AROUND THE world, it would seem, the ground is riper than ever before for Left politics. Income inequality—explained succinctly in one of the most scholarly works on economics to be published in recent years, Thomas Piketty’s Capital—is on the rise. In the aftermath of the 2008 slowdown, the trust of the commons with corporate and financial institutions around the world is dwindling—the 15th edition of the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer recorded a drastic fall in people’s trust in businesses across 27 industry sectors. In some developed nations, unemployment seems to be easing—it still is worryingly high—while poor and developing nations have failed to meet the millennium development goals despite the progress some of them have made.
But all this has also led to the capture of the political space by the far-Right—unemployment in the US, the UK and France has been harvested to nourish a politics of xenophobia, fanned furiously by the partisan rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine LePen. In electoral politics, the Left has had to pretty much watch helplessly from the sidelines, except in the case of Greece, where the Greek people, reeling under austerity forced on them by a Germany-led EU and the IMF, elected Syriza, a coalition of moderate and far-Left parties.
In India, too, the Left confronts this curious challenge. Inequality is deepening; the employment scenario threatens to undermine the country’s ‘demographic dividend’; human development indicators in some of the most industrially-developed states are appalling; an agrarian crisis has been unfolding for some years now; and yet, the Left and all forms of leftist politics seem to be running out of favour with the people.
It is this ‘existential crisis’ that the late Praful Bidwai, Marxist in thought till his passing, examined rather brilliantly in the last book he wrote, The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left.
The book explains the present stasis of the Indian Left by dissecting its history thus far, prising apart the critical successes and even more critical failures it has had. Bidwai believed the Left expression germinated with the “middle-of-the-road Indian National Congress” before the many splinters of the original Communist Party of India (CPI)—which today plays second fiddle to its first breakaway, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM—came to be.
With its umbilical link with Soviet socialism (particularly, the Stalin era), Indian communism “remained unacquainted with the theoretical tradition of Western Marxism”. This argument underpins the contention in The Phoenix Moment that the CPI was constrained in framing strategic approaches relevant to India’s social, political, economic and cultural contexts. Doggedly refusing to look into caste issues, remaining fixated instead on ‘class struggle’, and opposing Ambedkar, as per Bidwai’s analysis (and sections that call themselves the New Left), could have cost the Indian Left dear in its early years.
The author—who never joined any of the Left parties, despite his Marxist leanings, because he didn’t find any of them to be “sufficiently undogmatic” or “open to new ideas”—tears into the Leninist principle of ‘democratic centralism’ for stifling any internal criticism, linking it to the present decline of the Indian Left.
Given the unravelling of the Left has been rather severe in its two erstwhile strongholds, Kerala and West Bengal, the four chapters in The Phoenix Moment that discuss this are seminal to understanding the Left’s history and present. To be sure, Bidwai has dwelt upon the remarkable successes the Left has had in implementing land reforms in Kerala and improving the state’s social indices. But he also unhesitatingly criticises the falling of the Left parties into the trap of ‘parliamentarism’, where ideology, and even the fundamental concerns of the ‘proletariat’, became subservient to the goal of winning elections. The criticism—it is a fair one, especially in view of the piecemeal land reforms in West Bengal that gave way to a more neo-liberal approach before eventually leading to a Nandigram or Singur—however, underplays the importance of the fact that in India’s Constitution-guided set-up, it is nearly impossible to effect any policy-change otherwise.
The Phoenix Moment remains convinced that the Left kept scaling down its opposition to the neo-liberal economic consensus that has emerged among nearly all other mainstream political parties, instead of building alternatives in Kerala or West Bengal.
The book also looks at crucial factors, not of Left’s creation, that have led to it being relegated almost to the margins. It explores and builds the argument that caste concerns have been waylaid to become entrenched identity politics, leaving too fragmented a polity for the Left to build a cohesive base. Interestingly, Bidwai has also examined how growing consumerism in Kerala, founded on remittances, has charted a neo-liberal turn for the state’s polity.
With the Kerala and West Bengal state assembly elections due later this year, The Phoenix Moment presents a rare opportunity for the Indian party and non-party Left—that of initiating a course correction guided by the voice of a true comrade.