Left must exit, stage left (says “real India”)

The Left in India has played many parts in the (political) play, sometimes a lion, never a lamb. It essentially slowed down the march of the Right. Even today the Right is missing in Kerala and Bengal, two states which have proud Hindu/Hindutva traditions. Shankar Acharya, the super-man who restored Hinduism to its original glory through the length and breadth of India was from Kerala. Vivekananda was from Bengal. The founder of Jana Sangh was Shyama Prasad Mukherjee of Bengal. But it will be a long, long time before the right is ascendant here (if ever).`And the Left gets credit for this extended vaccination program.

One may say that this is the key difference between India and Pakistan, where the Leftists could not get a strong enough foot-hold (there was a stronger faction in the East – Bangladesh – which faced the fury of the Army in 1971).

Strangely enough the Left also stopped the Far Left in its tracks. In the 1960-1970s when Bengal was being torn apart by violence, the Left fought off the Naxalites in collaboration with the infamous Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress. (Ray would be later deputed to troubled Punjab and he teamed up with KPS Singh Gill to stop the Khalistani movement in its tracks). 

Even more strange was the action of the CPI (Communist Party of India, not to be confused with its evil twin, the CPIM) during the dark days of the Emergency. The Communists aligned with Mrs Gandhi, supposedly with the backing of Moscow.

Hartosh Singh Bal (in a write-up before the election results was announced) looks at the reason(s) why the Left has essentially faded from the Indian scene, when it was dominant even a decade ago (and occupied the principal king-maker role in the area of coalitions, even to the extent of co-supporting govts with the aid of the BJP).

IT WAS NOT THE FIRST TIME that Mamata Banerjee was aiming to disrupt the plans of the
Left, but by the time of her 6 March interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now,
the third front that the Left parties had been working assiduously to cobble
together since June 2013 had already displayed enough evidence of falling apart
without any help from her. 

While the seat-sharing agreement with Jayalalithaa’s
All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had come apart at the last minute, Naveen
Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Orissa had paid no heed to the possibility of an
alliance, and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar had agreed to a
tie-up only with the Communist Party of India, snubbing the principal Left
party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The failure of the Left parties—the
CPI(M), the CPI, the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist
Party—to partner with these regional leaders was made even more humiliating by
the fact that many of them had supported the BJP in the past.

Jayalalithaa, in
particular, shares a strong rapport with the party’s prime ministerial
candidate, Narendra Modi. Given that the regional parties could end up
supporting the BJP again after the election, the Left was in effect willing to
run the risk that its votes could eventually shore up Modi. 

But despite this
climbdown, most regional figures had come to the conclusion that, for the
present, what mattered was maximising their share of seats in parliament, and
that there was no need to oblige the Left, which is no longer in a position to
exert the kind of influence it once did in any alliance that involved the

Under these circumstances, soon after Mamata chose to tell Goswami
that she was willing to support Jayalalithaa as prime minister, Jayalalithaa
reciprocated with a phone call, opening up the possibility that if the
post-election scenario permits, a fourth front without the Left may have more
chances of taking shape than the third front being shaped by the Left.

For the Left this is as bad as it
gets—worse, even, than 2009, when the third front it had espoused alongside
Mayawati had been marginalised. In contrast, in 2004, the Left parties had
stitched together a series of tactical alliances that not only ensured the unexpected
defeat of the Vajpayee-led NDA, but also made them key players in the
subsequent UPA-I government. 

While a Marxist would undoubtedly claim that the
contrasting scenarios were but the product of a difference in material
conditions (if Mamata Banerjee can be so termed) it is difficult to avoid
examining the role of the respective individuals guiding the Left under these
different circumstances—Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Prakash Karat.

The Left’s 2004 success in stitching
together a workable alliance owed much to Surjeet, the then general secretary
of the CPI(M). One of the few communist leaders of significance from north of
the Vindhyas, Surjeet also had a personal rapport with almost every important
political leader outside the Hindu Right. The two failures, however, took place
under the guidance of Prakash Karat, a Marxist theoretician with little
experience of electoral politics, who does not even enjoy the goodwill of all
his colleagues within the CPI(M) politburo.

