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What is left of the Left?

As long as there is a dominating status quo, marginalisation and violation of human rights, the Left has a role to play globally and in India, says John Samuel. But the new wave of left politics must go beyond party politics -- to the building of a more ethically driven leadership, a non-violent mass movement seeking economic and political reform, and advocacy for public policies that favour the marginalised and poor

What does 'Left' mean today? How do we contextualise the role of Left politics in the world and India?

The term Left is a relative and comparative category rather than indicative of a clear political ideology or political philosophy.  Left can have multiple connotations in multiple contexts and periods, indicating social democrats, socialists, communists, anarchists, greens and even liberals in the context of the USA. Though it signifies a broad range of politics and policies that seek to change society to be more equitable and egalitarian, the use of the term precedes the movement for socialism or communism in the late-19th century. The Left is generally seen as a political bias in favour of equality, fraternity, freedom and emancipation, with a policy bias in favour of a more active government, welfare state and the marginalised sections or class of people. Right-wing politics is generally perceived in terms of the maintenance of the status quo, conservative values, individualism, reduced role of the government, accumulation of wealth, maximisation of profit and free market ideology.

Though many see ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ as essentially Leftist it is important to remember that Hitler too advocated National Socialism and claimed to work towards an egalitarian society in Germany. The full name of the Nazi Party was the National Socialist German Workers party. The irony is that both Joseph Stalin and Hitler claimed to be socialists and to represent the rights of the working classes, but both were responsible for the death of millions of people. The brutal and murderous regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, too, was supposed to be ‘leftist'.  Many of the early Zionists began as socialists and communists in Europe in the early-20th century. So, various kinds of authoritarian regimes claimed to be Left in their effort to appropriate the entire political space, presumably representing the cause of ‘people’ and ‘workers ‘. The term ‘Left’ therefore has a rather contested trajectory with different connotations at different points of time and contexts.

What does Left mean today? After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a market economy, there were not many examples of the Left as a regime, though on a relative scale various political parties were termed Left or Right based on the perception and political dynamics in a particular country.

It is important to reconceptualise Left politics for the 21st century. While it is good to be informed by the analysis, experiences and experiments of the past, it is important to outgrow the textbook versions of any one model, to relocate a new left politics within the context of democratic governance and justice.

As long as there is a dominating status quo, marginalisation, alienation, discrimination and violation of human rights, the Left has a role to play globally and in India.

The future of Left politics needs to be informed by the original ideals of the Left (freedom, fraternity, rights and justice); however, there is a need to develop a new praxis of governance and government in the context of emerging issues and trends. Though the political party process is important, a new wave of Left politics needs to be shaped beyond the conventional confines of party politics and beyond the mere intention of capturing the power of the State. While party politics is an important factor, when it becomes a part of the status quo itself, the real initiatives for transformative politics will come only from non-party political processes.

The issues and perspectives of gender justice, social-economic and ecological justice should inform Left politics. The principles of dignity, non- discrimination, civil and political rights, and inalienable rights as human beings should inform Left politics.

Left in the context of India

The Constitution of India is a commitment and promise towards a more equitable and just society with the guarantee of human rights. However, even after 64 years of independence, substantive freedom is postponed for millions of Indians. There are still millions of mothers dying in childbirth. It is reported that more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide due to debt and inability to manage small- or medium-scale agriculture. There are also increasing instances of inequality and injustice. There is increasing communalisation of politics and new forms of marginalisation based on caste, creed and identity. One in four Indians may still go to bed hungry.

Though the Nehruvian paradigm of social democracy firmly established the foundation of the new Indian republic and took the first initiatives for affirmative action, India is yet to realise the promises and potential of the Constitution or the ideal of the republic. During the six decades since the country became independent, a new political class with the patronage of new economic elites emerged in India. While new paradigms of urban-centric economic growth models helped to create a new ‘shining’ Indian upper-middle class in the metropolitan cities of India, it also pushed the concerns of the marginalised and poor out of ‘development’ discourse. ‘Development’ was seen more in terms of inequitable economic growth, urban infrastructure, and employment opportunities for the upwardly mobile middle class. And the fact of the matter is that more than 70% of the Indian population, living in villages and small towns, has had hardly any stake in this process of ‘development’.

The neo-liberal policy paradigm promoted ‘development’ in terms of ‘economic growth’ and GDP, at the cost of a majority of Indians who are at the receiving end of sky-rocketing prices of essential commodities, lack of housing or gainful employment and decreasing democratic space to assert themselves. While political parties express their concerns and seek votes on the basis of caste, creed and religion, they often fail to translate the rhetoric of their manifestos into practical policy options in favour of the poor and marginalised. As a result, there has been less investment to support rural employment, sustainable agriculture, rural infrastructure and the social and economic development of the historically marginalised and the minorities.

