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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

Corona exposes the dilemma of the left parties in voicing the workers miseries | Arun Srivastava

Saturday 20 June 2020

by Arun Srivastava

The corona pandemic has triggered the sharpest and deepest political and ideological contraction in the history of Communist movement in India. What according to the Communist Manifest was once solid is seen losing its identity and evaporating into air.. The pandemic has completely turned irrelevant the structural concept of Globalisation’ and even Neoliberalism.

In one stroke the corona has flattened the world and its structure. The worst affected has been the workers and labourers belonging to the unorganised sector eking out their livelihood through daily wage. The self-employed have joined the category of the proletariats.

While the uber-rich moved into their yachts, the middle class struggled to work from home in the company of over-excited children, and the poor lost their earnings entirely and had to risk their lives. What is worse is they have lost their identity of being human. They are no more than a bundle of flesh.

The pandemic has nevertheless unmasked the Marxist and left forces. The façade of their ideological dexterity has been badly exposed. The leftists who claim to represent the aspirations and dreams of the poor oppressed, in a proletariat and exploited people are found to be a state of confusion stupor, unable to make out how to react to the crisis.

Corona is no doubt the gift of the capitalist economy to the people, but it has also exposed the concavity, the incongruity, of capitalism and its brand of governance. Corona in true sense has provided an opportunity to seriously ponder what kind of society can serve the people and avoid the repetition of the disgraceful outcomes that we are experiencing. More than the failure of the capitalism it is the defensive posture and hallucination of the Marxists and leftists that have been real matter of concern

After the globalisation was shepherded in late eighties, this was for the first time the leftists and Marxists had got the golden opportunity to pursue and push the Marxist ideology and spread their base. But they once against lost the opportunity. The capitalist forces though on defensive and in a state of quandary, managed to push them in further oblivion.

There is no denying the fact that the pandemic has led to authoritarian, racist and reactionary responses. While crisis has exposed vulnerability of capitalism; the leftists are yet to come out with the explanation why the mechanism of capitalism is flawed.

Ever since India became Independent we have been nursing the impression that India is a mixed economy and the basic differences between the poor and rich are not so acute. The middle class has been acting as the buffer. But this myth has been exposed by the pandemic in the wake of crores of labourers making a reverse migration to their native places and the thin veil between the poor and middle class getting torn out.

Cities and towns have always mesmerised the rural poor and they looked towards it with hopes of empowering their economic status. In fact the left also projected the cities and towns as the ultimate destination for the poor and rural proletariat. The rural poor migrated to the cities in search of a better future.

In the entire process no effort was ever made at any step either by the government agencies or by the left parties to find out the actual number of the workers migrating out. Incidentally this is also for the first time that corona has forced the government institutions and left political establishments to assess the real population.

Their actual number was not properly assessed till the outbreak of the corona. The economists seldom came out with the actual number. The total population of the migrant labourers might not have surfaced if corona has not hit India and the capitalist power would not denigrated them.

The manner in which the Modi government ill-treated and ignored them not only reinforced the fact that the state character of India has changed and it was now a capitalist country but it also exposed the understanding about the quantum of labourers India has. The presence of high proportion of workers must not be construed as India still being a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country. Long before arrival of globalisation the character of India had changed. It is the capitalism that dictates India and its economy.

The approach of the Supreme Court towards the miseries and plights of the workers fleeing the urban areas has been the pointer. Though the labourers were facing discrimination and dying on the roads and rail tracks, it took more than two months for the apex court to lend its ears to listen to their grievances. Though the Supreme Court had asked the centre and state to list steps taken by them it is yet to be implemented. Shockingly the court expressed satisfaction at the role of the government notwithstanding the reality that it has made them lurch.

The capitalist character of the state and government got exposed by Modi government launching Vande Bharat mission to help the expatriates in coming to India. While Modi government was reluctant to provide trains to transport the labourers to their native places, it arranged for numerous plight to bring the rich and upper middle-class people back. The government shamelessly even did not arrange food and water for the labourers leaving them to starve and die. Modi and his government refused to listen to the advice of the International Labour Organisation to uphold India’s commitment to global labour norms.

Shocking enough the state taking advantage of the crisis crushed the labour laws. The worker have been denied their basic rights. Several states have now extended this to 72 hours of work a week, citing the need to work with truncated workforces because of the social-distancing norms necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak. The leftist Indian trade union are in the stage of denial. They do not comprehend how to organise the workers and fight for restoration of their rights.

Lockdown showed us the cracks that separate a privileged few from the majority. The way the government is handling the crisis and the problems of the workers it simply reinforces the belief that India is a grossly unequal society; in fact the corona has sharpened and multiplied the inequalities on class line. The middle class which is supposed to nurse soft feelings for the working class has been an active collaborator with capitalists.

