THE Marxists, here used as shorthand for the CPI(M), have been part of the Indian democratic process for decades, and currently run governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The CPI(M) was born in 1964 when it broke away from India’s first communist party, the CPI. Behind the parting of the ways was the Sino-Soviet split: the CPI loyally hung on to the Soviet coat-tails while the CPI(M) turned to revolutionary China, won elections and introduced land reforms in West Bengal.
When the Chinese communists opted for perestroika cum liberalisation, the CPI(M) made peace with capitalism and worked out a modus vivendi with big business and industrialists both Indian and foreign. Their current position is best illustrated by the 2005 Wikileaks cable sent by American Charge d’Affaires Robert O Blake reporting his conversation with Prakash Karat who could ‘walk a fine line and draw subtle distinctions in policy". "We have no phobia" reportedly said Karat, "against foreigners ...", rather the party is for increased Indo-US trade without compromising India’s Independence, "wary of grand visions" and has only one basic agenda for the whole of India - land reform. Only on this last point is there significant difference between Marxists and other Indian bourgeois parties. Otherwise by blindly aping corporate China Indian Marxists have lost the radical space to Maoist followers of revolutionary China.
However political culture changes slowly. Given the left of centre orientation of the Indian intelligentsia, and with sympathisers in various parties and amongst the academia and media, Marxists have developed an influence in certain areas of policy-making out of all proportion to their political presence and representation in Parliament. In foreign policy they vigorously oppose attempts by India to reorient her policies towards the USA and Israel, criticising growing relations and forcing the GoI to maintain a hostile public profile - while they themselves at state level, like the Centre, actively pursue tie-ups with US and Israeli companies. In the educational field their intellectuals still maintain a stranglehold over many institutions, while in certain disciplines like history or sociology their ideological direction continues to govern research and publication. Despite paying lip service to Swami Vivekananda as a Bengali hero, they still harass the institutions of the Ramakrishna Mission. Such influences are unlikely to come to an abrupt end if and when they lose political power.
However from a long term perspective Indian Marxists of whatever stripe are vulnerable; they have shown little capacity for independent theorising (with the exception of MN Roy); there is no recognisable Indian school of communism comparable to say, Gramsci-influenced Italian communism or Mao’s Chinese communism to provide a distinctive identity.
Have the communists become redundant? They have certainly diluted their ideology to the point of making nonsense of classical Marxism. As Karat says, the ‘grand vision’ has now become suspect, though role model China seems to be in search of a defining ethos, minus human rights of course, that can justify its one-party system, intolerance of free speech and dissent, brutal suppression of religious movements like the Falun Gong, party control of education and commerce despite the introduction of private enterprise and embourgeoisement of certain sections of society. These anachronistic totalitarian tools undergird the CCP’s bid to retain power in an ideological vacuum and strengthen the military-industrial state. So what the Chinese communists and their progeny are left with is the grin of the ideological Cheshire cat or perhaps scowl more than grin.
The question remains can the communist parties (and both are said to be about to reunite) as they are today perform some useful role in India? Marxism (and Socialism before it) developed in response to the glaring negativities of capitalism in the 19th century-although capitalism has gone through many phases since then from the several eras of the industrial to the post-industrial revolution, it is an unpredictable beast and problems and crises keep arising. In India especially, with a spectrum of development from tribal economies to the IT and nuclear industries, there is urgent need for maintaining a challenge and an interlocution with capitalism to curb its ‘rampant’ tendencies.
The market does not reduce inequality, business does not often show a sense of social responsibility and the collapse of world communism has shown there are no ‘quick-fix’ solutions to achieving national and global equitableness. In such a situation, given the uncertainties on all sides (the latest global recession included) Indian communist parties today, though ideologically less robust, might perform a useful role as interlocutors in the process of navigating the unchartered waters of economic liberalism. However in so far as they have metamorphosed into centrism, they have lost their cutting edge: their considerable heft in economic affairs has markedly lessened after the introduction of liberalisation, and they themselves seem to have somersaulted backwards into 19th century capitalism if their actions in Nandigram are anything to go by.
Therefore there is no special reason for the CPI(M) to capture this open political space. Just as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh was able to become the largest trade union in India due to Dattopant Thengadi’s vision and drive, there is no reason why issues pertaining to tribal lands and welfare cannot be part of a larger political agenda for another political party or social organisation. Indeed the BJP, which is already in the field, could upstage the Maoists by more energetically bringing the struggle of the tribals and dispossessed into a mainstream legal framework and away from armed resistance and extortion.
But there is no room for complacency either. The Marxists have a well networked cadre of which some hard core should remain once the bandwagoners and opportunists have left. Losing power can be good for any party - it provides an opportunity for rethinking and ‘introspection’ should the party so choose. A return to power depends as much on the refurbished party as on the government that has replaced it - after the Janata decisively defeated the Emergency-tainted Congress government in 1977, Indira Gandhi bounced back at the next election thanks to the Janata’s own internal bickering and incompetence. The BJP’s strength in the 1989 Lok Sabha swelled to 85 MPs after having only two in the post-Indira Gandhi assassination election in1984. And there is always the surprise result epitomised by Harry Truman’s upset victory in 1948. So the communists may be down they are not out, and much depends on how other democratic parties position themselves and act in the post-election situation.