Reviews

What’s left of it

By Sukumar Muralidharan

20 May 2016

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.

 

Photo : Flickr / Adam Jones

Photo : Flickr / Adam Jones

Soon after Yechuri’s elevation to the top leadership position,  senior politburo member Brinda Karat wrote an op-ed piece in a mainstream newspaper, asserting that the party line remained unchanged. She specifically targeted the rationale that allying with secular nationalist parties was an imperative in combating Hindutva, a political creation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which translated quite accurately into a majoritarian mobilisation based on invented religious identity. There would be, she said, no “alliance or front with the Congress in the name of fighting Hindutva”. This reaffirmed the party orientation of the 20th congress at Kozhikode in 2012, which as Bidwai narrates, “returned the party to the policy of ‘equidistance’ between the ‘twin evils’”. All that doctrine though, proved of little use when it came to the survival imperative in West Bengal in 2016.

Attitudes towards the Congress had a far-reaching consequence for the Left after the 2004 general election to parliament. The election, which gave the parliamentary Left its highest number of seats ever, was in Bidwai’s reading, a dual conjuncture. There was the parliamentary opportunity that arose, to bring into being “a strongly secular left-leaning government with progressive policies”. And then there was the strategic opportunity to “reorient, revitalise and reinvent the Left politically”. The latter was obviously the more challenging mission but in the event, Bidwai recounts, the Left did not prove very adroit in addressing the former either.

The Congress’s dependence was almost absolute but the Left proved as averse as ever about entering into a ruling arrangement in which it did not have decisive influence. It settled then for the next best option of a “common minimum programme” (CMP) of governance. This crumbled rather quickly as the champions of neo-liberalism within the Indian policy establishment stirred themselves into action, and a hostile press used two days of turmoil in the markets to blazon the supposed dangers of allowing the Left perception any manner of influence over policy. Bidwai provides an arresting narrative of what followed.

The Left began with a solid set of demands, but backed away slowly and imperceptibly, while the Congress seized the moment, pre-empting some of the points the Left was labouring to formulate. In the bargaining that followed, the ultimate horror scenario of the Hindutva forces regaining their credibility was crudely held out. With the moral burden of a possible BJP return thrown in, the Left caved in.

Partial agreement on the CMP was reached through “anodyne formulations” on a number of crucial issues of interest to the Left. Despite its brave stand in denouncing the 1998 nuclear weapons tests carried out by a BJP-led government, the Left failed to write in a credible plank on disarmament and felt compelled to genuflect before the altar of deterrence. Customary Left postures on foreign capital and investment were significantly diluted. Instead of an employment guarantee with universal coverage, the CMP committed to the phased introduction of such a scheme in the more backward rural areas. A commission on unorganised labour was transformed into a body to study “enterprises in the unorganised sector”. And social sector spending, where the Congress had a convergence of interests with the Left because of potential political rewards, was unconstrained by any time-bound quantitative targets.

Bidwai believes that the Left missed an opportunity, perhaps because of its own divided counsel, to write in tough conditions on potential deal-breakers. It did manage to stiffen the Congress resolve to introduce relatively progressive legislation such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, the Right to Information Act 2006 and the Forest Rights Act 2006. Employment guarantee was introduced in a hundred of India’s poorest districts to begin with, but then extended to all rural areas, partly as a Congress manoeuvre to spotlight crown prince Rahul Gandhi’s commitment to the poor, but also because of a revenue windfall accruing on the back of an economic boom during the Congress coalition’s first term in office.

Discord began to grow as the government sought to strengthen the underpinnings of its diplomatic and strategic engagements with the US, symbolised in a deal on nuclear commerce. Though the deal itself was never expected to amount to much, since nuclear energy was recognised as a dying industry worldwide, the greater inducement was the removal of most fetters on India’s nuclear weapons programme, on the unstated condition that it would join the US camp in global strategic councils. India was stampeded into casting two votes against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, as first delivery against this promised benediction from the global superpower.

This breached several red lines for the Left, though Bidwai rightly questions the maladroit tactical moves it went through prior to the parting of ways. First, it posed its opposition to the deal in terms of unrefined nuclear nationalism since that seemed likely to garner support from elements within the Indian strategic establishment and the broader public. It chose to stay silent on the implications for the faltering process of global disarmament and the baneful economic and ecological implications of large-scale nuclear power generation. As it tiptoed to the brink of a final parting of ways, the CPI(M) was yet again torn by divided counsels, since at the same time, the ruling unit in West Bengal was unleashing its cadres on hapless civilians protesting the commandeering of their land for the benefit of remote industrial barons. The die was finally cast mid-2008, but the Congress-led government hung on to power through deals of various degrees of opportunism, winning a vote of confidence in parliament during which every side may have taken recourse to the crudest method of tarring the other.

