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Kolkata: The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]’s recent decision to hoist the tricolour in all party offices on Independence Day has gained a great deal of media attention, with media outlets houses such as The Print, Outlook, News-18, the Economic Times, the Times of India and agencies such as PTI, highlighting it as a major happening. Several of these reports even contended that this was happening for the first time since the B.T. Ranadive-led CPI raised the slogan ‘Yeh Azadi Jhoota Hai’ in 1948.
Before going into the other issues, first a fact-check. The CPI(M)’s hoisting of the tricolours at their party offices is a new occurrence in West Bengal but it’s not a country-wide phenomenon for the party. The tricolour has been hoisted before at the party’s central office, AK Gopalan Bhawan in New Delhi, and so has been at the state unit offices like the ones in Tripura, Maharashtra and Puducherry.
The slogan of ‘Yeh Azadi Jhoota Hai’, raised during the CPI’s 1948 Congress in Kolkata, was discarded long ago, in 1951, when the party adopted a new programme and entered electoral politics in 1951-52.
These apart, CPI(M) leaders who served in ministerial roles in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura have also hoisted the tricolour at different government functions on Independence Day and Republic Day.
On social media platforms, leaders and supporters of Hindu right-wing groups used the news to have a field day against Leftists in general and the CPI(M) in particular for being ‘anti-nationals’ who had no respect for the nation and its flag. The CPI(M) countered it, too, stating that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had opposed the tricolour as the Indian flag at the hour of Independence.
“We don’t need to learn patriotism from the RSS. In 1921, it was the Leftists like Swami Kumaranand and Maulana Hasrat Mohani who first raised the demand for purna swaraj. When the Quit India movement was launched on August 9, Aruna Asaf Ali was the first person to hoist the national flag, defying the British administration. Respecting the national flag is nothing new to us,” said CPI(M) politburo member Md. Salim who hails from Bengal.
Salim, a former Bengal minister who has been a member of both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, added that the only thing that is new is their yearlong programmes to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence, during which seminars and discussions will be organised and literature will be published.
In a communique issued by the party’s central committee, it was said that the party will observe this anniversary highlighting the role of communists in the freedom struggle, their contributions to the building of modern India and consolidating the ‘Idea of India’, besides exposing “the complete absence” of the RSS from the freedom struggle and at times their “collaboration with the British” as well as “the vicious undermining of the constitutional secular democratic Republic of India today.”
Five politburo members of the party, including Salim, Prakash Karat, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, are to take part in an online session on I-Day.
However, to most observers and participants of Left politics, the CPI(M) hoisting the tricolour was a non-issue concerning the country’s largest leftwing party, as they thought it was nothing unique. The real issue, they thought, was the steady erosion in the party’s support base, lack of engagement with mass movements against neo-liberal policies over the past two decades and whether these are linked to the party’s ‘deviation’ from Leftist policies, especially on economic issues.
In short, has the CPI(M) become ‘a lesser Left’ due to neoliberal tendencies of the governments they once ran or are still running?
CPI(M) in India’s Left spectrum
An overview of India’s broad Left spectrum reveals that the CPI (Marxist) and the CPI (Maoist), the latter being the country’s largest armed group, stand at two ends. If the erstwhile Maoist Communist Centre, one of the components of the CPI (Maoist), helped the beginning of the Maoist movement in Nepal in the late 1980s, then it was the CPI(M) which helped the Nepali Maoists join the mainstream two decades later.
Other left parties fall somewhere between these two in the spectrum.
Formally, the CPI(M) has close tie-ups with the second-largest parliamentary Left party, the CPI, as well as the Forward Bloc. In West Bengal, the Revolutionary Socialist Party has also been part of the Left Front but not in Kerala. The CPI (ML) (Liberation) which has its strongest base in Bihar, has hardly been in electoral understanding with the CPI(M) outside Bihar but has been part of a broader Left platform of 16 parties in 2014, and of eight parties in 2018, including the CPI(M), for mass movements. The Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) [SUCI (Communist)] that has a countrywide presence in the trade union and student fronts, has also shared a dais with the CPI(M) on the broader Left platforms on some occasions.
Given these facts, most other important Leftist parties in India – except for the outlawed CPI(Maoist) – consider the CPI(M) as a Leftist force. However, the CPI(M) has also been found, quite frequently, to be speaking a different tone than parties like the CPI(ML)(Liberation), the SUCI (C) and sometimes even the CPI and RSP – on issues concerning anti-displacement movements, nationality/ statehood movements, the Maoist insurgency and the use of special anti-terror laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
CPI(M)-led governments have used UAPA, especially against the Maoists, both in West Bengal and Kerala, even though their own alliance partners, the CPI, the RSP and the Forward Bloc, had questioned those moves.
