Need to enter into political dialogue with different streams of the Left

Prasenjit Bose, former Convenor of the Research Unit of Communist Party of India (Marxist), resigned from the Party a month ago from the party opposing its political deviations. 

Prasenjit Bose

Many  issues have been raised in the debate surrounding my resignation from the CPI (M) on 22 nd  June protesting against the decision to support the Congress led UPA’s nominee in the Presidential elections. This article is an attempt to provide further clarifications on the context in which the decision was taken and explain its political objective.

Context of Resignation

The fact that the CPI (M)’s decision to support Mr. Mukherjee was not based on any sound principles or intelligent tactical considerations has already been borne out by subsequent events. The Trinamul Congress’ (TMC) decision to extend support to Mr. Mukherjee on the eve of the elections put paid to the hopes of “driving a wedge” between the TMC and the Congress at the Centre. The victory of the secular candidate was never at stake; CPI (M)’s decision to abstain in the polls would not have made any difference in the outcome. The point that abstention in polls amounts to non-intervention is facile. The option to abstain exists because it has relevance; had it been meaningless it would not have been there in the first place.

In the present case, abstention could have simultaneously conveyed two messages: that the CPI (M) is neither siding with the candidate supported by the communal BJP nor is it endorsing the record of the Congress led government tainted with anti-people neoliberal policies, relentless price rise and unprecedented corruption. The decision to support Mr. Mukherjee has blurred the second message considerably leading to an unfortunate situation where the Left parties could not maintain their unity on the issue. The official and non-official explanations offered so far have failed to establish why the CPI (M)’s position is superior to that adopted by the CPI and RSP.

Questions have been raised that even if it is the case that the CPI (M)’s position is unconvincing or erroneous, is it a “big enough”  reason for someone to resign from a party? This issue deserves serious consideration. It should be made clear at the outset that had this been the first serious difference that one had with a decision of the party, the question of resignation would not have arisen. Rather than making a letter of resignation public, a note explaining the disagreement with the decision would have been quietly submitted to the party leadership.

However, the fact is that I have been expressing my disagreements inside the party on several issues which have confronted the CPI (M) over the past few years. I had written 6 letters (1 was actually a note) to the CPI (M) Polit Bureau on earlier occasions: on Industrialisation in West Bengal (17.10.2006), on Singur, Nandigram and SEZs (7.02.2007), Note on West Bengal Government (January 2009), on the Loksabha election results (18.05.2009), against the appeal made to “Congress voters” to vote for the Left Front in West Bengal assembly by-elections (3.11.2009) and after the KMC and other municipality elections in West Bengal (3.06.2010). These letters not only contained disagreements and criticisms on major political, theoretical and organizational questions related to the developments in West Bengal, but also suggestions and appeals to the leadership to set things right. These views were not merely private opinions but reflected the concerns and anguish of a number of comrades and well wishers of the party.

The responses received from the leadership, however, became increasingly dismissive and even my right to raise these issues about the party in West Bengal – while being a functionary at the party centre – was questioned. The interventions made in the discussions as a delegate to the 2010 Vijayawada extended CC meeting and 2012 Kozhikode party congress were also interpreted as attempts to create rifts within the party. The matter became particularly painful when fabricated stories started appearing in sections of the media at regular intervals that I was acting at the behest of certain party leaders and trying to settle factional scores against other party leaders. My resignation and going public with the differences on the Presidential election issue needs to be seen in the backdrop of this hostile environment that I found myself in, following attempts to raise issues within appropriate party fora, which I thought were in the best interests of the party and the Left movement.

Two Views

At the heart of the debate over the Presidential election issue are two basic positions related to the CPI (M) and the Left Front in West Bengal. The first view holds that there may have been certain problems with the party in West Bengal, but they were of a relatively minor nature and the basic policy orientation of the Left Front government underlying its industrialization drive and land acquisition spree, was correct. The problems were in their implementation. As per this view, the real reason behind the electoral debacles faced by the Left Front in West Bengal since 2009 was the coming together of the TMC and the Congress, which was facilitated by the Left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA-I government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

It is this understanding which has led some party leaders in West Bengal to desperately try to “drive a wedge” between the TMC and Congress since October 2009, when the CPI (M) supported a Congress candidate as Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation elections. Successive election results since 2010 has already proved the vacuity of such tactics. With or without the Congress, the TMC has been able to defeat the Left Front in most places for the simple reason that a major segment of the Left mass base has shifted over to the TMC. The Left Front vote share in West Bengal has witnessed a steady erosion from over 50% in 2004 Loksabha elections to around 41% in 2011 assembly elections, and there has been a concomitant increase in the vote share of the TMC.