Alienated from its popular support base in Kerala and more particularly West Bengal, unable to explain the high principles behind its withdrawal of support to the Congress – because presumably there were none – the Left was now truly left high-and-dry. It did try in the 2009 general elections and more keenly in 2014, to scrabble together an alliance, scooping up every regional party that chose to stay out of the orbit of the two main contestants. Both efforts ended in farce since every party that the Left courted had its own well-settled strategy.

Prior to the windfall of 2004, the Left had an opportunity to assume the reins of power at the centre when the 1996 elections threw up an indecisive outcome. The BJP was the largest party but well short of a majority. And even if the Congress had quite decisively lost, it was willing to sustain – by the unique Indian artifice of “outside support” which the Left had itself adopted in rather different circumstances in 1989 – the loose conglomerate of former socialists and regional power blocs called the “Third Force”. Starved of leadership resources, the Third Force offered the premiership to the CPI(M)’s Jyoti Basu, who at the time had completed close to two unbroken decades as chief minister of West Bengal.

Bidwai analyses the subsequent events with exhaustive attention to detail. The CPI(M) politbureau met to deliberate over the “unique opportunity” and decided to take it up. Two days later the central committee met and reversed the politbureau decision. Meanwhile, a gathering of artists, activists and academics closely affiliated to the party began an agitation at its headquarters, imploring the central committee to take up the offer of leadership. Acknowledging the widespread sense of disappointment, the central committee met again the following day, only to reiterate its decision in a terse, one-line announcement. A devastating way could not possibly have been found to deflate the elaborately argued petitions received from the party’s wide base of support.

With cavalier disregard for public perceptions, the CPI(M) leadership then retreated into its cloister of political purity. In January 1997, Jyoti Basu revisited the whole sequence of events and characterised his party’s decision as a “historic blunder”. He was rebuffed in a three-line communiqué from the politbureau, which reminded him that the matter had been discussed in sufficient detail and closed for all time. Nearly two years later, in the Calcutta congress of October 1998, the matter was put up for discussions that were as Bidwai describes them, “astonishingly opaque”, a reproduction of “first principles” and “statements by both sides couched in shopworn party jargon”. Finally in a vote involving all congress delegates, “Basu’s line was trounced by 441 votes to 198”.

Bidwai reviews all the arguments put forward for declining the invitation to lead the national government, but finds none among them convincing. The year 1996, he observes, was probably an “inflexion point” in Indian politics when perhaps “the people’s aspirations for social change, frustrated by successive regimes, were still not defeated and were amenable to incorporation in imaginative left-of-centre programmes and policies”. “Radical parties do not always wait for majority support to accrete to them gradually”, he argues: “they can create conditions where they can command it through the power of example and initiative, without violating the majority test”. In spurning this opportunity, the CPI(M) failed the test of political imagination, seemingly preferring “ideological-political ‘purity’ to the point of self-abnegation”.

Bidwai brings a critical but sympathetic gaze to these recent events. But his narrative is rich in details of the early history of the Indian Left, of its years of idealistic struggle when it was in the forefront of a broad-based cultural awakening. The Communist Party of India (CPI) – the original mother-ship – “was formed and shaped”, he reminds us, “in the era of high Stalinism”. If it had the resources to respond  in creative ways to the challenges of the Indian milieu, these were throttled by the larger imperative of maintaining loyalty to the Stalinist line, which naturally placed the foreign policy objectives of the Soviet Union above all else.

Constrained by the magnitude of the problems immediately at hand and limited by its willing submission to Stalinist tutelage, the Indian Left imposed upon itself a “limited horizon of the possible”. It responded to India’s independence from colonialism in a particularly schizoid fashion, first denouncing it as illusory and embarking upon an insurrectionist model that cost it severely in talent and popular goodwill. But from the early-1950s it began thinking in terms of working within “a liberal parliamentary system” while struggling to “transcend the system’s limitations”. Victory in the Kerala state assembly elections in 1957 further strengthened this orientation.

