Imperatives of a Left Public Sphere
The suggestion for “reconstruction” implies the existence of a left public sphere that did not fulfil its expected mission. The origin of the public sphere in India goes back to the early 19th century. Educational institutions, debating societies, social organisations, literary clubs established during the colonial rule were institutional bases for this public sphere. The Indian intelligentsia cut its teeth in the portals of these institutions, while debating the ideas of liberalism and principles of democracy. They also accorded the newly emerging middle class the social and political space to envision its future. The social engineering and administrative expansion undertaken by the British facilitated this process.
This public sphere had a dual character. It was the site where the traditional order was critiqued. It was also the arena where colonial domination was challenged. Although these sites functioned under the colonial regime’s control, they provided space for the initial stirrings of political consciousness. A bourgeois public sphere thus came into being in Indian society, which acted as the harbinger of modernity—within the limits set by colonialism.
To the colonial intelligentsia, liberalism appeared as a ray of hope in an atmosphere surcharged with feudal values and obscurantist cultural practices. Liberalism enabled the critique of the traditional order. It also inspired resistance against colonial domination. The intelligentsia was engaged, simultaneously, in highlighting the contradictions engendered by colonialism and in shaping an anti-colonial movement. While the national liberation movement—massive in terms of people’s participation—held out visions of an egalitarian society, in practice it did not go far enough to resolve the caste and class contradictions. Instead it tended to exacerbate the former, since political mobilisation drew upon caste and religious identities. The caste and communal presence in the contemporary public sphere can be traced to this development in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A Left Political Public Sphere
The emergence of the left in the 20th century led to the construction of a qualitatively different public sphere, where transactions were guided by a combination of liberal democratic principles and socialist ideas. This imparted a radical character to the discourse in the public sphere. The near hegemonic role the left intelligentsia exercised in society during the early decades of independent India shows this tendency had some success. The major concern during these years was the manner in which democracy, socialism and secularism could be institutionalised. Although critical of Nehru’s economic policies, the left was an active participant in the public sphere where it upheld the “idea of India,” informed by democracy, secularism and socialism.
But right wing and authoritarian tendencies were also making their appearance in the public sphere. Ideologically opposed to the liberal democratic forces, they did not challenge colonialism; they collaborated with the colonial government, instead. Yet, such tendencies managed to carve out a space for themselves within the public sphere, espousing the notion of religious nationalism.
The character of the public sphere that emerged in post-independence India was a combination of all these tendencies—liberal democratic, left and the communal. They worked within the limits of the Constitution. Those who did not conform to the rules set by the state were denied the rights enjoyed by other citizens. It is to such a situation that some left leaders recently referred to, when they demanded human rights for the “Maoists”—an unhappy appellation for those who believe in armed struggle. There was such denial of human rights in India before as well: during the Emergency when the liberal face of the public sphere took a severe beating. History appears to be repeating itself. Under the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government, the liberal public sphere is facing severe assault.
Left in the Public Sphere
Although politically not very powerful–it has been a decisive force only in three states—the left has had a deep imprint on intellectual discourse in independent India. It had a hegemonic presence in the academic and cultural discourse, particularly in disciplines like history, economics and political science—perhaps also in literature and creative arts.
But in the political domain, the left’s presence has been marginal. A major part of the country is immune to the influence of the political left. Given that an overwhelming majority of people are poor and marginalised, this appears surprising. But its limited influence indicates that the left has not been able to reach out to people to whom its ideology would have been compellingly attractive. In fact, it has made no serious effort in this direction.
