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Manoranjan Mohanty: Review of Praful Bidwai’s book The Phoenix Moment

by Manoranjan Mohanty, 13 November 2016

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[ Published earlier in Social Change - September 2016 ]

Praful Bidwai, The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left, New Delhi, HarperCollins Publishers India,2015,586 pp.,Rs 599,P-ISBN:978-93-5177-516-4, Bibliography, Index, paperback.

How would Praful Bidwai, so anxious to see the Indian left to reinvent itself as the harbinger of a new egalitarian society in India have reacted to the outcome of the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala? Four chapters of this book, which was in press at the time of his untimely death in June 2015, are devoted to the assessment of the left-led government and politics in these two states. The repetition of the poor performance of the Left Front in West Bengal, this time with an electoral understanding with the Congress and further decline in the number of seats of CPI-M from 40 to 26, with significantly increased strength of Mamata’s TMC from 184 to 211, would not have surprised him. In Kerala the return of the LDF to power was not unexpected either as had been the pattern during the past three decades. In fact, the CPI-M-led LDF had only marginally lost to Congress-led UDF in 2011 and this time significantly increased its tally from 68 to 91. In Assam and Tamil Nadu the left parties continued to play a marginal role witnessing the impressive debut of a BJP government in the northeast and Jayalalitha retaining power in Tamil Nadu. These elections were a good testing point of the nature of the “historic crossroads- a make-or-break moment” (p.43) or the Phoenix Moment for the Indian Left- that Bidwai deals with in this book.

The 2014 national elections and the 2016 Assembly elections results represented a much wider phenomenon that Bidwai calls the ‘state of atrophy’ of the Left. This was the outcome of the Left’s “ideological ossification, failure to evolve programmatic perspectives and political mobilization strategies appropriate to the Indian conditions, of its outmoded ‘vanguardist’ notions of leadership, and its less-than-democratic organizational practices.” ( p.43) Unless the Left parties re-examine their political line and strategy they were likely to be further marginalised despite their major contributions to the anti-colonial struggle and building of the democratic polity since Independence. Bidwai believes that the Left can take up the challenge and emerge again as a vibrant force in society and politics. Hence the key issues raised by this magnum opus of Praful Bidwai, the seasoned writer, the famed journalist and left intellectual stare at the face of everyone interested in seeing a democratic, secular and socialist future of India at this particular moment.

The key issues are first, confronting the daunting challenge of the unacceptable socio-political conditions of the unorganised workers, poor and landless peasants, the dalits, adivasis and women, second, the rising inequality among groups and regions, third, rise of communalism and the challenge coming from the use of state apparatus, cultural and social arena to promote Hindutva agenda, fourth, the environmental challenge and finally, the hegemonic pressures of capitalist globalisation on freedom of nations and communities. On all these issues, according to Bidwai, the Left was the only political force which could comprehend the nature and magnitude of the challenges. But in practice it had failed to play its role as the leading force to galvanise Indian people to confront these challenges.

Bidwai goes into the history of the communist movement from the days of the CPI’s formation in 1925 and discusses the main controversies involving the role the CPI played during the freedom struggle and the World War II. He records how the CPI cadres played a significant role in the anti-British campaigns during the Quit India Movement contrary to the impression spread by the anti-communist forces. He analyses the policies and programmes of the CPI before the split in 1964 and the diverse role played by CPI and CPI-M during the Emergency. During the post-1977 period they worked together and emerged as a major political force not only in West Bengal and Kerala, but also in other areas. The central role played by CPI-M during the period of non-Congress and non-BJP government is discussed at great length as that is critical to his main argument on how the left should handle governmental responsibility in a parliamentary democracy. Besides the detailed analysis of the working of the West Bengal and Kerala cases, there is his most important contribution in the last three chapters on how he thought the left should evolve a new strategy to incorporate what he calls the ‘social left’ or the issues raised by the many social movements of the dalits, women, the environmental campaigns, anti-displacement movements, anti-nuclear movements and autonomy movements where the left parties had so far played a marginal role. This composite formulation may be called the PB (Praful Bidwai) thesis on the Indian left movement.

The PB thesis

Praful Bidwai’s main critique of the Indian Left is its inability to creatively apply Marxism to Indian conditions. No doubt, many other writers have pointed this out earlier. But PB’s discussion is based on solid theoretical arguments and concrete suggestions from the historical experiences of contemporary India. His contribution lies in working out a theoretical framework with principles to formulate strategy and action programmes. This is therefore the most powerful argument from a sympathetic intellectual urging the Left to ‘reinvent’ itself. Coming from one who had been active in the left movement all his life from the Magowa Group and Shramik Sanghatana in the 1970s onwards, though not a member of any communist party, with his vast experience as a close observer of the Indian political process, a much sought after participant in many events of people’s movements, especially over human rights, peace and environmental issues and a writer and columnist of repute for over four decades, the thesis needs to be taken seriously.
In this work, Bidwai’s focus of study is on the communist parties who participate in the parliamentary politics, namely CPI and CPI-M mainly and their trade unions and other mass organisations. Even though he does not deal with the Maoist movement in India, he recognises their role as successfully “mobilizing large numbers of adivasis on livelihood issues and against the deprivation of their traditional access to natural resources” (p.18). But he affirms the significance of the parliamentary democratic process in advancing the cause of socialism in India and justifies his special attention to the role and performance of CPI and CPI-M. Therefore, a detailed examination of their role in West Bengal and Kerala as well as in Tripura in this book is valuable as is the assessment of their role in all India politics.