Bidwai has extensive and vividly documented chapters on the trajectories of Left politics in both Kerala and West Bengal. He puts forward seemingly solid grounds for an assessment that the former has been an arena of significant success, while the latter – despite a more consistent record of sweeping electoral triumphs – has at best been equivocal. Kerala’s significant advances in all social indicators, which came to be celebrated worldwide as a unique model of development, Bidwai believes, was largely on account of the model of participatory democracy promoted by the Left. This was accompanied by a “degree of social cohesion and high public awareness, civic engagement and popular participation”. What was lacking was a coherent programme for building up the economic fundamentals. Agriculture and traditional industries languished, hurting economic growth and public revenue sources, causing the Kerala model to falter in the 1980s.

CPIM campaign rally in southern India Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Jaffar Theekkathir

CPIM campaign rally in southern India
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Jaffar Theekkathir

Perhaps the room for more creative responses was severely constricted by the peculiar circumstances facing a Left party exercising power within a sub-unit of a larger polity. Perhaps the Left in Kerala had by then become mired in a wasteland of the imagination. By the 1980s, the Left had begun to look at a remittance fuelled real-estate economy as salvation and a  substantive shift in priorities began towards privatisation of education, health-care and other basic services. Growing dependence on consumption led growth aggravated “class inequalities and ecological destruction”. Beginning with the mandate earned in the 1996 elections, the Left sought to reverse course by inaugurating a radical new experiment in decentralised development, the ‘Peoples’ Plan Campaign’ (PPC). A key premise of the PPC was the empowerment of local cadres, but perhaps because it coincided with rising factinal strife within the CPI(M), the response tended to be polarised and often bitter. Bidwai believes that the PPC did achieve some significant outcomes, both tangible and otherwise, in creating a possibility that individuals at the tail-end of the administrative hierarchy could assume the power to determine their own destinies. It took the formulation of plans and schemes out of the bureaucratic orbit and brought them to the level at which they really mattered. But finally the experiment came to grief on the sustained hostility of established political forces of the centre-right and the faltering commitment of CPI(M) insiders.

West Bengal furnishes an altogether more modest catalogue of Left achievements. Bringing an element of equity and justice into the agrarian sector is usually billed as the greatest of these, but Bidwai’s diligent documentation points to a programme that began on the tail-winds of the popular radicalism of the “land grab” movements in the 1960s, but then betrayed its promise. The brief interregnum of the 1960s when the CPI(M) held important portfolios within a state government headed by a Congress breakaway,  heralded a phase of radicalism that the Left Front (LF) sought to replicate after assuming power under CPI(M) leadership in 1977. The state was coming out of years of bitter strife, marked by the brutal suppression by a Congress government implanted by widespread electoral fraud in 1972, of the Naxalite movement and other rebellions. What prevailed was rightly then believed to be a crisis of governability, with an unresolved legacy of displacement and spiralling demographic pressure. Unemployment among the urban youth was then seen to be running at “dizzying levels”.

The LF dusted up the land ceiling law that had for long lain in disuse and called in the participation of prospective beneficiaries, making creative use of the law of evidence to identify land holdings beyond the specified ceiling. The strategy was akin to that used during the late-1960s. But in the light of the bitter experience it had suffered, of twice having coalition governments dismissed, the renewed initiative was combined with another political priority, to fortify the Left against further victimisation. The best available strategy seemed widening and deepening the sources of the Left’s strength by recruiting all elements that would prove amenable in the countryside. Decentralised governance or panchayati raj was a strategic response of the LF to the threat from Delhi. And in spreading its influence into the rural areas, it was expedient to recruit the loyalty of the middle peasantry that stood to benefit most from land redistribution.

The figures that Bidwai assembles show that by the mid-1980s, the achievements of the land redistribution process in West Bengal  were significantly greater than elsewhere. But in the context of widespread land hunger and growing masses of landless, it just was not enough. The middle peasant class was by this time, strongly entrenched within the party’s apparatus of power. To bring the landless into the calculation would have destabilised that settled relationship.

A more modest programme the LF undertook was the registration of sharecroppers. Colonial land settlements had created a tenurial system in which the cultivator was often at several removes from land ownership and suffered worst from an iniquitous system. The registration process stopped short of giving land title to the cultivators, but nonetheless ensured them a measure of security. Here again, progress slowed down after a first burst of enthusiasm. And with the very modest progress made towards agrarian equity, measures to consolidate the gains of sharecropper registration through rural credit, agricultural extension and infrastructure, were conspicuously absent.

