Old Left is Dying! Long Live the Left!

[Following the publication of the previous post – the statement on the future of the Left, we have received some important comments that seek to take the debate forward, alongside those predictable, invective laden rants that we know only too well by now. We need to keep the debate on the future of the Left in India going, irrespective of these comments that seek to derail any meaningful discussion. We must continue to assert that ‘the Left’ far exceeds the decadent and decrepit lot that now goes by the name of Left parties in this country. This  post is a slightly modified and longer version of an article that appeared in Bengali yesterday in Ekdin.]

In a recent newspaper article, former Left Front finance minister Ashok Mitra, observed: “The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has not merely lost the poll in West Bengal, it has been made mincemeat of.” He was underlining the obvious, catastrophic significance of the results – at least from the Left Front’s perspective. The signs are there for everybody to see, especially when all important leaders of the LF government have faced resounding defeat and the overall vote share of the LF has declined by almost 9 percent since the last assembly election. Mitra’s reference is important as much was being made of the fact that he signed in support of the LF in the course of the election campaign.

But such was the state of drunkenness in power, that only a Biman Bose could say, when virtually everyone knew what was coming, that the LF would still gain a comfortable majority and those who were predicting their decline would have to “swallow their own spit.” More incredibly, even after the elections, indeed after the results came in, both Bose and Prakash Karat in Delhi focused on the fact that their votes had increased by 11 lakh votes in absolute terms. Of course, the minor detail they mentioned in passing was that the TMC alliance had increased its votes much more. The even more minor point that there had been as many as 4.8 million more votes polled this time as compared to 2009 was, of course, beside the point.

And if this was not enough, the entire CPI(M) leadership went into an elaborate exercise of explaining their defeat in terms of a ‘gang-up of the right and the extreme left’. Simple arithmetic! First, it was the Delhi CPI(M) leadership’s withdrawal of support to the UPA government that made possible the Congress-TM Congress alliance; now it was that all the others – Maoists, ‘disgruntled intellectuals’ and so on – who joined the bandwagon! Despite all this, we increased our votes!

In other words, ‘our’ defeat has nothing to do with ‘us’, with our acts of omission and commission. Can there be a greater joke of so-called ‘self-criticism’ that CPM is so fond of throwing around at the drop of a hat? If we had any doubt that there was any possibility of the Left parties rethinking their own practice, here we can lay all those expectations to rest. The CPM leadership, in particular, has made it clear that its arrogance and its self-righteousness will continue as before. There is not going to be a moment of introspection. And comments by their followers here, on Kafila, have further underlined the message that their leaders have been sending out. It is a different matter that even though the CPM leaders might think that ‘people eat grass’ [loke ghash khaye, as they say in Bengali], nobody but they themselves are fooled by their intellectual antics.

Some of the leaders did individually, mostly anonymously (except Somnath Chatterjee, who has nothing to lose anyway!), accept that the results were of their own making – but their statements too, rarely went beyond mere platitudes like ‘we have lost touch with the people’. As a matter of fact, it seems to me, the problem is that they are too much in touch with the people, breathing down the people’s neck, deciding what they should do and how; and the people want relief from their ‘being in touch’! I am not saying this in jest. This is a serious matter which the Left of all shades has yet to understand. That is why Biman Bose looked flabbergasted when he came before the media and said that they could not anticipate the results ‘because the people did not open their mouths.’ Did he even understand the implications of what he was saying? After all, like 2006, this time too, they had detailed reports based on their unfailing machinery. The only difference was that this time, ‘the people’ decided to not bare their souls to cadres they no longer trust. This the robotic leadership, given to mouthing inanities, cannot ever understand. The more they go the the people in their current mode, the more they re going to destroy their chances for the future.

However, it is important to underline that while this resentment against the ‘oppressive presence’ of the CPM machinery was a longer-term, subterranean problem, a certain inertia kept things going in favour of the LF till the breaking point came with Singur and Nandigram. That was when the parting of ways began. That was when people realized that the relatively benign totalitarianism of the CPI(M) could actually become malignant. Exponential growth – the dream that spurs the neo-liberal imagination – was now Buddhadeb’s and the LF’s dream. But as long as the question of industrialization remained an abstract slogan, it managed to get Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his party a new social support base without the loss of the old. However, soon the reality of ‘industrialization’ revealed its vicious face and the scenario changed. If industrialization and luxury living for the urban rich meant dispossession of the rural peasants, a choice clearly had to be made between the interests of these different sections. This is not to suggest that the two cannot be reconciled: give the peasants a stake, make them shareholders or partners rather than ‘proletarians’ in Tatas’ or Salim’s factories and you can have a different scenario.

