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The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in India

In the two decades since the
collapse of the Soviet Union, the
Left in India has not renewed
itself. In the context of the
electoral debacle in West Bengal
and the defeat in Kerala, this
article revisits the issue and asks,
what future now for the Left in
the country ? The Left certainly
has a role to play in India but to
be able to do so it needs to pay
attention to the many general
issues that currently afflict it.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, around
the time of the fall of the Soviet
Union, I wrote a piece in this journal
titled “The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in
India” (EPW, 19 October 1991). I wish I
could say that the Left has been wiser in
the intervening period. I used to think
that once the gerontocracy at the helm of
the Left parties moved on, the younger
leadership would be more innovative and
imaginative. Unfortunately, some of the
younger leaders who have since been at
the helm have turned out to be even more
unthinking, dogmatic, and dense. With
“democratic centralism”, which is mumbojumbo
for tyrannical control by the leadership,
the Left parties have also disabled
themselves from easy course correction.
Even though I am writing this after the Left
debacle in West Bengal, and the marginal
defeat in Kerala, in this article I will mostly
talk about the general issues afflicting the
Left, some of which, if paid serious attention
to, can yet restore the legitimacy of
what I believe to be a necessary role the
Left can and should play in India.


I am always struck by the amazing capacity
of the Left parties for self-deception in the
face of a crisis, avoidance of the hard realities
and resort to clichés and solace from
sacred texts. In the context of a fast-changing
world, their policy pronouncements
continue to be obsolete formulae-driven
and marked by chanting of catechisms :
Market bad, State good ; public sector
good, private bad ; leftist unions even when
they act in reactionary, anti-poor and highhanded
ways have to be defended ; in foreign
policy, America bad, China, Russia good
(even when the latter countries now display
rampant oligarchic, crony capitalism),
even the theocratic-authoritarian regime in
Iran has to be supported because it fights
the evil American empire, and so on.
In West Bengal the resounding defeat
of the Left Front, even with its history of
considerable achievements in organising
popular participation in meaningful land
reform and rural decentralisation, is not
just due to the peasant disaffection with
its recent efforts at land acquisition, but
more due to widely and intensely resented
all-pervasive and oppressive party control
of all aspects of local life. If you want a
public hospital bed for your seriously ill
family member, you have to be a supplicant
with the local party boss ; if you want to
start a small business or be a street vendor
you have to pay protection money to the
party dada ; if you want to ply a taxi or an
autorickshaw you have to pay a tribute to
the local party union ; if you want a schoolteacher’s
job you have to be approved by
the “local committee” and pay them an
appropriate amount ; your children are to go
to schools where the union activist teacher
is often absent, compelling you to pay
good money in sending them to his private
coaching classes ; if you want to build a
house you have to employ party-approved
construction workers and buy higherpriced
or inferior-quality building materials
from party-approved suppliers ; if you
want to buy land, you have to go through
the party-connected “promoter”, etc.

All-Powerful Party

In the name of Marxism the long-ruling
party essentially became the all-powerful
local mafia. Of course, in true godfatherstyle
they will often help you in emergencies,
if you show your loyalty. This way of
operating a party is not unique to West
Bengal, the Shiv Sena does it all the time,
but they do not add insult to injury by
spouting revolutionary or anti-imperialist
rhetoric, or chanting lal salam even as
they fleece or intimidate you, while the
police nearby show studied indifference.
The party leaders have a habitual way
of explaining electoral defeats by saying
that their cadres have “lost touch with the
people” ; the common people often wish
they did.

Leninist Legacy

The overriding principle of supremacy of
party control is a poisonous Leninist legacy,
and its degeneration into local tyranny is
a sad but inevitable consequence. The
Leninist principle is often invoked for the
sake of discipline. Apart from the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Communist
Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] used
to be the most disciplined political organisation
in the country. No more. While the
tightness of control over dissenting opinion
at the top continues, it has now become
flabby and unruly below, and in
many local areas run by extortionists over
whom the top leadership has very little
control. Hopefully, after the party’s defeat
in West Bengal and the subsequent end of
police protection, the thugs will now look
for greener pastures, and there is a chance
now for the CPI(M) to cleanse itself.

In the all-India context the Left is now
mainly effective as a lobby for public sector
employees, and it occasionally flexes its
muscles by calling bandhs (on a suitable
Monday or Friday), which paralyse city
life, give babus a long weekend, while
starving the poor informal workers who
depend for their daily livelihood on casual
wage work or street vending. The image of
the Left in the minds of the vast numbers
of the poor is that of the union organiser
for the corrupt or callous public employees
whom they have to face as the potential
recipients of the paltry delivery of basic
social and administrative services.

