Photo : Flickr / Adam Jones
Photo : Flickr / Adam Jones

What’s left of it

Praful Bidwai’s book discusses the past and potential of Left politics in India.
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / RanjithSiji
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / RanjithSiji

Praful Bidwai had a long and fruitful tenure as a journalist in India's mainstream media. Perhaps the industry was not obsessed with the singular motive of profit at the time, but the larger reason he found and held a niche, was his ability to carry an argument in a tone of reason, even when ruthlessly dissecting false claims. As a journalist, he could maintain cordial ties despite bitter disagreements, often without gaining reciprocal courtesies. Bidwai's journalism was never far from his political commitments, situated firmly within the critical Left. Precisely because of his critical spirit, his disagreements with politics at the Left end of the spectrum were profound, often expressed in sharp polemic. He cultivated an early journalistic competence at the intersections of technology, society and politics, and authored some widely read and cited books on subjects such as nuclear power, disarmament and climate change. A grand conspectus on the politics of the Indian Left was a project he came to after four decades in journalism.

Bidwai died in June 2015 aged 66, just as this work was completed. It emerged in print towards the end of the year, gaining quick recognition as the political testament of a unique individual, who had dropped out of a premier engineering institution in his youthful ardour for change, spent years in activism with the poor and disadvantaged, before acquiring a public persona as one who would constantly push the frontiers of the public discourse. In tone and substance, this book will resonate with all who share the perception that the Left agenda offers valuable guidance in dealing with today's most pressing problems. For those who disagree, this volume offers substantial rewards in its information content and the mastery with which it summarises all available literature on the lives actually lived by the Indian Left.

The title of this book bespeaks a sense of hope, testimony to Bidwai's refusal even in darkest days to yield to despair. His confident expectation that the Left would emerge renewed from the ashes of defeat, does refer to any specific time horizon. It is an open-ended prognosis and difficult to dispute given the wide manner in which Bidwai understands Left politics. At an early point in this four-hundred-page book (omitting notes and index), he explains that the Left is for him, not just "a political entity", or an expression of "political parties and associated organisations". It is rather a continuous "movement" deeply rooted in civil society, which "aspires to institute a new notion of citizenship through the self-organisation of the working people". While located in fixed points in history it is a continuous process of struggle, "to foster critical radical thinking about society, the state, the economy, human relationships, lifestyles, work and play, the family, culture, education, (and) leisure".

The very broad existential swathe that Bidwai maps makes it difficult to contest his prognosis of hope. Every person, irrespective of where he or she stands in the political spectrum, should in especially dire times – of warfare, rampant ethnic animosity, economic inequality and unreason – have some sliver of hope to cling on to. Differences in perceptions could arise about the vehicle that could take the human collectivity towards better times. Some would see messianic deliverance as the way forward, while others – perhaps taking their inspiration from Voltaire's Dr Pangloss – may lazily argue for trusting those who occupy the upper strata in the social order. Still others may insist on a rational and well-considered strategic response, which perhaps is where Bidwai belonged. A future determined by struggle in the cause of the Left was for him, a conviction firmly grounded in intellectual traditions of both east and the west.

Bidwai sets out to map a complex terrain, ranging from individuals identified as communists at a very early point in their political trajectory to others who adopted the appellation of socialists. In the vast spaces in between and elsewhere, stood the Congress, which nurtured these – as well as the opposite ideologies – in the years of political awakening in colonial India. Bidwai is attentive to the unique perspectives of all the streams that arose from the Left. The socialists, he says, were "highly influential in Indian politics and more numerous than the communists at one time", but prone to "greater individualism and weak, if less-than-rigid organisation". Socialism became identified with the political trend of opposition to the Congress in India. As for the Communists, they failed to develop a robust theoretical capacity to deal with evolving contingencies within colonial as also post-independence India. Dependent on the tutelage of the Soviet Union to a great extent, they went along with a policy of supporting the Congress on key issues, while maintaining a distance on matters of core importance.

Tryst with Congress
India's Communists wandered in and out of various coalitions opposed to the Congress and also on perhaps an equal number of occasions, aligned with the Congress. For the Socialists, there was no such ambiguity. Following the authoritarian "emergency" regime declared by Indira Gandhi's Congress government in 1975, the Socialist stream determined that it was a historical imperative to submerge its identity within "Never Congress" politics. Once subsumed within the Janata Party in 1977, the unique Indian stream of socialism lost its identity and became a variable assemblage of caste compulsions. Bidwai recognises that this deprived thinking on the Left of valuable range and diversity.

The Naxalites, a radical breakaway group from the mainstream Left, today incarnated in an overground Marxist-Leninist tendency and an insurgent Maoist underground, come in for brief attention. It is a political current, Bidwai observes, that has "suffered several desertions and losses" on account of state repression of an order that "highlights profound weaknesses in India's political system and the shallowness of its liberal-democratic claims". Yet the mainstream parliamentary Left has chosen to look away and in most part to "reciprocate the Naxalites' hostility towards them".

