Man Mohan Adhikari, Nepal’s “democratic communist” died on 26 April 1999, after collapsing during his campaign as the prime ministerial candidate for the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). Adhikari, like the late B.P. Koirala, prime minister of Nepal, 1959-60, had fought for Indian independence from the British and had been jailed for his efforts. Later, he stood up against his country’s autocratic Panchayat monarchy with quiet self-assurance, and helped bring the communists into mainstream politics after the transition to democracy in 1990, becoming in the process the world’s first elected communist primPe minister. This was in the post-Soviet Union days when the communists were already being regarded as political dinosaurs. The world may not have noticed, but Nepal and South Asia have lost a democrat and a communist.
Man Mohan Adhikari will be deeply mourned by all South Asians who value democracy and decency in public life and are committed to promoting popular sovereignty. His death is not just a blow to the Left in Nepal. It marks the departure of a whole generation of leaders in South Asia who played a crucial role in the process of decolonisation and democratisa-tion in the region over the past half century. This generation of leadership, now in its seventies and eighties, was thrust into the political mainstream by the great events of the post-War period. It combined a radical ideology of social transformation and empowerment of the underprivileged with a political practice defined by relatively modest goals of gaining independence, creating and consolidating democratic institutions and setting up political organisations.
The decline and fading out of this generation highlight the predicament of the Left in many countries of South Asia, in particular Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, and to an extent in Bangladesh. The Left, especially from the Marxist spectrum, has always enjoyed a high intellectual and moral stature in these countries. It influenced the ideological formation of large, often dominant, sections of the liberal intelligentsia. It attracted the best and the brightest among students and the youth until the 1970s. And its general standing in society and politics has been far in excess of its share of the vote, of the order of 7 to 12 percent of the overall.
It is this, and its leaders’ dedication, their high personal integrity, and reputation for incorruptibility, that ensured that the South Asian Left would not get marginalised following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of the statist model of socialism, as happened in many other parts of the world. In these countries, the Left has stagnated or declined, although relatively slowly over the past decade or so. However, there are indications that this present phase may not last long and parts of the Left could be entering a critical downward phase.
In Nepal, the phenomenon has taken the form of splits in the communist parties and the emergence of a remarkably violent Maoist faction. In Sri Lanka, the once-very- powerful Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) first split, and then saw its base steadily erode, and its cadres leave—to the point where it was left with only four members of parliament (MPs), and reduced to a small group within the ruling People’s Alliance (PA). In April, its most charismatic leader, Vasudevan Nanayakkara, quit the PA to join the opposition in protest against the PA’s conservative policies and its failure to honour its own promises. More important, the LSSP’s trade union base has shrunk significantly. The Communist Party too has been reduced to a small, single-MP, rump. In Bangladesh, the Left suffered repression under right-wing regimes, and democratisation has not led to its rapid growth.
In India, the recent political crisis, which precipitated the fall of the BJP-led right-wing government and led to the announcement of fresh elections, saw the Left lose some of its shine. Cracks developed in the unity of the Left Front for the first time in over a decade. The Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Communist Part of India got deeply involved in moves to garner votes against the Vajpayee government from unreliable, amorphous quasi-centrist parties and leaders. They favoured the replacement of the Vajpayee government by a Congress-only minority government, but the smaller parties in the Front, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc, rejected the move, advocating ‘equidistance’ from the BJP and the Congress. The central issue here was how to strike a balance between short-term tactical considerations of keeping Hindu-communal forces at bay, and the larger, longer-term, agenda of the Left. Overemphasis on the first would alienate the Left’s own cadres and eventually lead to its eclipse. Expedient tactical alliances with unreliable centrist forces have already cost the CPI dearly. Its membership decreased by a fourth or more in a decade, especially in the North. Its trade union wing has long stagnated. And its parliamentary representation, once as high as 30-plus, has fallen to single-digit levels.
The communist parties in South Asia have been called upon to respond in recent years to new phenomena such as the growing self-assertion of the ‘low’ castes, the steady rise of ethno-chauvinist and communal influences among the elite, and a neo-liberal economic policy offensive by aggressive industrial and finance capital. Unless the Left thinks up creative responses to these challenges, projects coherent alternative radical policies, and regains its influence in the intelligentsia, it will find it hard to resist its decline and marginalisation. It still has not lost its Sintellectual and moral capital, but it is only dipping into it, no longer renewing it.
And yet, South Asia will be the poorer without a healthy Left which has often set impressive records of good governance, and which reminds policy-makers of the unaddressed agendas of justice and equity in these super-hierarchical, extremely unequal and poor societies.
Man Mohan Adhikari may not be a household name in South Asia beyond Nepal, but what he represented was something worthy, and hopefully a new crop of visionary left leaders will arise, in Nepal and elsewhere, to carry on his work.