ONCE upon a time, a man called P.C. Joshi had a dream. Joshi, now a forgotten name except among a handful of aging admirers, was for a long time the general secretary of the Communist Party of India. In 1948, he was hounded out of his own party and worked out of a hideout on Kyd Street in Calcutta. He was driven out because that year the CPI decided that independence was a betrayal, Jawaharlal Nehru no more than ‘a running dog of imperialism’, and India ripe for an armed insurrection. The directive, as was usual, came from Moscow and was ruthlessly implemented in India by B.T. Randive, the new general secretary. Joshi was not only thrown out but was pilloried and slandered, even by young comrades he himself had brought into the party. He was later to be rehabilitated in the CPI but never quite recovered his authority and influence.
Joshi’s dream was that the communists and the Congress working together would be able to build a just and fair society and polity in India. The communists should be part of the national mainstream; otherwise they run the danger of being marginalized and of being cut off from their national roots. The Joshi line, as it came to be called within party circles, advanced the thesis that Nehru should be supported but pressure should be mounted to make reforms in government and in society. The communists were in a position to mount such pressure by joining hands with the ‘progressive’ elements within the Congress and thus strengthening Nehru’s hands. Joshi advocated a national front at the core of which would be Congress-communist unity. The red flag and the tri-colour should fly together as the symbol of India. He was fond of saying that the communists should be the mahouts of the Congress elephant.
One suspects that Joshi, if there is a paradise for communists, is having a good laugh there today. The wheel of history, with an irony that is Clio’s second name, has turned full circle.
It could be said that what Joshi dreamt has come close to coming true in a different time and political context. The left, an umbrella that brings under it communists and non-communists, has sufficient numbers in the Lok Sabha to make possible a Congress-led ministry. The left’s support to the Congress is critical for the survival of the Congress-led ministry. The left is also an important partner of the United Progressive Alliance, which is the name of the coalition in power. Within or without the government, the left is the Congress’ most significant supporter. The spearhead of the left is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a formation within the communist movement in India, which had always steadfastly opposed the Joshi line. That is the nub of the irony.
It is important to underline the domestic and the global context of the Joshi line. It was based, of course, on a particular assessment of the national movement and of the ideological orientation of Nehru. Even more, it was moulded by a degree of optimism and hope about the future. The Congress and politics in general were yet to be completely tainted by greed and scandal. There were people in politics with unimpeachable credentials, and communists were the first to be counted in this list. Globally, the Soviet Union was on the ascendant, as was the ideology of socialism. Stalin’s crimes against humanity were yet to be widely known and the Soviet record against Nazism had deflected attention away from the false trials and purges of the thirties. Even outside the communist movement, there were people around who still believed in socialism and the planned economy. Jawaharlal Nehru was one, and the most relevant one for Joshi and his supporters.
In short, the context was fundamentally different from what prevails now. Globally, socialism is no more than a vanished dream. The socialist experiment in Russia stands at the dock of history for having perpetrated horrors that parallel Nazi atrocities. Only a 21st century Don Quixote believes in the planned economy, and charges at the market economy. Within India, the Congress is no longer the force it was under Nehru. Cynicism, rather than hope, is the prevailing mood. Politics and politicians, including those of the left, no longer command respect.
Today, the left has sufficient numbers in the Lok Sabha to make a difference. This is a luxury that communists in Joshi’s time did not enjoy. But communist rhetoric today is caught in a time warp. It is concerned with issues like stalling the reform process, which is to hark back to the fifties when a planned economy was considered a viable alternative. There are elements of the absurd and the hypocritical in this because in West Bengal, where the communists have been in power for over 25 years, the chief minister is busy wooing foreign business corporations to invest in the state. It is an odd situation that when the left had the inclination it did not have the numbers. Now it has the numbers but refuses to join the government and play a critical role in national life. It is reluctant to assume the responsibility that history has offered to it.
Whether the CPI(M) politburo and central committee realize it or not, the left has a role to play now in Indian politics. The most important item on the political agenda is very clear. The sangh parivar must be kept away permanently from political power and its cultural influence must be eroded. The opportunity to do this has been offered on a platter by the Indian electorate and it cannot be frittered away through petty bickering and bargaining. Both the Congress and the communists need each other because they are the only two political formations that are committed to a secular agenda. To argue now about what will happen in assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal where the left and the Congress are pitted against each other will be akin to seeing the trees and missing the wood.
The challenge before the left is to use the economic reforms and globalization to remove poverty and deprivation. This is the mandate of the common people. In a sense, the left has already betrayed the mandate by shirking responsibility. The left today has the power to make and unmake government policy without any of the responsibilities that should come with power. An English politician made the memorable comment that power without responsibility is the privilege of a prostitute. A bearded German who worked his guts out in the reading room of the British Museum in the late 19th century perhaps deserves a little better from those who swear by him.
The CPI(M) has an antipathy towards the Congress. Indeed, that antipathy is its birthmark. There were other aspects of its making that it has successfully sloughed off, especially after its experience in West Bengal. It has become investor-friendly and pro-capital in the state. It needs now to look at the bigger national picture and abandon its anti-Congressism. It has already taken a step in that direction by deciding that it will support a Congress government. It needs also to partake of the responsibility of leading the country, which it refuses to do. If it does not do so at this important political juncture, when will it ever do so? It cannot keep to itself the privilege of saying no and withdrawing support without having shared the responsibility that comes with power.
