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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 40, September 21, 2013

Agenda that Failed: Left Politics in Post-colonial India

Sunday 22 September 2013

by Abhijit Ghosh


Is sixtyfive years (1947-2012) enough time to declare that any political agenda has failed? But more than half-a-century is a reasonable period to dissect any political agenda. Left politics in these sixtyfive years failed to leave any effective mark on the Indian political system barring a few exceptions. Several political complexities had developed in the Indian political scenario during the British departure from the country. While the Muslim League with full determination had been active in achieving an independent Pakistan, the Congress leaders were negotiating the terms for transfer of power. Ultimately, independence was followed by the infamous communal riots. Having achieved independence in 1947, the task of the Indian leaders was to build and integrate India as a nation-state. Now, the moot question that crops up is: what was the role of the Indian Left during this initial phase of independence?1

The objective of this article is to revisit and analyse the political agenda of the Left political parties so as to explain this failure. Does this failure imply that the agenda or the programme of the Left has failed to attract the people of India? What may be the possible alternative way or line that can bring greater success to the Indian Left? This paper is an attempt to find the answers to all these questions. Here, we mainly concentrate on the activities of the two Left parties, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). The history of Left politics in independent India predominantly centred on the activities of these two parties. At the end, an alternative programme that could rejuvenate Left politics in India, has been sought to be presented.

Revisiting Left Politics since 1947

The entire sixtyfive years (1947-2012) have been divided into three periods—(i) 1947-1964, (ii) 1964-1991, and (iii) 1991-2012. The division is dictated by the historical significance of Indian politics in general and Left politics in particular.

The first period was marked by deep inner-party conflicts within the CPI. The first strategic question before the CPI was whether the independence of 1947 was real or fake. While a group was in favour of launching immediate war against the ruling bourgeois class, the other group was against adopting the path of militancy. The second ideological debate that engulfed the whole party was regarding the stage of the Indian revolution. Was it bourgeois-democratic or proletarian-socialist? The party witnessed inner-party debate over these two lines. One faction was led by the party General Secretary P.C. Joshi, and other by B.T. Ranadive. The Second Party Congress was held amidst these two strategic-tactical lines in Kolkata during February-March 1948. Most of the delegates in the conference expressed the view that the stage of the Indian revolution was a mixture of both. This implied that the bourgeois-democratic revolution was to be completed and the proletarian-socialist movement was to be initiated simultaneously. Consequently, the strategic line evolved towards a one-stage revolution. This was almost identical to the concept of Lenin’s ‘uninterrupted’ revolution. The Joshi faction was criticised for its advocacy to join hands with the national bourgeoisie. The Congress saw the exit of P.C. Joshi as the party General Secretary, and his replacement by B.T. Ranadive. Joshi was not even accommodated in the party’s Central Committee. This was indeed a significant trend in terms of deciding the party line.

However, after a few days of the Second Party Congress, the Andhra unit of the CPI submitted a different document to the Central Committee: it was distinct from both the Joshi and Ranadive lines. The party gave a call for armed revolution and organised many adventurist actions. The armed peasant struggle in Telengana continued. The party also called for a national railway strike on March 9, 1949 with the expectation that it would lead to a countrywide uprising. Both the steps were devastating for the party. The party lost thousands of brave peasant and party activists in Telangana in an unequal war. On the other hand, the strike was a total flop. The CPI also indulged in many terrorist activities. Conse-quently, the party was banned in several States. It gradually got alienated from the Indian people and its organisation shrunk. The party member-ship declined from 90,000 to about only 18,000 in 1951. (Chandra et al 2008)

At the end of 1951. Ajoy Ghosh became the party General Secretary. Under the direct guidance of Stalin, the party adopted a new strategic-tactical line. It showed a softer attitude towards the national bourgeoisie. By 1951, the party had been legalised all over the country and participated enthusiastically in the first general election. In this election, the CPI emerged as the largest Opposition party with 23 seats, and 4.6 per cent share of votes. The party continuously preformed better in the next two general elections increasing the number of seats and share of votes. The year, 1957, was marked by a historic development: the first democrati-cally elected communist-led government in the world came to power in Kerala under the Chief Ministership of E.M.S. Nambodiripad. But this government could not finish its term of five years due to the Central Government’s intervention.