The other position in the debate argues that the problems with the CPI (M) and the Left Front in West Bengal have little to do with the TMC and the Congress coming together. There are much deeper political, organizational and ideological dimensions. The very class orientation of the Left Front government, especially since the 2006 election victory, had become convoluted leading to at least a partial embrace of the neoliberal development model based on wooing corporate capital by providing myriad concessions and diluting the hard won rights of the workers (like the right to strike) and peasants (right to land). The pro-people initiatives of the Left Front government in the spheres of agriculture, rural development, education, health etc. also waned over time. This happened alongside an ascendancy of pernicious trends within the Left [mainly the CPI (M)] like widespread corruption, cronyism, involvement in land and property related racketeering, high-handedness and stifling of democratic space for criticism and dissent – not only inside the party and the Left Front, but also within the society at large, leading to the alienation of large sections of people. The growing unpopularity of the party and the Left Front government was a significant factor behind the failure to effectively combat the heinous violence unleashed by the TMC and the Maoists targeted against grassroots level party cadres and sympathizers across the rural districts since 2008.

In order to make a comeback therefore, the CPI (M) and the Left has no other option but to cleanse itself of its malaises by carrying out thoroughgoing rectification. The alienated masses mainly comprise of the peasantry and the rural poor as well as the urban working class, who also belong to socially deprived sections like the adivasis, dalits, Muslims and linguistic minorities like the Gorkhas. Women have also deserted the Left in a big way given the gender insensitive acts and patriarchal utterances of some Left leaders. Winning back the support of these sections require patient hard work among the masses, raising relevant peoples’ issues and building powerful mass movements both against the reactionary and autocratic TMC led government and the neoliberal Congress led government at the Centre. There is simply no short-cut.

After the 2011 election debacle and the subsequent party conferences, one thought that the first point of view – which arises not only out of a shallow and opportunistic political understanding but also a stubborn refusal to look within and rectify ones mistakes coupled with a hankering to return to power at the earliest opportunity – had been abandoned in favour of the latter. One does not recollect any party document or resolution adopted in the 2012 Kozhikode party congress underlining the need to create “fissures” between the TMC and the Congress. The second view, regarding rectification and building movements, does find some mention.

And yet one found that a mere phone call from the North Block to Alimuddin Street on 14 th  June brought the line of “driving a wedge” between TMC and Congress back into action. To one’s further shock and dismay, the Polit Bureau endorsed the line on 21 st  June without providing any justification whatsoever why supporting the sitting Finance Minister from the Congress in the Presidential elections became necessary even at the cost of breaking Left unity; a mere assertion was made that even as the CPI (M) will support Mr. Mukherjee in the Presidential elections, the struggle against neoliberal policies of the Congress led government will continue. Why did it become at all necessary to clarify that the CPI (M) will continue to struggle against neoliberal policies?

This manner of decision-making, besides being undemocratic and non-transparent, also raises the fundamental question of accountability. Now that the “wedge” could not be driven between the TMC and Congress, and the CPI (M) landed up voting alongside the TMC in favour of the Congress nominee, who takes responsibility for this goof-up? Here lies the basic problem with the structure of the party with regards to inner-party democracy and holding the leadership accountable for its decisions.

Repeating Mistakes

In his 1920 classic on “Left-wing Communism”, Lenin had made a profound observation regarding mistakes being made by a political party: 

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils   in practice   its obligations towards its   class   and the   working people.   Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party…

While Lenin said this in a specific context of a polemical debate within the Communist movement, this principle should hold good not only for all political parties but for any organization which wants to function efficiently and flourish in the long run. When an organization loses the capacity to acknowledge mistakes, identify the reasons behind them and initiate rectification, it is bound to repeat those mistakes eventually leading to its decline and decay. For a political party, this would imply gradual loss of credibility and alienation from the people. 

