2018 Assembly Elections and the lessons for the Left: A perspective | Shubham Sharma

The election result in five states has cast a shadow over the potentialities of the Hindutva brigade, sobriquet the Right wing. Although recent mobilizations around the building of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya saw a competition of sorts among the legitimate heirs of a disgraceful event, BJP comfortably trumps other contestants in this race and fits the political bill of the, Right. But what of the Left? Not as a linguistic antonym but the Right’s dialectical ‘other’ in politics. Where is it? Or what is left of the Left?


Politically, the Left is ensconced in Kerala, just lost power in Tripura and struggling in West Bengal, an erstwhile bastion. Apart from this it has been on the front in worker unions both organized and unorganized and peasant organizations. Ideologically, the Indian Left is divided along tactical lines which swear by the names of political mavericks of the preceding century, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Trotsky to name a few. However, the one common thread which organically unites them is the postulate that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ and that capitalism is a mutable social system which operates at a particular axis of the class struggle wherein, for the first time in history, the working class is reduced to such penury that it has nothing to sell but its own labour. Or in other words, human labour itself becomes a commodity to be sold and bought according to the anarchic laws of the market. And it is through mass-collective action that the Left seeks to overthrow capitalism and bring about a social democratic revolution of the have-nots. Has it happened in India? No! Is there a potential for this to happen? Let’s see.

De-hyphenating the Left from the Liberal

For people who are born after the mid-eighties, the last four years would have been particularly peculiar. Not because of the failed promises and high hopes generated by the ruling dispensation but the silos of the Left-Liberal. Both were used interchangeably and heaped opprobrium upon for failing India for the last seventy years, distorting history, failing to acknowledge the potential of vedic science and letting the millennial Indian low in almost all walks of global life. I think this characterization is highly misleading. To do so one could write reams about history by putting out examples such as the appeasement policy followed by French and British liberals towards Hitler in Munich or German liberals allowing Hitler a free-run to halt the radical Spartakusbund led by Luxembourg. Such exercise would risk repetition and sound esoteric, another vice of which Left-Liberal are accused of!

Let us come to the definition part first. Unlike the natural sciences, social sciences cannot boast of clarity or complete convergence of opinion on terms and terminologies. Left-liberal suffers the same fate. However, to make matters easy I propose a new ground of definition which is that political terminologies are not cast in stone. Rather it is the political stimuli to which they respond and in doing so whether they bring about progressive change is something which defines Left or liberal. To drive this point home, let us take the Sabarimala issue as a point of departure. The Supreme Court verdict which allowed for the unrestricted entry of women of all ages into the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine led to massive political turmoil in the state of Kerala. The BJP which has taken upon itself the mantle of protecting Hindus did not spoil our hopes, as it went on creating ruckus, the Congress party, a party established by first generation liberals whose foremost member Dadabhai Naoroji won an election to the House of Commons on a Liberal party ticket and heir to the nebulous Nehruvian liberalism took the liberty to oppose a progressive decision by the Court. On the other hand, the ruling Left front government chose to stand by the Court’s verdict even in the face of impending communal fury. But was there something progressive in the stand of the Left? It was merely implementing the decision of the Court, a bare minimum that is expected of the federating units of the Indian union. Yes, there was. The fact that the Left declined to file a review petition against the Court’s verdict and go ahead with implementing the order not only demarcated the Left from the Liberal but drew a line between progressivism and opportunism.

It is also required that one goes into history and read more about being liberal or its political surrogate liberty, the reader would be surprised and feel cheated by the machinations of history when he would come across two prime sources- the French revolution wherein liberty won by the hungry was prostituted by the imperial expansionism of Napoleon and Mill’s treatise On Liberty which is full of racist slurs and the need for the denial of liberty to people of what is today called the global South.


The Caste-Class Conundrum

The idea of class struggle, Holy Grail of the Left, has been very acute in India. But the Indian peculiarity of the caste system has had a dual impact on the class struggle in India. Firstly, the first line of struggle is not the factories or fields but jobs in the public sector. The idea that reservations would serve not only as the prime equalizer but produce the warriors of struggle against caste system, saw its fulfillment in the struggle led by Kanshi Ram in north-India. Not only was it promising but inspired a whole generation of people to take caste-struggle where it is the most acute-workplaces. But soon the 1991 reforms called for the roll back of the state and bottlenecked the public employment opportunities. The political response was what Achin Vanaik calls ‘new centrism’ espoused by V.P Singh. He announced the implementation of the Mandal commission report which recommended 27 percent quota for the OBC’s, in addition to the 15 and 7.5 percent, respectively, provided for Dalits and Adivasis. The practical effect of implementation was very limited as some 50,000 new jobs were affected annually; the significance lay in the socio-economic cleavages that it created. The Left was critical not only of its hasty implementation but non-commitment to the most crucial aspect of the report-land reforms. If one does a bit of bibliographic sleuthing, one would come across the crucial passage in the Mandal committee report towards the end which explicitly mentions that without major land reforms the benefits of reservation would come to a naught. Surprisingly, none of the post-Mandal political forces took land reforms seriously. The result has been a steady erosion in their vote banks as the upward mobile seek autonomous political agency wherein those caste-groups, numbering 998 according to recent data set, which did not get a share in the Mandal cake have become easy baits for the Right. The Left has been the lone political force which has not only espoused land reforms as a normative ‘ought to be’, but a practical political program which was implemented in Bengal on a large and Kerala on a small scale. The most striking instance of cheat is the panchami lands in Tamil Nadu which was earmarked by a British Collector, Younghusband for Dalit landless. More than hundred years after the allocation, no Dravidian government has succeeded in re-allocating lands which were usurped by upper-caste forces through force or frivolous deals.