The power of numbers that the left enjoys today in the Lok Sabha comes from Kerala and from West Bengal. The bulk of the 61 members of parliament owing allegiance to the left is drawn from these two states. While in Kerala, the left has had its ups and downs in elections, West Bengal since 1977 has become a left citadel where the Left Front, led by the CPI(M) has been in power for 25 years. The anti-incumbency factor – the buzzword of pollsters – is non- existent in West Bengal. This run of success is not difficult to explain.
To my mind, the most important factor in the left’s success – for all practical purposes this is the success of the CPI(M) – is organization. The strength and efficiency of the CPI(M)’s organization is best illustrated by a small but significant comment made by Anil Biswas, the party’s secretary in West Bengal, almost as a throw away line. It was made on the afternoon of 13 May 2001. The results of the assembly polls had started coming in and it was already clear that the Left Front was heading towards another landslide victory.
Biswas said on camera that the CPI(M)’s post-mortem on election results, margins, vote share, losses and so on would begin from the next day even as the triumph was being celebrated on the streets. Many observers say that party workers in every district and village know exactly who votes where. The success of the left, election after election, lends credibility to such an observation. This is not a mean achievement in a state like West Bengal. The CPI(M) does not begin preparations for elections, like most parties, a few months before the elections are due. It begins the work the day after the election results are announced. >From the post-mortem of the results flow decisions and actions which influence the next round of voting. None of its rivals think like this nor do they have the grassroot network to carry out such extensive operations over a long period of time.
One tangible result of this is that on the day that matters, the CPI(M) succeeds in translating loyalty and commitment into votes. The argument that it also keeps away anti-left voters from the booths through violence and intimidation is something of an exaggeration because rigging never substantially alters the results of elections in West Bengal. Without rigging the left would also win but maybe with smaller margins and lesser number of seats.
To this formidable organization is added substantial achievements in the rural sector. These two have made the left invincible in West Bengal. It is the conventional wisdom to point that in the villages, the left front has carried out extensive land reforms providing protection to the sharecroppers and work for the landless at a decent wage. This is a major accomplishment and its importance should in no way be underestimated both for the purposes of garnering votes and for the larger goal of ushering in an era of socio-economic transformation in rural West Bengal. With the land reforms has come a new consciousness whose significance should not be lost because it is intangible and therefore inaccessible to any kind of statistical evaluation. Left rule has produced among the rural poor an awareness that this government will stand by them. It has brought to their lives dignity and izzat. The price tag has been loyalty but this cannot take away from the far-reaching impact of this new consciousness.
The poor of West Bengal can now walk with their heads held high without the fear of a reprimand from the landlord or a caste superior. The poor know that if they have a complaint to lodge against the landlord, the local police station will at least accept the complaint, unless of course the landlord happens to have connections in the local party office. The poor have security, prosperity and dignity; all three nouns should be qualified by the word relative. Before the poor had nothing save oppression, now the oppression has by no means disappeared – West Bengal is by no means a kind of agrarian idyll a la the Narodniks of 19th century Russia – but this has been mediated by gains, material and intangible.
These gains in the agrarian world have created an ambience of rising expectations. A poor peasant’s son is no longer satisfied, as his father was, with cultivating his own plot of land and with selling his labour for a share of the crop. The sons of poor peasants, more often than not, have been through school and even college; their horizons have moved beyond the village to the small towns and even beyond to Calcutta. But this is precisely where the past of the CPI(M) clashes with its present and future. There is nothing in the urban world for the young aspirants from the village. Capital fled from West Bengal because of the policies of the left, because of the CPI(M)’s irresponsible trade unionism, its not so covert promotion of violence and intimidation directed against managers and owners of industrial units. Employment opportunities in industries shrunk as company after company closed down or curtailed operations in the state. There was no new investment.
It did not take the CPI(M) very long to realize the crisis it had brought upon itself and how that crisis threatened its own vote bank. Thus, from around 1996-97, there was a shift in rhetoric and in policy. Yesterday’s class enemy became today’s friend. Indian business houses and multinational corporations were encouraged to invest in West Bengal. There were promises to improve work culture and to reduce strikes and to hold political rallies only on Sundays.
At the forefront of these pro-capital changes was the new chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a man previously known as CPI(M)’s cultural commissar. But as soon as he became chief minister, capital and not culture was at the top of his priorities. He admitted past mistakes and offered full cooperation to investors. It was a new voice and a voice that the industrialists and the middle classes identified with; they heard in the voice the echoes of a new West Bengal struggling to be born. Rural Bengal saw in the changed policy and perspectives, an avenue leading to greater opportunities. No other political party opened up such a vista.
But in many ways the old Adam refuses to die. Nowhere was this more visible than in the decision of the politburo and central committee of the CPI(M) not to join the new government. The decision is a denial of responsibility.
PCJ – as Joshi was fondly known – believed that the undivided CPI could command into its fold the best and the brightest. He thus ‘lit up the lives’ of some, as one of his acolytes once wrote, dedicating a book to him. Of no communist leader today can this be said. This is not a statement on an individual but a sad comment on a movement that has lost its moral authority. It stands perilously close today to losing its political influence as well. Maybe Joshi is not laughing in paradise.