Saturday, May 21, 2011

THE LEFT What’s Left To Be Said? A few things. For a balance in polity, a source of necessary dissent, they matter. SABA NAQVI

What's Left To Be Said?
A few things. For a balance in polity, a source of necessary dissent, they matter.

Progressive Report

  • Governance Common Minimum Programme in UPA-I acts as safety valve against runaway neo-liberal policies and corruption that have dogged UPA-II
  • Foreign Policy Opposition to civilian nuclear bill results in a more balanced legislation; stalls nation's sellout in name of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs)
  • Liberalisation Vociferous opposition to opening up the banking and insurance sectors helps shield India from the global downturn of 2008-09
  • Price Rise In demanding that checking food and fuel inflation should have priority over growth, Left bats for the poor and marginalised
  • Food Insists that State not sacrifice the poor in reforming public distribution system; shadow of Left pressure over food security moves in UPA-II
  • Privatisation Left interventions slow the pace of privatisation of health and education sectors, which is getting beyond the reach of the common man
  • Environment In opposing untested GM food crops and seeking ban on life-threatening pesticides, Left takes up cudgels for small farmers/consumers
  • Education Left concerns about entry of foreign universities aid social equity via affordable education and reservations; right to education is Left legacy
  • Employment Left's key push for the national rural employment guarantee scheme in UPA-I results in the ground-breaking NREGA legislation
  • Small Business Millions of small-store owners retain their source of livelihood thanks to Left's questioning of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail
  • Workers' Rights Public sector workers owe their jobs to Left's insistence during UPA-I that it immediately reverse NDA's relentless privatisation drive
  • Tribal Rights Enactment of forest rights bill gives traditional communities who have lived on forest land for centuries right to their land
  • Parliament Reservation of 33% seats for women becomes a common ideal thanks to Left insistence; raises level of parliamentary discourse on vital issues


They may have been trapped in their own jargon, blinded by their own many little tyrannies. But the Left in India represents an idea that was always bigger than its electoral strength. In a country where there is mass poverty and deprivation, a Left voice has been the sound of our social conscience. And no matter how uneven its ability to impact policy has been in recent years, the Communist parties did at least articulate a point of view that highlighted, and sometimes halted, the risks in rushing to transform into a market economy. The question now is: do we celebrate the "demise" of the Left as the mainstream media appears to be doing or do we stop and reflect on what it means for the ideas that created India? Moreover, is the Left indeed in danger of imminent expiry or has it already been reborn away from the turgid Communist party structure, perhaps to reside somewhere else?

"If concern for poor defines Left, then Deendayal Upadhyaya and Indira Gandhi were Leftists too."M.M. Joshi, BJP Leader
On the national stage, particularly in Parliament, the traditional Left has always had greater influence than its actual numbers. Its MPs, now just 24 in the Lok Sabha, have been forceful in taking stands on issues that do matter. They advocate a greater role for the state and regulation for market forces. Since no other national or regional political party in India has a consistent stand on such issues, the reduced clout of the Left is worrying. Besides, as Sitaram Yechury of the the CPI(M) says, "the Left has shaped a consciousness that cannot be measured in electoral terms...we have always defended the secular democratic republic even when parties like the Congress have faltered."

In terms of policies, it has been the Left MPs' strong critique of disinvestment, opposition to the overall 'America tilt' in policy (as seen in the Indo-US nuclear deal) and the opening up of more and more sectors to the market that has been significant in recent decades. As their parliamentary numbers have reduced, they may have failed to stem the rush to the market in the era of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, but they have at least made a huge public racket and gone down fighting on critical policy issues. Political scientist Zoya Hassan says: "The Left matters because it can visualise going beyond the current obsession with nine per cent economic growth. We need the Left critique to take forward the democratic struggles against structural inequalities."

United Stand The Left initiative on 33% reservation for women saw women of all ideological hues make common cause

"If so little is left of the Left, it's due to their own sins of omission and commission. Congress ideas are its own."Jayanthi Natarajan, Cong Spokesperson
But did they really matter anymore? And did the organised Communist parties not lose the plot years ago as far as people's struggle was concerned? Historian and author Dilip Simeon says leftism can be seen both as a political/doctrinal phenomenon as well as a social one. "I have often told my friends that working class movements precede their ideological interpretation of them!" In other words, he argues that outside the party structure, there are several resistance movements against SEZs and land acquisition (such as the ones in Nandigram and Singur), campaigns for RTI and employment, movements against dams and mines that can all be seen as "left". The problem, he says, with both the organised Communist parties and guerrilla groups is that "they believe in the notion of an absolute truth and think it is both desirable and can be achieved". In effect, then, they talk to each other in lots of ideological jargon and lose any connect with real issues or ability to really change anything.