Signs of stagnation were soon manifest. Growth rates tapered off and the Left in West Bengal – in marked contrast to Kerala counterparts – proved wilfully blind to human development imperatives and the magnitude of deprivation that stalked those outside the charmed upper-caste circles from which its leadership came. It was possible for some time to postpone the harsh reckoning, with the electoral management machinery successfully deployed to mitigate damaging political consequences.

A way out of the stagnant state began actively to be sought after a handover of power from Jyoti Basu to his protégé, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. And the choice made by the young acolyte, now embittered and retired from active politics, was an ardent courtship of global and Indian capital, if need be, by dressing up West Bengal as a destination with unique attractions for industry. The virtual state of insurrection that engulfed the villages of Singur and Nandigram, after brutally clumsy attempts to gift-wrap agricultural land for the benefit of industrial groups, ensured a complete collapse of credibility, paving the way for successive routs of the Left in both state- and national-level elections.

In parting, Bidwai offers in an appendix to this volume, an analysis of the Left in the north-eastern state of Tripura. Though small and inconsequential in its impact on national politics, Tripura is the laboratory of a major political experiment, with the Left having successfully recruited the loyalty of large indigenous communities. Progressively marginalised in numerical terms by waves of Bengali immigration, indigenous communities have – but for an insurgency now formally declared over – signed up with the Left as the best assurance of their continuing welfare. In 2013 elections to the state assembly, Tripura brought the Left to power for the fifth time in a row, and seventh time overall. The advances made by the state in human development parameters have been dramatic.

Tripura recently discovered natural gas reserves and established a large power plant which has made it an electricity surplus state – a major luxury in the north-east – and an energy exporter to neighbouring Bangladesh. Cross-border issues, a residue of the chaotic partition that continues to exert a baneful influence over the lives of communities in the state, will call out for resolution in years to come. And Bidwai’s advice, attributed to neutral “observers” in a well-known journalistic trope, is that the Left needs to publicly advertise its commitment to putting indigenous community leaders in pivotal positions.

Bidwai obviously believed to the end, that even with all the baggage it had accumulated over the years, a miraculous – even magical – moment of redemption for the Left still remained a possibility. He also had a vision of how that occasion could be constructed. India is a land of diverse longings, of aspirations unmet, of millions of daily struggles for equity and justice intersecting in unpredictable but often cohesive ways. The Left, he says, has remained indifferent to the immense potential for positive change in these movements, in large part because it is steeped in the catechism of democratic centralism and unable to shed the controlling impulse that comes with the territory. Bidwai illustrates the consequences vividly, drawing out ample instances of Left indifference and insensitivity towards the new strivings as expressed in movements for environmental justice and women’s rights.

“There can be no socialism without a qualitatively different relationship … between natural resources, production and consumption”, Bidwai argues. This has to be a relationship different in kind from the “predatory” relationship that “capitalism has always entailed”.  Similarly, on women’s issues, the Left has sought to be the vehicle of empowerment, while distancing itself from what it regards in rather hidebound fashion, as the faddish notions of modern-day feminism. It argued strongly for women’s reservations in all legislative institutions, but was not particularly unhappy with the defeat of this initiative by a cross-ideological mobilisation of patriarchal forces. When it had the opportunity to legislate women’s empowerment measures in states it had substantial influence in, it chose not to.

Where does all this lead to? Bidwai believes that the Indian Left needs to reckon with the “make-or-break moment” that it is at hand. It has the option of engaging in “critical introspection into its flaws and weaknesses”, and undertaking a “radical course correction”. It could just as well choose the “soft option” and persist with the “political practices and policy approaches that have alienated its support base”. That moment of reckoning is upon the Left and just in case it flunks the test, Bidwai has a consolation prize to offer: “even assuming that much of the existing organised Left collapses, many of the principles, ideas and agendas it has historically championed will remain relevant”. The mantle of salvaging these fragments and building on them will then fall on diverse grassroots movements which have in recent times brought the passion that the Left had in its early formative years, but wilfully frittered away in the brief allure of power.

Bidwai’s long and diligent work in chronicling the life of India’s organised Left shows that he was — for all the frequent bouts of scepticism and anger– reluctant to finally sunder that bond. In his political testament, he has assembled more than sufficient evidence for the case that the “emancipatory transformation that Indian society still cries out for”, must come from other sources.

~ Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer based in Delhi, and, till recently was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

~ The original article was revised at 11:15 pm on 20 May 2016.

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