A rigid ideology and a generational divide contributed to the Left's rout in India
Ullekh NP | 19 Jul, 2019
I remember visiting Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s ancestral home in Bundala in early 2005. It was a long drive from Delhi and we got lost more than once after reaching this large village in Jalandhar district of Punjab. But thanks to a couple of cheerful young men who were ready to accompany us to our destination late at night, we managed to wade our way through ill-lit roads barely wide enough for an SUV to pass. As expected, the CPM General Secretary had gone to sleep, but a few members of his family were waiting for us. They served us dinner despite our protests. Warm beds were ready and, exhausted by the drive and the unfairly cold weather, I went to sleep immediately.
The next day, after a rich breakfast that consisted of ghee-laden paranthas stuffed with mashed potatoes and several tall glasses of lassi, some of us journalists sat down to interview the 89-year-old leader who exuded power and influence. He knew my family well. He remembered meeting my father, the late CPM leader Pattiam Gopalan, for the last time at the Jalandhar Party Congress of the CPM in 1978. The meeting with him was warm and cordial. It also helped that I was in the company of comrades from his party who included a senior journalist affiliated to the CPM.
Surjeet spoke to us as though he was in power at the Centre. He spoke with conviction that the policies of the Federal Government would be pro-poor and pro-worker. He was, of course, the kingmaker, having helped Congress President Sonia Gandhi form a Government with her party colleague Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. The rainbow coalition was backed from outside by Surjeet’s party that at the time had 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Left Front, led by the CPM, had 59 lawmakers in the Lok Sabha. Congress, which had 145 seats in the House, was being steered by the Left. As Surjeet had forecast, over the next few years, the ruling coalition launched key welfare schemes confirming that the economic policies of the otherwise pro-reforms Congress was dictated by the Left.
Such was the power Surjeet enjoyed in the household of Sonia Gandhi, who was the real power behind the throne, that even senior Congress leaders thought it wise to cultivate a good rapport with the CPM chief. Shortly later that year, when Surjeet stepped down to make way for Prakash Karat, even corporate tycoons of the repute of Swraj Paul and Lakshmi Mittal visited AKG Bhavan in Delhi’s Gole Market to meet him. Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries also visited the CPM’s Central Committee office, where the rooms are only slightly better than a concrete bunker, to meet Sitaram Yechury, then a senior Politburo member, who is now the General Secretary of the CPM, which has only three seats in the Lok Sabha.
The slide in electoral fortunes of the Marxists began shortly after the death of Surjeet in 2008 when Karat first threatened and then withdrew the Left’s backing for the Congress-led UPA Government over its opposition to Singh signing the India-US nuclear deal. Marxists, caught in a time warp, found it impossible to align with a party that had anything to do with an ‘imperialist’ force like the US. As luck would have it, the Congress survived the threat posed by the Left and completed its full term in office. Manmohan Singh, in a historic speech in Parliament before the trust vote, thanked Surjeet and another party veteran, Jyoti Basu, who had by then retired from active politics, for helping the Congress in 2004, making it clear that their younger comrades were toeing a dogmatic path of confused idealists.
In the next General Election, Congress tied up with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal where the CPM-led Left Front had been in power for 32 uninterrupted years. The election of 2009 was an indication of what was in store for the Left. Of the 42 seats, it won only 15, while the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress won 19 and Congress 6. It was an upset verdict for the Left. Two years later, Trinamool dislodged the CPM from the state in the Assembly elections, ending 34 years of Left Front rule. Mamata Banerjee would go on to win yet another Assembly election by a resounding margin despite Congress tying up with the Marxists. She also won the 2014 Lok Sabha poll by a huge margin, and by 2019, the BJP replaced the Left as the contender for power.
Such was the power Harkishan Singh Surjeet enjoyed in the household of Sonia Gandhi, who was the real power behind the throne, that even senior Congress leaders thought it wise to cultivate a good rapport with the then CPM chief
Clearly, the Left has been decimated in its citadel. And the party that dominated the national agenda in the age of coalition politics finally lost the plot. After all, its national prominence was reinforced by its electoral prowess in West Bengal compared with Tripura and Kerala which send much fewer MPs to the Lok Sabha. Currently, it is in power only in Kerala where the trends from the recent Lok Sabha polls suggest an erosion of traditional Marxist votes in favour of others. In this year’s election, the CPM won only one seat from its stronghold of Kerala, none from its erstwhile bastions of West Bengal and Tripura, and two from Tamil Nadu where it is in an alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
PERSONALLY, IT HAS been a disheartening experience for me to see the Left shrink to its lowest levels in its electoral history. Born to a Marxist family in Kannur, northern Kerala, I had begun reading communist classics in Malayalam at a very young age, including, besides The Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s polemical works, autobiographies of the likes of P Sundarayya, the first General Secretary of the CPM, AK Gopalan, EMS Namboodiripad, and so on. I remember listening to “study classes” that my departed father took on a range of subjects for his party comrades that, later I figured out in detail, included Gramsci’s hegemony, Chinese communism, Palmiro Togliatti’s works and on the so- called “Indian revolutionary path”. I was also lucky to interact with many communists who went on to become senior leaders of the CPM in Kerala. My father worked closely with the likes of AK Gopalan, EMS and others. When he passed away aged 41, he was a legislator and a prominent leader of the CPM in Kerala. He had been a member of the Lok Sabha when he was in his early 30s.
