What is the Left to do in India?

The Left has suffered a huge defeat in the 2009 national election
in India. Its electoral strength at the national level (in terms
of the number of Members of the Parliament who are directly
elected) has been reduced by more than half. How the current
economic crisis plays itself out, and with what implications for
workers and peasants in India, will in good part depend on how
the crisis of the Indian Left is resolved. A few preliminary thoughts
are offered here about this defeat, which may have some wider
relevance for the Left in other parts of the world.

The electoral defeat of the Indian Left (gathering parties like
the CPI-M, CPI and others under the Left Front grouping) is unfortunate,
if not unexpected. But history has provided the Left
with an opportunity for rethinking its political strategy. It is true
that the success or failure of Left forces cannot and should not be
judged (solely or even mainly) by its electoral performance. If
the electoral loss was the only form of loss, it would not be a
cause of much concern. But the electoral loss experienced by the
Left is also indicative of the fact that most segments of the Left
which are participating in elections have more or less distanced
themselves from radical mass movements of the marginalized,
and especially rural and urban workers, poor peasants and petty
entrepreneurs/traders, at local, regional and other scales. The Left
forces who fight in elections spend most of their limited political
energy on elections per se or matters directly related to elections.
To the extent that it is important for them to fight in elections,
electoral fights must be rooted in, and grow out of, their participation
in, and leadership of, class-based democratic movements.
Elections must be used for ideological and mobilizational purposes
– for educating masses and sections of the (urban) middle
class about the failure of the ruling classes and their governments
and about the potential for radical change.


It is time for the Left to become self-conscious of its contradictions.
These contradictions emanate from, and reflect, the fact
that the Left’s ideology and practice are one thing at the centre of
the Indian state in Delhi and another in the states There are two
points to be made here.

Firstly, supporting one bourgeois political formation after
another (Janata coalition, Congress coalition, etc.) at the national
level allows these formations, and especially Congress, the traditional
party of the bourgeoisie and landlords, to implement blatantly
right-wing neoliberal policies with a so-called human face.

The fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former economics
professor who belongs to the Congress, and others constantly
refer to reforms with human face mean that the so-called
reforms are essentially inhuman and must be seen as such. By
supporting a certain type of national government in order to keep
a nationalist and religious fundamentalist party (BJP) at bay, the
Left is partly seen as responsible for these inhuman policies. On
the other hand, to the extent that the Left puts pressure on the
national government to implement a few pro-poor policies such
as the employment guarantee scheme in rural areas, it is the parties
running the government and especially the Congress that take
the credit for these policies. As a result, these parties get votes
from the poor in exchange for a few crumbs thrown at them. So,
the Left does not get credit for the good thing it does (i.e. pro-poor
policies it forces the national government to implement; some
kind of government regulation over the financial sector which
has allowed the nation to avert the worst consequences of the
economic crisis so far). It is indeed bound to be (rightly) discredited
(among workers and peasants) for the bad thing it is seen as
responsible for (i.e. supporting a government which is basically
for neoliberalism and thus providing much-needed legitimacy to
the bourgeoisie and its government).

It is also discredited in another sense, and this time rather
wrongly. Thanks to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology, development
is construed as market-led development. Given that development
is the mantra for winning elections, and to the extent
that the Left has stopped or slowed down some market-reforms,
it is portrayed by the bourgeois media and politicians and by the
bourgeoisie itself as an obstacle to development as such. Who
does not want ‘development’, and who wants a political formation
which is not for ‘development’? ‘Development’ – sometimes
packaged as bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads and water) in the
vast rural periphery — has become a big bourgeois ideology. This
is an ideology which helps the ruling classes and their political
representatives to buy consent from people. The bourgeoisie (and
its government) does not want to give the credit to the Left for
propping up a government under which it has benefited both politically
(in the sense of both creating governmental stability and
keeping a lid on the militancy of workers and peasants) and economically
(in terms of many pro-business policies that the government
has implemented despite the Left).