West Bengal and Kerala

The insights that Bidwai presents in contrasting the West Bengal and Kerala experiences of the left-led governments will vibrate in critical discussions for long as they have implications for evolving a new strategy for the future. The Left assumed power in Bengal with a political promise of agrarian transformation, but stopped with registration of tenants –Operation Barga. Thus it stayed with a middle peasant social base which later shrunk. It was credited with seriously promoting Panchayati Raj, but quickly bureaucratised it under party control. When it too adopted neo-liberal industrialisation policy, it lost much of its political appeal. Bidwai argues that Nandigram and Singur were symptoms, not the cause of the defeat of the left in Bengal in 2011. As he put it: “By the late 1990s, if not earlier, it became clear that the Left Front’s main agenda or prime concern had changed; from generating a political movement for change, however moderate, to developing a limited strategy with the sole goal of getting itself re-elected to power-even if that meant abandoning its original goals, with the risk of alienating its support base, creating widespread disillusionment, and inevitably losing power.’ (154) Regrettably, there did not seem to be any new thinking on this as the 2016 election results indicated.
Kerala had a different story, but as Bidwai rightly noted, also facing political deadlock, even though electorally it remained a formidable force as was evident from LDF’s return to power in 2016 with a comfortable majority. The Left in Kerala was a product of the social reform movements and social development process and it also contributed to that process significantly. It consolidated land reforms, actively worked for labour and women rights and meaningful self-government through panchayati raj and the famed ‘People’s Plan Campaign’. Left had no small role in shaping the widely recognized human development profile of Kerala attracting world attention to the “Kerala Model”. But the achievements were not consolidated into a purposive strategy to face new challenges during the past two decades leading to “cracks in the Kerala edifice” as Bidwai put it. CPI-M in Kerala did not respond adequately to the social and economic changes such as low growth and high unemployment, the effects of the gulf money, the demographic changes producing larger proportion of the elderly and several groups including dalits and fisher people feeling even more excluded in the emerging economy. The changed class composition, rising embourgeoisement and lumpenization had changed the public culture of Kerala. (p.258) The Left parties did not relate to the new struggles such as at Plachimeda against Coca Cola. On fighting communalism, its failure in Kerala was as pronounced as in West Bengal as evident in BJP securing nearly 15% votes in the 2016 elections in Kerala. Bidwai assesses several aspects of the Kerala experience to present a very objective, yet critical analysis, ending with the slogan of the KSSP, “A Different Kerala is Possible”.

But a larger point made by Bidwai in discussing Kerala and West Bengal is whether the focus on the ‘regionalisation’ of the Indian communist movement was the right course for the Left. The Party Congresses of the CPI and CPI-M held in 2015 did not show any promise of fresh thinking. Therefore, the PB Thesis would open new areas of enquiry on why in other parts of India, especially in the North, the communist movement was not able to grow.
The answer lay in what Bidwai calls the ‘poverty of theory’ and opportunist strategies and tactics that the Left followed in parliamentary politics.

‘Poverty of Theory’

Indian communists operated under many kinds of pressures of the international communist movement for a long time. Bidwai sees surviving traces of the “Comintern mindset” from the days of the Third International in the form of concepts such as ‘two stage revolution’ and ‘united front’. In the period of democratic revolution the communists were asked to unite with bourgeois parties and similar forces in united front to oppose the main enemy. This is a point of longstanding debate from the days of anti-fascist fronts to many anti-imperialist formations. There are no easy answers to this even from the viewpoint of the Fourth International under which the one stage theory of the socialist revolution was advanced. Bidwai, for example, criticises the Left’s ‘ambivalent’ attitude towards the Congress as also the occasional recourse to what he calls ‘third-frontism’. He shares the view of Jyoti Basu that rejection of the offer to Basu to accept the post of the Prime Minister in 1996 was a ‘historical blunder’. Interestingly, Bidwai had at the time favoured a different view – Left supporting the National Front government from outside, but changed his assessment later. It may be argued that the electoral understanding between the Left and the Congress in 2016 WB Assembly elections was responsible for the further decimation of the support base of the Left?

