People had come to resent intensely the all-pervasive and oppressive party control of all aspects of local life.

Looking for the Phoenix Moment of the Indian Left Amidst the thuggery in West Bengal
Voices Politics Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 13:14

A no-nonsense, almost cynical, friend once remarked pungently, “I am not impressed by your claims of being an open-minded Marxist. That itself could be an oxymoron, but let it be. You actually talk like a religious preacher. ‘Oh, things didn’t work because we didn’t act according to the tenets, didn’t pray sincerely etc. If only, you see…’ But unfortunately, no religion works, no prayer works, nor will communism, ever…”

I didn’t have an answer then, and I don’t have one now. All I can say in my defense is that it is better any day to rely on rational means instead of on some deus ex machina. Even more importantly, one should do one’s bit in fighting the inequities all around us.

People have been despairing over decades as to how Marxism can be salvaged from the Marxists of organized political parties or guerilla groups.

Predictably though, few leaders have had time for any serious introspection on anything. Marxism is there on the shelves, in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin – of Stalin and Mao too, though sotto voce – and all is right with their revolutionary project.  If not today, it will be tomorrow or the day after or the day after the day after and so on.

From one party congress to another, the parties claim to engage themselves in serious debates on their past actions, but mostly they are lame and subdued. That nothing much happened even after the 2014 debacle is some testimony to how the parties work, by and large.

It has been over a year since The Phoenix Moment – Challenges Confronting The Indian Left by the late Praful Bidwai was published, but none of the Left parties, big or small, have bothered to take a look at it. Certainly, nothing is available in the public sphere on how Indian communist leaders and theoreticians view the impassioned but quite balanced critique.

The publication itself was a poignant moment as it came about after the death of the author. And his abiding faith in the Indian left is also touching.  The title itself shows he had nurtured a fond hope of recovery.

But our apparatchiks remain unmoved, never mind his sincerity or the essential validity of his critique.   In the circumstances, it might be a futile exercise to try and examine whether the Left have it in them to do a phoenix, or whether Praful’s was nothing more wishful thinking. Still we all keep doing what we are impelled to.

CPM misrule in West Bengal

In the absence of the Internet and the print media being essentially localized, barring reportage from the national capital, one never got to know much about the long-uninterrupted CPM rule in West Bengal. If people kept voting for them time and again, then it should mean something. We had also read about the ‘far-reaching’ land reforms, and that should be the reason behind the party’s hold, so went our reasoning. The Marichjapi massacre was a distant memory. So was the Naxal rebellion. We, meaning all of us who clung on to Marxism whatever our criticism of the organized left, felt the West Bengal model offered us hope - even within the constraints of a democratic set up we can keep moving towards the promised land. But we also began to hear discordant notes, with alarming frequency at that.

During a vacation in Darjeeling in the late nineties, I ran into a group of college students, and, as was my wont, I chatted up with them and led the conversation to politics and the CPM. There was a pause, almost some tension in the air for a minute or two, after which they broke into smiles of contempt. “Oh, what’s there to say? They are like any other political party, corrupt, arrogant, all thugs,” one of them remarked, and quickly moved away.

As true believers, we tended to attribute such dismissive reactions to middle-class arrogance and greed. Then there was this expose by the left-of-centre Outlook magazine that land reforms had run their course and the hiatus between the new landed gentry and the rest in the rural areas was widening. Nandigram, Singur, Mamata, all happened in quick succession thereafter, culminating in the ignominious ouster of 2011.

Pranab Bardhan, a sympathetic critic, like Praful Bidwai, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, noted that people had come to resent intensely the all-pervasive and oppressive party control of all aspects of local life. “If you want a public hospital bed for your seriously ill family member, you have to be a supplicant with the local party boss; if you want to start a small business or be a street vendor you have to pay protection money to the party dada; if you want to ply a taxi or an autorickshaw you have to pay a tribute to the local party union; if you want a schoolteacher's job you have to be approved by the "local committee" and pay them an appropriate amount; your children are to go to schools where the union activist teacher is often absent, compelling you to pay good money in sending them to his private coaching classes; if you want to build a house you have to employ party-approved construction workers and buy higher-priced or inferior-quality building materials from party-approved suppliers; if you want to buy land, you have to go through the party-connected "promoter", etc….In the name of Marxism the long-ruling party essentially became the all-powerful local mafia.”  

Even though Mamata’s goons are no less repulsive, somehow she has been able to keep the bulk of the electorate happy through a variety of means, and so she was voted back to power with a much larger majority. Even the alliance with the Congress didn’t seem to work for the CPM. It would take a long time for them to live down the odium of the past.

In Kerala, too, it was a roller-coaster ride for the Left. Read part 2 here.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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