Despite having achieved this unexpected success compared to other Opposition parties, the inner-party conflict of the CPI did not abate. Rather, it took a new dimension around the party’s strategic-tactical line. The party organisation got paralysed. The party could not display consensus on the agreed programme of 1951. Even the tactical line was not followed unanimously. After 1951, the major develop-ments within the party are summed up as follows (Chandra et al 2008): (1) In the Madurai Congress (1953), the party accepted that the Union Government was following an independent foreign policy, but in internal matters the party opined that the government was not following any independent policy. (2) The Palghat Congress, held in 1956, was historic. After nine years, the party accepted the stand that the 1947 independence was real.2 The Congress declared that peaceful co-existence of different systems was possible. (3) The Amritsar Special Congress (1958) was held after the formation of the State Government in Kerala in 1957. The Congress declared that it was possible to advance to socialism through the peaceful and parliamentary process. (4) In the Vijaywada Congress (1961), the party decided to carry on struggle against the anti-people as well as unity towards the progressive policies of the Congress.

Thereafter the CPI was embroiled in more internal conflicts. The dynamics and power structure within the party were greatly affected, leading to the basic structural change in the organisation. For the first time, a new committee at the central level, the Central Secretariat, along with Central Committee and Polit-Bureau was created. This was done just to balance the two extreme poles of the party. Some other issues were also added to the list of conflicts—attitude towards the critique of Stalin, Russia-China differences and notably the India-China war of 1962. All these culminated in the party split in 1964.3 The CPI-M believed that the Indian state was ruled by the bourgeoisie and landlords, led by the big bourgeoisie, and collaborating with international finance capital. The CPI-M accepted parliamentary democracy as a tactical line. The CPI relied on the peaceful and parliamentary process for the transformation. Both the parties split further in the coming days.

During this period, other Opposition parties were also in the process of organising anti-Congress movements. The first major political blow the Congress faced was in the fourth general election of 1967. In many States, non-Congress coalition parties formed governments. The internal turmoil within the Congress party reached its climax, mainly on the question of the leadership of Indira Gandhi. The Congress was divided into two extreme poles: the Congress (Organisation) and Congress (Reformist). However, Indira Gandhi was able to establish her command over the party. All these trends eventually culminated in the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. J.P. Narayan emerged as the leader of the anti-Congress movement. He called for Sampooran Kranti (Total Revolution). The movement was for the restoration of democracy and mainly based in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But gradually, it spread all over India. After two years of Emergency, Indira Gandhi called for a general election. To overthrow the Indira Government, Opposition leaders announced the merger of the Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party to form a new party—the Janata Party. The first non-Congress government came to power at the Centre. The CPI-M achieved a major success in West Bengal and formed the first Left Front Government which would uninterruptedly continue for 34 years. But the CPI’s support to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency appeared to be its biggest mistake and the outcome of the mistake is being felt till date.

The Indian economy witnessed its greatest change after independence in 1991. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was announced. During the same period, the global political scenario went through historic changes. The Soviet Union, which was the greatest inspiration of the world socialist and Left movements, disintegrated. Communism in many East European countries collapsed. The Cold War came to an end. Global politics moved towards unipolarity. Under this changing scenario, the United States of America (USA) emerged as the most powerful political force in the world. What was the impact of all these on the Indian Left movement? The CPI-M-led Left coalition had been able to retain power where it had strongholds like West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The most memorable event in the history of the Indian Left movement since independence came in 1996 when Jyoti Basu was offered Prime Ministership by fourteen non-Congress and non-BJP political parties. But the CPI-M declined to accept the offer and preferred to support from outside the coalition of these parties forming a government at the Centre. Ultimately, communal politics came to dominate with the BJP’s assumption of power at the Centre in 1998. But the people of India rejected its ‘Shining India’ slogan in 2004. The general election of 2004 resulted in the greatest achievement of the Indian Left in terms of its strength in Parliament. But in 2009, its strength was substantially reduced in the Lok Sabha. In West Bengal, 34 years uninterrupted rule of the Left came to an end.

