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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 33 New Delhi August 3, 2019

End of ‘Left-politics’ in India?

Saturday 3 August 2019

by Sunil Ray

The massive electoral defeat of the Leftist parties in India in the recent Lok Sabha election seems to have pushed many to despair and left nothing to hope for its revival. While commoners are increasingly feeling its gradual disappearance in India, scholars, especially those who are from the non-Marxist persuasion, find some reason to reaffirm their claim that it has lost its relevance in Indian politics. However, Marxist scholars continue to retain their position that it can never lose its relevance so long as the material conditions of survival of the people in India continue to be worse. This is what has been the position of the Marxist scholars ever since India gained freedom. But the question that was raised by Nikhil Chakravartty way back in 1983 (more than three-and-a-half decades ago) is equally important even today. He observed “The basic question that comes to one’s mind is: after sixty years of tireless works, why is it that the communist movement in this country has not become a national force? No doubt, they have strongholds here and there; they have regional influence as, for instance, in West Bengal and Kerala, but these do not make them a national force.” (“Marx and Marxism, A personal Testament” was first published in Mainstream, April 2, 1983. Reproduced from N.C.’s writings Mainstream, May 18, 2019) Not to talk about the States that had strongholds but are now almost extinct in the parliamentary election. While self-introspection may be of some help, my purpose here is not advise or caution those who are practising Left politics led by the Marxist Leftist parties in India. My purpose here is to develop a critique against the rootless thought of ‘Left-politics’ having lost its relevance to India.

Let me begin my argument with what I mean by ’Left-politics’ on the basis of my comprehensive understanding about it. The Left-politics then must not necessarily stem from the political engagement of only those who are practising politics under the banner of the political parties with Marxist persuasion. Of course, there are several political parties with Marxist persuasion in India that have been putting a great deal of efforts for decades to justify how one is comparatively more relevant than others in respect of understanding and analysing the concrete conditions of India. It has been a competitive expedition, as it were, to reach the intellectual height of perfect blending between theory and practice that none has touched so far. I first learnt about it when I was an undergraduate student doing Economics in a college in Calcutta. Once a friend of mine took me to the party office of Marxist persuasion of his choice. He along with the members of the party office relentlessly tried to convince me how relevant was the understanding of his political party of Marxist political philosophy to Indian conditions as compared to the other Marxist political parties. Once I was getting ready to move out from the same party office, I was immediately cautioned not to do so for some time because two Marxist political parties were fighting on the streets for each other’s blood.

I was completely confused. More so, I came from a poor middle-class family of a remote village of West Bengal where I had seen how the impoverished men, women and children had been struggling to survive with dignity. My exposure to politics of the Left in Calcutta in those days was fresh but I was curious to know how impoverishment of the people of my village could be banished once and for all. I was unable to relate my experience of my village with all that I was observing. Without almost no deeper understanding of great Leftist thinkers of all ages at that point of time, the only questions that used to invade my mind in those days were: (1) Why were there many Marxist political parties when the purpose of each one was the same? (2) Why were they after each other’s blood? (3) Why was there no development of the rural areas in general and of the poor, the largest majority, in particular?

Only in respect of the land reforms pro-gramme implemented by the Left Front Govern-ment of West Bengal, I felt I was able to relate myself to the deprived poverty-stricken people of my village and, of course, rural Bengal. It touched me not as a politically conscious individual, nor as an intellectual with an edge over deep theoretical understanding, but as a human being, a young student who dreamt of a new India. The emergence of a new India, I was convinced, was possible only through decolonising itself from the abuse of humanism that manifest in the form of massive deprivation, perpetual backwardness and undignified life. And, no such decolonisation project, I increasingly felt over time, can succeed without transforming its basic socio-economic and political structure. No doubt feudal autocracy was crushed in West Bengal as a result of land reforms, but I wondered why the voice that grew against injustice and call for empowering the powerless disappeared subsequently.

The objective of empowering the powerless is never denied by the non-Marxist political party either. If so, why is it pushed to the back-burner in real-life situation? May be that it was not politically feasible. For, to make it happen it has to seek structural transformation that, in all likelihood, peripheralises the vested interest. What was, however, actually politically feasible, as it unfolded gradually, was the welfare dose of neo-liberalism. A great substitute to structural transformation and the route to empowering the powerless! While this is no less than a mockery of both, political feasibility of ‘real’ structural transformation that can create the conditions for empowering the powerless went on haunting my mind. It compounded when I learnt that the complex caste structure, in which Dalits primarily comprised of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, was yet to enter the discourse of ‘standardised’ Left politics.