Secondly, in the subnational states where the Left is in power,
it behaves like a version of ‘Left Congress’ at best. This it cannot
do. It just cannot criticize the same policies of the central government
which it itself adopts in the states in which it rules. By shaking
hands with big-business, domestic or foreign, and implementing
some of the neoliberal policies, the Left allows bourgeois
parties (in their regional incarnations) to opportunistically bear
the mantle of pro-poor parties in Left-ruled States and to gain
electoral advantage. This is exactly what happened in the largest
Left bastion (West Bengal). The Left, of course, does this in the
name of creating jobs (as one Left leader put it to me: unless
there are industries, there is no working class to mobilize).

Jobs can be created; people’s productive power can be developed;
modern technology can be adopted (and if necessary
obtained from foreign sources); and people can expand their needs
which make for a better quality of life. All these and many other
things can happen under a variety of social relations of ownership
and control of property. A factory owned by the (big) bourgeoisie
(on land from which poor peasants have been forcefully
displaced) indicates one type of relations. A democratically-run
cooperative of (women) workers (producing, in an ecologically
sound manner, a thing that satisfies a need of a vast majority of
the local/national population) indicates another. Where and when
in power, the Left really must show that jobs can be created under
a different framework of social relations than those that are
corporate-dominated. It is the corporate domination of our lives
that both the ruling-class parties (i.e. Congress and BJP) support
in exactly equal measure. This, unfortunately, most ordinary
people do not understand, and changing this situation is a major
ideological challenge for the Left.

In Left-governed states, jobs must be created in a manner in
which it is consistent with the Left’s ideological premises (one of
which is the democratic control over means of production to be
used for the satisfaction of basic material-cultural needs of people).
Otherwise, the connection between Left theory and Left praxis is
broken. It has been broken in these States, which is why many
people – including parts of the middle class – may not find much
difference between the Left and the two mainstream parties (both
of which may chant some anti-poverty rhetoric and/or even throw
some crumbs at the poor to buy their votes).


Let me return to the issue of ‘mass’ movements. One important
reason for organizing these movements is to get immediate
relief for the oppressed and exploited from factory owners, (upper-
caste) landlords and capitalist farmers, big traders and governments.
But perhaps more importantly, these movements shape
class consciousness of the poor and enhance their political power,
which may, from time to time, bear electoral results (which is
secondary). In turn, both elections and mass movements – both
kinds of Left practice – presuppose ideological education of
the masses. The cause becomes the effect and the effect becomes
the cause. Local reading groups and working-class based
cultural associations, among other things, are important here.

The political energy of the oppressed and exploited workers’
can and must be channeled in productive and progressive directions,
the energy that the mainstream parties electorally mobilize
in order to continue the current system where a few are
growing richer while the vast majority are eking out a minimal
existence. The Left must be a part of the everyday life of workers
and peasants.

Here it is important to stress the role of the ‘middle class’ in
relation to the revival of the Left. The ‘middle class’ includes not
only the better-paid and educated parts of the working class but
also independent educated small entrepreneurs, many of whom
happen to be private proprietors because decent salaried work is
not available. The ‘urban middle class of the mall’ must feel that
it is ‘cool’ to be on the Left. They must feel that it is ‘un-cool’ to
accept (American) imperialism, or communalism. They must feel
that it is ‘un-cool’ to accept a system where the country’s land,
forests, water and machines are owned and controlled by just a
minority of the population who determine how we live and how
well we live. Vast segments of this middle class must understand
that the inequality between the rich and the poor (and more specifically
the control of our major resources in the hands of a few
and associated exploitation) is not un-connected to such things
as caste and gender oppression as well as ecological destruction,
the things which many conscientious middle class people find
easy to relate to.