Lessons of Sixtyfive Years

Since the birth of the party, the CPI failed to understand the national liberation movement. Pre-independence and post-independence in both periods, the Communists did not recognise the freedom struggle as the general uprising of the people against the imperialist power. During the initial years of independence, some organi-sational steps appeared to be disastrous for the party. Post-1947, India witnessed the shaping of a Constitution, reorganisation, of States, economic policy etc. Communists could come up with their independent agenda and could bargain or organise people in favour of their agenda. During the tenure of Nehru, provincial units of the Congress used to enjoy full autonomy. Nehru opined that the task of the Union Government was to frame economic and foreign policies. He was quite reluctant towards district and State level organisations and the same was the view of the other central leaders of the Congress. This led to infiltration of regional landlords into the party. Gradually, all control of district level party organisations went to these newly infiltrated leaders. On the contrary, Nehru and other leaders were busy with Five Year Plans, industrialisation, independent foreign policy. This domination of the regional landlords in the Congress party at the district level acted as the major impediment to implement the huge task of land reform. And, this was the area where Communists could come up as an alternative political force.

The Congress was not free from inner-party differences as well. The differences boiled down to mainly the relationship between the party organisation and the functioning of the government. Ultimately, J.B. Kripalini resigned from the party presidentship and left the Congress. After the death of Vallabhbhai Patel, differences centred on the socialist trend within the Congress. In 1950, Nehru threatened to leave the party if his candidate was not made the party President. Within a few years, though Nehru fully established his command over the party. At the same time, socialist leaders of the party started to leave the Congress.4

But the Communists failed to capitalise on these events at the national level and expand their organisation. Rather, they were busy deciding along which path, the Chinese or Russian, the Indian revolution would be conducted. But they failed to understand that the Indian political and economic scenario was completely different from the scenes in those two states.5 After independence, the party took nine years to perceive that the independence attained was a true one.

Indian politics has been experiencing some spectacular changes in the last two decades. Regional issues, which were used to be considered State issues, are now on the agenda of national politics. Regional parties are now emerging as alternative power structures in place of the national political parties. This has led Indian politics into an era of coalition politics. In a parliamentary democratic system, Left parties cannot overlook this trend. Of late, they have begun to understand this reality. It is now a daily opera here that the regional parties have been forcing the two biggest national parties the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to dance to their tunes. The Indian Left could have become the ‘music directors’ of coalition politics if they could use the political opportunity properly. But they failed. All efforts to form a government without the Congress and BJP were unsuccessful. But the experience of the Left Government in West Bengal, a coalition of nine political parties, has been an example before the country.

In 1996, when Jyoti Basu was offered to take over the leadership of the Central Government, the CPI-M could have taken up the challenge and accepted the responsibility. Of course, there was uncertainty as to how long that government would survive and whether the alternative agenda of the Left would be allowed to be implemented. They had to consider the prevailing national and international political scenarios as well. Socialism in the Soviet Union and other countries had collapsed just a few years earlier. US-dictated policies were being implemented. The NEP was threatening the very sovereignty of the Indian economy. The BJP was aggresively preaching their communal propagenda in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. But the Left missed the opportunity to leave the imprint of their alternative agenda so that they could legitimise their differences from other ‘bourgeois’ political parties.

