Rarely has there been such furore over something that is so little understood. Singur, north of Calcutta, and then Nandigram, located in Purbo Medinapur District of West Bengal, have become the fault lines in a number of explanatory narratives. For some, they represent the face of Left Front – mainly Communist Party of India (Marxist) – ‘terror’. For others, wilful misunderstandings seem to have opened the door to the far right (the Trinamul Congress) and the far left (the Maoists and the Socialist Unity Centre of India). Rigid positions have made it impossible to hold a dialogue between those who either critically or uncritically defend the Left Front government, and those who oppose it vehemently. Rancour has become the order of the day.
From the perspective of the broad left movement, this is unfortunate. It is for this reason that I signed a statement, along with Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Walden Bello and others, to urge reconciliation among the left, since, as the declaration urged, “this is not the time for division when the basis for division no longer appears to exist.” But perhaps the basis for division is more foundational than we had assumed. The rupture, the casus, is so deep that it is impossible to lay out the facts without challenge. Indeed, there are few basic facts that are currently agreed upon by both sides of the Indian left, let alone the capitalist media or the rightwing parties. As such, in the current context there is almost no hope that agreement could be forged on how to move forward.
But what is the basis of this rupture? Singur-Nandigram is the conjuncture of a long-standing structural gulf within the Indian left. In the past, this tear was sutured mainly by expediency. The pestilential breath of Hindutva that spread across North India during the 1980s and 1990s suspended genuine debate within the broad left. Instead, all hands joined together to form a secular chain around the Bharatiya Janata Party; those hands only tightened as the Sangh Parivar consolidated power, first in the states and then in New Delhi. But, as Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Prabhat Patnaik wrote in a recent essay, “With the perceived decline in the strength of the communal fascist forces, a certain fracturing of the anti-communal coalition was inevitable and has happened.” That the BJP retains power in Gujarat, home of its genocidal campaign, is not sufficient to keep the anti-communal coalition together. Some would believe that Manmohan Singh on the kursi (seat) is insurance enough against the rise of Hindutva on the national stage.
Limits of PSPC
The structural gulf, of course, predates the current crisis. Two decades ago, two historic global experiments floundered and then collapsed. With the overwhelming debt crisis and the rapid growth of the power of finance capital, both the Third World project (the process led by the Non-Aligned Movement to create, among other things, a new international economic order) and the USSR-led socialist experiment dissolved. A triumphant capitalism overwhelmed not only institutions that had been built for a different world, but also the main ideological foundations of that world. Marxism and dependency theory, the sciences of socialism and Third World nationalism, seemed anachronistic in this new era. As the political scientist Vivek Chibber put it, not only did Marxism decline in Indian studies, but also “the very meaning of Left critique [changed]. Class is just being pushed out of the progressive milieu.”
Dependency theory and Marxism issued a challenge to capitalism, by arguing that its import into the former colonies would increase rather than decrease the inequality between the core advanced capitalist states and the periphery of other states. These theories have not only subsequently been eclipsed, but the very grounds of the study of political economy have been overcome by a new, overwhelming emphasis on culture and cultural studies. There is no doubt that cultural studies have shown us the limitations of dependency theory and Marxism in grasping the need to see how the working class, and the nation, is itself rife with fractures of gender, caste, tribe and region. But rather than offer itself as a supplement, or engendering a new kind of political economy, this new field of thinking – what has been referred to by Chibber as PSPC, for post-structuralism/post-colonialism – has simply occluded political economy.
PSPC came up at a time when NGO politics consolidated in India, and as some important social movements germinated outside the communist left. These particularly included environmental movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which started around the mid-1980s. Post-structural/post-colonial thought and non-government organisations – what can be thought of as the ‘post-modern left’ – diverged from the communist left on two grounds.
First, they disagreed with the communist approach to the state. Professor John Holloway’s 2002 Change the World without Taking Power provides the best summary of this approach. It also finds its Indian face in the work of political scientist Aditya Nigam, particularly in his 2001 paper, “Radical Politics in the Times of Globalization”. Holloway argues that the structure of the state is compromised, and should be avoided in favour of the “power of doing” – of building something in opposition to the capitalist world. Classes and revolutionary subjects are irrelevant to this undertaking, since the “pure eager revolutionary subject” must give way to a “damaged humanity” – that is to say, everyone has to participate in the recuperation of our estranged selves.
Holloway championed the Mexican Zapatista movement in the same way that Nigam extolled the NBA and Kanshi Ram of the Bahujan Samaj Party, both of which he sees as post-nationalist – indeed, as post-state. The argument against state power is, of course, the mirror image of the neo-liberal position that says that the state should be ignored in place of the private sector, that the state is itself the fount of tyranny. On the other hand, the question from the communist left is not so much whether or not to use the state institutions, but which classes actually control the state and to what end the state is utilised.
Second, and as a corollary to the first disagreement, the ideology of PSPC differs on the need to forge a development path. Here there could be agreement on both sides of the gulf, because there is a robust debate ongoing within the communist left on the various paths to development, on the way to engage finance capital. Some are attracted to the Shenzhen route, to the mimicry of the Chinese idea of growth above all else. Others are wary of this: even as they recognise the need to bring in investment and industrial growth, they feel that these must be channelled in a way that would benefit the people, and also avoid ecological disasters.
No productive debate on development, including the rights and wrongs of Singur and Nandigram, can take place as long as the first disagreement about the state flourishes. But there is a problem here on its own terms. The lack of a common language (dependency theory or Marxism, which was the grammar of the Third World era) means that those who offer their own critiques of development often come off as though they do not have a plan for development of any kind. The refusal to ‘sully’ one’s hands with development offers as little comfort to those who are dispossessed as does the argument that runaway growth will eventually produce equity. To eschew state-led sustainable development is to concede the terrain to the powerful social classes who are invested in private corporate-led development. PSPC’s lack of political economy, and the NGO left’s lack of a programme for the transformation of the world, tacitly endorses the politics of the fat cats. In India, the communist left has pushed the ruling Congress coalition against the wall on issues of the Indo-US nuclear deal (and India’s subordinate role with the US) and the agrarian question, notably the Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, which has yet to be notified. But how far this challenge can go, as the rupture within the broad left widens, is hard to say.
West Bengal Governor Gopal Gandhi, who earlier strong words for the state government, visited Nandigram in early December. “Normality is returning, but it is not an easy process,” he said while walking around the area. “It will take a little time for the trauma to subside.” The same cannot necessarily be said of the place called the left, where the wounds are fresh and the animosity remains.
— Vijay Prashad is a contributing editor to this magazine.