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Home > English > NEWS AND ANALYSIS > Left and the Populists

Left and the Populists

Monday 1 February 2021, by Subhoranjan Dasgupta

Subhoranjan Dasgupta interviews eminent political scientist and founder of the Calcutta Research Group, Ranabir Samaddar.

Subhoranjan Dasgupta (SD): The General Secretary of CPIML (Liberation) Dipankar Bhattacharya set the ball rolling. He labeled BJP as the enemy no. 1 in West Bengal and also in the entire country. Hence, both Trinamool and CPIM should compete with each other in their basic effort to defeat the BJP. Do you endorse this attitude and proposal?

Ranabir Samaddar (RS): The CPIML (Liberation) leader’s stand seems addressed to the situation of West Bengal, and I do not know if he has something more fundamental and general in mind. But I have no doubt that this will open a new chapter in the struggle for radical democracy in the country. At one level it is a call for a united front. But there are two pre-requisites to achieve a critical understanding of the political question of the united front in the current moment of history: First, we must have a clear idea of the classes involved for which old class analysis will not suffice. Several old class formations have dissolved in the wake of neoliberal globalization, and in their places we have a vast sea of amorphous, petty producing and self-producing sections, wandering groups of labourers, workers in gig industry and extractive operations, and accumulation through the operation of supply chains and through virtual modes, and an informal labouring force in close link with the formal world of production.

This turn in political economy has given rise to populist rules in states, by which I mean populists who are on the “left of the centre” or at least are against neoliberal globalisation, and who carry the popular mandate. Yes, right wing populists are there, but the right wing populists quickly turn into hard authoritarians and have little in common with the populists I am speaking of. Second, and this follows from the first, the politics of a united front must address the problematic of populism, and thus decide the vexed question of whom to ally with now, and why to ally with the populists? Thus RJD in Bihar, TMC in West Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu, and one can go on... Therefore the question of competition raised by you addresses the “TMC problem” only on the surface of a deeper problematic. Otherwise, it will remain only a tactical question, confined to the time of elections, and thus we shall have the eternal discussions about votes split, votes sharing, index of opposition unity, etc, etc. I sincerely hope that Dipankar Bhattacharya’s call sets off new thinking in the ranks of the Left. This is possible only when the Left takes in consideration the varying realities and new political subjectivities in deciding “the united” and the “national”.

SD: CPIM of course, regards Trinamool as its main enemy and it has rejected even the prospect of a competitive relationship between its self and the Trinamool. How would this firm or intransigent position affect the outcome of the election in West Bengal?

The main worry is not as to whether CPI (M)’s firm or intransigent position would affect the outcome of the elections in West Bengal, but what would happen to the party as a consequence of its position? Of course, the TMC has a tough task at hand. And as with populist destinies, populist politics will go up and down. But if the history of postcolonial capitalism is any guide, “people” as a category of politics will remain giving birth to new populisms. The TMC may be defeated by the Right, yet their work on protection of the petty producers and informal sections of the working people and their entire economic theology built around protection of the poor will stay on as a permanent feature of Bengal politics. Make no mistake; a social war is being fought between capital and the subaltern classes who are behind the populists – the party of the punitive forces of the rich and the party of the populists. This is the matrix of all power struggles today and the social war of our time. Therefore I shall reframe the question: What will be the impact on the Left because of its inability to grasp the nature of the social war of our time?

SD: We are all aware of CPIM’s position; the question is how could the Trinamool possibly respond to Dipankar Bhattacharjee‘s proposal? Unlike the CPIM, which has branded Trinamool as enemy number 1, the Trinamool, time and again, has labelled BJP as the chief adversary. In fact, Mamata has described BJP as the greatest pandemic. In contrast to these verbal assaults directed against the BJP, it has not attacked the CPIM and the Congress furiously?

As I have said, we have to see these attacks and counter attacks as more than electoral fulminations. This is a social war where groups, classes, sections, strata are at war against each other. Momentary coalitions and mutual assaults are manifestations of this situation. The TMC may soften its stand towards the Congress and the CPI (M) vis a vis its campaign against the BJP. It has indeed tried so several times, and that will speak of its wisdom or say common sense. You can see this even in TMC’s efforts to keep its herd together. It shows that it is not delusional about its power. It knows that given the structure of the populist movement, a singular moment of crisis in the political dynamics may prove its strength to be actually brittle. The point is not that a party has weaknesses. But, is the party aware of that? We know, the road to self-destruction is at times ordained by destiny. Given post-independent India’s history, populists may survive for long – in governmental power or not. However, one should worry about Left’s future. Is it not hurtling down the path of self-destruction?

SD: CPIM leaders, Sitaram Yechury included, in their effort to categorise and clarify its position has said – in order to defeat the BJP, we have to defeat the Trinamool and in order to defeat the Trinamool we have to defeat BJP? Do you regard this as a clear and candid political stand or do you think it is mere semantic quibbling?