The other problem for the Left is that as far as the spirit of the welfare state and development indices go, they have performed poorly in their own domains. And ironically, it is the forces of the right which are seen as the better performers today on the sadak-bijli-paani front in certain BJP-ruled states. That is why the BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi asks: "How do you define the Left? If it is based on concern for the poor, then Deendayal Upadhyaya and Indira Gandhi were also great leftists. There is a radical left among Christian priests and Islamists and our philosophers and saints can be called leftist by your definition. But if you define the Left in terms of policies, then no political party today really speaks for the poor. The Congress makes a charade of it while market forces dominate." But Joshi agrees that the MPs of the Left are "well prepared" because they have a system of discussing policy issues as the old Jan Sangh or early BJP once did.

"The Left's loss is a victory for those who want to put everything on the market, and that's a huge tragedy."Saibal Gupta, Economist
Besides, if the Left is to be defined as a state of mind, then aren't Sonia Gandhi and Rahul trying their best to attain it? Rahul, in particular, has been labouring rather hard in the May sun on the issue of land acquisition by the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh. Obviously, he would be hoping that the Greater Noida land issue can be a Nandigram-type disaster for Mayawati, but the realities of Bengal and the Hindi heartland are vastly different. Patna-based economist Saibal Gupta, for instance, argues that one of the great setbacks for the Left in Bengal was the fact that they never incorporated the backwards in the power structure. "The upper-caste bhadralok dominated the political structure, and the entire social justice movement bypassed the state. In states like Andhra Pradesh, agricultural growth led to the creation of a first generation of top-class industrialists. This could not happen in Bengal because of the social nature of the regime." Indeed, one little-known nugget that is revealing about the Left is that West Bengal is the only state where the percentage of upper-caste mlas actually increased between 1972 and 1996 from 38 to 50 per cent. The Left Front began its reign in 1977. The intermediary castes were never accommodated. In 2001, the percentage of upper-caste mlas fell to 38 per cent but upper-caste ministers remained at 51 per cent.

People's Party A Left rally to protest anti-farmer, anti-worker policies of the government in Delhi

Yet, for all his critique of the Left and strong support to the welfare policies pursued by the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar, Saibal Gupta also laments the current state of the Communists. "The Left has been one of the anchors for the argument that the state plays an important role, and outlay for state must increase," he says. "Their loss is a victory for those who want to put everything on the market, and that is a great tragedy for a country like India."

Of course, the Congress argues that they are the keepers of the flame of concern for the aam aadmi. Spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan says, "Please ask why so little is left of the Left. It is due to their own sins of omission and commission. Why ask us if we are trying to be left-wing? The Congress represents its own ideas that come from the concern for the poorest citizen in a democracy."

"We've always defended the secular democratic republic even when parties like Congress have faltered."Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) Leader
It is also touted that the "spirit of the left" now resides in structures like the NAC set up by Sonia Gandhi. With the exception of a couple of members, however, most appointees have no experience of people's movements. They are appointees of the regime, and with notable exceptions, the majority would never critique it. Indeed, if the Congress is to be seen as the preserve of some residual leftism, then it is at best the model of a benevolent welfare state with a very simple ideology of worshipping members of one family and occasionally promoting egalitarian policies.

The decline of the Left is not something that happened on May 13 when the results of the assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala came in. They ran out of governance ideas in their own states years ago, their student movements and trade unions have been in decline for years, and nothing new or creative has been thrown up for decades. States like Tamil Nadu and some run by the BJP manage welfare schemes much better than the comrades.

But the Left remained good at hectoring on certain crucial issues. And every now and then it forcefully made a point about "selling off the nation". On the national platform, in an age of great corruption and moral decay, that certainly is a point worth making.

Done in by their own hubris, Left intellectuals never learned to accept criticism
Will the Left's losses lead to a surge in the economic reforms agenda? Not so fast.
How actionable is the Left's instinctive anti-Americanism now?
It would be best for CPI and CPI(M) to unite. Just a thought.
It had been 'Ek dhakka aur do' time ever since 2009 Lok Sabha election —the power punch was delivered last week

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