Writing about Surjeet in the weekly Mainstream
shortly after his death in 2008, his protégé Sitaram Yechury, who has always
harboured ambitions of becoming the party’s general secretary, chose to end a
piece, titled with some deliberation as ‘Comrade Surjeet—the True Marxist,’

the Deoli concentration camp in the 1930s, Surjeet was there along with other
legendary Communist figures like B.T. Ranadive, Dr G. Adhikari and P.C. Joshi.
To keep themselves amused, they would take bets with each other. Surjeet
boasted that he could consume a ser of ghee—a thought, which the others baulked
at—the ghee was somehow smuggled in and Surjeet consumed it in one go, only to
have the other three stay awake sitting by his side the whole night fearing
that he would now meet his end.

woke up in the morning, and with his lota went into the khet (field) and
returned to tell his comrades, that “urban Communists will have to work very
hard to understand real India”—a lesson that remains relevant even today.

Facetious though the anecdote may
seem, words are weighed with great care within the CPI(M). Yechury may have
included himself among the urban communists, but it was not lost on anyone
within the party who the actual target of this veiled barb was.

This indirect criticism of Surjeet’s
successor has considerable merit. The handover of power in the CPI(M) from
Surjeet to Karat in 2005 was not just a transfer of power across generations,
but also across attitudes. Karat enjoyed the support of the vast mass of the
cadre in the CPI(M), a party that has always emphasised adherence to Marxist
doctrine. But as subsequent events have shown, this doctrinaire approach is out
of step with the requirements of electoral politics, which had shaped Surjeet’s

Surjeet was largely able to force
the party in directions not amenable to its own cadre because he was among the
nine “navratanas” of the CPI(M), who formed the party’s politburo after
a split from the CPI in 1964. His entry into active politics dated back to
1930, when he joined Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha—which even then
required that its members not have anything to do with communal bodies, or
parties which disseminated communal ideas—and took part in the independence
movement. He subsequently fought and won two elections for the Punjab Assembly. 
By the time Indian politics began to fracture in the late 1980s, necessitating
the formation of coalitions and alliances, Surjeet had the stature of an elder
statesman both within the party and outside it. His worldview had been shaped
by the partition of Punjab, and he abhorred communal politics—whether of a
minority, such as the kind preached by the radical Sikh leader Bhindranwale, or
of a majority, as espoused by the BJP. In national politics, as far as he was
concerned, keeping the BJP out of power was the Left’s main objective.

In contrast, Karat was a
theoretician, a student of the Marxist academic Victor Kiernan in Edinburgh. He
returned to India in 1970 to join the party, where he became closely associated
with another “navaratna,” the then general secretary of the party P
Sundaraiyya, who resigned from his post in 1975 because of the CPI(M)’s
“revisionist” tendencies. Sundaraiyya was forced to go underground after the
CPI(M) split from the CPI in 1964, and then again in 1975 after the imposition
of the Emergency.

Tasked with setting up the party’s
Delhi unit in the early 1970s, Karat participated in student politics while
studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University, before being elected to the CPI(M)’s
Central Committee in 1985, and then to its politburo in 1992. These roles
confined him to working within the party, and he was mostly uninvolved with the
larger politics of the country till he took over from Surjeet in 2005. 
He had
inherited Sundaraiyya’s view that the party needed to maintain an equidistance
from the BJP and the Congress. This view had led him, in 1996, into marshalling
the party’s young guard to block Jyoti Basu’s ascension to prime ministership
when a coalition government came to power with outside support from the
Congress. First HD Deve Gowda and then IK Gujral took over as prime minister
for brief periods, before the BJP came to power in 1997.