The possibility of projecting its radical image at a national level presented itself in 1996, when a hung Parliament led to the left being offered the prime ministership of the country. Accepting this offer—given the political conditions then—could have opened up unprecedented possibilities for the left to increase its influence in the public domain. Since the left was in a minority in the Parliament, there were apprehensions—very legitimate—that accepting the offer would expose the left to pressures of allies. A large number of left intellectuals, however, felt the risk was worth taking and appealed to the left political parties to seize the opportunity. Nevertheless, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the leading force on the left, decided to turn down the offer. Given the many imponderables in coalition politics it was not an easy decision. On hindsight, however, it does not appear to be a wise one. The left did not lose just the prime ministership of the country; it lost an opportunity, perhaps the first and the last, to foreground its programme for the creation of an egalitarian society through the ideological apparatuses of the state, and thus expand its frontier within the “political public sphere.” Even if the left had been voted out of power within six months—quite likely given the correlation of social and political forces at that time—it would have had the opportunity of putting forward the meaning of a political alternative. Moreover, coalition politics was not anathema to the left. Its political advance, both in Bengal and Kerala, was worked through coalition governments. In contrast, the BJP seized the first opportunity to come to power and used it to expand its sphere of influence—which it continues to, even now, by “colonising” institutions one after the other.
That peasants and workers are social bases of left parties, goes without saying. But they are not a pocket borough of the left, at least not any more. With the technological changes and the transformation of the character of capitalism the world of peasants and workers has also undergone substantial transformation. The nature of exploitation has changed, ideological mediations have become more varied and powerful and the aspirations of the working class have soared. Along with the immiserisation of many, certain sections of society have become relatively affluent. The left has not been able to address this new and complex reality and rethink its strategies and tactics, and evolve new forms of mobilisation. An inevitable result is either the decline or stagnation of its cadre base, among the peasants and workers, as well as the decline in the number of its sympathisers. But this decline should not be assessed in terms of numbers alone; it should also be seen in the quality of commitment and participation in left politics.
It is arguable that the phenomenal changes generated by the neo-liberal policies are major reasons for this decline. The new generation, influenced by the glittering externalities of capitalism, is at odds with traditional ways of left ideology and activism. A possible solution, perhaps, is in effecting a shift from “organising” the classes to “mobilising” the masses. Currently the left focuses on organising its cadres for events like hartals, demonstrations and marches. All this may keep the cadres active, but does not help extend the left’s political sphere. That can be achieved only by expanding its social base through innovative programmes and championing popular issues. It may be apt to invoke the old axiom—be present where the people are. A K Gopalan’s observations in his autobiography are insightful. “Playing badminton can also be a revolutionary activity,” he wrote.
The left has been active, both ideologically and politically, for about 100 years. It created a niche—and overcame the hegemony of the Gandhi-led national movement—in the political public sphere by combining anti-colonial struggle with anti-feudal and cultural struggles. It had remarkable success in Malabar, Bengal and Andhra. But the lessons it learnt were not carried to other parts of the country. It is arguable that in all the three areas where the left was able to make a dent, some sort of social revolution had taken place. Maharashtra, though, is an exception, possibly because identity politics pre-empted the left.
A large number of social groups are now trapped in identity politics. The primordial identities of caste and religion are, however, lived realities and have to be respected—not necessarily approved—in order to effect a transformation in their consciousness.
Left the Public Sphere
The left public sphere faces its toughest challenge from the communal forces. These forces have a long-term agenda which they have been pursuing much before independence. By exploiting religious beliefs, obscurantism and superstitions, these forces have moved from the margins to the centre, which has given them the opportunity to control secular cultural organisations and deploy them for the dissemination of their ideology. Their effort is to turn the country into a Hindu nation.
Why has the left, despite its long presence and progressive outlook, not been able to appeal to the imagination of an overwhelming majority of the people? Are the objective conditions not congenial? Or are its strategies and tactics flawed? These are important political questions and different opinions have emerged during the past 60 years, splintering the left into several formations—a major reason for its weakness. It is not within the scope of this article to go into all the reasons. But a couple of issues may be highlighted in order to bring out the problems related to the restructuring of the left political public sphere.
The vision of the left public sphere conveyed through art and literature and practised in politics was one of idealism. It was informed by humanism, rationality and equality. These ideas did not square with traditionally-inherited belief systems. The left was represented as anti-religious, anti-caste and anti-private property. This made it difficult for the left to gain entry into traditional society; it was not able to win the support of a substantial majority of the people. Unable to transgress the limits of a mechanical Marxist approach, the left did not seek an alternative either and try to learn from the success of the Gandhian movement.