If there was any doubt about the true nature of this government, it has now been erased: the country is run by a small group of arrogant and capitalist cronies. They have no interest in safety and respect for the work and the people. The people must listen to their dictates and do duty; these are the new pandemic rules.

Corrosion has set in long back in the body of the leftist ensemble has been evident from the observation of the Left Front Chairman and former state secretary of CPI(M) Biman Bose who had felt "ashamed" at the failure of the top leadership of the party to gauge the feelings of the electorates well before the polls. It is more of the nature of indictment of the leadership. But he did not explain the reasons for the failure of the leadership. Nevertheless it is an arduous task to find out when a Marxist turns oblivious of the changes surrounding him.

The simple reply is they have transformed as bourgeoisie and adopted its culture. As they are no longer Marxists and have resorted to politics more akin to Social Democracy, it would be futile to expect from them to participate into and spearhead a militant mass movement. Bose admitted: “We must admit that we were not able to maintain constant and regular touch with the people at all levels." This failure must be analysed in the backdrop of the operation barga launched by the party to empower the rural poor. Ironically as apprehended in the initial stage instead of empowering the labourers it created a new ruling elite in the form of rural middle class.

Bose also confessed, “section of CPI(M) functionaries fell prey to the lure of consumerism and became victims of neo-economic lifestyles. This cost us dearly. The party was not able to disseminate and give proper importance to the Communist theory of local self-government among the poorest of the poor. This was a serious failure. We did not realise that things were going wrong for the party for the last four to five years."

The left parties have a wide disconnect with the workers became quite evident with corona spreading its fangs across the globe. While capitalism and the forces representing capitalism were in the state of torpor, the Indian Communists were in a state of indolence. They could not make out what to do for protecting the interest of nearly 14 crore workers. The leftists were even not visible extending helping hands in their desperation to go back to their native places though they were aware that these people would not find any alternate employment at their native places. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which have the homeland of a large population of workers do not have industrial units to engage them.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 estimates that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for the origin of 25 per cent and 21 per cent of the total inter-state migrants.

One thing is absolutely clear that Marxism has become more relevant than ever for addressing humanity’s urgent challenges despite the desperate efforts by the capitalist class to bury it. Capitalism and capitalist in recent times have been involved in fierce fight with Marxism. A closer look would make it explicit that the ideology has grown and spread more forcefully than it had achieved in nineties.

In the countries which are the cohorts of the capitalist states, the Marxism has been the emerging way of life. This has been happening in an economic scenario when the classical proletariat is yet to take a concrete shape and the labour force is yet to achieve the basic character of labour force.

The condition of the lower middle class is not better. With changing contour of economic development and growth, a person who claims to be worker at the work place loves to be identified as middle class bourgeois at home. He abhors to be called as a labourer or workmen where he lives. In fact he despises the use of work workmen or labourer for him.

The primary reason for giving rise to this tendency has been the trade unions practising economism; which is far away from the Marxist ideology. Obviously the person lives two personalities. Marx and Engels proclaimed the historic mission of the working class was to lead a revolutionary change to a self-governing society without exploitation but this is not the reality in modern times. Marxism is a powerful tool in the hands of working class for its self-emancipation but of late the leftist leaders, precisely the social democrats, have been using it to project the bourgeoise as the alternative force. 

In spite of being the only potent ideology, Marxism has been marginalised despite favourable conditions for mass struggles in India. The communists or Marxists have lost relevance in contemporary India. It is said one reason for the reduced space for Indian communists is the emergence of a new middle class for whom communist party programmes do not seem relevant. I do not subscribe to this explanation. Look at the universities across the country; more and more students are joining the leftist students’ organisations. It is simply manifestation of the fact that they prefer to identify with Marxism but are reluctant to be associated with the CPI(M) or CPI. The answer to the question why this is happening has to come from the left parties.

In modern times a pro-people party plays a critical and crucial role in a society where millions live below the poverty line. So, why are the Indian communists a marginal political force in India where all the prerequisites for social struggles against mass poverty and great inequality are to be found across the country? It is worthwhile to examine the causes for the marginalisation of communist movements in societies supposedly conducive for such movements.

The situation would have been quite different if the CPI(M) would not have blocked the path for the formation of broader unity of left and democratic forces in early eighties. At that time the initiative was undertaken by the CPI(ML) liberation. CPI(M)’s main objection was they must stop criticism of the CPI(M) lee Lefty Front and its government. Later developments make it abundantly clear they lost their credibility in the eyes of the people of Bengal and other states.

