My first exposure to the Indian Left was the cricketing equivalent of a first ball duck. As a journalism student in 1975, I lost a ten-rupee bet with the lone comrade, in fact, a near-Naxal, on whether EMS Namboodiripad was dead or alive. I obviously thought he was dead.
Much later, while doing my first story out of Kerala (with the dada journalist Ramesh Menon there), on the Left government’s literacy programme, I finally came face-to-face with EMS, then general secretary of the CPI(M). I told him about the lost bet. He offered his hand to me, pointing to his wrist. “Why don’t you check my pulse,” he said, deadpan, “maybe you were right and should get that money back.” There was much laughter.
The reason I was so ignorant on the Left even as a journalism student is partly because in small-town schools and colleges of Punjab and later Haryana, there wasn’t much politics. There were hardly any unions and none of the Left, though the odd teacher would like to be addressed as comrade so-and-so.
I learned about the Indian political Left, therefore, on the job, as a journalist. I also grew to be a tough critic of the Left, especially of its economic ideology, and socio-political hypocrisy. How could an ideology that draws its power from authoritarianism so conveniently hyphenate itself with ‘democratic’, as in ‘Left and democratic’? Or worse, Left-liberal? And how could a leadership mostly controlled by upper-caste bhadralok (educated overseas or in the privileged Indian institutions) constantly talk of equality and weaker sections?
There was never a juncture through these decades when I found myself in agreement with the Left’s policies. I resented also the intellectual and philosophical arrogance — that if you were not with us, you were an immoral bootlicker of the capitalists. The epithet neo-liberal came much later. Or maybe there was one.
When the third, the bloodiest and the last round of terrorism was on in Punjab, between 1989 and 1993, the only political force, which still had workers willing and motivated to stay back, fight and sacrifice their lives in villages in border districts that militants claimed were ‘liberated,’ were of the communist parties. The police had given them arms, in one case we recorded, even an LMG, which the young woman comrade had set up on the roof-top to protect her home. Several of her family members had been killed.
Barring that phase in one state, I found nothing to cheer about the Left. I chafed when CPI’s AB Bardhan made his infamous ‘bhaad mein jaye disinvestment’ statement after the Vajpayee government lost unexpectedly in 2004. I cheered when Manmohan Singh won his vote of confidence over the nuclear deal, despite the Left joining hands with forces it would’ve held in disdain as communal, casteist and reactionary, including the BJP. And subsequently when Mamata Banerjee destroyed them in West Bengal. It was evident then, that the story of the Indian political Left was over, and the militant Left, in east-central India, was headed inevitably that way.
The one good thing I’d say about them is, the Left in India made the most accessible, open and big-hearted and affectionate leaders in a personal sense. From EMS to Harkishan Singh Surjeet and now on to Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, through the Bengal pantheon. Manik Sarkar is one of our most decent contemporary public figures. But that doesn’t affect my low view of their politics.
I am not, therefore, someone you would expect to protest the destruction of one Lenin statue. That I do, is for different and obvious reasons. Everybody in India has the right to choose their Gods and nobody has the right to desecrate anybody’s deities.
In the late Eighties, the Soviet Union was heading for collapse, its war in Afghanistan was lost, Gorbachev had brought in perestroika and glasnost. Deng was opening up China. I came to Calcutta, working on a detailed piece on India’s unchanging Left. Saroj Mukherjee, then the CPM’s state secretary, sat in his headquarters under giant portraits of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx.
“Gorbachev and Deng are changing, sir, why aren’t you changing?” I asked the obvious question. “Because my communism is purer than that of Deng and Gorbachev,” said the strongman, arms raised, with the fullest conviction.
In just about two years, I was in Moscow, watching the Soviet Union unravel, with the republics breaking away, in Bucharest as tanks still stood in the streets but with tulips in their cannons and angry people in scores came to where Ceausescu had been killed: to curse and spit.
A few weeks earlier, an Indian Left delegation had returned from the Romanian Communist Party’s National Congress, and some of its members had written an article in The Pioneer calling all news of Ceausescu’s brutalities and failing regime as Western propaganda. The evidence they cited: when the dictator finished his speech, the applause was deafening and wouldn’t stop for hours. Nobody asked: Would anybody dare to stop?
Exactly eight months later that year, I was back in Moscow, watching the busts and idols of communist icons pulled out with the Soviet equivalent of today’s JCBs. Very few — barring some really old World War-II veterans — showed regret. It was good riddance. If the ideology was gone, so should the images of tyrants who built their brutal dictatorships on it.
Politically, in its 34-year rule, the Left Front destroyed Bengal’s economy. It professed democracy and liberalism but built an army of thugs and extortionists that didn’t allow any opposition to survive. Kerala had a pan-party socialist temper, Left and Congress alternated and some balance was maintained, although not much survived by way of industry. In the rest of the country, the Left parties disappeared: from Punjab to Maharashtra to Bihar and even Assam. The 59 seats in the 2004 elections gave them a taste of national power, if vicariously. They blew it.
Since then, their political power is downhill. But here lies the rub: while they have terminally declined as a national political force, in one area, their victory has been total, pan-national and, it seems today, permanent. It is the imprint they have made on India’s economic thought and political economy. Even in today’s bitterly polarised politics, if there is one thing, not just BJP and Congress, but all other parties agree, it is that socialist economics and povertarian politics is the only way to survive.
The Left is dying, its icons are being JCB-ed, but its economic ideology rules, unchallenged. Narendra Modi is its newest standard-bearer and most powerful such since Indira Gandhi.
Reporters are derided for their ‘as my taxi driver told me’ stories. In Prague, where communism unravelled under Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution, your driver could be an out of work computer engineer in a nuclear lab. As was one of mine.
The conversation was centred, inevitably, on excesses and failures of communism. He had many questions on how and why socialism was still so popular in India, and communists were often elected in important states.
Then he gave his diagnosis: your socialism was different from ours. Ours took away political and economic freedom while yours left your political freedoms intact. When these were taken away during the Emergency, you fought to win these back. But since you never tasted economic freedoms, you can’t realise what socialism has lost you. And you never fought to get these back.
He was right. We are now a deeply fake socialist political economy. It is the only, truly national ideology. One party is celebrating its destruction of a Left fortress and in the heady moment, some of its workers demolished one Lenin statue. Little do they know, the last laugh is still with the tyrant they so hate. Lenin died in 1924, his country disowned his philosophy in 1990. In India, it lives on unchallenged.