June 13, 2021
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The Left Is Dying, Long Live The Left

The sooner a spineless Left dies, the better it is for Left politics generally…

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The Left Is Dying, Long Live The Left
File - AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal
The Left Is Dying, Long Live The Left

It might be a plain fact that the Indian Left is in decline. It seems uncontroversial to say that it has lost all sense of direction and become properly insignificant. Insignificance is when a party you seek to ally with tells you to merge with them instead—decimate or dissolve yourself. This was the Aam Admi Party's response to sections of the Left that wanted an alliance—'No alliance, but you can merge with us.'

And this snub came while the Left was going to town around early 2014, comparing AAP with Latin American social movements that forged radical-Left coalitions against the "Washington consensus". Prakash Karat of the CPIM claimed AAP is doing precisely what the Left always wanted: "AAP's agenda has long been the Communist programme."

This Left, also known as the official Left, is dying—thankfully.

Even as it dies this Left gets no sympathy, but in fact arouses revulsion and contempt among many. Contempt—not from the dominant Hindutva forces, whom the Left considers its "arch enemy", but from those regarded oppressed and marginalised—large sections of Dalit leaders and parties. The rise of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Musilmeen (MIM) shows that "minorities" also likely have a similar attitude towards the "Left and secular forces".

A very critical-minded Dalit-bahujan intellectual, Kancha Ilaiah, recently declared he wants the Left to just disappear, vanish. The Left is nothing but a bastion of upper caste domination to him. A radical and progressive mind like Ilaiah's refuses to engage more analytically, if not sympathetically, with the layered and complex history of the Left in India. This reveals tons of contempt: It is not even that the Left should die to be remembered as "past". It should be buried and forgotten. No wonder, Dalit organisations that align with the Left have pariah status within the community.

The Left arouses contempt since it engages in endless moralising. It does not tire of acting as the self-appointed guardian and custodian of "democratic values" and "constitutional norms", all so-called. It specialises in judging others as, say, "fascist" or "opportunist", with nothing much going for itself.

Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson is right in pointing out that the "traditional Left" now plays a purely ritualistic function of talking and talking, like a powerless tribal chief of yore. Dressed up as, say, "free speech", this has great ornamental value for a society which lives off its claim of being democratic and free. The Left makes for "dissenting voices", not even biting satire or irony. It contributes to the echo chamber called a "vibrant democracy". What the black Marxist Stuart Hall called "discursive struggle" of the Left against the Thatcherite regime in the UK is now an empty signaling function—some of which decomposes further in the age of social media, and appears as "the moral outrage brigade" on the Internet.

Left and bhadralok intellectuals declare that Dalit parties have become opportunists and are hankering for power, in alliance with Hindutva forces. Dalit leaders are supposed to have failed to live up to the ideals of Ambedkar. Claiming to understand Ambedkar better, the Left now wants to tell or teach the Dalits who the true Ambedkar is. But then even this moralising in itself might not have aroused Dalit contempt for the Left. Forgetting any of its own principles, the Left now suddenly wants to earn some quick points by being more Ambedkarite than the Ambedkarites. Dalit radicals rightly attack this cheap, populist appropriation of Ambedkar, for whom this might be no different than the RSS or Modi appropriating Ambedkar.

It feels like the Left's rejection of opportunist politics or of sectarian/identity politics is a sign of its own irrelevance: Indicating that it is out of the game. It is, however, still part of the enlightened social elite, like the social capital of bhadralok liberals comprising 'old money' and supposed artistic/scholarly excellence. The refinement and hegemonic restraint of the Godard-watching, Tagore-reading liberal is now being challenged by new ascendant elites with "crass" tastes and quick consumerism. An elegant, widely-read Nehru replaced by a Mayawati or a Modi. The waning nawabs in Santranj Ke Khiladi went down playing chess—the Left intellectuals can moralise to their graveyards.

In the game of politics today, the Left's opposition to "opportunist" Dalit alliance with Hindutva parties gets easily presented as proof of the Left's Brahminical character. The Left is placed alongside Brahminical-Hindutva forces. And from this comes the realisation that it is better for Dalits to tactically ally with the powerful Hindutva forces (and win concessions) than with the powerless and self-righteous Left. The Left is the name of what Dalits should assiduously avoid!

Being more Ambedkarite than Ambedkarites is a recent move of the Left. An earlier, older, much practiced move is "being more secular than the secularists". The Left believes that the Indian Constitution is a weapon in the hands of the poor and the minorities, offering Nehru's 1946 Objectives Resolution speech as conclusive proof. This Constitution marks the outer limit of their radical politics. The need to defend "our secular democracy" and "our secular Constitution" alienates the Left from any real Left-wing agenda. The Constitution and its radical promises have numbed the Left to inaction and complacency, completely boxed inside the rules drawn by the liberal bourgeoisie.

Keeping a watch over appointments in FTII, IIT, NCERT and IIMs have therefore become a major preoccupation of the Left. It only shows how much the Left had come to reproduce itself through official institutions, through directorships and chairmanships, how so thoroughly official and institutionalised it had become. It pines not for upheaval but for institutional posts and "institution-building". Who knows, Modi might be truly doing yeoman's service by kicking the Left out of institutions, so that they can again reconnect with the masses. The witch-hunt of progressive NGOs can then be a blessing in disguise, as it can possibly orient left activists towards more political work, away from funded activism.

"Fighting fascism" or "fighting Modi" is clearly part of the Left's struggle to retain its institutional power and clout, its share in the pie. In the meantime, defending the Constitution from "communal-fascists" has lost all meaning, as Modi sits cosy with the Constitution.

The RSS could claim that it wants to rewrite the Constitution and India's history. The Left only wants to defend and preserve this history (secular history) and this Constitution. The Left is fine with history from the viewpoint of Gandhi or a Nehru rather than rewriting it from the standpoint of a Bhagat Singh or the radicals of the 1946 Bombay Naval Uprising. It wants to fight RSS's history-writing not with a working class history of India but with "secular history" or history written by "respectable" historians. It has lost the sense of differentiating "secular history" from history from the standpoint of the working class. It claims Ambedkar, but has forgotten its own teachers. It wants to fight "unbridled capitalism" with Keynesianism or a pro-MNREGA nanny state, or by reviving a decrepit Planning Commission rather than fight capitalism with socialism/communism.

And, finally, the Left is a complete recipe for "how not to fight Modi", as I have argued earlier. This Left is the "ideal Left" conjured up by liberal spin doctors like Ram Guha or secular-progressive talking heads like Mani Shankar Aiyar.

This gives us not even a liberal-Left, but a spineless Left.

The sooner such a Left dies, the better it is for Left politics generally, the better it is for revolutionary struggles in this country. In fact, the Maruti-Suzuki workers struggle (2011-12) in Manesar showed us how a radical struggle against big capital can be organised bypassing the "traditional Left".

Similarly, the Maoist movement, outside the fold of the traditional Left, is creating serious hurdles for the dominant forces. No amount of stifling foreign funds by Modi's government can finish off this movement grounded in the class struggle. These third stream Left forces might not be directly training their guns against a Modi or against the ghar wapsi utterances of a Sakshi Maharaj or Yogi Adityanath—but then they are not into winning brownie points by expressing moral outrage. That is not their priority at all. Instead, they do the work of keeping the soil firm for a revolutionary alternative.

Saroj Giri is assistant professor, political science, Delhi University

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