A striking example is the question of caste–class relations which all left activists face in their political work in villages. The caste–class relationship was either overlooked or remained a Gordian knot. Even the Naxalites who worked in the villages of Bihar found the power of caste impeding their revolutionary programme. The left has always employed class as the conceptual category to analyse social relations. Rightly so. However, class represented only one side of the reality. In fact, both caste and class are part of the same social reality. Class relations are mediated by not one but several institutions and ideologies. Caste is one among them. The formation of class consciousness is a long process which confronts several roadblocks. Without taking into account the nature and role of these mediations the “concrete analysis of concrete reality” can hardly be undertaken. Inability to do so has adversely affected the expansion of the left public sphere.
Reconstruction of the Left Political Public Sphere
The formation of a left political public sphere would depend upon the hegemony of the left across different classes of society, taking into account their varied and complex social and cultural affiliations. The Indian reality is so intricate that a single yardstick—without qualifications—cannot be employed to interrogate it. For instance, the same conceptual categories cannot be applied to the conditions and relations of production of tribal, Dalit, Sikh and Ezhava peasants. There are ecological differences and peculiarities of land. There are cultural sensibilities and social relations as well. Therefore, it is necessary to be wary of attempts at totalisations which do not account for subtle nuances in some of the conceptual categories and theoretical formulations.
Commonly-used concepts like class and class struggle, the role of religion, the relevance of democratic centralism and other concepts which are central to Marxist political praxis need to be rearticulated in the light of the intellectual and material changes of the past 200 years—and the intellectual and cultural specificities as well.
The character of classes has changed and so has the nature of class struggles. Economic and technological changes have ensured that no class is a homogeneous monolith or class struggle the direct conflict of antagonist classes. Marxist literature all over the world abounds in these distinctions, to the extent that E P Thompson once conceived of class struggle without classes. Yet, the left political practice in India appears to adopt a rather static approach.
The left also needs to interrogate its attitude towards religion. That religion is not mere opiate of the masses is axiomatic, but the manner in which it acts as solace to the people hasundergone several mutations. More than a solace to the poor and the oppressed it is today a handmaiden of the powerful—which, perhaps, it always was. It is now promoted and patronised by the corporate world. Its mode of functioning, organisational ability, social influence and ideological significance have undergone dramatic changes. Religious practices are not controlled from within religion but from without.
Religious beliefs and related superstitious practices are major players in modern life. Modernity, as Habermas has shown, has increased and not decreased religiosity. Caste consciousness and religious beliefs are formidable impediments in the formation of a left public sphere. Addressing these crucial aspects of popular culture assumes paramount importance in the reconstruction of a left political public sphere. Containment or confrontation are not solutions.
The working and relevance of democratic centralism also requires attention in a world in which individual has emerged as the centre of attention. In theory and practice the left is an ardent advocate and defender of democracy—even if its contemporary practice is termed as “bourgeois.” It also upholds democracy as central to socialism. But the democratic centralism it practises gives precedence to “centralism.”
Democratic centralism was conceived by Lenin in the difficult days of post-revolutionary Soviet Union to ensure party unity and discipline, which is understandable and perhaps justifiable. Although democratic centralism theoretically allows enough space for internal debate and discussions within the parties, the natural tendency is to conform and not to question. Are the repeated mistakes of the left a consequence of this inherent weakness of democratic centralism? The element of centralism is likely to undermine democracy based on freedom of speech and opinion. The “critical insiders” would only strengthen the party and not weaken it. The growth of the left in the political public sphere depends upon the quality of open debate it manages to generate among its cadres as well as among the public.
Indian society is undergoing a decisive phase. Liberals have been discredited and the right wing has captured state power. There is no mistaking the fact that authoritarianism has set in. The left has a historic role in preventing the further progress of the right wing forces. But it has not shown any sense of urgency to address this question by “mobilising” its natural constituency of the poor and the marginalised and extending its hegemony to other sections of society.