I felt I was besieged by the bewilderment on the question of political feasibility in parlia-mentary democracy at two levels. The first one was which Marxist political party was more relevant to fall in line with the idea of a new India that I once dreamt and the second one was which were the non-Marxist political parties to do the same. However, an important turn came as a result of my encounter during the last few years with the people living in the villages, including farmers, agricultural labourers, petty traders and school teachers from different social groups and development professionals from several civil society organisations. It taught me how to liberate myself from the intellectual imprisonment of the kind of ideological fixation that tends to destroy the dialectical process of arriving at the truth of doing justice to the humanity and its progress. In fact, they only spoke about a set of simple actionable agendas for development. I have mentioned them below. However, once I tried to examine them in relation to each other, I found that they were actually hinting at deep structural transformation both at the levels of the society and economy. What needs to be seen is how the state designs its intervention mechanism to make it happen and achieve what has never been achieved so far.

• Creation of Productive Employment

• Access to natural resources including land, water etc. to all equally

• Agriculture as a source of livelihood and income and employment generation

• Availability of basic minimum facilities to provide quality health-care and education for all

• Ensuring dignified living with peace for every human species through creation of the culture of reciprocity and solidarity

• No environmental degeneration

• Triggering off local forces of change instead of trying to ‘catch-up’ with the capitalist developed countries

• Systemic accountability to development.

These are nothing new. One may claim that no political party will ever antagonise any of these agendas. One may even go a step further to claim that this actionable agenda has been figuring for decades in all parliamentary political parties. If so, then where does the problem lie? Immediately somebody may jump to point out that that the problem lies with the bureaucracy associated with the faulty intervention mechanism. Somebody else will say, no, it is political will that matters, nothing else. If I take a cue from the second one, while leaving aside the first one for the time being, it is definitely not an over-statement. For instance, I have never heard anybody agonising why natural resources like land should not be made available to all equally. But many political leaders, especially from the non-Marxist tradition, may choose to remain quiet if land reforms as a means to gain access to land by the landless as a part of the fulfilment of the constitutional obligation is pushed forward for implementation. It is precisely here that the problem lies. Land reforms transforms the power structure of the rural economy and opens up the route to economic and social empowerment of the vast majority of the people living in the rural hinterlands. They are the landless and powerless poor. However, it is the vested interest, as mentioned earlier, of the powerful that works on the ground against such transformation to take place. In other words, it is the power relations architected by the powerful to perpetuate its hegemony in all fields of activity. It is this again that has designed the systemic order through which, needless to mention, power relations mediate. What is true in respect of providing access to land through land reforms is equally true for other actionable agenda as mentioned above

The logical corollary is that no development paradigm that antagonises such a systemic order through which power relations of the powerful mediates is acceptable to the existing system. What, however, the latter wants is that they must complement each other. The development story of India ever since it became an independent nation clearly shows how this complementarity has been producing development aberrations. It is in this relational context that one may have reasons to see why no ‘real’ structural transformation that has a bearing on the actionable agenda, as spelt out, could come about leading to implementation of desirable change. Even if one finds such transformation has taken place based on the parameters of market economics and has impacted economic growth positively, it is immiserating growth since no sustainable positive impact could it make on the growing incidence of impoverishment of the people in India.

In order to expand the scope for creation of productive employment, if we continue to depend on corporate (monopoly) capital-led structural transformation as it happens, it is not the one that country like India is looking for. For, it creates limited scope for employability. The real structural transformation that could create employment can take place through construction of a niche structure that creates larger scope for employment that the country needs now. The construction of the niche structure may give rise to innumerable associated producers’ self-organisations in all lines of activities including processing, marketing, servicing, producing, trading etc. to be spread over rural to peri-urban to urban areas.

