The Indian mainstream Left has been enjoying unprecedented influence in Delhi´s corridors of power since the results of the May 2004 general elections. With 63 members in the Lower House of the Parliament, the Left Front is a crucial ally of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and holds the key to its survival. The Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Communist Party of India, key constituents of the Front, have not hesitated to exert this political strength to influence policy, despite supporting the government only from outside.
In their hour of unprecedented influence in national affairs, however, the mainline communists have caused intense consternation among diverse actors while being the target of harsh criticism. From the stock markets, which plummeted the day the present political alignment took shape, to the traditional Right that senses a weakening of its Hindutva project, the Left´s new-found power is greeted with opposition and worry. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed pragmatists as well as sections of the liberal intelligentsia and media view the CPM and CPI as being out of touch with international realities of American hegemony and unbridled economic globalisation. The Left´s caution against economic ´reforms´ in times when the IMF model of growth is regarded as sacred means that they are seen as the harbinger of a return to the ´dark´ days of ´failed´ state socialism.
The vilification, however, is more broad-based. And this time, it comes from within the Lai Parivar, the red fold. The ultra-left, represented by the Communist Party of India (Maoists), whose presence has been growing across east and south India, believe that the CPI and CPM are revisionist in character. These Naxalites allege that the ´official Left´ has given up revolutionary struggle, sold out to the ruling classes, and cannot claim to represent the interests of the poor and marginalised.
Bringing back sanity
With criticism of the Left occupying such a large share of the national public discourse, it is easy to see them as the force stalling India´s much-hallowed march towards superpower status. However, such an assumption is flawed, for it ignores the significant political contribution being made by the Lett.
Given the composition of the present Lok Sabha, the alternative to a center-left UPA coalition would have to be another coalition, probably headed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or an unstable mix of smaller parties. Liberals, who pride themselves on their secularism but would not like to be held back by ´populist´ communist positions, tend to forget that the mainstream Left has played a key role in ensuring that the communal I3JP is kept out of power, and the mandate of the 2004 elections is respected. That mandate, coming in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat killings and a blistering ´India Shining´ campaign by the B)P, was a rejection of divisive political and economic policies, and a demand by the majority – the poor of the country – to be heard. The BJP-led government´s tenure was marked by-economic policies catering to the upper- and middle-classes and a political programme of Hindu majoritarianism, most clearly reflected in the saffronisation of education and the riots in Gujarat. The Left must be given credit for playing its part in respecting this plea for a more inclusive polity.
Efforts at translating this message into practice have begun. There is a visible shift in public discourse from ´Mandir´ and ´Muslims´ to basic livelihood issues. While the earlier government had its model of growth clearly based on foreign exchange reserves and Foreign Direct Investment inflow that have little real impact on the poor and deprived, the enactment of the Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act by the UPA government promises to make a difference at the grassroots- The former provides employment opportunities to those below the poverty line in 150 of India´s poorest districts initially, and the information legislation breaks the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and vests citizens with the right to question the state. The communist parties had been strong advocates for the enactment of these laws, and are now in the process of pushing for its expeditious implementation.
In an era when the triumph of capitalism is said to have delivered the end of history, we must have voices that sound the necessary caution against the inequity that accompanies the retreat of the state from all spheres. The Indian Left, undoubtedly, has to learn to creatively engage with processes of globalisation and introspect about its earlier judgments – for instance, instead of leading to formation of cartels and monopolies as they had feared, the opening up of the Indian telecom and aviation sectors to private players has actually empowered the consumer. However, their insightful criticism of the inflow of foreign capital and its implications, privatisation of health and education services, and lifting of trade barriers that hurt producers at the lowest rung must be taken into account. The CPM and CPI have helped create an intellectual and political atmosphere where questioning the process as well as pace of opening up the economy is back in the discourse, and globalisation with a human face has become an accepted creed.
Recent protests by the parliamentary left parties against joint Indo-US military exercises, the Indian stand on the Iran issue as well as their strident opposition to King Gyanendra´s coup in Nepal have brought foreign affairs to the public realm. While -trategic analysts have criticised the Left for politicising´ sensitive foreign policy issues, the fact :hat these issues are out of South Block into a broader arena is a sign of greater transparency and democratic decision-making. Establishments in Southasia have sought to keep foreign policy-making insulated from democratic debate under the garb of national interest. In New Delhi, the myth of national consensus on foreign policy has been carefully nurtured to prevent any dissension. At a time when India is effecting a critical shift in its policy towards the US, it is important that such a decision is debated and dissenting voices heard, One may agree or disagree with the stand of the Left on key foreign policy issues, but it is welcome that these issues are out in the open. ´Realists´ must present their arguments not only in closed seminars but also from public platforms, including the media and rallies, as well as engage with elected representatives, if they want to shape policy in any manner.