This discussion is important because it has a direct bearing on the ability of the Left Front and the CPI(M) to re-invent itself. The future of LF/CPI(M) depends entirely upon how seriously it rethinks the failures and how rapidly it makes amends. And the first precondition of reinvention is a frank acknowledgement of the fault lines. As long as their leaders remain in denial, as they currently are, they are unlikely to make any changes in the right direction. We can then remain confident that like others who bear the signboard of the communist party elsewhere in the world, they too will have to fade away into some corner. That signboard has not prevented the CPs the world over from becoming redundant; it will not, here as well.

In the last two decades, the CP(M) in particular, had acquired a disproportionately large role in national politics, thanks largely to what looked like its unassailable position in West Bengal. Towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the unraveling of the Congress with the rise of region-based, lower caste parties on the one hand, and the Hindu Right on the other, a number of smaller parties including the LF, gained in terms of their bargaining capacity. In coalition politics even small parties with 20 seats can become important. This position was further strengthened by the presence of figures like Jyoti Basu in the state and respected leaders of the older generation like EMS Namboodiripad and HKS Surjeet nationally. The fact that the LF under Jyoti Basu’s leadership had managed to take along a large number of smaller parties, even when his party had a majority on its own, and provided a stable government in the midst of chronic instability at the Centre and in the states, had a very strong appeal.

After 1996, despite the ‘historic blunder’ of not allowing Jyoti Basu to become prime minister, the CPI(M) virtually moved centre-stage whenever there was the possibility of a non-BJP coalition forming government at the Centre. Of course, over the years, with the politically astute older leadership gone, and the repeated refusal of the party to take on responsibility, its efficacy was considerably reduced. Now with its numerical strength also reduced, the party’s clout at the Centre is virtually non-existent. The last parliamentary elections (2009) had already accomplished this but the assembly election results suggest that the decline may not be easily reversible. And you can thank the Biman Boses and the Prakash Karats, if they never recover!

However, the really critical question here is far more serious: what is the political platform, what political imaginary does the CPI(M) or the LF represent today? In both West Bengal and Kerala it is vying with other parties to be the champion of a neo-liberal model of development, undoing all the gains that it had itself pioneered for the rural and urban poor at one time. Whatever its rhetoric, its political practice today makes it indistinguishable from any other party, as a party that hobnobs with the rich, with corporate capital, in order to bargain away the interests of the poor.

In a sense, the Left Front and the CPI(M) had already vacated the space of the Left long ago.The formal signboard remained – reinforced by the enchantment of power. Now that too has gone. It must now stand on its own strength, denuded of the tilism – the magic – that being in power produces. And let us make no mistake. The CPM today presents itself as possibly one of the most hidebound conservative political forces in Indian politics today. Sold to neo-liberalism in economic imagination, it is one of the most retrograde organizations on questions of ecology, gender, caste and dalit politics in particular (and going by the Chitralekha affair in Kerala, even downright reactionary). We have heard the views of the likes of Anil Bose and Sushanta Ghosh on women – and unmarried or single women – in public, very recently. These are not aberrations but constitutive of the CPM’s ideology, its immersion in the status quo.

Nonetheless, the space for a Left-wing politics will always be there in societies like ours. As long as inequities of different sorts continue and large  masses of the Indian people remain captive of these myriad powers, there will always be a striving towards a different world. The radical egalitarian impulse for justice will remain the beacon of those struggles, even when so-called ‘Leftists’ turn out to be cohorts of the rich and the powerful.

Let me underline, before some wisecracks jump in, that when we say that the Old Left is Dead, we are not saying that it will not get votes. It will remain a political force of sorts like the Samajwadi Party or the RJD or RLD. But it will no longer be what we understand by a Left formation. Possibly, some other formations might have to emerge in the coming years to occupy the place vacated by the moribund, decadent Left.

7 thoughts on “Old Left is Dying! Long Live the Left!”

  1. Dear Dr.Nigam,

    (1) What constitutes a political party’s ideology? You said ‘These are not aberrations but constitutive of the CPM’s ideology, its immersion in the status quo’.

    (2)If the right is diabolic and the left is moribund, how do we exercise our franchise with some sense of satisfaction? Do we? Is parliamentary democracy even an option?

    (3) If it is not, what do we all do to silence the incessant wails that asphyxiate our conscience about the various ills that plague our society?

    (4) If it still is, whom do we vote for?