Failure in Basic Services

In the history of communist countries
while governments have miserably failed
in many aspects of the economy, at least in
basic health and educational services they
have often done a much better job than in
non-communist countries at the same
income level (China, Vietnam, Cuba are
obvious examples). But this does not apply
to West Bengal. The party organisation
was solidly based on unionised schoolteachers,
health workers, clerks and other
public employees — and they used their
union clout to default in the delivery of
public services. The coddled bureaucracy
was allowed to be lackadaisical, files
moved much slower than in secretariats of
many other states, and the culture of
protected impunity for public employees
(including the police) thrived. The
appointments and promotions in colleges
and universities, directly orchestrated from
the party office in Alimuddin Street and
screened for party loyalty, decimated
Bengal’s long-enjoyed advantage in academic,
intellectual and professional pursuits.

Informal Sector Bypassed

A major failure of the Left in India is in not
being able to organise, except in localised
pockets, the overwhelming majority of
workers who are informal, often selfemployed.
The modes of organising these
workers would have to be quite different :
as home is often the workplace rather than
concentrated centres like factory or office,
wage or job security is not the main issue,
welfare benefits and general economic
security may be the more important ones,
citizen rights may be more salient than
worker rights, etc. Non-left non-government
organisations with a citizen rights-based
approach or Gandhian organisations (the
most well-known of which is SEWA, organising
a trade union of self-employed women)
have often been more successful in this
area. There needs to be a major reorientation
in Left thinking on labour issues in
this direction. In general Left thinking in
India slurs over the contradictions within
the labour movement (particularly between
formal and informal workers) and
the special organisational exigencies of
the latter.

On land issues also the Left parties, which
used to be at the forefront of movements,
have largely run out of steam. First of all,
on land distribution or tenurial security
rights, the Left parties in both Kerala and
West Bengal have found out in their bitter
experience that peasants once having received
those rights do not feel particularly
obliged to continue to vote for the parties
that originally won those rights for them.
In politics gratitude for past once-for-all
beneficial actions soon wears out. Second,
particularly in West Bengal, over time
small and middle farmer families have
come to capture the rural leadership in
the local party, and this has led to some
weakening of the cause of agitating for the
wage demands of landless workers ; it is no
coincidence that the wage rise of the latter
hurts those farmers who hire labour.
Third, in densely populated parts of India
the land-man ratio is declining fast, pushing
a large part of the land below the minimum
viable cultivable unit. So earlier radical
slogans like “land to the tiller” do not
resonate as much. The Left should be
active in organising some form of joint
management in cultivation of tiny plots,
particularly in matters of water, energy,
knowledge of new agronomic practices and
land nutrient inputs, and in marketing.
But it is hardly active in these matters. The
history of the cooperative movement in
agriculture is dismal in India. Cooperatives,
when they exist, more often than not
have degenerated into moribund bureaucratic
entities or front organisations for milking
state subsidies, or occasionally captured
by the rich and powerful (as in the case of
sugar cooperatives of Maharashtra). The
successful cases of cooperative organisations
like the Gujarat Cooperative Milk
Marketing Federation (Amul) have very
little to do with the Left. Yet the importance
of cooperative marketing will loom
larger as Indian agriculture shifts from
traditional grain to high-valued produce
(like fruits, vegetables, livestock and dairy
products). Lack of progress on this front
will only bring about the dominance of
large retail companies (with enough resources
to invest in cold storage and transportation)
and contract farming, which
the Left in India often reflexively opposes
(though the Chinese Party has gone for
them in a big way).

Fourth, as the productivity per person
declines in agriculture and as its share in
GDP gets very small, the overwhelming
proportion of even farmers’ children
(there is survey evidence for this) want to
get out of agriculture. Yet the transfer of
land to other more productive uses has
given rise to politically explosive protests
in different parts of India. In the case of
Nandigram and Singur the attempts at
land acquisition for industrial use has been
resented by the people, partly because
(a) the Left Front government (following
largely the obsolete colonial law) offered
inadequate compensation ; (b) unnecessarily
and clumsily used force ; (c) the battle (at
least in Nandigram) was less about land
acquisition (the state government announced
quite early in the process that no
land will be acquired there) and more about
turf warfare between CPI(M) and Trinamool
goons – the Left government did little to
control the gangland warfare ; and (d) the
long-term Left neglect of the backward
state of education made many peasants
concerned that their children will not be
qualified to get any jobs in the new factories.

