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Indian Communists Lose Marx, and Hope

NEW DELHI, Apr 14 2012 (IPS) - While India’s largest left outfit, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), was licking its electoral wounds, a newly-elected regime in West Bengal was busy chopping chapters on Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution out of high school syllabi, in celebration of breaking CPI-M’s 34-year stronghold over the state.

The axing of Marx and Engels on Apr. 6 was a highly symbolic gesture in a state that had hitherto been the last standing citadel of mainstream communism in India and signaled the rise of the ragtag Trinamool Congress, now in alliance with the ruling Congress party of India, whose leader, Mamata Banerjee, is desperately trying to uproot a decades-old communist legacy in the eastern state.

The CPI-M’s decline has been swift. Its unpopular decision to forcibly appropriate 1000 acres of farmland on behalf of the motor industry in 2006 led to the communists’ defeat at the polls in May 2011, where they secured just 61 of 294 seats, down from 235 seats in 2006.

The Left Front in India still holds an enclave of influence in a small northeastern state called Tripura, but losses in its showpiece West Bengal, a state of 90 million people, as well as in Kerala, have been colossal.

So when CPI-M leaders met in Kerala’s Kozhikode from Apr. 4-9 for the 20th Party Congress, everyone expected a public declaration of a ‘roadmap’ to regain lost ground and identify new areas of support besides Kerala and West Bengal.

No visible ‘roadmap’

The biggest question on the table was: can communists reinvent themselves in the Indian context after the electoral debacle of the 2011 assembly elections?

Experts believe that the communists still have a big role to play in India, if they can leverage on mass opposition to globalisation and general dissatisfaction with the ruling powers.

However, though the party came out with reports that were self-critical, analysts say the communists only paid lip service to reinventing themselves at the brainstorming session.

No concrete roadmap was visible, they say.

CPI-M’s top decision making Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said the party will toe the same Leninist line, but adapt policies to address India’s specific needs.

“It is not a copy of (the) Chinese or Russian path. We have analysed the trends in socialist countries like China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and South Africa. We are learning from their experiences so that we can implement the good aspects in accordance with the situation here,” he said.

The congress also adopted a political resolution to forge a new Left democratic alternative to the ‘neoliberal’ policies of the ruling Congress party in New Delhi and the ‘communal’ agenda pursued by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two forces that have intermittently ruled India throughout the past two decades.

But many believe these were empty promises, unsubstantiated by specific action plans or targeted policies.

Addressing the needs of the voter base

Monobina Gupta, a renowned journalist, said that even if the Left refuses to accept the globalisation model, they do not have to keep looking back to the Socialist model either.

“There (is) no movement forward. There is only talk about giving new directions but it is couched in the same (old) language and it is superficial,” she said.

The congress did not discuss issues close to the heart of CPI-M’s constituency, such as the plummeting standard of education and paltry healthcare, nor the root causes of discontent with the party, such as its policing of communities, interference in family life and land disputes, and its unilateral decisions on industrialisation at the expense of the peasantry.

According to Kolkata-based political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury, the only positive outcome of the congress was a sign of maturation, “a semblance of an independent line emerg(ing) out of a colonised mindset”, he said, referring to CPI-M’s hitherto blind following of the Russian and Chinese models.

But the Congress neither highlighted issues like caste, prevalent in northern states where the Left has no presence, nor of tribal oppression and rights, an issue championed by the barrels of Maoist guns, he added.

Failure to address these burning concerns partially explains why, over the past three decades, communists have only been able to consolidate themselves in pockets like West Bengal, Tripura or Kerala where caste politics do not dominate the political scene and where liberal ideas already have deep roots.

The party’s patron, former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the man responsible for wresting farmland from peasants on behalf of the industrial titan Tata Motors, was conspicuously absent at the congress, citing health reasons.

According to an editorial entitled ‘The Man Who Stays Away’, which appeared in the Kolkata-based Telegraph, Bhattacharjee’s decision to stay away sent a strong message to central leaders based in New Delhi who “call the shots using the alibi of democratic centralism.”

Bhattacharjee has also openly criticised the “unpragmatic” decisions of central leaders like Prakash Karat.

Yet the congress failed to apologise for interference “by armchair theoreticians” like Karat in the work of mass-based leaders; nor did they present “new faces that carry no previous baggage,” said Basu Roy Chowdhury.

“Leaders like Karat (who got a third term as general secretary) or Sitaram Yechury have never been (involved in electoral) politics outside of University or college campuses,” he added.

CPI-M’s leaders in Bengal blame losses in the eastern state on Karat’s policies. For instance, his decision to withdraw support for the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2008, over an India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, brought the Congress party and its breakaway but dominant faction, the Trinamool Congress, together in a victorious alliance at the polls.

However, at the congress last week, CPI-M endorsed the 2008 decision to withdraw support for the UPA, thus missing a chance to truly reflect and re-group before moving forward.

“West Bengal is a unique case of surviving 34 years in power by winning elections,” said Gupta. “That model, too, is very flawed, though (it) started initially with (positive) initiatives like land reforms”, famously called Operation Barga, in which the rights of poor sharecroppers to own the land they tilled was protected.

In the end however, the communists proved completely incapable of loosening their stranglehold over social functions and were unable to democratise their approach, she added.

“They took over the cultural space and the political space. (There was) daily intimidation and a politics of retribution prevailed along with the arrogance of power,” Gupta said.

In the absence of a solid roadmap that carves a new path through India’s distinct social, economic and political terrain, and a projection of new leaders who can bring fresh ideas and vision to the group, talks about reinventing the party will remain a shallow promise.

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