Political observers and commentators The Wire spoke to almost unanimously agreed that over the past two decades, there has been no single mass movement of any mentionable influence that the CPI(M) initiated or led in any part of the country; rather they gathered around movements initiated by others, such as the present farmers’ movement against three farm Bills.
On the other hand, there have been many mass movements that created significant political influence and impact saw no participation of the CPI(M) – especially the anti-displacement movements during UPA-I and the UPA-II regimes and the nationality/statehood movements – even though most other smaller Left parties were important components of these movements.
Call it an irony or not, when the impact of the anti-displacement movements in West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh resulted in the bunking of the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the legislation of a new, more farmer-friendly law, in 2013, the CPI(M), which has as its arm India’s largest farmers’ organisation, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), had little to claim credit for.
The choice of movements to take part in is, of course, determined by the economic policy that the party favours and the CPI(M) has, over the past couple of decades, often been accused of pursuing ‘neo-liberal policies when they run governments.
A lesser Left?
“In general, it can’t be said that the CPI(M) inclines towards neoliberal policies. They are opposing such policies,” said CPI(ML)(Liberation) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, adding, “But this is a fact that several policies adopted by their governments in West Bengal and Kerala had neoliberal reflections. We agree that it is difficult to effect a departure from neoliberal policies while being in the government, but there was certainly a lack of effort on their part in dishing out alternative policies.”
Bhattacharya said that not only had the CPI(M) moved away from organising mass movements while in power but their approach towards the movements in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh of West Bengal were wrong, too.
“They tried to portray these movements as conspiracies – one of the reasons that isolated the CPI(M) from broader movements against neoliberal policies in other parts of the country,” he said.
According to him, the main stumbling block on the CPI(M)’s way to revival was its failure in digesting the defeat in Bengal in 2011 and taking lessons from it. Consequently, it failed to reinvent itself as an opposition party and acted like ‘a government-in-waiting’ for the people to realise their own mistake of removing the CPI(M) from the government. Excessive orientation towards parliamentary politics was another reason the party failed to build significant mass movements, he said.
“However, it seems they are of late trying to increase focus on mass movements,” said Bhattacharya.
Asked if the CPI(M)’s compromises with neoliberal policies while being in government has remained baggage for the party, preventing them from taking a greater role in opposing neoliberal policies of the right-wing and centrist governments, renowned Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik said that it would require more thinking to come to a definitive answer to this question.
“It is certainly true that the party’s attitude to neoliberalism should have been much more opposed than it was for a very long time. There has been a certain period when the party did not attack neoliberalism as strongly as it should have. But I think with the crisis of neoliberalism in the more recent period, not just in India but all over the world – it is a crisis of neoliberalism which is now recognised by everybody, including the Financial Times – the party is now more forthright compared to what it had been earlier,” Patnaik said.
According to him, because of being in power, the CPI(M) wanted to introduce some kind of ‘development’ and wanted to invite capital. This led to “a certain lack of appreciation of the poverty-intensifying effects of neoliberalism,” he said, adding that, recently the party was “very deeply involved” with the peasant movement.
The economist said that the party seemed to have become more convinced in recent times that neoliberalism attacks and dispossesses the small producers and that the more neoliberalism gets into a crisis, so that the accumulation of the normal kind of investment is no longer taking place, the more the capitalists want to encroach into the petty production sector, such as trade and agriculture.
“The crisis of neoliberalism, the loss of power in two states and the churning created by the peasant movement has started triggering changes in the party. So, the opposition is now more easily visible, particularly in the peasant struggle in which people like Hannan Mollah and Ashoke Dhavare are deeply involved,” Patnaik said.
According to author and political commentator Badri Raina, it is also the case that participation in state power has its own logic and limiting influence on unleashing mass movements.
“Multi-party interactions within a parliamentary system do not always allow a clear path to a desired praxis. Yet, throughout India’s Independent history, it must be agreed that the parliamentary Left has had an influence on national politics quite beyond its numbers,” he said, adding that its current status “also reflects the general decline among the Left-liberal class politics – a worldwide trend.”
“We in the mainstream Left have tended to be always behind the dynamics of disparate oppressions countrywide, too laggard to adjust doctrine to the active and differentiated needs of movements. I also think our theoretical disjunction from the non-Marxist socialist movements and their grassroots foundations has constantly impaired our hold among the masses. This is not to say that desirable rethinking has not happened but always rather behind time,” he said.