Secondly, the crucial issue is whether struggle against caste is class struggle in its traditional sense? B.R. Ambedkar in his presentation to Prof. Goldenweiser in Columbia University pronounced that “caste is an enclosed class”. The enclosure which Ambedkar alludes to is intensely social nature harping on the obdurate limits to social inter-course. But is the social bereft of the economic? In other words, caste groups reflected the needs of the occupational division of labour which hence metamorphosed into what Ambedkar calls ‘division of labourers’. Neither are caste groups immune to class cleavages. The most horrendous acts of barbarity such as Khairlanji were committed by well-to-do backward class groups against the deprived sections. Another fact which brings clarity to this contention is that Dalits constitute almost 85% of the thirty million landless agriculture labour. This trend seems to be growing as their numbers rose by 22% over 2001 and the number of dalit cultivators fell by 12%. I would leave it to the reader as to what would they to the struggle which would ensue between the latter and their exploiters.

Politically speaking, the largest dalit political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Mayawati, a potential prime ministerial candidate has but failed to deliver for the dalits. Not because of the expansion of her social base but her failure to stand against the most anti-dalit government in recent times. The fact that she was adamant on 50 seats in Madhya Pradesh which included traditional Congress seats like Chhindwara and not budging from her part of bargain in a tightly bipolar contest speaks not only of nonchalance but lack of commitment to defeat BJP. With the benefit of hindsight one could easily say that BSP with a meager vote-share of mere 5% was engaging in political ‘rent-seeking’.  An honorable compromise would have gone a long way in establishing her credentials as a dependable force in the fight against communal authoritarianism.

The Impending Fight

As India braces for general elections in 2019, the idea of mahagathbandhan is gaining currency. When it seemed that the era of coalition politics has ended in favour of strong and stable government, it has made a comeback. However, there are two major changes which would have a qualitative impact on the mahagathbandhan, only if it comes about—greater number of regional political forces and a weak Left. Let us first understand the implications of the latter.

The widespread opinion is that the Indian Left is a Stalinist dictatorial group with little scope for internal democracy and flexibility. The detractors fall for the notion of ‘centralism’ often ignoring the prefix of ‘democratic’. It should be reminded that Left governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura were coalitions which were most gracefully administered despite popular and political hostilities among constituents. One of which, Bengal, lasted for almost 34 four years at a stretch! Secondly, the decision to deny Jyoti Basu the prime ministership in 1996 by the party Politburo and the latter’s acceptance of the decision militates against the crude characterization that it is subject to. One only wonders what fate would befell upon the leaders of Congress, BSP, SP and BJP if they dare to deny Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh and Narendra Modi prime ministership on grounds of principle and political propriety.

The Left has not only mastered the art of coalition politics but has had the impeccable record against communalism and standing firm on pro-poor policies. Other regional parties smack of opportunism and have had a dubious record of hobnobbing with BJP in past. Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu who are now appearing as bulwarks against BJP have been in cahoots with it, for political gains. Their anti-BJP’ism is a result of their comfortable political position vis-à-vis Congress and BJP, and not an ideological one. There is also the chance of a double-deal as in palpable in case of Mamata Banerjee led TMC. The chit fund scam in which big-wigs of her party were caught red-handed while receiving cash, has not been through a proper investigation, obviously at the behest of the Centre. Lal Krishna Advani who is chairing the parliamentary committee on the scam has not called a single meeting yet! This is being deliberately done to decimate the Left which is a greater political threat to both. Another instance which instantiates the narrow political considerations of regional political parties is their strong onus on a pre-poll alliance. This is precisely being done to outmaneuver their regional rivals by donning the cloak of anti-fascism which would be blessed by a consensus of other political parties.

A Bahujan Left Front Election rally. CPI (Marxist) form an alliance with smaller Ambedkarite and Periyarite organisations under the banner of BLP. CPI decided to not participate in the front, and allied with the Congress and TDP.

On the question of policy, one only wonders what would be the point of convergence among the parties of the mahagathbandhan. The cash-for-vote scandal in the Parliament would be enough of a reminder in this regard. To borrow Sitaram Yechury’s words, the coalition members would neither be lapdogs nor watchdogs of the government, they would rather behave like dogs after every piece of flesh which hangs out of the federal government. None would be disciplined enough to not partake in the cabinet, which the Left did, and form a solid ethical bloc.

So what is to be done? As things take shape, the elections of 2019 would be far from class-struggle. The Congress and other political groups are bound to follow the 1991 consensus and remain subservient to the dictates of finance capital. Populist policies could be on the anvil along with tweak in the existing ones, for instance MGNREGA could be extended to the agricultural sector. Nothing substantial could be expected. In this situation the Left has reasons to be proud. Of 36 major labour and peasant demonstrations, 30 had been organized by the Left or Left affiliated groups. The marches in Mumbai and Delhi represented the landless labourer who had been forgotten in the face of the prosperity of Green revolution. The momentum against BJP gathered steam because of such spectacular show of strength, is a fact which no one could deny. In this situation, the Left has committed itself for the defeat of the BJP but has to be cautious in doing so. In this maddening medley of political aggrandizement, the Left should learn from its past endeavours of alliances. To take a leaf out of the Telangana elections, the Left should take note of the fact that crass arithmetic does not guarantee success. It should tread its own beaten path by maintaining a strategic distance from the coalition yet not fade into oblivion.

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