In the semi-feudal, capitalist, secular demo-cratic framework, class analysis was somehow undermined. The Left were entangled in the capitalist agenda forgetting their own agenda. The CPI joined the govern-ment6 accepting two important portfolios—Agriculture and Home. This government survived for a very short period. The CPI failed to place any alternative agenda that could be termed as a Left agenda. Classical Marxism teaches us that the revolution cannot happen spontaneously.7 It is to be organised moulding class consciousness. Though the Left parties are not individual-centric but cadre-based, they could have emerged as role-models. The role of a person in history needs to be assessed carefully and one must take proper lesson from that.8

In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the Left won the maximum number of seats since indepen-dence9 and extended support to the Congress-led United Progressive Allience (UPA)-I. It can be put on record that the Centre could not carry out disinvestments unlike the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government. Many rights based programme such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) [Right to Work], Right to Education (RTE), Right to Information (RTI), Rights of Tribal Communities on Forest Resources were implemented in that period after six decades of independence. But the Left failed to reap benefits from these successes

The most prominent characteristic of the newly emergent ‘Third World’ countries during the post-Second World War period was the dependence of large proportions of their populations on the stagnant agrarian economy. India was not an exception. The post-colonial nation-state created aspirations for better social and economic life among the people. India’s economic structure was in the pre-capitalist agrarian mode. Even socially India is completely different from any other country of the world. Indian society is divided into thousand of castes. Based on these castes, different ‘identities’ emerge. There is the possibility of existence of many identities in a class and many classes within the same identity. Caste has been the source of exploitation, exclusion and discrimination. It is not being argued here that the “have nots” are not to be organised based on class. But the catastrophic effects of casteism cannot be ignored; rather the Indian Left will have to face the problem. We should not forget that utilising this sensitive issue, regional parties have been capturing power. Even those parties that have a socialist tradition take shelter behind caste politics. But the Left parties never gave due importance to this identity.10

The renaissance of India in the nineteenth century was partial in nature. It was mainly centred on a few urban metropolises. The social movement during that period played a significant role in social transformation. But a large portion of the Indian population was untouched by that social movement. Casteism has also brought other social diseases like the dowry system, denial of women’s empowerment etc. Now, it is the historic responsibility of the Indian Left to launch a real battle against casteism. Without uprooting casteism, it will be a day-dream to organise the working class as a single class. By saying so does not mean that Left politics of India will have to take resort to ‘Identity Politics’.

Parties born out of the socialist legacy have no agenda that can be termed as Left any more. Almost all the parties, including the Indian National Congress (INC), have turned into either family dynasties or are being controlled by other ‘power centres’. At this juncture, a powerful Left struggle is the only hope for the people. So, a united Left movement has to be forged and strengthened and this must be based on a common agenda, bringing together all, small as well big, Left forces into one contingent. This movement needs to be consistent, not engaged only in electoral politics for short run success. State-specific agenda, based on the objective reality and subjective assessment, has to be worked out. The historic responsibility of the Left is to understand the contradictions and resolve those through leadership and parti-cipation. So in such a situation, the future agenda should be worked out through people’s deliberation and involvement. The immediate task would be organising regular classes for cadres, consolidation of ideas among the rank-and-file-and equipping the leadership at the grassroot level with class insights. Only such activities will bring success to the Indian Left. The Left parties have to remember the eternal value of the declaration of the Communist Manifesto: “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”


Choosing a title like ‘Agenda that failed....’ is not to minimise the role of the Left in the post-colonial period. What we have argued is that the Indian Left missed the opportunity to enhance and consolidate their mass base.11 Rather, the CPI (on which the Left movement of India depended on the eve of independence) lost so much energy after independence in internal conflicts! They should remember Marx’s own words:“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.” Having a sound strategic-tactical programme is not a sufficient condition for translating the agenda into reality and recording success in that endeavour. From this proposition, we have argued that the most important task of the Indian Left movement should be to organise the people with a clear class insight thus creating class consciousness.