Perhaps it is only the experience of
UPA-I that allows us to see what was lost in 1995 from the Left’s point of
view. In 2004, with Surjeet still in charge, while the CPI(M) and, to a lesser
extent, the CPI were considerably strengthened by strong showings in their home
turfs of West Bengal and Kerala, they also made a number of tactical alliances
with regional parties such as the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which added to their tally
of seats. The influence of the resulting Left Front on the UPA government was
visible in a number of ways, including the passing of the legislation that
resulted in the NREGA.

As in 1995, Karat did not pay much
heed to the practical necessities of politics after he took over as general
secretary of the CPI(M) in 2005. By the time the Left’s alliance with the
Congress broke down in 2008, over the Indo–American nuclear deal, personal
relations between Karat and the UPA leadership had deteriorated to the extent
that their only communication was taking place through newspaper interviews—a
situation that would have been inconceivable when Surjeet was in charge.
Equally inconceivable would have been the fact that the Left was eventually
marginalised because Mulayam Singh Yadav came to the rescue of UPA-I, something
he would have never done if Surjeet was in command, given their personal

Karat did not see the breakdown of
the alliance as a setback. For the 2009 elections the Left managed to stitch
together another alliance, which included Mayawati. This alliance seemed
certain of being an influential factor in any government that would be formed,
but the Left had not taken into account Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Her party won 19 seats and, in alliance with the Congress, was able to oust the
CPI(M) from West Bengal in the ensuing assembly polls in 2011.

Not only did the electoral defeat
leave Karat with no say in UPA-II, it also saddled him with fresh problems
within the party. Faced with economic challenges within the state, the Bengal
unit of the CPI(M), under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had in the mid 2000s already
adopted an industrial policy that was far more pro-market than had ever been
envisaged before by the party. 
While Karat and the Left’s hardline elements,
which hail largely from Kerala, blamed those policies for the defeat, the
Bengal unit took the line that the doctrinaire stand over the nuclear deal had
pushed the Congress into an alliance with Mamata, which eventually led to the
Left’s defeat in the state. Unlike Surjeet, Karat was seen as an interested
party in this war, given his support within the Kerala unit. As a result of
this internal strife, the CPI(M) increasingly resembles two regional parties
with very different economic visions, held together by a central authority that
is getting weaker.

In this climate, keen to improve the
electoral tally of the Left parties, which together won 24 seats in 2009, the
CPI(M) and the CPI had sought state-specific alliances with several regional
parties. All of these alliances have come undone. In Tamil Nadu the Left asked
the AIADMK for two seats each for the CPI(M) and the CPI, a comedown from the
three each offered to them by the DMK in 2004. But given that there was little
the Left was bringing to the table, Jayalalithaa, much like Naveen Patnaik in
Orissa and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, seems to have calculated that the best
strategy for each party in the forthcoming elections is to fight for seats
independently and await the poll results, which could throw up any number of

Now, forced to fight these elections
on its own, the Left faces another unexpected challenge. In past elections, it
regularly picked up a number of isolated seats outside Kerala and West Bengal
through the very sort of tactical alliances that have now fallen through. In
these other states, the rise of the AAP provides an alternative choice for many
voters who desire a liberal, left-of-centre option. Unclear though the AAP’s
stance is on so many issues of concern to such voters, the party at least
brings with it new hope and the prospect of change.

Under such circumstances, many in
the CPI(M) expect that a debacle in the forthcoming polls, which seems
increasingly likely now, will pave the way for the party to elect a new general
secretary at its next congress, due in 2015. But the end of Karat’s term does
not mean his hold over the party will come to an end—in all likelihood his
successor will be someone who meets with his approval. 
Though they are much
weakened, the conditions that brought Karat to the fore still exist, given that
the Kerala unit still wields more support within the organisation than the West
Bengal unit. In some ways the very strength of doctrine that keeps the
organisation together is largely responsible for its decreasing electoral
relevance. As a result, if the party chooses another urban, doctrinaire leader
in the mould of Karat to be its next general secretary, as seems likely, there
will be no one happier than the BJP, which would then have truly put the ghost
of comrade Surjeet—and others like him who understood the “real India”—behind
Brown Pundits