One must have faith in ‘ideological development and transformation’:
when we work on our ideas, our ideas about the world
change. Running reading groups and discussing radical theory as
well as current Left policies/actions (including their shortcomings
which are inevitable) in a polite and democratic manner can
contribute to a change in the consciousness of sections of the
middle class. A large number of middle class people may just
care about themselves. But not everyone of them falls in this category.
There are many who seriously think that they can make a
difference to the world of the poor through individual charity,
through participation in political parties of the rich and through
some NGO activities. The challenge for the Left is to patiently
show that while these things are not absolutely useless modes of
intervening in the world, they have severe limitations because
they do not challenge the sources of power of the rich in their
control over property and indeed over knowledge (think about
newspapers and TV channels owned for profit by big business).

I can say this on the basis of my own experience as a teacher:
when middle class people who join the university as students are
helped – both in the classroom and outside – to understand the
logic of a theory of society which seeks to grasp everything by its
roots and which seeks to scientifically explain various forms of
oppression and exploitation with a passionate motive to eradicate
these, other competing systems of thought which they have
been imbued with all their lives start not making sense to them
anymore. The more they learn new ideas, the more they unlearn
old ideas. Demystification of the reality slowly begins to happen.

The present system can continue as long as the vast majority believe
that what is happening is natural, that it is natural that some
people will despotically control our productive resources under
whom the rest have to work for a wage/salary. An important aim
of ideological education is to denaturalize the current state of
affairs. One of the biggest losses of the Left is the loss of emphasis
on political-ideological education of ordinary workers and
peasants as well as sections of the urban middle class. What the
Left has lost is the sympathy of a segment of the middle class.

This must be reversed through patient ideological activity in a
democratic manner (one in which radical teachers, among others,
have an important role to play). Ideas of the Left must be a
part of the common-sense of a very large section of the population,
including segments of the middle class as well as the working
class and poor peasants.

Although the BJP, the party of Hindu fundamentalists, did
not get a large number of seats in this election, and this is good
news, it must be acknowledged that the combined political strength
of the ruling classes (as partly indicated by the combined electoral
strength of Congress and BJP) is quite formidable in relation
to that of the Left, even if, it must be noted, the Congress
barely got 28% of popular votes. It cannot be forgotten at all that
whenever there is a possibility of Left resurgence, these two forces
will be united (BJP actually indicated as much before the vote
counting began), and the ruling classes will not have any problem
with it at all. It may be noted that less than 50% of voters
endorse either BJP or Congress, the two mainstream parties, which
means that even from an electoral standpoint, there is a massive
space within which to expand the Left appeal if this appeal is
constructed in terms of the firm support for the interests of workers
and peasants, oppressed lower castes and women, deprived
regions and for a secular polity. The political forces of the Left
must be mobilized independently of, and in opposition to, both
of these bourgeois-landlord parties. The future of the majority of
India’s population depends on the political and ideological
strength of Left and democratic forces in every nook and cranny
of the country.


Every defeat is a challenge. That is the law of dialectics in
real life. Without Left support to hold parliamentary power, the
national Congress-led government will certainly implement even
more blatantly pro-business policies. Preparations for a further
neoliberal turn have already begun (e.g. privatization of profitmaking
government-owned companies; reforms in insurance and
retail allowing greater entry of foreign business; labour reforms
allowing a free hand to big business to fire employees, and so
on). The new Indian government will use the current economic
crisis, which has already created massive unemployment (already
1500,000 people have lots their jobs in the export sector hit by
the recession), as an excuse to implement policies that benefit
big business at the expense of workers and peasants in the name
of helping the latter. Big business and its media have already
prodded the government to implement these policies. The implementation
of these pro-business policies, in a situation of growing
unemployment, has contributed to the economic crisis in India.

The policies are bound to sharpen the class conflict between
the bourgeoisie and its government on the one hand and workers
and peasants on the other. With the Left forces not obliged to
support the government, this is a great opportunity for them to do
what they should be doing all along: mobilize workers and peasants
to undermine and get rid of the system of capitalism-imperialism,
the vestiges of landlordism, and various forms of oppression
such as those based on gender and caste.


* From Relay, A Socialist Project Review, #26 April–June 2009.

* Raju Das teaches geography and political economy at York

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