Parliamentary democracy had emerged as a strong methodology in the post-Second World War era. Universal suffrage has brought quite a different attraction to the Left political parties.12

The contradictory nature of the bourgeois political parties is coming out in the open due to the democratic system. On the one hand, they have been carrying on implementing the agenda of the Neo-Liberal Economy. On the other hand, they cannot ignore the aspirations of the Aam Aadmi (common people). That is why all bourgeois parties camouflage their original agenda in the name of presenting some sort of yojana (planning) for the common people. For real emancipation of the Indian society, we need a structural change of the economy. This includes land reform, proper strengthening of local level administration and public distribution system, movement for ensuring minimum wages. The Left will have to emerge as a leader spearheading such an agenda.

Is there any hope for the Indian Left? In fact there is a hopeful future for the Indian Left movement. Under the neo-liberal economic regime, market economy intends to establish cultural hegemony for their products. All these are resulting in a peculiar societal change in India. There is peaceful co-existence between the semi-feudal cultural society and imposed capitalist mode of consumerism. Under these circumstances, the task of the Indian Left has become tougher compared to that fifty years ago. India has witnessed some civil society protests in the contemporary period. People are coming out on the streets. All these protests are apolitical in nature which is the main constraint of their sustainability but such phenomenon also reflects the anger of the people against the political system. The Left parties will have to emerge as the real political alternative. This is not possible by crafting only the ‘strategic-tactical’ line. This is possible only by organising consistent mass movements.

The present-day scenario may be best described in the lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,............. it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”. The people of India have been transmitting a clear message: that they are in search of a real political option like the ‘thirsty crow’. So, the agenda of the Left should be centred on the people with a definite class outlook. That will rejuvenate Left politics.


Chandra, Bipan, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee (2008): India Since Independence, Penguin Books, India.

1. There had been debate whether the Communist Parties of different countries should support and assist the national-bourgeois-led freedom struggle. The question was discussed at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. Lenin was in favour of assisting the liberation movements. But M.N. Roy expressed the opposite view and wanted to organise the working class for the genuine revolution.
2. It is argued that this acceptance was largely dictated by the international communist scenario, in particular the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) led by Khrushchev, after the passing away of Stalin.
3. Some political scientists argued that the CPI would split at the Vijaywada Congress so intense was the inner-party conflict. But it was the capable leadership of then party General Secretary and because of the forthcoming general election of 1962 that the split was prevented.
4. Many scholars argued that it was the suicidal trend of the socialists. It paved the way for the landlords and other bourgeoisie to capture the whole Congress party, top to bottom.
5. Rather the CPI could have inspired their party workers on the lines of the Chinese and Russian revolutions. The central leadership of the CPI should have kept in mind that before organising the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong spent sleepless nights with the toiling Chinese people who would be future soldiers of the Chinese revolution.
6. The CPI-M tries to justify the party decision by saying that the CPI failed to expand their mass base despite joining the government. The converse is also true. Not joining the government had no positive impact on the CPI-M’s organisational base.
7. According to Marxian theory, Russia and China were not supposed to organise revolutions. But the conditions were such that they facilitated the organisation of those revolutions.
8. It is doubtful without Lenin, Mao and Castro, whether revolutions in the Soviet Union, China or Cuba could have been possible.
9. Ninetyfive per cent seats were from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.
10. The Left may recall that the legendary communist leader A K Gopalan was an activist of the famous ‘temple entry’ movement before joining the Communist Party.
11. One should not forget that the Congress secured only 45 per cent of the total casting votes in the first general election.
12. The dictatorship of proletariat has been misinterpreted many a time. Even in many Latin American countries which have remained a great source of inspiration for the world, Left movements in unipolar conditions have legitimised their existence through the ballot box.

Dr Abhijit Ghosh is an Assistant Professor of Economics, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Bihar. He can be contacted at abhijitghosh2007 @rediffmail.com

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