Bidwai points out that for many years now, the Indian communist parties were freed of working under international pressures. Even in the days of dominant Soviet influence on the CPI, when a delegation met Stalin in 1951 and he made suggestions about the CPI strategy, Bidwai quotes a document with Stalin saying:’I have given you no instructions, this is advice, it is not obligatory for you, you may or may not adopt it.’( p.61) No doubt, the Sino-Soviet split had its reverberations in the splits leading to the emergence of CPI-M in 1964 and the CPI-ML groups after 1967. But the Indian communist movement did not experience major turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Bidwai complements the Indian Left for surviving this crisis. But he is of the view that the theoretical milieu of the Comintern period still pervaded the Indian Left. The influence of the CPGB and Rajni Palme-Dutt as the channel for Soviet communist leadership’s directives had made such damage to the Indian communist thinking that they failed to undertake the exercise to apply dialectical and historical method to Indian social reality of caste, religion, ethnic identity and the like.
That also solidified a notion of Party organisation that was essentially authoritarian and highly centralised. The concept of ‘democratic centralism’ had been reduced to mainly to centralism, rather than promoting democratic discussions within the Party and outside. Bidwai makes an interesting point about lack of interaction of Indian communists with European Marxists, thereby missing the rich discussions on issues such as democracy, humanism, alienation, environment, disarmament and peace.

On the Five Axis of the PB Thesis

Bidwai’s main thesis is summed up thus: “Indian Left did not develop the notion of a counter-hegemonic alternative to the bourgeois democratic system through anti-capitalist popular mobilizations even while exploiting all the possibilities available in the system, both electoral and non-electoral, for advancing the interests of workers and other toilers. Instead, it neglected mass mobilization, succumbed to parliamentarism and allowed the system to co-opt it”. (p.329) Hence the PB Thesis stipulates a set of Five Axis for a dialogue involving a broad spectrum of Left and democratic forces and people’s movements to formulate a People’s Charter to overcome the ideological, strategic and programmatic crisis that confronted the Left.

The First Axis related to building a counter-hegemonic alternative to the present capitalist system with India-specific elements of a social liberation agenda. This is where the failure of the Left to make annihilation of caste an integral part of its political agenda is most conspicuous. Bidwai deals with the questions of caste, gender, religion, ecology and human rights in a brilliant chapter indicating a method of understanding them from a contemporary Marxist perspective. He faults the Indian Left for fudging these issues due to their rigid, class-obsessed framework. (p.336) Bidwai has indeed struck at the heart of the core deficiency of the Indian Left, both parliamentary and others. They must reflect upon why they are not a central part of these movements that dominate the Indian social scene today. However, in applying the PB Thesis the key factor of class in a global capitalism must not be undermined.

The Second Axis focuses on medium and long term demands of a radical movement such as agrarian reform, right to work, food security and forest rights. He emphasises the need for collective farming, local resource mapping, an income policy to guarantee decent living and reduction of inequality of wealth and an innovative way to handle the issue of unorganised workers as new, modern elements of an anti-capitalist programme, taking into account experiences gathered in India and in other countries, especially in Latin America. This is an extremely valuable perspective. One has to see how the state policies in a neo-liberal regime which are active in each of these areas have to be countered so that these are not reduced to isolated experiments.

The Third Axis relates to the local level, sectoral or micro issues such as municipal governance, drinking water, air pollution, and transport on which the Left has paid scanty attention. The important point to note here is that these ‘micro’ issues are very much part of global development processes and there are serious debates on the linkages they have with industrialisation and market. Indeed, they need to form a core of the Left programme as they directly affect day-to-day life of the people, especially the underprivileged.

Giving up “vanguardism” or the assertiveness or even arrogance of the Left leadership managing the organisation and the movement – a continuing current in the history of the communist movement for over a century- is the subject of the Fourth Axis.
Bidwai calls for abandoning that legacy and opening up for debates within the Party, with other political organisations, civil society groups and independent intellectuals as a regular feature of political functioning. That would indicate the Left’s commitment to democracy in theory and practice. Openness and tolerance of dissent, respect for alternative views must be a part of the new concept of Left. In fact, this is a good comment on the prevailing existence of tall, separate walls among the Left organisations.

Reaffirmation of ‘internationalism’ is the Fifth Axis. It is not the old style relationship among communist parties of one stream or the other, but a new solidarity relationship, for peace and cooperation, defending natural resources and fighting climate change, working for nuclear disarmament, promoting equity and justice in the global order.

The Five Axis framework is a comprehensive blueprint for a new beginning that the Left can make to confront the formidable challenges of the present and revive itself. There are many interesting points of discussion in the book with sharp comments on events and actions of the Left and other parts of the ‘rainbow left’ including the socialists. There is a discussion on AAP which had initially shown some promise of an alternative paradigm of politics in India, but quickly invited disillusionment by settling down for the routine path of party politics.

Let me end with a reference to the Council for Social Development where Praful Bidwai completed this manuscript. That the social development issues, health, education, ecology, rights of dalits, adivasis, women, minorities and the disabled, human rights of the oppressed sections of society- should form the core of social vision of the Left was the subject of the Durgbai Deshmukh Chair he held to work on this book. The PB Thesis that brings the issues of ‘social left’ and ‘cultural left’ to the centre of Left politics through a dialogue on framing of a five-dimensional, People’s Charter to achieve a socialist vision for Indian people and begin a process of reinventing the Indian Left is a great gift of our departed colleague not only to us but to the people of India. The Phoenix Moment will be a landmark intervention in the intellectual history of the Left.

Manoranjan Mohanty, Council for Social Development

mmohantydu[at]gmail.com

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