 
Much public debate has taken place over the stand adopted by the Left parties on the nuclear deal and its eventual withdrawal of support to the UPA-I government in 2008. While the dominant opinion in the mainstream media remained aggressively opposed to the Left’s position and rushed to damn the withdrawal of support by the Left as a political blunder, an informed debate on the issue could never really take place in the public domain because of certain failings of the Left itself, especially the CPI (M). 
 
Left’s opposition to the 123 agreement was not only a principled one from its anti-imperialist ideological outlook but also a well-reasoned one from the point of view of national interests. The Left had argued that the US is trying to entangle India into its military-strategic game in Asia by holding the carrot of imported nuclear power plants and fuel, which in any case is highly costly and unsuitable for India’s energy needs. Subsequent developments have vindicated the Left position: not even a single megawatt of power from imported nuclear plants from the US or France have materialized so far. The US reneged from its promise for a clean NSG waiver and is now busy interfering in India’s law making process to shape our nuclear liability regime to suit American corporate interests. Yet, the UPA government has bent over backwards to toe the US line on Iran by jettisoning the IPI gas pipeline and cutting down oil imports from that country. From issues like Palestine, Libya and Syria to its relations with China and Pakistan, American pressure is distorting India’s independent foreign policy.  

The reasonableness of the Left stand on the nuclear deal should have become clear by now, even to the critics of the Left. However, despite adopting a strong and principled stand on the nuclear deal in 2007-08, the Left had failed to stall the deal from going through. Why did that happen? After deciding to withdraw support from the UPA-I government if it approaches the IAEA for the safeguards agreement in September 2007, the Left changed its stand and allowed the government to approach the IAEA in January 2008. While this change in Left’s position was driven by the CPI (M), the considerations for the change in stand was not made clear during that time, even in the March 2008 Coimbatore party congress of the CPI (M). Once the government was allowed to approach the IAEA the nuclear deal went into the “auto-pilot” mode and this enabled the Congress to cut a deal with Mulayam Singh-Amar Singh to break opposition unity on this issue. From a position of strength in September 2007 when neither the operationalisation of the nuke deal nor the longevity of the government was certain, the Left found itself in the lurch in August 2008, by when not only did the nuclear deal go through but the government survived the trust vote as well. It was onlyh in the 2012 Kozhikode Party Congress that the CPI(M)  officially accepted in its Pol-Org report that: 

The decision to withdraw support should have been implemented in October-November 2007, when the government had to go to the IAEA for talks…Not doing so at that time was a mistake.

The reason cited for not implementing the decision to withdraw support from the Congress-led government in October-November 2007 was the impending Panchayat elections in West Bengal in May 2008, where the Congress and TMC could have come together. This was thus the genesis of the line of “driving a wedge” between the TMC and the Congress. Despite the “wedge” that remained between the Congress and TMC in the 2008 Panchayat elections, the latter made major gains in rural Bengal and won a majority in two zilla parishads. The rural discontent against the CPI (M) and the Left Front was clearly triggered by the events surrounding Nandigram-Singur and other factors like slack implementation of rural development programmes like NREGA, rural electrification, tribal forest rights etc. This was the first elections since 1977 when the CPI (M) and the Left Front suffered electoral reverses and that happened without the TMC and the Congress coming together.

The decision to allow the government to approach the IAEA was therefore based upon a gross miscalculation, that not withdrawing support from the UPA-I government will help the Left Front electorally in West Bengal. Not only did the electoral downslide begin in West Bengal in 2008 but the entire struggle against the nuclear deal was also sabotaged in the process leading to demoralization within the ranks of the Left. The TMC gained in West Bengal and the Congress at the Centre. This eventually led to the major electoral setback for the Left in the 2009 Loksabha elections. Yet, not only was nobody held accountable for the errors, but CPI (M)’s election reviews since 2009 have also tried to obfuscate these important issues till the 2012 Kozhikode party congress. Why did it take 4 long years to admit a mistake made in 2007-08?  Who is held accountable? Where is the scope left for rectification? Why keep facts away from the rank and file on such crucial issues and keep them in the dark?