I do not know if this is a clear and candid political stand, also I am not saying that it is mere semantic quibbling. What I know is that it indicates great confusion among leaders of the Left about the nature of populism. Apart from the fact that this pairing of BJP and Trinamul tells us of their mad rush for the Nabanna by any means and therefore conjuring convoluted arguments, the fundamental root of this confusion is the inability of the CPI (M) to come to terms with the phenomenon called populism. They cannot call TMC fascists; they cannot also swallow the fact that the TMC has incorporated many issue of their agenda, and has gone several steps forward in terms of protection of the poorer sections of society, and are unabashedly welfare-oriented in nature and are against neoliberal globalisation.

So when the TMC government extends say swastha sathi prakalpa (health insurance coverage) to millions of poorer people, what will the CPI (M) and its leaders including Yechury say, except that it is sham! Do you think political struggle goes forward in this way? Does the Left have any political imagination that will address the issues of neoliberal globalisation, particularly those affecting the vast informal labouring sections of society, which form the life source of the populists? Does the Left have, to repeat, any agenda to link with the demands of the people who want to be protected from the ravages of neoliberal globalisation? The template of the populists is not class struggle but popular yearning for protection. Yet the Left does not understand that this feeds into the class struggles of our time. Seen from this angle, the Left are singularly unimaginative and timid. Their eyes do not go beyond the Bidhan Sabha and Nabanna.

SD: An opinion has gained ground that in the last parliamentary election BJP‘s enviable success was due to the transfer of votes from the CPIM to the BJP which allegedly CPIM itself organised. What is your reaction to this blatant accusation, and further do you envisage a possible repetition of the same tactic?

Statistically you may substantiate this point in as much as statistically you may prove it to be false. I do not know if the transfer of votes was a deliberate policy of the CPI (M). Also I do not know if “people’s votes” can be transferred in this way. Voters are not machines, at least not always. But the desire to get back to the Writers’ Buildings is not only there at the top; the desire was and is there at various levels of political and social life. Political power is a resource which fetches money, prestige, protection, and all other conceivable things. Also in the present atmosphere of an all enveloping social war in Bengal, it is possible that a large section of voters decided to switch loyalty from the CPI (M) to the BJP. Shall we see a repeat of this? Yes, it is possible. The enemy must be destroyed, that is how you survive.

SD: We can extend Dipankar Bhattacharjee’s proposal to the national level and say that only a firm united opposition can subjugate BJP throughout the country. If this very difficult mission totters, BJP will continue to rule with a 30% vote share. Aren’t the opposition, parties like CPIM unaware of this outcome, can’t they read the writing on the wall?

Parties like the CPI (M) are caught between two destinies. They belong to a no-where condition. They neither have a national vision, by which I mean an idea about how to develop an all-India perspective of struggle based on various popular political forces and existences. Nor they have a local vision by which I mean an idea of a path to develop at the state level -where opportunities arrive at regular intervals - alternative mode of governance, alternative political experiments, and an alternative way to connect the national and the popular. In India what Antonio Gramsci had termed as the national-popular has been actualised under historically concrete circumstances in local milieus – milieus of the states – where language, culture, anti-caste movements, democratic politics, presence of the lower classes in public political arena, and anti-colonial legacy, combined to produce the national-popular. In the early decades of independence the Communists had a national vision, as part of which the all India frontal organisations like the AIKS, AITUC/CITU, AISF/SFI, IPTA, etc. – which began their lives in the colonial time developed, elections were fought with vigour and political slogans, and this national was part of an anti-imperialist global solidarity - subsumed however under the loyalty to the Soviet Union. Then the Naxalite rupture came in the sixties on the question of the path of revolution and the nature of the State. That too had a “national” orientation to it.

This was followed by the decades of the late seventies and eighties when the Left catapulted to local governmental power in some states began to combine the “national” with the “local”. Initially the exhaustion of the national by local realities was not evident. But globalisation followed by the worldwide neoliberal dominance, dissolution of old stable classes, growth of the informal workers and labouring poor, of whom migrant workers formed the core, and the rise of the financial capital fuelled by the global expansion of the logistical sector and supply chains brought out the fault lines of the so-called national orientation of the Left. And now the actual dynamics of the interface of the national and the local is beyond the comprehension of the Left. All these account for the Left’s misery. They want to oppose BJP, but they have no national strategy towards this aim. They want local power, but they are unable to learn from the populists entrenched in the local milieu.

Dipankar Bhattacharya’s statement shows realisation by a section of the Left of the conundrum. Perhaps the Bihar elections led to this welcome development. I do not know. In any case, it is good, it makes sense. However, the logic has to be pushed further. It is not a mere question of electoral opposition or alliance. It is a question of reconceptualising the people, the popular, and reimagining class through people and vice versa. This will lead to a reconfiguring the tension between the national and the local. The tension is productive.