After my father died when I was very young, I strove to become a scholar of Marxism just as he was. Though there was pressure to perform well in studies, I still found time to gorge on as many books on communism as I could, both in Malayalam and in English. The names that were familiar from the time include Christopher Lasch, Godavari Parulekar, BT Ranadive, M Basavapunnaiah, P Ramamurthi, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Mikhail Bakunin, Louis Althusser, and so on. I don’t think I ever understood many of their works at that age, but I read a lot about their lives and was determined to be one like them.
Later, when I was packed off to Sainik School in Thiruvananthapuram, I carried with me some books from my father’s library. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels was one of them. What is to Be Done by Lenin was another. Though I never ended up reading it, there was another book with a yellowish cover I longed to read, The April Theses, again, by Lenin. I kept them all inside my trunk box so that they could not be seen by my new classmates and friends in the dormitory. I kept one book inside my cupboard hoping that it was okay to be seen reading it: In the Cause of the People by AK Gopalan, which the great communist leader himself had signed and was addressed to my mother. I had also some editions of ‘Soviet publications’, such as Soviet Land, Soviet Woman, Sputnik, and so on. In school, whenever I got an ‘out pass’, the approval to go out of the school on Sundays, I made it a point to visit Prabhat Book House in the city, looking for books on Marxism. One of the many books that I still remember buying from there is Lenin’s Comrades-in-Arms.
It was around this time that I also started reading anti-Leninist books from my school library. Though I hated them, I devoured them like caviar, and one such was Inside the Soviet Army by Viktor Suvorov, a defector from the former Soviet Union to the UK. It was in that book that I came across terms like dedovshchina (constant bullying of junior conscripts) and what I thought back then were blasphemous remarks on Lenin. Reading Leon Uris like an addict also made things worse. Is there more to the Soviet Union than meets the eye? I was one who was taught not to believe in rumours against the Soviet Union, and yet books by Ernst Nolte (who is a fine commentator on fascism) blew my mind. Mikhail Gorbachev had already introduced perestroika and glasnost to help the Soviet Union cope with an economic crisis. Soon, winds began to buffet faster and led to the fall of the Soviet bloc. To say it was a huge disappointment was an understatement.
Jyoti Basu was offered the post of Prime Minister by a coalition cobbled together by communists, socialists and backed by the Congress. His party shot down the idea saying it would not be part of a Government in which it didn’t have dominance
The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t upset the communist stalwart EMS Namboodiripad as one would have expected. He came up with the proposition that it was the excesses and anti-communist tendencies of the leaders that led to the debacle. The idea, he exhorted, was to focus on India and expand the footprint of the Communist Party through electoral politics. As a young man, I went with the flow and found gratification in small pleasures—poll victories for the Left in India or return of pro-Left parties, either in Latin America or Europe. Deep inside, I began to respect pro-democracy activists who became heroes of former Soviet bloc countries—people like Lech Walesa of Poland. Meanwhile, Indian communists continued to win in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala even as we continued to debate on why communism failed people globally; on Stalinism; on Fidel Castro and Cuba; on China and how it managed to weather the storm (some of us attributed it to the spell of Confucian philosophy); on the benefits of liberal democracy.
IT WAS AROUND this time that we young Leftists began to re-read and learn to unlearn. One of the theories that did the rounds back then was that communism failed because the Communist Party that Lenin created in Soviet Russia resembled the rigid hierarchical and centralising structure of the Catholic Church, and, therefore, was incompatible with the idea of the Soviets, or workers’ councils, a highly decentralised entity. The discussions never seemed to end and most of us began to realise there is no point in fretting about the past. What has happened has happened.
And then 1996 happened.
Jyoti Basu was offered the post of Prime Minister by a coalition cobbled together by communists, socialists and backed by the Congress. His party shot down the idea saying it would not be part of a Government in which it didn’t have dominance. I felt it was a foolish decision approved by a majority of party leaders. They were out of touch with reality. A handful of the old guard, including EMS, Surjeet and Basu backed the idea of joining the Government, but the young leaders put their foot down. Surjeet refused to attend party meetings for a while calling the younger lot—Karat, Yechury, etcetera—Naxalites. The older generation knew only too well that it was smart politicking and not the theories of Karl Marx that helped them gain as much as they did so far. Wherever they were in power in India, communists did work towards enhancing the powers of local bodies, promoting grassroots governance and reducing corruption.
By 1997, I had shifted base to Delhi. There were hopes still. Although it was demoralising to watch top Left leaders in Delhi head for party offices as though they were in a 9-to-5 job. After 2004, when the Left reached its prime, it was a downhill ride. Between them, Karat and Yechury, both opposed to Basu being PM, presided over the decline of the Left over the past decade. Historically, the communists had raised great hopes, especially with the Telangana Rebellion of the late 1940s and the early ’50s, of coming to power over large tracts of India. Communists did very well in Andhra Pradesh in the 1952 elections. In 1957, in Kerala, EMS created history by becoming the third elected communist ruler of a state in the whole world—after San Marino and British Guiana. Among communists, the excitement was contagious, but more than 60 years later, the Left is largely marginalised in India. In a country where there is poverty amidst plenty, communists do have slogans to fall back on and grow fast, yet they seem to be hobbled partly by their own mistakes and partly thanks to the changing political culture of India.
As a former insider and now an outside sympathiser, I feel crestfallen. But then, without great architects, no movement can prosper. Communists didn’t have a Gandhi. Now, they don’t have a religion.