Terms of Trade | Rahul Gandhi should return to a 1920 communist debate
As MN Roy sought support from the Communist International for revolution in India, Lenin shot him down. India’s Left-liberals are today seeking the support of Capitalist International. It won’t work
This column is going to press in a week when not just the Opposition, but even the treasury benches have disrupted the budget session of the parliament. While the former is protesting to demand the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the finances of the Adani group, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is demanding that Rahul Gandhi should tender an apology for allegedly insulting India in a foreign country.
Irrespective of the merits of the BJP’s charge that Gandhi’s comments sought external intervention and were defamatory, there is a larger point at play here. Should the opposition in India invest at all in foreign narratives or engagements which lament the state of democracy in India, even if the claim has some objective basis?
This tendency seems to have found a big resonance in the left-liberal constituency within India and even more so within the Indian diaspora of a similar ideological persuasion, especially in western academia. The dispute around Rahul Gandhi’s comments is only a manifestation of this strategy rather than the beginning of it.
If one were to make a slightly cheeky comparison, the fault with this kind of strategy is best explained by evoking the debate which took place in the 1920s between an Indian revolutionary MN Roy and what was the greatest revolutionary of that time, namely, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin.
What is the Lenin-Roy debate?
Having successfully led a socialist revolution in Russia, Lenin and his comrades believed that unless socialism spread to other countries, their revolution would not survive attacks from capitalist powers not just within but even outside Russia. To facilitate and expedite global socialism, Russian communists founded the Comintern or Communist International in 1919 to gather revolutionaries from across the world. Once founded, the Comintern saw its share of theoretical debates as well as efforts to translate them into political praxis.
It was at the second congress of the Comintern, held in 1920, that a heated debate broke out between Lenin and a 33-year-old Indian revolutionary called MN Roy who was representing the Mexican Communist Party.
Roy’s basic difference with Lenin was over what came to be known as the national and colonial question in the communist lexicon. In simplistic terms, Lenin was of the view that communists in colonised countries (such as India) should work along with their national movements even if they were dominated by “bourgeois elements” (such as the Indian National Congress in India). Roy, on the other hand, was of the view that communists should delink from such struggles and start working towards an armed communist revolution. As is obvious, it was Lenin’s view which prevailed eventually.
The quest for support of the Capitalist International
Roy was not just making a theoretical point in his debate with Lenin. He had been part of a group of Indian revolutionaries who had (unsuccessfully) tried to source arms from Germany to overthrow British rule in India. Lenin endorsing Roy’s idea would have translated into material support for an armed revolution in India as well.
While a comparison might appear annoying to many, the conduct of segments of India’s left-liberals seems to suggest that they are banking on some sort of an intellectual revolution against the current regime which has the backing of the (so-called) liberal democracies in the world.
Taking the comparison further, Rahul Gandhi’s foreign outreach (though it's not the first) after completing his Bharat Jodo Yatra can be described as an effort to appeal to the “capitalist international” for supporting the cause of liberal capitalism in India. This would require the western capitalist countries to shun the current Indian regime which the opposition describes as majoritarian and authoritarian. Such a strategy hopes for an intervention with anything from verbal support for the opposition’s arguments to some sort of geopolitical pushback against India in global forums demanding that the government of India roll back its policies.
But can banking on western liberal democracies deliver for India’s opposition?
While the unequivocal answer to this question is no, there is a politically correct as well as incorrect version of it.
The politically correct answer is the following. India is a sovereign country and no other country can be allowed or expected to influence democratic processes here. If the current regime has to be dislodged, it has to be achieved via elections.
The politically incorrect answer, as is often the case, is more interesting. History clearly shows that so-called liberal democracies in the west, have actually not cared much for the sovereignty or state of democracy in other countries before deciding on an intervention. Such considerations have been driven by geopolitical or domestic concerns rather than ideological positions as was the case with the Lenin-Roy debate in 1920. There are numerous examples where authoritarian governments received help from western powers, especially the United States (US), just because they were seen as belonging to the “right” camp during the Cold War. To be sure, geopolitics started taking precedence over pure ideology in determining intervention or lack of it even in the Soviet Union after the rise of Stalin.
Locating India in today‘s geopolitical context
This brings up the basic question about India’s place in the current state of play as far as geopolitics and the global political economy are concerned.
The central geopolitical contradiction today, as far as western capitalism is concerned, is the geopolitical challenge from China. India’s geographical location and its unresolved border conflicts with China make New Delhi a useful ally of the West’s contain China strategy. This strategic alliance is far too important to be sacrificed at the altar of the health of democracy and democratic institutions.
While Rahul Gandhi has been making occasional comments about the pitfalls of India being drawn into the conflict between China and the US, the pro-US tilt in India’s strategic outlook was achieved to a large extent under the Manmohan Singh government.
Of course, there is also the question of India being an important market for advanced capitalist countries. To give an analogy, would the British government be willing to derail the India-United Kingdom (UK) free trade deal to settle scores for what was widely seen as intimidation of Britain’s public broadcaster BBC by an income tax “survey” which went on for three days? The fact that the survey started on the day Air India announced the largest-ever aircraft order to the European and American giants Airbus and Boeing is more than a coincidence.
Can there be a “Leninist” strategy for India’s opposition?
It is useful to begin answering this question by quoting the official position of what has been India’s most successful communist party, namely the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), on the Lenin-Roy debate.
“The result (of the Lenin-Roy debate) was to delete the ultra-leftist points in Roy’s document, which failed to value the national liberation movements and the need for communists to support them. The stage of the class struggle of the proletariat and peasantry in the East was overestimated by Roy”, History of the Communist Movement in India, which was published by the CPI (M) in 2005 says.
The opposition perhaps needs to introspect whether it is overestimating the political traction for democracy and liberal values in India. The question might seem politically incorrect or even scandalous to some people – it robs vox populi of unequivocal virtuous values it is supposed to possess – but it is definitely worth asking.
Lest one accuses the column of swaying towards an orientalist attitude bemoaning a lack of democratic consciousness of the people at large in India, it is useful to end with a quote from a book which chronicles the life of modern America’s most damaging demagogue.
In his 2020 book Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy Larry Tye quotes a 19th-century American author to underline why something like McCarthyism was not out of the ordinary in American democracy.
“The true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy,” author James Fenimore Cooper recognised in 1835. The demagogue “calls blackguards gentlemen, and gentlemen folks, appeals to passions and prejudices rather than to reason, and is in all respects, a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management, instead of manifesting the frank, fearless qualities of the democracy he so prodigally professes... He who would be a courtier under a King, is almost certain to be a demagogue in a democracy”, Tye writes in his book.
If appealing to the subjective goodness of the people is unlikely to work, then the only game in town for the opposition can be to mobilise people on the promise of material gains. Here, the Congress’s strategy of pitching issues such as the restoration of the Old Pension Scheme seems to be working with even Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states facing pressure from similar demands. Of course, implementing this policy on a large scale will require a fundamental break from the neoliberal consensus in western capitalist countries, whose support India’s opposition appears to be seeking today. For all his outspoken interactions, it is one question Rahul Gandhi has not come clean on until now.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal