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A Logical Defeat for the Left

Can the Left learn the proper lessons from its electoral rout?

Tuesday 26 May 2009, by Economic & Political Weekly

There is a certain irony in the defeat of the Left, in particular of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), in the recent general elections. It was among the handful of communist parties in the world that survived the fall of the then existing socialism in 1989-91 and it actually grew in size in the following years. Today when capitalism is in crisis the world over, the CPI(M)-led Left in India faces its worst defeat ever.

Predictably, the Left Front (LF) and CPI(M) will bring forth contingent and immediate exigencies to explain the electoral rout. One view blames state-level mistakes like Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal and factionalism and cyclical voter swing in Kerala for the debacle. Other factors like the neglect of education, public health and transport and the stepmotherly treatment of minorities in West Bengal (where fewer Muslims are in government service than in Gujarat) are also being held responsible for the loss. After more than three decades in power it is not possible to blame a lack of funds from the centre for the inadequate coverage and level of social services in at least Ben¬gal. Moreover, the double-speak between CPI(M) positions in Delhi and Kolkata, especially on economic policies, also turned voters away. Lastly, there are clear indications of complacency and arrogance, not to mention an arbitrary and even illegal exercise of power at the local level, in the behaviour of the Left in Bengal. The other view considers the rigid stand on the nuclear deal and the tactics of the “Third Front” to be primarily respon¬sible for the electoral rebuff. It castigates the rigid opposition to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for bringing the Congress and Trinamool together in Bengal and the alliance with “unsa¬voury” regional parties for driving voters towards the Congress grouping in other states.

The CPI(M) saw a fall in vote share in 15 out of the 22 states in which it contested. Even in those states where its vote share has gone up, it is largely because the party contested more seats. Overall, despite contesting 13 more seats (a total of 82 nationally), the CPI(M)’s vote share declined and the LF’s tally fell from 61 in the 14th Lok Sabha to just 24 in the new Parliament. In fact, five seats in West Bengal could even be seen as a gift from the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose candidates divided the anti-left votes in these constituencies and helped the LF candidate win. Yet, despite these reverses, it is undeniable that the core of the LF’s support still remains loyal in Bengal and Kerala.

There is a large element of truth to be found in each of these explanations and still they remain, in their sum total, empirical and empiricist apologies for the loss suffered by the Left. Such a rout cannot be explained only in terms of momentary exigencies. Regrettably, the first steps at self-assessment and review of the results indicate that rather than confront these stark realities and encourage a thorough self-criticism from the rank and file, the left parties are either trying to find short-term, localised, answers to the defeat or are indulging in an internal blame game being aired publicly and with much rancour

It was in the 15th Congress of the CPI(M) in Chandigarh in the mid-1990s that a startling fact came to light. More than half the members of the party came from non-working class and non-peasant backgrounds, or what is loosely called, the middle class. This was primarily due to the inability of the CPI(M) to mobilise working people in mass movements while retaining its attraction towards young educated radical sections of society. This member¬ship skew, unaddressed as it has remained since then, has led to a situation where today the students, youth and women’s fronts of the party supply almost all the top leaders of the politburo and Parliament and there is perhaps not a single young leader who has emerged from trade union, peasant or other mass struggles. Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu had emerged from peasant and working class movements, while Prakash Karat and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya emerged from the classrooms of elite universities. This dominance of members from the educated prop¬ertied classes has resulted in what can only be called “a politics of logical principles”.

The scholars and wordsmiths who lead the CPI(M) today, draft its documents and lay down the line are no doubt masters at drawing logical conclusions from first principles. Textual criti¬cism and deconstruction of reality seem to have replaced actual mass mobilisation and movements.
Even on the nuclear deal issue, hundreds of thousands of words were produced while only one hurried bus ride along India’s eastern coast filled in for mass mobilisation on this issue. Today the Left, led by its largest mem¬ber the CPI(M), has made erudite critiques of government acts, policy lobbying and administration into its prime political work.
It seems at a loss when confronted by mass action. The Left re¬mains on the sidelines of most popular mass movements being waged by peasants, tribals and workers in India today and, wor¬ryingly, sometimes it is ranged against them. The few mass move¬ments which it initiated, as in Rajasthan or Andhra Pradesh, re¬mained localised, not only in the geographical sense which they had to, but crucially in terms of political import because the party did not know what to do with them.

The Left theoreticians have been found wanting even in the theoretical task of building a new praxis of radical mass move¬ments. Lurching from one issue to another, on agendas set by others, the CPI(M) leadership often appears to be, what Ashok Mitra termed recently, “philosophers of the short term”.

Beyond the fortunes of this particular election, the world today is passing through one of the greatest crisis of capitalism. Neoliberal dogmas, which till recently seemed unshakeable, are facing unprecedented opposition from people at large while gigantic corporations are teetering on collapse. It is at moments like these that ideas and solutions that lead to radical egalitarian transformation of society can become popular and can be rooted in social institutions and state structures. In India, democracy has struck deep roots and is empowering millions to demand a better life and greater dignity for themselves. By denying the CPI(M) and the LF any major parliamentary stake, the people of India have, inadvertently, thrown them out of parliamentary politics too. The question, unfortunately, remains whether any¬thing is left in the Left to take advantage of this opportunity. There is no logical answer to this question, only the possibility of returning to its natural politics.