The Left now should not draw the
wrong lessons from their electoral defeat,
as some in the CPI(M) are already urging.
Even after the bitter experience of the recent
past, farmers may give up land voluntarily
if they are offered a substantial
share in the surplus that will be generated
from the alternative use of land (say in the
form of a steady annuity income, rather
than cash that tends to get frittered away),
if local participatory and deliberative
processes are used to inform and involve
them, if the annuity flow is administered
by a credibly independent and efficient
organisation, and if enough arrangements
for skill formation and vocational training
for farmers’ children are made.

Dispossession and Displacement

Some within the CPI(M), and many to the left
of the CPI(M) are understandably preoccupied
with the general issue of dispossession
and displacement effects of industrial
and commercial development, particularly
on the lives of the poor. Many of the abuses
they point out are indeed egregious. There
are difficult issues and trade-offs involved
here. I can only make a plea for some
balance between the need for economic
development that creates productive jobs
and enhances social surplus (which can
potentially be redistributed) on the one
hand, and on the other the need for minimising
(and adequately compensating for)
the dislocation by means of a process in
which the local stakeholders can be full
participants. The use of land and minerals by
profit-seeking companies for non-traditional
higher-productivity activities is in some
ways historically indispensable (as Marx
would have recognised) if we want any
change in the miserable way of life that
the peasants and adivasis have endured
for centuries – as the Marxist economist
Emmanuel once wrote, the horrors of
capitalism fade in comparison with the
horrors of pre-capitalism. There is too much
romanticising of the traditional life among
some otherwise well-intentioned activists
(both of the Gandhian and far-left persuasion)
and too little interest in assessing the
complex trade-offs involved. On the other
hand, in the current dispensation
the surplus
generated in the process of development
in these areas is grossly inequitably distributed,
much of it grabbed by the corporate
oligarchy, real estate tycoons, the
mining mafia, and their political patrons
and collaborators. We have to find a balanced,
equitable, and sustainable way of
dividing the surplus and minimising the
loss (both private and social, including
environmental). In this the democratic
Left (as opposed to the misguided and violent
extreme Left) can play a valuable role
in espousing the cause of the deprived, increasing
their awareness and information,
catalysing their organisations and
acting as watchdogs against the abuses of
state violence and corporate power.

Associational Life

One important difference between Kerala
and West Bengal is the much richer associational
life in Kerala’s society, with a
long history of literacy and solidarity movements
for low caste emancipation, people’s
science movements, civic organisations
(including those related to churches) and,
of course, a strong set of Left-led organisations
of landless workers and small peasants.
Civil society is much weaker in West
Bengal, in spite of strong unions of clerks,
schoolteachers and peasants (industrial
unions are weak and demoralised in a string
of declining sunset industries). Associational
life has been largely hijacked by the party,
explicitly discouraging the growth of nonparty
organisations in its shadow.
There are some lower caste associations
(like those of the “matua” group, which
the party in its desperation before the
elections tried to appease, too late), but
unlike in other states they have been marginal
to the bhadralok-led politics. While
bhadraloks presided in the upper echelons
of the party, the lower level operatives
used the party dominance to arm themselves
and create their little mafia fiefdoms,
which thrived with the neutered
police looking away. In the absence of robust
civic organisations, the local-level
politics quickly fell into a vortex of violence.
The Trinamool Congress fought an
uphill battle with its own squads of goons,
and finally won with the headwind of accumulated
popular disgust at the tyranny
of party control and peasant anxiety about
their land.

But decentralisation which is supposed
to have been a success in West Bengal
should have provided a local-democratic
arena for resolving conflicts and a check
to the violence. While panchayats in West
Bengal have not been captured by the
landed oligarchy (as in many other states)
largely on account of the prior land
reform, and some of the welfare benefit
programmes did reach sections of the poor, local governments are weak in terms
of finance which mostly comes from above
and local elections are fought not so much
on local issues but more on state-level
partisan issues. Benefits often went to
sections of the poor who were in a clientelistic
relationship with the ruling party.
So the panchayats became just one more
arena for bitter partisan battles, usually
around the allocation of the scanty doles
from above, from state-supported or centrally-
sponsored schemes. Kerala panchayats
have been given a lot more finance by
the state government, decentralised planning
is more participatory, and in some
districts there is even a record of municipal
governments running business enterprises
(in collaboration with local private
business and voluntary organisations) –
something practically non-existent in
West Bengal.