Left economist and activist Prasenjit Bose, who was once associated with the party, felt that the CPI(M)’s failure in West Bengal should be seen in the context of the regional parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), DMK or even the CPI(M)-led LDF in Kerala which has been able to run state governments and make comebacks after electoral losses in the past decade.
“The question is how could the AAP or even the TMC as opposition in West Bengal benefit from mass movements but the CPI(M) could not build any electorally consequential mass movement anywhere in the country in the past ten years, with the exception of Kerala,” he said.
“In Maharashtra, the CPI(M) was forced out of the movement against Reliance’s SEZ in Raigad because of the party’s stance on Singur and Nandigram,” he recounted. However, he also noted that in recent times, the Kisan Sabha’s role in the farmers’ agitation against the Modi government’s farm laws “has been quite positive.”
CPI(M) leaders, on the other hand, highlighted the farmers’ long march in Maharashtra and farmers’ movements in Rajasthan as among the movements they built up in recent years.
Part of a broader crisis?
Whether the CPI(M) should be called a communist party or social democrats – the latter meaning soft liners – has been debated for quite a long time by academics and political commentators. They do not include the Maoists, who describe the CPI(M) as ‘social fascists’.
“The CPI(M) lost its rationale around 2007-08. It is no longer a Marxist-Communist Left but is a social democrat Left. It’s the Leftwing of the ruling class. Social democrats around the world faced a jerk in recent decades. These parties look towards China but it has gone the capitalist way, leaving the social democrat Left in a lurch,” said Saroj Giri, a political commentator who teaches political science at Delhi University.
He said that the economic policies pursued by the CPI(M)-led governments were little different from those pursued by the Congress, and even the BJP. To him, the CPI(M) was currently trying to “over-identify with the Indian nation-state”, wanting to “outdo BJP in nationalism, which is a wrong way to look at it,” as he felt this would encourage cadres to move right.
“I am not against hoisting the national flag, nationalism can be taken as a position by the Left, but there is no anti-imperialism in this programme. They might Tweet statements but where is the movement on the ground? This is like Rahul Gandhi becoming a Shiva Bhakt to prove he, too, is a Hindu.”
Giri’s contention that only the social democrats were in a crisis may not be entirely right. Writing from prison, former CPI(Maoist) politburo member Kobad Ghandy had said in 2012 that the communist ideology itself had lost its appeal, compared to the global scene in the 1960s and the 1970s.
“When the world is going through one of its worst crises, when the gap between the rich and the poor has never been so wide, the communist existence is insignificant. Though all the conditions exist for it, yet it is unable to captivate the minds of the youth, workers and students. The socialist countries have collapsed, the national liberation movements have been replaced, in many places, by Islamic resistance, and of the millions who have come onto the streets in the West, one can see only a sprinkling of communists,” he wrote.
A century ago, a Communist Party of India founded in Tashkent was trying to establish contacts in India. Fifty years ago, four Leftist parties, the CPI(M), the CPI, the RSP and Forward Bloc had 53 Lok Sabha seats, while the outlawed Naxalites, too, created a storm across large swathes of the country.
Even 15 years ago, three states had Left Front governments and the Lok Sabha had 59 MPs from the CPI(M), CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc, while the Maoist movement had such a surge that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously called it “single-largest internal security threat to the country.”
Now, the parliamentary Left is at its lowest strength since Independence with only six Lok Sabha MPs from the CPI(M), CPI and RSP, and the underground Maoist movement, though continuing in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha, has its back to the wall.
Patnaik, too, saw the CPI(M)’s weakening as part of the general weakening of resistance movements and that the nature of neoliberalism weakening the class resistance was certainly one important factor behind the weakening of movements that the CPI(M) once waged.
“Neoliberalism tends to weaken the resistance against it. If there is a very high level of unemployment, it is difficult for workers to struggle. Public sector workers have always been much more militant but the public sectors are being privatised. The party (CPI(M)) was quite active in calling for workers’ struggles but they were always the one-day, two-day kind of strikes, nothing like the railway strikes,” he said.
In the recently-concluded central committee meeting in Kolkata, the CPI(M) leadership reckoned its Bengal performance as “devastating” and planned corrective measures, while at the national level they have called for stepping up protests against the farm Bills, privatisation of the public sector and introduction of new labour codes, apart from highlighting pandemic and snooping related demands.