In a very brief effort at delimitation within a vast canvas, Bidwai explains his reasons for narrowing focus to the parliamentary left. He undoubtedly saw the potential for positive change within the parliamentary stream, a reading that he backs up with a rich description of the contributions that poets, artists, litterateurs and other creative individuals have made to India's transition to political modernity. His narrowing of the focus to the parliamentary stream also foretells some part of the succeeding narrative. The Left rationale in entering parliamentary contestation is often explained in strategic terms, to utilise all the formal liberties of a "bourgeois-liberal" order to make the case for a more substantive freedom that benefits all. Practice in India has often departed from that principle. Indeed, the Left has consistently defaulted on the potentialities afforded by its parliamentary strength and turned a blind eye to the denial of rights to those unable to speak for themselves. That practice in turn arises from factional disputes only remotely connected to strategic questions, from the conflicting pulls of rival ideological tutors from abroad, or an aversion to risk voter loyalty by straying far beyond the middle-class comfort zone.

Two electoral contests in mid-2016, just a few months after this book was released, demonstrated how the Left had, stripped of that larger strategic purpose, become enslaved to the electoral calculus. In Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] which leads the larger Left Democratic Front (LDF), remained torn by an unresolved factional animosity – dating back several years – between master apparatchik Pinarayi Vijayan and party elder and former chief minister VS Achutanandan. The left was on relatively safe ground here, since Kerala has over three decades, alternated between the LDF and the rival front headed by the Congress, the United Democratic Front (UDF). There was a perceived threat within the LDF though, that denying a ticket to the party elder would cause an adverse public reaction and an upending of this established pattern. Achutanandan was given his ticket to contest, but the perception all around was that this was an opportunistic compromise to capitalise on the nostalgia the political veteran evoked as one man who had held out against political amorality. At the same time, there was no public commitment that he would be chief minister in the event of an LDF victory.

That was a shaky compromise and the dominant faction within the Kerala unit was seemingly intent on minimising potential risks by ensuring loyalists were heavily favoured in ticket distribution. The deal-making seen in 2016 conformed to a pattern established in the 1990s, when factional animosities within the CPI(M) were first expressed in public. But deal-making was not a new activity for the Left, which had in earlier contexts done electoral pacts with a party claiming to represent people of the Muslim faith, and later with a sectarian formation that had a narrow base within medium and large cultivators of the Christian faith. Neither had fetched any but the briefest advantages.

Kerala though, was the lesser problem. Even at the time Bidwai describes as the Left's "pinnacle", Kerala contributed barely a third of Left representation in India's national parliament. West Bengal was always the greater prize, simply because it had over twice the number of seats in parliament as Kerala, and also because the Left had been making a habit of sweeping up everything there. When every other party was routed in the Congress landslide of 1984, the left in West Bengal held firm. At every subsequent election, as the national scenario oscillated between one indecisive outcome and another, West Bengal's Left Front acquired an imperishable character. It all changed with the catastrophic rout of the 2011 state assembly elections, and then came the brutal encore of the 2014 parliament elections.

Observer's perspective matters here. Prior to the West Bengal assembly elections in 2016, the Left had executed a tactical masterstroke that dared not speak its name, by aligning with the Congress to beat back a regional breakaway of the latter. It was an electoral alliance that dared not speak its name. The Kerala units of both the CPI(M) and the Congress opposed it strongly, but found that in West Bengal, the survival imperative simply overwhelmed all principle. On the day polling opened in West Bengal, CPI(M) leader Surjya Kanta Mishra, was quoted in a major daily justifying his party's Congress dalliance in terms that were on a charitable view, illogical. "We are not blind enemies," he said: "We have supported the Congress in the past when it was the need of the hour… Weren't we fighting them in Kerala, Bengal and Tripura? So why the uproar now? And there is no alliance. It is the need of the hour".

Metaphors should not be mixed or tortured, but the temptation here is strong. The Left as it geared up for state assembly elections in 2016, presented a spectacle not of a phoenix rising from the ashes, but of a bird willing to wallow in the same ideological desert it was immolated in.

Survival instinct
The dilemma over the optimal distance to maintain from bourgeois parties in the struggle for electoral space, has been a continuous point of contestation for parliamentary Left parties. It has been evident in electoral strategy and also in leadership struggles within the parties. It was manifest in April 2015 in the 21st congress of the CPI(M) at Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, the point at which Bidwai's narrative ends. The incumbent had reached his three-term limit in the top leadership position of general secretary and a successor had to be chosen. There were hints that the party was torn between rival perceptions, with the West Bengal unit favouring an accommodative line towards the Congress and the Kerala contingent insisting on the adversarial posture. In the event, the leadership choice came down to which of these postures was likelier to ensure a future of political relevance. And Sitaram Yechuri, on whom the choice finally fell, was thought more attuned to the West Bengal perception. By the curious geometries of factional politics, he was also seen as more favourably inclined towards Achutanandan, the estranged Kerala party elder, who was even more than his state unit, unequivocal in his opposition to the Congress.

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Himal Southasian