The recent right turn in Indian politics has left the Left parties in a lurch. The 2014 Lok Sabha election electorally devastated the entire Left, particularly the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Vijay Prashad’s No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism examines the existential crisis faced by the Left parties in India given the formidable challenge from the Right, especially from the dizzying electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
A sympathetic, yet critical account of the Left, Prashad’s book delves into history to trace the rise and fall of Indian Communism. Prashad also includes comparative vignettes from Left movements worldwide to bolster his arguments. The strength of the book is Prashad’s access to top Communist leaders and intellectuals and good use of internal party documents. He combines academic depth with a racy writing style. Given the transition within the CPI-M, with Sitaram Yechury replacing Prakash Karat as the new general secretary, Prashad’s book is well timed.
The weaknesses of Prashad’s book result from a typical orthodox Marxist fellow traveller writing within the narrow confines of a rigid, procrustean framework. An economic determinist, Prashad puts too much emphasis on bashing neo-liberalism and the United States of America (where incidentally Prashad teaches) as the main enemy of the Indian people and too little on understanding the complexities of a democratic intervention. Elections provide people, including labour movements, space to counter capital’s non-democratic tendencies. After all, the Left Front used such a space cleverly for almost four decades to rule West Bengal. Elections, in Prashad’s analysis, never go beyond simply number of seats; there is no use of vote percentages, or that of survey data or any aggregate data analysis. Other than invoking the bugbear of neo-liberalism, Prashad does not attempt any sociological analysis of either caste or class, or a serious political economic analysis linking electoral realignment to either hyper-inflation, or severe unemployment, or any macro-economic factor.
Defending the strategic decisions taken by the Left leadership, Prashad fails to recognize the major political blunders committed by them. Tied rather closely to the orthodox and outdated Stalinist notions of violent class struggle, Prashad is unable to recognize that the Left in India needs to evolve into a progressive, democratic party with larger pan-Indian ambitions. For instance, Prashad never even once questions why the Left in India has not been able to expand outside Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. Furthermore, why are there over half a dozen Communist and Socialist outfits—CPI, CPIM, CPI-ML, Forward Bloc, Socialist Unity Centre of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and other Maoists? In an era dominated by mergers, why hasn’t the Left decided to merge? Such ideological sectarianism on the part of the Left reeks of monumental political naivety. A simple answer to why the Right has electorally beaten the Left is that the Left is divided and the Right is united.
West Bengal has been the biggest bastion of the CPI-M-led Left Front since it ruled the State for 34 years, winning six assembly elections in a row from 1977. In 1967 and 1969, the CPI-M was part of coalition governments in the State. In Tripura, the Left Front still continues to hold power but the North Eastern State is geographically tiny and politically insignificant. In Kerala, the Communists came to power in a coalition government in 1957 and by themselves in 1980. But Kerala has always witnessed a see-saw between the CPI-M led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congressled United Democratic Front (UDF). In both West Bengal and Kerala today the Left Front is the principal opposition party. Instead of expanding to other States today the Left Front has almost been wiped off the electoral map of India, except in Tripura.
Ever since the Left Front lost 30 per cent of its seats in the panchayat polls in 2008 in West Bengal, its electoral graph has been dwindling. The Left’s Lok Sabha debacle began in 2009. Consider the contrast: In 2004, the Left Front won 35 Lok Sabha seats out of 42 in West Bengal. By 2009, the Left Front’s seats dipped down to 15, less than half its strength of 2004. The CPI-M had won 26 seats out of that kitty of 35 in 2004 but ended up with a mere 9 seats in 2009. With the onslaught of the Modi juggernaut in 2014, the Left Front scraped the bottom with a mere 2 seats in West Bengal, both won by CPI-M.
A parallel slide began for the Left Front in West Bengal assembly elections since 2011, thereby unseating the CPI-M after 34 years in power. To recap history, the CPI-Mled Left Front came to power in 1977. In an unprecedented realignment in Indian politics, the Left Front won six assembly elections consecutively in West Bengal since 1977. Given the US troops withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, the Marxists enthusiastically popularized the slogan ‘Tomar Naam, Aamar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam.’ But after the 2011 assembly elections shocker in West Bengal, in which the Left Front lost 168 seats while the opposition Trinamul Congress won 198 seats, the Trinamul rebutted: ‘Tomar Naam, Aamar Naam, Nandigram, Nandigram.’
