Don't Cry for the CPI(M)

In Bengal, the party turned institutions into fiefdoms, just like the RSS now wants to make JNU and the government bureaucracy its own.

The future of the Left in India, if it exists at all, cannot be invested in CPI(M) anymore. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is no reason to mourn the death of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). One did hear such laments after the Tripura results came last week. Some on social media and in newspaper columns asked the CPI(M) to introspect. They urged the party to ‘emerge again’ as the chief custodian of India’s democratic principle. Especially when India was being ambushed by the Hindutva brigade. No doubt, it is correct that the curve of Hindutva is rising. The CPI(M), on the other hand, is at an all-time low in terms of its support within and outside parliament. Worse, the party has none other than itself to blame for its present state. The CPI(M) – there is no other way of saying this – has shown itself unwilling or incapable of either introspection or inclusiveness.

Those who have seen the CPI(M) at work in the states where they enjoyed long-term support both electorally and otherwise would know there was little that the party did to redeem its omissions and commissions. In absolute control of West Bengal since 1977, it was clear by the mid-1980s, that the CPI(M) had lost all interest in governance and policy-making. Thanks to the land reform policy it introduced on coming to power, substantially bettering the traditional relationship of the sharecropper with his or her land, the CPI(M) could ensure a large base of popular support. There was, however, no agricultural policy that was built on the initial transformative idea of agrarian reform, no major policy thrust was taken in the important sectors of  literacy or education, no substantive employment initiative was launched. There was a complete absence of administrative will. And as far as industrialisation was concerned, the CPI(M) had very little to show in achievement.

On a good day, party leaders would quote from Marx’s Das Capital; on a moderate day cite the example of Cuba; on a bad day, blame the federal government for unleashing discriminatory tricks on a welfarist state. Eventually, the CPI(M) conflated government with the party. It wrecked public health and public education, neglected bureaucratic proficiency, and paid little heed to the idea of developing infrastructure, technology, change and modernity.

Also read
» Monobina Gupta’s analysis of the Left’s loss in Tripura
» Akhil Kumar and Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta discuss what the loss means for Left politics in the country
» The recent BJP wins will be a morale booster for RSS cadres, writes Siddharth Varadarajan
» How the Left lost the tribal plot in Tripura

Only two things seemed to have animated party leaders. The first was working out strategies of infiltrating every aspect of public (and also private) life in Bengal. That the Left had a moral high ground among the Bengali bhadrolok (gentry) only made things easier. The second was how best to put together an arithmetic formula ensuring continuity in power. Poverty alleviation, social justice, minority rights etc. remained commitments on paper while environmentalism, urbanism, tourism, heritage, sports etc. were considered to be bourgeois disruptions. The party overlooked the fact that that the undivided Communist Party of India – the CPI(M) broke away in 1964 – had come into being through decades of selfless toil, sacrifice and hard organisational work carried out by a generation of zealous men and women. That generation wanted to create a party that would staunchly defend the rights of those who had none to speak on their behalf. But by the 1980s, the CPI(M) spoke only for itself and none other.

Tripura was no different. In this state too we see the same malaise of myopia and hypocrisy that afflicted Bengal. The party consolidated support among the settler bhadrolok in a state that has a dominant and vocal indigenous tribal population. As it continued in governance in Bengal and Tripura, the party became less and less leftist. Their functioning was bureaucratic – Soviet-style. 

Those perturbed by RSS’s efforts to re-engineer JNU should have a look at what CPI(M) did to Calcutta University or Presidency College. Credit: Titash Sen

If one removes the thin disguise of digital bombast and acronym-led rhetoric, the Narendra Modi government’s operations of power at the Centre were, in fact, something the CPI(M) had taken pride in practicing in the states it ruled. Except that in Bengal and Tripura, power corresponded to the party, while in case of the current central government, power is solely invested in one individual.

For example, those perturbed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) efforts to re-engineer Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) should have a look at what the CPI(M), in the 1980s and 1990s, did to Calcutta University or Presidency College – both institutions of international fame. Every trick the current JNU administration is deploying to tamper with faculty and students is likely to have had an antecedent in what the CPI(M) did to institutions of higher education in Bengal. The party influenced recruitment, filled offices with loyalists, institutionalised nepotism and sought unflinching allegiance from from  vice-chancellors down to orderlies. It turned institutions into fiefs, just like the RSS wants to make JNU and the entire government and bureaucracy (and perhaps the judiciary too) into institutions it can control. If there is a difference, it is not in the method, but the scale of madness.

Even a cursory look at the CPI(M)’s current state of disenfranchisement would be enough to show how strongly allied they were to power. In a state like Bengal, where it was in power for 34 years, and was considered invincible till 10 years ago, the party has virtually been obliterated. No doubt, there is a whole range of factors to account for this decimation. At the same time, it has to be admitted that the primary factor of attrition was that the party was so used to power that it could not survive without it.

Outside governance, all the party did over the years and decades was create a pyramid of cadres with varying degrees of proximity to power brokers. Once the party’s hold was gone, power-addicted cadres transferred loyalty to the new power brokers and power wielders. Local satraps, who could not be brought by stick or carrot to the Trinamool Congress, signed-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The same plight affected the CPI(M) in Tripura. The party leadership, as is now obvious, is not just clueless and rudderless – the party increasingly resemles a feudal set-up. It is only in Kerala that the organisation is different, perhaps of high literacy and because the CPI(M) has been taught to stay out of power every five years.

The future of the Left in India, if it exists at all, cannot be invested in the CPI(M) anymore. For long, the party has enjoyed an importance disproportional to its strength on the ground. The future of the Left lies in a federalism of opposition, radicalism and emancipatory movements; not in the drawing room conversations and polemics of the CPI(M)’s politbureau.

Globally, democracy is running on thin ice – be it India, China, US, Turkey, Africa, post-Brexit UK, or the new Eurosceptic Europe. There are no Left and Right organisations anymore: just those who want democracy to prevail at any cost and those who want to destroy it. The real opposition to the RSS must come from those who want to roll up their sleeves and dirty their hands, making and breaking alliances, taking into consideration the  anger and frustration of the young and restless. They must be committed to technology and embrace diversity. We are facing a new world and this world needs a new politics. 

Sayandeb Chowdhury teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi. Views are personal.