Similarly, when one talks about agricultural development and farmers’ endless distress one zeros in on productivity rise and availability of easy credit as the way out. No doubt these are important but their minimal impact, both long and short term, on the farmers’ distress never speaks high of market rationality. They can never substitute structural transformation also. However, if the market rationality is preceded by the non-market rationality such as land reforms and market reforms (institutional) that entail real structural transformation, farmers’ distress can be eliminated. It may then trigger off agricultural prosperity. Without agricultural market reforms how does one hope that the market will pay remunerative prices to the farmers for their produce? The repelling effect of the existing market structure in agriculture can be countered only through restructuring its market relations (through institutional reforms) both forward and backward. The myth of free market explodes when one sees how the farmers are pushed to pay exorbitantly high prices for inputs, they buy including seed, fertiliser, informal credit etc. It is needless to mention that prices are higher for they are determined by the quasi-oligopoly market, not by a free compe-titive market. Had the market prices been determined through competition, average prices of these inputs would have been much lower. However, this never happens. On the other hand, when the farmers sell their produce one knows how the monopsony market structure operates to squeeze them. This suggests why it is necessary to transform the market structure of agriculture at both ends.

In the absence of structural transformation incremental changes, however positive they are, have failed to generate declining impact on the misery of both humans and nature. Is it that the faulty development paradigm which we follow and is rooted in the capital system never wants the basic systemic order to dismantle? Of course, it wants differentiation based on caste, religion and other cultural and regional traits to continue while it continues to produce slavery in different forms in different fields of activities. Besides, it never antagonises the systemic order that nurtures rent-seeking behaviour (remini-scent of the crusade against it by Anna Hazare) ranging from monetary corruption to bribery, favouritism, appeasement politics etc. in the name of perfect democracy and competitive market economy.

All these non-market forces work sometimes in tandem and some other times discretely in an attempt to constantly shift the focus from one to another so that people may find it difficult to crystallise their understanding/opinion about the development miscarriage. The common man then fails to establish the link between the development miscarriage and faulty development paradigm and the systemic order which is detrimental to human progress. She/he also fails to understand how the actionable agendas, as elucidated earlier, is in conflict with the development paradigm which the country is following. All these directly or indirectly subvert the process of achieving substantive freedom leading to halting the emancipation of the impoverished.

Hence, what are those that the majority Indians, who are ravaged by the humanitarian crisis, looking for? They are looking for (1) a new systemic order (2) a new development paradigm and (3) a new synthesis in order to achieve the actionable agendas. If these development agendas are not in conflict with the Constitution of the democratic India, they are automatically politically feasible. Hence, structural transformation in all spheres of activities that matters to the powerless may find its real expression once the actionable agendas are implemented. What is, however, needed is to counter false development priorities inherited from false development epistemology. If the development paradigm is overhauled by way of prioritising what the nation needs to do to overcome the humanitarian crisis and trigger off the local development process without being dictated by the capital system, it may not be difficult to redesign the systemic order to gain what we failed to gain, to recover what we already lost. It is here that one may find how the new logic of capital unlocks the possibilities for epochal change.

The ‘Left-politics’ begins here without having been confined to the political philosophy of any political party as practised now in India. What it implies is that those who are seeking the change of the systemic order and development paradigm, as explained, are the natural harbingers of Left-politics. This must give rise to a new political philosophy. If so, why is no unveiling of a new political era of assimilation of ‘great’ understanding leading to sow the seeds of solidarity? Solidarity between humans on the one hand and humans and nature on the other? It may cut across ideological fixation and sectarianism in any form as they exist now, but give way to the emergence of a new ideological platform based on collective understanding for emancipation of the impoverished in particular and human progress in general. The ideological reinvention of the political entities in India at this historical moment may have huge trans-cendental effect on the culmination of the evolving ideological platform in the 21st century.

It is this ‘Left-politics’ that simplifies the idea of living together with each other on the one hand and with nature on the other while acknowledging the centrality of co-evolution of humans and nature in the determination of the social metabolic order. Its confluence with any anti-systemic movement to put an end to the growing accumulation of misery of both humans and nature may give rise to massive political upheaval in the Indian subcontinent in the near future. The cry for ‘cohesive development’ growing out of solidarity of all those who believe in the change of the systemic order to implement a new development paradigm is going to gain ground soon, no matter which political party one belongs to, which religious sect one has chosen to ally with, what system of faith one adheres to, what colour one is born with, whether one is female, male or transgender, what social group one belongs to, what language one speaks and what region one comes from. This is what I understand as Left-politics and its fundamentals of social engineering.The birth of a new political dispensation to bring about cohesive development based on the forces of solidarity may be a historical necessity. Its emergence being glued to humanism may prove sooner or later that Left-politics in India has not ended.

The author is a former Director, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna.

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