parallel between Jayalalithaa’s behaviour with the NDA is especially apt.
The third problem is that it is no longer clear what the Leftists, who we once saw as ideologically driven, regard as their own ideology. It is hard to identify an ideological centre from which their objections and policies emanate.
Their behaviour over the choice of the presidential candidate, where they objected to very sensible choices before settling on the most controversial candidate of the lot, is well known. And it certainly matches up to no ideological standard. If Karan Singh is unacceptable because he is an intellectual Hindu, then why accept Pratibha Patil who talks to spirits?
Nor is there any sense in which these objections are ideologically derived. Why is it wrong to privatise airports? Only because a few hundred employees of a communist trade union might be affected?
Why shouldn’t we allow greater foreign investment in the retail sector? When did the CPM become the party of the local bania shop? Why shouldn’t there be more investment in insurance? Who will that harm?
The tragedy of the Left is that not only does it no longer represent a logically consistent point of view, nobody knows what it stands for any longer.
Clearly, it can’t stand for the failed Russian model of communism. Even West Bengal and Kerala are busy attracting
private investment. Nor can it stand for the rights of the small man against the big corporation: in Nandigram, it is CPM cadres who are murdering opponents of land acquisition for corporate purposes.
So what does the Left stand for? If it opposes the current prevailing ideology then what does it have to offer as an alternative?
Sadly, the experience of the last three years has done the Left much more damage than any of us thought possible. Offered a chance to emerge from the debris of the collapse of global communism as the party of the free-thinking small man, the CPM and the CPI have emerged as the parties of stubborn, unsmiling, unelected commissars, drunk on their own power, bereft of any ideological consistency, hungry for publicity and eager to blackmail the legally elected government of India.
In states where there is a two-party system — such as Bengal and Kerala — the CPM will survive and may even flourish. But a decade from now, no educated Indian will take the Left seriously at a national level or have any respect for its behaviour and its positions.
In just three years, the current leadership of the Communist parties has wiped out the respect and stature built up over decades by its predecessors.