Has the Left lost its relevance?

In the last few decades, the Left has by and large eschewed its agenda of people’s movements and this disconnect has benefitted other regional parties

abhishek-choudhary

Abhishek Choudhary | March 13, 2014



On March 10, The Guardian (UK) published an article by Vijay Prashad on the upcoming general elections in India. Prashad, a well-known Marxist academic and generally an articulate writer, argued that “Federalism holds the key to democracy in India” (the title): that the “old days of a single party ruling the roost are gone”, that the “regional parties are now able to dictate terms for the coalition”.

Prashad puts his 2014 hope in a somewhat imaginary Third Front, which “brings together regional parties” and—and this is very important—the “Left Front, which is often its backbone”.

Unfortunately, for 2014, simple algebra tells us that the Third Front is a rather remote possibility: the numbers, approximately 60, are hardly sufficient to form a government. Prashad puts BJP’s number, from the previous Lok Sabha elections, at 117, comfortably evading any mention of a considerable, if unfortunate, swell in the party’s popularity in the last five years. If pre-poll statistics are anything to go by, the surge is near-double: different statistics have pegged the party’s seat-count at 220.

What I found most disappointing, though, was the way Prashad concluded his article: “Only when the Left and its allies are stronger yet will they be able to chart an alternative direction for India.” This mix of vague nostalgia and a haughty disregard for statistics is characteristic of much of India's Left, who belie the recent electoral debacles in the Left strongholds across the country:  the simple fact that their base in West Bengal and Kerala has been eroding rather exponentially.

In fact, the day before Prashad’s article appeared in The Guardian, the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Kerala broke off its 34-year association with the Left in Kerala and joined the rival, Congress-led United Democratic Front, the ruling party in the state. CPI (M), rather unsurprisingly, called the break-up a betrayal; RSP riposted alleging that CPI (M)’s hypocrisy and arrogance risked a death of the entire Left as a political force.

In the 2011 assembly elections held in West Bengal and Kerala, Left lost both its traditional seats of power: the beneficiaries were TMC and Congress respectively. In Bengal, it was the double-speak and people’s frustration that had accumulated over many decades: while the party opposed neo-liberalism at the centre (and as a matter of principle, of course), it colluded with corporates in forced land-acquisitions in Singur and Nandigram. For a people’s party, corruption and neglect of welfare schemes—especially of Muslims, adivasis and dalits—had to have a boomerang effect.

Mamata Banerjee’s performance is hardly satisfactory; but Left, instead of rectifying its ideological position, and talking about popular issues like price rise, chit fund scams, violence on women, etc. has concentrated its energy on simply discrediting Banerjee’s government.

The attitude only magnifies at the macro level: the Left’s approach to national politics has been, for the most part, defensive. The central government sets its neo-liberal agenda, and the Left makes a vociferous cry. Even in the best of circumstances (such as in the nuclear deal case), the result is a stalemate, never a move towards a progressive, socialist future, as they envisage.

In the last few decades, Left has by and large eschewed its agenda of people’s movements and this disconnect has benefitted other regional parties: in Bihar, for example, Left's loss was RJD's and JD (U)'s gain. But nothing has given the Left a more lethal blow than the arrival of AAP on the scene. While Kejriwal’s party is mired in its own, sometimes self-created, contradictions, it has managed to channelize the rhetoric that was traditionally associated with Left. And while AAP might not deliver Lok Sabha seats immediately, it has managed to create the aura of a national presence (which, in a digital world, can’t be written off), and might expand, at the cost of the Left. 

India, with all its caste and class contradictions, needs a strong, vibrant Left. But given their failure to stick to the basics—commitment to mass movements, transparency in party cadres (and inclusion of Muslims, dalits and minorities), and openness in theory—it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if they slowly get reduced into a nonentity.

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