Nandigram became the Left’s Waterloo. Prashad considers the Nandigram police firing on November 14, 2007, in which eight people were shot dead, as the historic turning point. The land acquisition policy adopted by the Buddhadev Bhattacharya-led Left Front government in West Bengal was the prime reason. Historically the Left penetrated West Bengal via the agrarian reforms route while ironically by 2009 it was being rejected precisely in its rural strongholds. The 180 degrees switch indicating that the Left had abandoned its former pro-agrarian policies and begun to attract corporate groups to West Bengal proved electorally costly. This 180 degrees turn, Prashad believes, signalled the adoption of neo-liberal policies by the Left that it had earlier opposed. As a result, Singur, Nandigram and the other regions of West Bengal erupted violently with widespread rural unrest. This is the closest Prashad ventures in terms of criticism of top Left leadership.
Even here criticism is rather blunted since the axe falls on the venality of the petty local CPI-M leaders of Nandigram instead of the blunders committed by the big boys of Kolkata and Delhi. The agitation against Left Front land acquisition policies by Mamata Bannerjee-led Trinamul Congess and its Maoist allies rendered the CPI-M extremely unpopular. In order to critique the Left Front Prashad quotes an inner party document. The Central Committee of the CPI-M, which critically reviewed the Left Front’s debacle in West Bengal blamed the party for a ‘bureaucratic and mechanical attitude, avoiding daily contact with the people, neglecting organizational work with informal labour, lack of credibility, fear of facing questions and confusion and distortions in linking the party with mass organisations.’
In the absence of a careful electoral analysis Prashad fails to identify how the CPIM lost its erstwhile electoral base among minorities, Scheduled Castes and Tribes and large sections of women voters. Before 2007 CPI-M was popular among the Bhadralok in Calcutta. But Nandigram witnessed a gestalt switch among the middle class and farmers. These sections began supporting the Trinamul Congress. What Prashad and the CC report omits is that the Left suffered electorally much more since it ignored development of infrastructure, education policy, health policy, alienated business entrepreneurs, the middle classes and for leading the State towards economic stagnation. West Bengal, a leading industrial State in India, has joined the stragglers, despite three-anda-half-decades of Left Front government.
In Kerala, the Pinarayi Vijayan versus Achuthanandan led factionalism within the CPI-M wrecked the Left. A corruption scam over kickbacks for a deal with a Canadian company SNC-Lavalin further sullied the image of the Marxists. The precipitous decline in West Bengal and the disarray in Kerala came alongside a failure by the Left in making an electoral break-through elsewhere in the country. Today Tripura remains the only beacon of hope for the Left.
Prashad finds the adoption of neo-liberalism since 1991 and the role of finance capital at the global level as the key for the marginalization of the Left. Since Prashad considers the Aam Aadmi Party as loosely Left, how come the AAP succeeded twice in Delhi even while the Left has failed since 2007 given the advent of neo-liberalism in economic policy? The CPI-M’s failure in attracting the middle class, whereas the AAP’s success in doing so, is a better explanation.
Prashad treats electoral politics as an epiphenomena. In a democracy, elections are the best manifestations of the Marxist idea of class struggle. Elections replace the battle of bullets (violent revolution) with the battle of ballots. Furthermore, the Left leaders are evaluated rather reverentially. None of the top Left leaders are held responsible for the biggest failure of the Left movement in its entire history. Only district level leaders in Nandigram in West Bengal, or some factional squabbles within the Kerala leadership are blamed for the entire electoral disaster from 2008 to 2014. Perhaps Prashad’s personal friendship with the top Left leadership keeps him from being objective in his criticism.The problem with orthodox Marxist analysis is two fold: an overdose of economic determinism and an underplay of democratic institutions. Prashad’s analysis suffers from both such problems.
Ajit Kumar Jha, former Editor of Tribune published from Qatar and Oman in the Middle East, is an Editor based in Delhi for The New Indian Express and The Sunday Standard.