The Marxists lost ground as they could not keep their support base intact. The social constituencies made a strategic shift away from them. It did not relate to the ideology in any manner. Instead, it was their reluctance to adhere to the ideology and practice Marxism that shook the confidence level of the people. The monarch type lifestyle of the leaders did not go unnoticed. They did not respond to the changing socially-felt needs of the people.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the left leaders must not have been aware of the magnitude of the workers-labourers that has surfaced in the wake of corona. According to a rough estimate around 14 crores workers have turned jobless. One would certainly like to know from the Marxist leaders were they aware of this huge population of the labourers.

One thing is absolutely clear that the Marxist leaders did not spare their time and energy in organising them. Had they undertaken this task the situation would have been so pathetic. The labourers would not deserted their work place and fled to their villages.

Just imagine they preferred to go back to their native places which could not sustain them and sometime in future they would eventually again come back to the cities. Will those places be able to sustain them? They will come back to the cities which derided, humiliated and insulted them. Their return will be more painful.

If they did not live a dignified life and were exploited and insulted by the capitalists how they could expect that the same persons will embrace them with open hands. A worker has his value in a market economy. But the bare fact is the market economy has collapsed and with this, the worker has lost his bargaining power and market value. He will have to survive at the mercy of the capitalist economy.

The fact of the matter is the communists could not identify themselves with the people they claim to represent. The fact is communists strived to have an important base in the socially-progressive and enlightened sections of the middle classes, but the new middle class has been hostile to communist ideology. The new middle class is basically a carrier of the feudal values. Electorally this section helped the Marxist till the BJP under Narendra Modi emerged as the alternative of the congress. Their feudal orientation has been primarily responsible for their toeing the nationalist line of the BJP. They have after so many years found their true representative in BJP.

Then, the communists in India have not been able to form a united front or a ’coalition of the oppressed classes’ because every political party has created a solid social constituency by following a policy of reservations in public services and institutions. Unfortunately the Communists instead of looking at caste equation from Marxist angle preferred to believe their narrations. Communists have become irrelevant because fragmented castes have their own specific caste-based parties, groups and leaders, and communists cannot compete on the basis of caste-based appeals.

For the first time in the history of independent India have the two issues grabbed national attention. The eerie silence of the nation’s most garrulous prime minister on the critical issues facing the country and secondly, the images of literally hundreds of migrant workers killed while trudging unbelievable distances home, mainly on foot, do not seemed to have excited the regime at all, as much as ensuring inhuman working hours did.

The Union of India, shockingly argued before apex court that no directions need to be issued to it. The children of Bharat who created India for the rich and capitalists have been the worst sufferers of the insensitive attitude of the government. India which has become addicted to their help and cannot survive without their services has also not been attentive to their miseries.

This Radhakrishna Committee report of 2012 hardly came of any use during the most terrible crisis faced by the sector. The Sengupta report was even more indignant at the callousness of successive governments and had suggested several measures like new labour laws and labour rights for the informal sector on the pattern of organised labour. It insisted expanding the social security system available for labour in the informal sector but the Congress regime had already introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in 2005.

But unfortunately the Leftist and Marxist leaders did not hit the streets on theses issues and forced the governments to come to their help. It is not capitalism or caste-based parties that are enemy to the communists in India. The leftists are the worst enemies of their own.

The war on the COVID-19 virus has acquired the character of a war against the working class in India. In parliament, in March this year, the government had stated that there are estimated to be around 100 million (10 crore) inter-state migrant workers. The fact of matter is a vast majority of them lost their livelihoods with the lockdown being imposed. They have lost their places of stay and were driven to desperation by lack of food and shelter for their families. Neoliberal capitalism has consciously informalised the workforce.

The Left’s failure to adapt to new socio-political dynamics, utter lack of any introspection, misplaced priorities and inability to either retain old base or capture a new one has contributed to the Left being relegated to the periphery of Bengal politics.

In the past one used to listen to“Lorai, lorai, lorai, chai, lorai kore bachte chai”, (Fight, fight, fight, we want to live fighting). But this war cry of the Communists no longer resonates in the dusty weather-beaten roads or among the sea of Left supporters paralyzing life in the streets.

Situation might not have arisen if the communists would have used the opportunity to educate and indoctrinate the workers. The capitalists used the politics of economism practised by the communists and Marxists to push them into a corner. It is wrong to say that the left leaders live in the past. They maintain the façade but the reality is they have a complete changed vision and view.

It is also wrong to say that young people were reluctant to join the Marxist parties. True enough the left paries have done precious little to address these issues.. No serious attempt has ever been made to analyse the reasons. The youths are still for Marxism. But the way these leaders have been keeping away from the policies and ideology has turned youths sceptical. Youth love to associate with and adore the forces of protest.

The author, a Kolkata-based senior journalist, can be contacted at sriv52[at]gmail.com

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