A wiser, though counter-intuitive, strategy would be to present the BJP with two separate fronts
It’s hardly a week since the nation was subjected to a flurry of gleeful obituaries by self-proclaimed liberals eager to perform the last rites for the Left in India. What was that metaphor again — about the sunset being red, and the sunrise being saffron?
Well, last weekend, 30,000 farmers in Maharashtra marched from sunrise to sunset for days on end with a singular objective — to brandish their red flags in India’s commercial capital and demand their rights from a ruling elite that has shown scant regard for the people who produce the contents of their refrigerators.
So, isn’t the Left about to die? Wasn’t the defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), in the recent Tripura polls a body blow to the Left? What if it loses power in Kerala, too, in the next Assembly election? As per the currently popular political wisdom, the Left is on life support and its survival depends on its answer to an old dilemma: Should it ally with the Congress or not?
Of course, the loss of the CPI(M) in Tripura was a major setback. It would be delusional to believe otherwise. But it would be tragic if the loss becomes an excuse for it to ally with the Congress.
Two arguments are advanced in favour of such an alliance: the Left’s increasing marginalisation, which has rendered it too weak to mount an effective electoral campaign on its own; and the need for all the secular parties to join hands to prevent socially divisive Hindutva forces from returning to power in 2019.
Both may have merit from a short-term electoral perspective. Over the long-term, however, allying with the Congress could be a strategic blunder that would not only shrink the already dwindling space for progressive politics but also strengthen the purveyors of ultra-nationalist hate politics.
Learning from the past
The CPI(M) doesn’t need ground-breaking theorisation to see what lies ahead. It only needs to consider the history of its counterparts elsewhere. The largest communist party in post-war Western Europe, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) polled 34.4% of the votes in the national elections of 1976. It then made a ‘historic compromise’ to ally with the then Italian equivalent of India’s Congress party, the centrist Christian Democracy (DC), ostensibly to use its mandate to advance a Left-wing agenda.
But during the alliance, it was the Communists who shifted rightward. The secular, progressive PCI found itself back-pedalling on issues such as divorce and abortion, so as not to upset the DC’s Catholic middle class voters. Italy’s parliamentary Left never recovered from this alliance.
Second, more than the Left needing the Congress, it is the Congress that needs the Left. The Congress has always accommodated both leftist and right-wing factions. Its political character is a reflection of whichever faction happens to be dominant at a given point in time.
The most progressive phases of the Congress — especially under Jawaharlal Nehru, and the first eight years of United Progressive Alliance rule, when it passed a slew of pro-people laws — would not have happened without an ideologically committed Left within and outside the Parliament.
Without an influential Left to keep up the pressure, the Congress would simply teeter rightward — not just economically but also socially. It will lose whatever progressive potential it holds at present, and collapse into a pale version of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
That’s what had happened to the Congress in Gujarat, until its progressive tendencies came to life last year following an understanding with the likes of Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor.
These men were essentially articulating the interests of the Left’s core social base: landless Dalits, jobless working classes, marginalised farmers. The redistributive politics of the movements they led share a natural affinity with the Left. But given the Left’s near absence in Gujarat, they went along with the Congress, despite the latter’s patchy track record in protecting the interests of these groups.
Such political malleability is a characteristic not just of the Congress but of liberalism itself, which the Congress claims to uphold.
In democracies the world over, liberal politics could flourish only until the Left was hegemonic in the social sphere, and this was a hegemony constructed on the back of the labour movement’s victories over capital in the early 20th century. The generous welfare state that defines the West’s advanced capitalist economies is a gift not of liberalism but of the Left. This welfarism began to wither shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Left went into a shell globally, leaving the liberals free to peddle neo-liberal austerity as the panacea for every developmental problem.
Need for an authentic Left
There is also a direct correlation between the decline of the Left and the rise of right-wing hate politics. From Nazi Europe to contemporary Greece and Germany, history has proven time and again that it is not the liberals who are the staunchest defenders of democratic values, and take on neo-fascist elements on the streets but groups affiliated with the Left. We have seen this in India too, from JNU to Kerala.
The reason is simple: liberalism doesn’t have the theoretical firepower to map, let alone articulate, the organic link between big capital and right-wing nationalism (or fascism), and between working class deprivation and the lure of authoritarian populism. On the contrary, liberalism believes that problems such as caste oppression and sectarianism can be resolved through free market therapy and homoeopathic consumerism.
This is why the Hindutva brigade reserves its worst animus for the Left and not the liberals. As for India’s Left parties, it’s been clear for some time what they need to do: go out on the streets and lend their resources and organisational skill to the multitude of people’s movements that have sprouted across the country: from farmers’ mobilisations to teachers agitations, student unrest, Dalit movements, and Adivasi struggles for land rights, among others.
The successful farmer’s march organised by the CPI(M)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha has shown what the Left can achieve if it sets aside its electoral anxieties and gets down to the task of political mobilisation. As the rally entered India’s financial capital last Sunday, the non-Left and even ‘anti-Left’ Opposition parties were jumping into the ‘sea of red’, with the Congress, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, and even the Shiv Sena proclaiming their support.
In the final analysis, rather than the Congress and the Left coming together to form a single electoral block — a choice between two options also makes it easier to polarise the electorate — a more sagacious though counter-intuitive strategy would be to present the BJP with two fronts, the Left and the Centre. It has the added merit of pinning the BJP to its actual locus in the socio-cultural matrix — which is at the extreme Right of the political spectrum.
This also makes it more difficult for a Hindutva party, no matter how electorally dominant, to encroach on the centrist space, from where it could eventually push the Left out altogether. The Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by-election results are a timely reminder that even majoritarian politics is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
As for the Congress, it is a hand that can paint with any colour. But without an independent Left to bring out the red, as the brave farmers did in Mumbai, it’s only a matter of time before the whole palette is reduced to shades of saffron.