The Indian Left stands, undaunted, despite a concerted effort to remove it from the political scene. As the election for the 15th parliament picks up in the early summer heat, Communist candidates across the country fan out to seek votes from the massive Indian electorate (close to 800 million eligible voters, with 400 million at the very least set to enter the polling booths). These Communists mainly come from three political parties:
(1) Communist Party of India [CPI], the oldest of the three, which was the closest to the USSR and lost a great deal of its strength when the USSR collapsed.
(2) Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M], created in a split from the CPI in 1964, when the CPI-M felt that the CPI was too close to Congress and unwilling, at that time, to develop mass struggles of a revolutionary character. It is the largest Communist Party in India.
(3) Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [Liberation], emerged in the 1980s from the underground Maoist movement. In 1967, communists of the CPI-M broke with their party to pursue an armed struggle. They were largely decimated by an aggressive state machinery. Fifteen years later, a section of the Maoists came above ground to form Liberation, which is mainly based in the Indian state of Bihar.
Since the 1970s, the CPI and the CPI-M have been part of the Left Front, an electoral and political formation to unite their strength. The Liberation party remains outside. All three parties have been targets of the Maoists, who remain underground and operate with the view that the Leftist parties are an impediment to their leadership of the Left pole. In West Bengal alone, between May 2011 and January 2014 one hundred and thirty nine cadre of the Left Front (mainly CPI-M) were murdered by Maoists and their allies.
The ruling bloc has done its level best to obliterate Communist parties from the national stage. Murder is the most common tactic, but more subtle ones are perhaps more effective, such as an ideological barrage about the infeasibility of the program of the Left. That the ruling bloc in India has a set of policies that continue to create misery rather than happiness for the public has been insufficient by itself — the promises of an abundance of commodities delivered through the mass media inoculates the ruling classes from the reality of their policies, namely that 800 million Indians live in conditions of deprivation (according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company).
Misery does not by itself create a politics to confront its causes. It can lead in many directions, including into the arms of populist leaders who use misery to further their own sectional agenda or into the arms of divisive political formations (grounded in religious bigotry) that blame some who are poor for the suffering of others who are poor. It is not misery that keeps the communist movement alive. Instead, it is a series of other factors:
First, a rich arena of social struggle that was seeded by the national movement against British colonialism and then allowed to flourish — except for some moments such as the Emergency of 1975-77 — in the independence era. This space of public politics remains open to many tendencies, and it is enriched by political plurality. It is the reason why Indian communism — as opposed to the Maoists — accept the importance of multi-party democracy.
Secondly, an independent political interpretation of social reality. The CPI-M broke with the CPI partly because the former did not want to dependent on the Soviet Union or on third world nationalism for its assessment of the world situation and of Indian reality. A revolutionary theory that is close to the actual configuration of classes and to the level of consciousness of the different class fractions is essential. The CPI-M was able to develop its own theory, which saved it when the third world project went into abeyance in the 1980s and when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Thirdly, consistent struggles of the Left using a variety of innovative strategies and tactics to drive an agenda in neo-liberal times, when the agricultural crisis has become acute and trade union politics difficult on a terrain of free trade areas and “race to the bottom” industrial policy. The CPI-M’s mass organization, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), pioneered the theory of inter-sectoral organization — taking seriously every aspect of struggle (caste, family, and religion for example), not assuming that these are universal problems and yet bringing the weight of solidarity to them. The CPI-M’s General Secretary Prakash Karat told the party a few years ago, “We have to take up the problems of those sections of the people who have been most adversely affected by the neo-liberal regime.” What he meant was that the party had to go among the unorganized, work in slums, seek out distress and join in with struggles, seeding others. Across the country “untouchability” eradication fronts and tribal unity organizations came out of these struggles, and they themselves provoked new fights. It is the leaders of these battles that are now standing as candidates for the parliament under the hammer and sickle.
Fourth, the Left has also fought to produce an alternative policy agenda, apart from the neo-liberal one that is the consensus amongst the bourgeois parties. Tough experiences in governance in Kerala and West Bengal have taught the Left what is possible and what must be fought for. Errors of judgment and policy have been the schools for the new alternative plan that the candidates take to the people. The CPI-M manifesto is by far the most progressive on the horizon, including social matters of great importance such as an end to the death penalty, the de-criminalization of same sex relationships and a policy framework to combat violence against women.
The Indian Left is an unfinished project. It is fighting to maintain its bases in this election — in Tripura, Kerala and West Bengal — and to expand into areas where its mass struggles have not been consolidated into political power. It is also fighting to develop its own revolutionary assessment of the complex and fast-moving Indian social reality. These are not easy times for the Left. But it is made easier by the forthright work of the millions of Left Front cadres and sympathizers who want to produce a world that is much better than this one.