  2. If the future of the “Old left” is already known then there is hardly any need to waste time on it. It will be much more interesting to know what the “New Left” (NL) stands for. That is unfortunately surprisingly missing so far. Let me seek clarification on the following:

    1. Will the NL work within the Indian Constitution or seek to form a new state or work as a civil society organisation not interested in capturing state power?
    2. Does NL consider land reforms to be an important issue in contemporary India and therefore would that be one of their agenda?
    3. Does the NL consider establishment of a genuine panchayati raj in India an important issue in contemporary India?
    4. What is the standpoint of NL on PESA?
    5. What is the standpoint of NL on land acquisition?
    6. What is the standpoint of NL on fiscal devolution to the states?
    7. What is the standpoint of NL on industrialization? Does it welcome private capital based industrialisation or does it believe in socialistic state owned industries or does it believe that India (or in any state within India) need not have industries?
    8. What is the standpoint of NL on Women’s Reservation Bill?
    9. What is the standpoint of NL on Right to Education?
    10 What is the standpoint of NL on Centrally Sponsored Schemes? Should they be continued or disbanded?
    11. What is the standpoint of NL on India’s foreign policy?
    12. What is the standpoint of NL on US imperialism and how best can it be fought? Or is it a mistake to see US as an empire?


  3. how can (and should) a new left relate to the social constituencies which provided a base for the old left? And is there not a danger of a kind of scorched earth policy towards the old left? There is surely a distinction between the kinds of leaders being denounced here and many of those who participate in the old left, vote for them and so on?


    1. johng,
      I for one do not think that there is any need to be apprehensive on that score. Most of us have participated in common campaigns with members and larger sectors of the old left and continue to do so where they can restrain themselves from ‘capturing leadership’ in the facile belief that they are the vanguard. These campaigns and movements include working class struggles for instance, where organizations like the NTUI or other social movement unions participate alongside the conventional trade unions of the communist parties. But they also include antiwar mobilizations or anticommunal mobilizations across the length and breadth of the country that took place through the 1990s and 2000s and often continue today in local contexts. Even more interestingly, often important individuals of some of the left parties (this is more true of CPI, not of the CPM), have led movements of the kind the earlier statement talks of, by stretching the framework of their own party to its limits. I can at least think of Abhay Sahoo, one of the key leaders of the anti-POSCO struggle in Odisha, and Manish Kunjam in Chhattisgarh who is fighting a valiant battle in defense of the rights of the tribal communities and to preserve the democratic space in the face of the civil war. I could go on with the examples but let these suffice for now. The point really is that there is a lot more traffic at the grassroot level between the social movements and local activists of the CPs outside of West Bengal and Kerala.
      And of course, here I should not fail to mention that many of the smaller parties on the Left-of-CPM have more often participated with greater vigour in the movements and struggles of the nonparty social movements. The CPI(ML) Liberation even joined in in fairly large numbers in many mobilizations of the Aman Ekta Manch (with the general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya himself present on a couple of occasions) during the days of the Gujarat 2002 massacres. So, I think your fears are quite misplaced.

      While I am at it, let me also mention that the new left is an attempt to build an alternative culture where positions emerge in process, through a long and often contentious public debate. Ten Wise Men sitting huddled in a Politburo meeting do not decide on what the stand of the entire Left – or the country – should be on any question ranging from nuclear energy to land acquisition and the women,s reservation bill and so on. Struggles do not stop because the TWM have not opined on the matter (‘what is your stand?’ as someone asked); for everyone here has opinions that are as valuable as those of a Medha Patkar or an Aruna Roy and if you read the diverse positions on various issues carefully, you can see that a consensus has gradually emerged on most of these important issues. Some contentious issues remain but we are in no hurry to ‘take a stand’ – if by that is meant a common stand, binding on all.


  4. ‘the problem is that they are too much in touch with the people’ – they were not. Even the grassroot cadre since 2008 panchayat polls stopped meeting people , abandoned party programmes and withdrawn themselves to party offices. The turning point was not 2009 Lok Sabha vote, it was 2008 panchayat polls conducted under the direct control of State Govt run by CPIM. The rural supporters of the Left Front withdrawn their support from the party which they considered as their own. The party cadres & leaders instead of trying to reconnect to people, opened sort of debating societies in every party office & continued their ‘porjalochona’, ‘somikkha’ & ‘bisleshon’ – forgetting that Left cannot survive without grassroot movements. Half of the party continued with their inner-party debates & the rest engaged themselves in preparing Plan B if TMC comes to power. When the Left cease to exist among the massess & it does not matter whether they continue in different forms & forums to claim that they’re building a ‘new’ Left.


  5. My fears were actually that there might be an underestimation of the things you mention. I’m glad that these fears were misplaced.


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