On Market Reform

Finally, the Left parties have to give up on
their blatant hypocrisy on market reform.
The reform policies pursued in Delhi are
routinely described as “neo-liberal”, supposedly
adopted under imperialist and
World Bank influence, while basically
similar policies are followed in Kolkata,
Agartala or Thiruvananthapuram. Just as
many decades back, after long and acrimonious
debates, the communist parties
in India reconciled to working under
“bourgeois democracy”, they have to reconcile
themselves to the market principle.
These are both about competition, one in
the polity, and the other in the economy.
Markets have a large number of wellrecognised
problems : market “failures” in
resource allocation on account of externalities
and imperfect information, inequalities
that markets tend to facilitate,
the instability, unemployment, and the
economic and cultural dislocation that they
often bring about, etc. But there are ways
of mitigating these negative effects. The
alternative to markets is often worse. The
history of socialist countries has shown us
repeatedly how without competition among
producers and a mechanism for exit of
chronically inefficient firms, no economy
can attain or retain its vigour and dynamism.
Political or bureaucratic allocation
of resources and control of prices often lead
to corruption, black markets and stagnation.
The inequality in wealth in socialist countries
is between the privileged members of
the party oligarchy (and their accomplices)
and the rest, and unemployment takes
the form of low-productivity “disguised
unemployment”. Barring utopian projects
on the drawing board of many wishful
thinkers, no one has yet shown us in practice
a consistently and durably viable and
technologically dynamic economy for a
large enough country that has been run
on traditional socialist lines of controls
and state monopoly. The socialist economies
of eastern Europe and Russia collapsed
largely on their own endogenous
systemic weakness. Common people in
capitalist South Korea are immeasurably
better off than in socialist near-starvation
North Korea (which started off with an
initial industrial advantage over the South).
For three decades now China has deliberately
attempted following a comprehensive
policy of state-guided capitalism (adapting
the models in South Korea, Taiwan,
Singapore, and earlier Japan for their
own circumstances) and has succeeded
famously. In many respects Chinese policy
has been much more “neo-liberal” than
Indian. Vietnam is following policies similar
to China.

Possible Priorities

I think the Left should concentrate on
leading popular struggles against capitalist
excesses and injustices (rampant inequality
and the consequent capture of political
processes, displacement of poor people,
macroeconomic instability – most recently
due to short-sighted recklessness of unregulated
financial markets abroad, and
environmental degradation). The required
systemic modifications and regulations will
not make the capitalists happy, but through
democratic pressures one can work out
a bargaining arrangement in which the
social justice objectives are vigorously
pursued, but the incentives for production
and surplus generation are not hurt too
much ; and state and community-level coordination
mechanisms are used to cope
with various kinds of coordination failures
in the economy without substantially
giving up on the important coordinating
and disciplining functions of the market.
Such a bargaining equilibrium may or may
not be called “social democracy”
– a term
which raises suspicion in many on the Left,
while many on the liberal side smell too
much socialism in it. Forgetting about the
well-known European examples, even
among developing countries, in Latin
America a small country, Costa Rica, has a
thriving democracy with a superb system
of welfare benefits for the masses ; in a
large country, Brazil, under the Workers’
Party the erstwhile high inequality is going
down (their index of income inequality is
now about the same as in China), and education
and health services have advanced
a great deal and they are aiming at a form
of social democracy, without giving up on
the capitalist features of production. The
Indian situation is, of course, different,
but there are many international examples
now to learn from (particularly in
regulations and in provision of social services)
and adapt to our circumstances.

Even within India, a non-Left state like
Tamil Nadu has advanced in the last three
decades much more than West Bengal
under the Left, both in industrialisation
and in delivery of social services. Kerala,
of course, has been on top in terms of
social services for many decades, both
under Left and non-Left rule, but its production
system has not been dynamic
enough, and it is more of a remittance
economy. In general, the Left has to think
hard why it is now only a regional party,
and why even in its regions of strength it is
getting weaker.

When Marx in his last years was learning
about Russian data and special conditions,
he was quite open to changing his
long-held ideas formed from his study of
west European history (as he explicitly indicated
to some of his correspondents),
much to the consternation of some of his
faithful followers. Sticking to old dogmas
in the face of changing reality and new
information is definitely un-Marxian.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.