While it is clear that the Left´s presence has brought a semblance of sanity back to the public discourse, it is critical that the CPM, CPI and other constituents of the Left – the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Block – think creatively about problems, shedding more of their rigidities and dogma.
For starters, they must recognise their limitations. The Left in India is still a marginal force restricted to a few provinces. The CPI, the oldest communist party in the country, is on the verge of losing its national status and receives less than two percent of the national vote-share while big brother CPM is a major player in only three states – West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Most of its members in the Parliament belong to these three states. Despite its influence in New Delhi, the Left has no reason to be complacent and must seek to expand its base if it wants to be an important formation.
One possible reason for the Left´s limited support base may be its inability to deal with questions of identity. Analysts have pointed to the failure of the communists in recognising the potency of religious-based mobilisation in Indian society and engaging with it by stressing on its more tolerant aspects. The complete dismissal of religion as a deviation in class-based mass struggle by the Left gave the BJP the political space to engineer its bigoted Hindutva project even as it diluted the appeal of a socialist society among a new generation. Additionally, the absence of any strategy to deal with caste in North India, particularly LJttar Pradesh and Bihar where political alignments are largely based on the caste arithmetic, has weakened the communists considerably. Until the Left figures out a way to deal with identity politics even while rejecting parochial loyalties, its strategies of expansion is bound to hit a wall.
The wake-up call and reminder by the Left to India´s elite category and its expanding middle class about the presence of the other India – of the poor, starving, uneducated millions bereft of any state support – definitely ranks as its most significant contribution today. Having recognised the challenge of equity on a subcontinental scale, the parties must now present mechanisms and ideas to bridge the gap between the two Indias. Considering that the majority of Indians continue to live in the villages, the Left must take up more vigorously the severe agrarian crisis impacting rural India. Economists have pointed to a drastic decline in the food-intake of the rural poor caused by a decline in purchasing power. This decline, in turn, is attributed to reduced state spending in rural areas and reduced competitiveness of local agricultural products in the face of opening up the economy to farm imports. There is an urgent need to redress this situation and the Left must advocate measures that include, among others, land reform, increased state support for landless labourers, and an effective public distribution system.
The need for creative thinking is most acute in the realm the Left is most uncomfortable with. Globalisation is an unavoidable reality, with technology reinforcing the process of growing inter-linkages among economies. The sooner the communists accept this fact, the better they can ensure their own growth and influence while benefiting the people at large. Even as several of their concerns regarding globalisation remain valid, the challenge lies in mitigating these ill-effects and seeking to capitalise on the opportunities the new world economic order offers. Globalisation presents avenues for wealth-creation that coutd provide much needed additional resources for social sector spending and redistribution. The services industry in India, particularly the information technology sector, has already shown the way. What is needed now is the building of a stronger manufacturing base with high labour absorptive capability and the potential to tap the world market. It is this sector that China has tapped so successfully, thus ensuring that employment opportunities are created and the benefits of a global market reach the deprived sections of society. The Left must also recognise that the entry of private players not only leaves the consumer with more choice but also creates an atmosphere where individual enterprise is encouraged.
In the process of imagining an economy of this nature, the Left´s emphasis for greater government regulation to prevent monopolies and exploitative business practices remain valid. The Left´s task is all about maintaining a productive balance between state intervention in key areas and taking advantage of globalisation. Meanwhile, given their powerful position in national politics, the communist parties must contribute to shaping foreign policy. There has been little forthcoming from the Left in terms of specific suggestions to deal with the Kashmir issue or improve the India-Pakistan relationship, However, the area they could make the most difference is in Delhi´s relationship with its eastern neighbour.
The fact that despite being in power in West Bengal for more than two decades, the Left has done little to contribute in improving the Indo-Bangladesh ties does not reflect too well on it. While the communist parties did play a key role in facilitating the Farakka Agreement in 1996, it is essential that they are engaged more closely with this Southasian relationship, both in Calcutta and Delhi. With the maximum number of MPs from West Bengal, and presence in policy-making at both the central and state levels, the Left must contribute in re-imagining the difficult, and at this point, increasingly hostile relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi. Perhaps, the growing ties between the Indian and Pakistani Punjab hold a lesson on how cultural ties can be utilised to improve relationships. Given the deteriorating conditions internally in Bangladesh, the Left has an additional responsibility to ensure that New Delhi´s policies towards Bangladesh is based on empathy and understanding.
What is clear is that the increasing tide of criticism against the Left in varied quarters in India is unwarranted. Of course, there are areas at this point,increasingly, where the communists need to evolve their position and think of constructive alternatives. However, by keeping the Hindu Right out and forcing the national polity to pay attention to real grassroots concerns, the Left has done its bit to shake the system up to work for the forgotten.