Historically marginalised sections of people are dalits, adivasis and various kinds of religious and ethnic minorities who form almost 50% of the Indian population. In spite of all the rhetoric of manifestos and ‘vote-bank’ politics during elections, most governments have fallen for the erroneous notion of ‘development’ as ‘economic growth’, along with investment in impressive urban infrastructure. This creates new forms of social and economic inequality. This new form of inequality could breed new forms of social and political violence in India.

The new waves of right-wing fascist formations in the form of the Hindutva agenda create further insecurities among marginalised communities in India. Such political contexts undermine the very promises and ideals of the republic of India.

It is in this context that there is a space and scope for a new Left discourse, promoting equity, justice and socio-economic growth; ensuring human rights and human development to all sections of people, particularly the marginalised sections and the rural poor. A broader Left political discourse needs to include a cross- section of civil society, social movements and political parties. However, the Left agenda needs to be seen beyond the confines of one political party or other because political parties -- including the communist parties in India -- have become mere electoral networks or institutions to win or lose elections and 'capture' the state to enjoy the 'comforts' of power.

So, a Left agenda needs to be seen across political parties and beyond political parties. Political parties are important actors in a democratic process. However, an important item on the Left’s agenda needs to be democratisation and accountability of political parties.

The irony of Indian democracy is that there are an increasing number of political parties based on feudal or semi-feudal values. A significant number of members of parliament are there because of their pedigree rather than their credibility as leaders of the people. The corporate financing of most political parties is at the core of political corruption in India. This leads to a new nexus between the lobby of rich and powerful economic elites and the political ‘managers’ of various political parties. So, increasingly, the economic elites seek to control the apparatus of the State and that of government through their political and media operatives. A handful of economic elites can influence the political and policymaking process by financing political leaders, parties and by indirectly owning or controlling the mainstream media (through stocks or through adversely impacting advertisement revenue). It is this systemic subversion of democracy, annulling the possibility of the promises of the Indian Constitution, and creating more inequality and consequent violence, that is at the core of the crisis of democratic governance in India.

Hence, reclaiming the state and the democratic space in favour of the large majority of the marginalised and poor must be the number one priority of a transformative political process in India. This requires a whole range of coordinated processes: to build a more ethically driven leadership, a non-violent mass movement seeking economic and political reform, and a very clear advocacy agenda to influence public policies in favour of the marginalised and poor. India requires a new socio-political agenda.

In the context of Kerala -- which has had several Leftist governments -- it is difficult to make a distinction between a Left party and others, except in name, because most people belong to a middle class consumerist culture. Old communist dreams were replaced by new consumerist dreams. Though there is lots of rhetoric about workers’ rights, Kerala has a labour deficit, and now there is migration of labour from other states. Though in terms of 'party' and 'election discourse' the term Left prevails, all the main political parties in Kerala are a part of the status quo when it comes to social conservatism and issues of gender, caste and creed. So, the question is, what is left of the Left in Kerala?

In the context of the world, India and Kerala, there is a space and need for a broad Left movement beyond conventional party lines. There is less optimism regarding the long-term role and viability of the communist parties as the only custodians of Left politics, as they stand now. This is due to the fact that in the last 30 years the mainstream communist parties have failed to capture the imagination of the poor and marginalised – the adivasis, dalits, urban poor and others. They were busy enjoying and sustaining the power-base in three states. And in the process, the CPM became a Bengal-Kerala party in its leadership and structure and failed to be a pan-India party. Even in the context of Kerala and Bengal, it was more a question of surviving and sustaining their base as a 'ruling' party. Slowly 'communism' and 'socialism' were for the slogans and rhetoric as the parties in these states became entrenched power establishments with muscle and money power and the arrogance that goes with it.

The fact of the matter is that India needs a vibrant and broad-based Left movement. This has to happen at three levels

a) At the level of the Congress party -- as a network party, it is possible to revitalise the ideals and ideas of Nehru.

b) At the level of communist and socialist parties -- it is time they rethink their strategies and position themselves as a broad-based Left alternative.

c) At the level of civil society initiatives and social movements of non-party politics.

All these three forces, though in different locations, will have to co-ordinate and work together rather than undermine each other. They have to work to resist the capture of the Indian state by the elite, and against communal fascism, inequality, marginalisation and corruption. There has to be a movement for social and political accountability and upholding of the Indian Constitution.

InfoChange News & Features, March 2011