Towards new tomorrows

Poverty can be removed in ten years… Less than one-fourth of the total public outlay can remove poverty. Policy packages, including some land redistribution exist, but they will not be delivered.’ — Raj Krishna 1979, cited by Vijay Prashad (p. 43).

Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Salvador Allende all rejected the Soviet model, and the United States was terrified that their systems would succeed, because they were no doctrinal obsessives. Neither, as Vijay Prashad’s commanding knowledge of the material shows, are the Indian left. Whatever the left parties’ disagreements and their apparent disarray following electoral defeats, the Left constitute almost the only grouping in India who still discuss political economy. Meanwhile those purportedly in control of the state collude with the emerging oligopoly to reduce public discourse to pseudo-technical questions of input, output, and aggregate growth, and the economy continues to be dominated by primitive accumulation and the expropriation of resources from people who have a constitutional right to sovereignty over India’s natural wealth.

The predicaments of the Indian left and of those who, when they have the chance, persistently show that they want the country’s public institutions to function properly, can look desperate. Yet the poorest of voters, as Javeed Alam has shown, repeatedly use with great shrewdness even the minimal power the bourgeois state grants them, and communist MPs are among India’s finest elected representatives, often uncovering colossal scandals despite enormous resistance.

The context in which the latter work is worse than bleak; Prashad’s first chapter, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, exposes the control India’s landowning elites and emerging capitalists gained over the Indian National Congress long before Independence – but the elites knew they needed Gandhi to unify the dispossessed as the political force which would deliver India to them. That duly happened. Jawaharlal Nehru, always nervous of socialism, gave the biggest family businesses everything they wanted in the 1944 Bombay Plan; that protected them against the foreign competition they feared terribly, and created the licence-pemit raj so that they could obtain the licences to manufacture goods and then either not manufacture them or produce goods of legendary shoddiness. Some things do not change; recently, a selection of Indian cars (all global brands) failed a weakened version of an international crash-safety test.

The Left were as involved as the prospective oligopolists in the struggle over the direction of the Independence movement; that meant working to ensure the acceptance of their major policies and warding off the utterly reactionary Congress high command, which – like the colonials - used spies against them. Fierce debate on the Left resulted in their staying with the Congress, but this divided the Left and meant that India gained Independence on the minimum terms, namely the departure of the colonials and nothing else. Gandhi’s idea of sarvodaya disappeared, and in 1956 Nehru acknowledged that India’s economy had been handed to the rich; by 1965, 75 family firms owned 47 per cent of India’s private-sector businesses.

Socialist groups were, however, never insignificant during the Independence struggle or after it, and repeatedly organised the inchoate industrial working class as well as Dalits and rural tribes in struggles about which Gandhi and Nehru said little. Yet many bitter lessons lay in store; after Independence, left movements quickly divided along caste lines, and from the mid-1970s onwards some left parties even joined electoral forces with the Hindu Right, in moves Prashad all but calls betrayal.

The left’s situation can look almost impossible; struggles from below, often responses to the brutality of the state and the economic system, have been violently crushed again and again. Yet the left as a whole have known that they have to adapt to working among those whom Lenin called ‘large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life.’ This is never easy; the 1964 Communist Party split was damaging enough, and more recent violence by and among left parties in or out of state-level office raises the question of whether a party-based left still exists, but the Indian left have never been as rigid as they are claimed to be. As early as the 1940s they rejected the Soviet Union’s attempts to use them as agents of foreign policy, and Maoist factions have not done well in elections. In addition, few if any of the major left leaders, including E.M.S. Namboodiripad, have been great readers of Marx.

Even in respect of practical politics, however, the Indian left seem to have paid little attention to the electoral system, which severely disadvantages them. In 2009, they won 79 Lok Sabha seats, but a fully proportional system would have given them 115, mainly at the expense of the other two main blocs; the Congress would have been down from their actual 262 to 202, and the BJP would have slipped from 159 to 134. The colonial government had rejected proportional systems on the racist grounds that they were too complicated for Indians to understand, and shortly after Independence the Constituent Assembly dismissed PR on the same grounds.

The left, nevertheless, can find fresh inspiration in areas which, as Prashad notes, must be addressed urgently — communalism, caste oppression and gender discrimination, the position of women in an often shockingly and brutally patriarchal society. Prashad’s passion for the subject and his meticulous research combine to show that for the left, new tomorrows await.

NO FREE LEFT — The Futures of Indian Communism: Vijay Prashad; LeftWord Books, 2254/2A Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, New Delhi-110008. Rs 995.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 6:35:26 PM |

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