Despite this sad experience, one thought that the admission of mistake – although coming too late in the day – was sincere and genuine. There was hope and expectation that the political line adopted in the 2012 party congress; of steadfastly fighting the neoliberal and corrupt Congress led regime, isolating the communal BJP and working towards a Left and democratic alternative; would take the party and the Left movement out of the present melancholic state into a phase of vibrant mass movements and broad based unity of Left and democratic forces.

Unfortunately, within months after the party congress one found that the same discredited tactics of “driving a wedge” between the TMC and Congress making a reappearance through the backdoor and leading the party into the decision to support a Congress Finance Minister in the Presidential elections in violation of the political tactical line adopted in the 20 th  party congress. The considerations were as unprincipled as was in the case of allowing the operationalisation of the nuclear deal; the decision making as arbitrary and non-transparent; the political calculations as warped and the eventual outcome as messy. What does one conclude about a leadership which refuses to learn from its past mistakes and repeats them without batting an eyelid?

What Next?

Resignation from the membership of a party, of which one has been a member since 1992, was never an easy decision. But this was done with the purpose of expressing certain views in public so as to initiate a debate both regarding the direction of the Left movement in India as well as the structure and decision-making process within a communist party. In my view, the largest contingent of the Indian Left, the CPI (M), is suffering from a serious problem regarding its political direction. It is caught between contending theoretical as well as tactical positions and unable to resolve the debates in a transparent, democratic and purposeful manner, exposing it to charges of “double-speak” and political inconsistency. This is seriously affecting its credibility.

A major impediment before the purposeful resolution of the debate within the party and the broader Left is the ossified and bureaucratic organizational structure of the CPI (M), which is a relic of the past. Rather than opening up more space for democratic debate and discussion within the party involving the rank and file, which can both politicize the cadres and enthuse them, the decision-making process has become completely top-down: only decisions flow from the top leadership to the grassroots cadres. Feedback from the people or criticisms from below has ceased to flow upwards. Efforts by cadres to raise ideological or political questions are looked with suspicion and considered disruptive. The only forms of dissent that seems to have become acceptable are leaks and planted stories in sections of the corporate media, who have their own favourites and villains to pit against each other.

Besides the criminalization and demonization of forthright dissenting views from within, the friendly criticisms of committed Left intellectuals have also been met with resentment and antipathy. Today, the unofficial explanations emanating from the party headquarters as the “real cause” behind my resignation, ranging from unfulfilled organizational ambitions (how can they be fulfilled if I quit the party?) to hatching a conspiracy with the Maoists and ultra-Left to split the party over the past three years (how could it remain undetected by the party leadership for so long?), shows the ludicrous extents to which intolerance towards any form of political dissent can go. Such ascribing of motives or mala fide intent reflects a deeply sectarian mindset which is quite harmful for the interests of the party and the Left movement.

The last thing that the Indian people needs today is another Communist party. Rather, the problem is that there are simply too many of them. The political context of the 1960-70s, which led to the splits in the Indian Communist movement, has changed quite significantly since the advent of globalisation. The nature of imperialism today and its relationship with India’s big business class, the character and role of the Indian state, the impact of capitalist development in India under the neoliberal regime on the basic classes and the actual strength of socialist forces worldwide, have rendered the programmatic debates of the 1960-70s by and large outdated for contemporary Left praxis. There is much scope for building greater programmatic unity between the different streams of the Indian Left who believe in democratic means to achieve radical social transformation, based on anti-imperialism, progressive policy alternatives to neoliberalism, firm defence of secularism and steadfast pursuit of social justice.

The radical Left forces who have emerged in Latin America in the past decade and more recently in Europe following the economic crisis and anti-austerity movements – particularly in Greece – are throwing up interesting ideas for the Left across the world. The most relevant among them is the need for the Left to become theoretically less sectarian and dogmatic, structurally more democratic and open-ended and in praxis, more radical and dynamic. Can the Left in India engage with these ideas while trying to break the stasis afflicting the movement today? This is the question which I wish to probe through my writings and activism in the days to come, while entering into political dialogue with different streams of the Indian Left in order to explore possibilities of cooperation.

Despite my criticisms, I acknowledge the important role that the CPI (M) continues to play in the Left movement in India as its largest contingent and I appeal to the party leadership not to treat me as an enemy. Please counter my criticisms politically if they are ill-founded or erroneous and introspect if you find some merit in them.

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