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The Left is dead, but India deserves a new Left that dares to think afresh

It would be tragic if the Left were to disappear. For all its failures, it played a critical role in maintaining India’s democratic character.

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The Left is dead. Long live the Left!

That was my first reaction to the dismal performance of the Left parties in this Lok Sabha election. The outcome officially confirmed what was long suspected: Left as an organised entity, as an intellectual and political establishment is as good as dead. Yet, the outcome also underlined the continued relevance of and need for the Left as a political orientation and movement. It invites us to ask a big question: could the death of the orthodox Left herald the birth of a new Left?

For the last 100 years or so, the Left has come to mean a rigid, doctrinal politics. It meant adherence to Marxism, or rather its narrow interpretation by Lenin. This ideology encompassed a theory of history, an analysis of capitalist political economy, a belief in the inevitability of revolution, a vision of state-socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. For much of the Left, the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes were the exemplars of what a future society would look like. This politics was represented by the Communist Party of India, which fragmented over the years into CPI-M(Marxist), CPI-Maoist and several fractions of CPI-ML (Marxist-Leninist).

Also read: Left gave a call to defeat BJP & TMC in Lok Sabha elections, but no one took it seriously

Lowest ever tally

This Left has been in terminal decline for quite some time. Only now, it’s shockingly visible. The lowest-ever tally of five (made respectable by a generous contribution of four seats from Tamil Nadu, thanks to the DMK) indicted something deeper than an electoral setback. The shock defeat of the LDF in Kerala may be a cyclical phenomenon but the wipe-out of the Left in West Bengal and Tripura is not. The way ex-CPI(M) cadre shifted to the BJP in West Bengal indicated a deeper hollowing out of the politics of the parliamentary Left.

The tiny band of ‘non-parliamentary’ Communists, the Maoists who continue to follow the path of armed rebellion against the Indian state, have lost their sense of direction quite some time ago and await final extermination by the security forces. Even in JNU, the last bastion of the Left, it survives only by forming a mahagathbandhan of all Left formations to keep the ABVP and the NSUI at bay.

Also read: The Left massacre of migrant Hindus in Bengal that was bigger than 2002 & 1984

Death of orthodox Left

The death of this orthodox Left is not accidental. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist regimes had already exposed deep contradictions in the theory and practice of the Communist Left: its failure to respect human quest for liberty, its inability to recognise the need for economic incentives and enterprises, and its creation of the sheer bureaucratic monstrosity in the name of state socialism. Besides, as I had argued long ago, the Indian Left never quite understood Indian society: their Euro-centric frame prevented them from meaningfully engaging with the Indian national movement, Indian traditions and religions or taking on the caste system. The surprise is not that the orthodox Left faces a dead-end; the surprise is that it survived nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet, it would be tragic if the Left were to disappear from our public life. For all its failures, the Left played a critical role in maintaining the democratic character of Indian democracy. Its unwavering gaze on the stark economic inequalities kept the inhumanity and corruption of our capitalist system under check. The Left record of governance in West Bengal was not much to write home about, but its role in maintaining Hindu-Muslim unity in one of the most communally charged regions was glorious.

Besides producing some of the finest, selfless and reflective political leaders, the Left also contributed innumerable artists, poets, writers, teachers, journalists, scientists, rationalists and activists in all walks of life. Indian politics and modern Indian culture would be poorer in the absence of the Left.

Also read: Left emerges as No. 1 among biggest losers this Lok Sabha election

Towards a new Left

This is why we need to look for and work towards a new Left. In its deeper, original, meaning, the Left referred to those who were anti-monarchy or anti-establishment. In the nineteenth century, the Left came to be identified with those who believed in equality, before the expression was captured by the Communist Left, post the Russian revolution. In the latter half of the 20th century, the label was occasionally applied to other movements and tendencies as well: civil right movements, feminists and environmentalists. In its broader meaning, Left stands for the idea of equality, for social justice, for participatory democracy, for ecological sustainability. It is to the ‘Left’ of and in opposition to the political establishment, caste hierarchies, patriarchy, and of course, the capitalist order.

There is a rich intellectual and political legacy, globally and within India, to this redefinition of the Left. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution is in this sense Leftist. The Indian socialist tradition – the non-Communist democratic socialists like Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia – provide a ready corpus of ideas for the new Left.

Also read: Under Modi, a resurgent middle India is coming to smash the Left-liberals’ ivory bunkers

Their political legacy – the various factions of the Janata family – is less appealing today. But that deficit can be made up by the peoples’ movements of various hues and inclinations: from movements for right to food, education, information and livelihood to those for gender and caste equality and for sustainable development. These movements and activists draw from various ideologies: environmentalism, feminism, socialism, Marxism, Phule-Ambedkarism, Gandhism and so on. They have diverse political orientation. Many of these groups come from various splinters of the orthodox Left. None of them is capable of creating a new Left on their own. But put together, they contain some of the most powerful ideas, programmes and activists of our time.

A new Left cannot be just an aggregate of the valuable remains of the old. Such unity is necessary but not sufficient. It would take courage to think afresh, to discard wooden-headed ideas about how to achieve a just and equal society, to embrace radically new policies, strategies and tactics to speak a new vocabulary. This might entail replacing the label itself.

The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. What about a straight solution ?…..By the way, do follow my work on Anthropological Economics. It is available on the internet.

  2. Yogendra is ignorant of indian realities. So he sided with bjp in Anna movement. Indian lefts are typically higher caste people, who never connected with downtrodden and poor people who are of lower caste. So left as we see developed in theory only. They should have interpreted Marx for indian conditions. The leadership of communist parties re mn aimed beurza, a contrast. They have not abhorred aggression because they feared it. How can we hope for new left when JNUite like Yogendra sided with wrong people and principles. He still not willing to recognize role of congress, with all its frailties, to remain india a Democratic country, especialy the current autocratic dispensation.

  3. We are the New Left!
    We want Peace.
    Our goal is a state of the world and “a virtue that springs from, a state of mind”. That state of the world and virtue, is a disposition for “benevolence” and “justice”.
    Our means for achieving peace is non-violence, i.e. absence of intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, to cause harm either with certainty or with a high likelihood, to oneself or others.
    The disposition for benevolence and justice, which peace is all about, implies non-violence as an end in itself as well.

  4. Prof. P.Jacob Kurien
    Left & Right have equal share in corruption. The idea of a new left is not that easy. The participatory democracy through Panjayatu Raj
    is the best way to achieve the goal.

  5. The communist parties in Kerala grew after fighting social injustices like temple entry, right to cover the breast etc. etc. We must say that organisational matters were discussed as political matters. To be more clear, party organs and forming of electoral frons were construed as politics . The statement of Yogendra Yadav that The Communist Parties or the left in India failed to understand India is cent per ent correct .

    • Communist parties did not exist when the Upper Cloth agitation took place from 1822 to 1859.

  6. Left is dead long back when it split up… Centerists are new left in this country… If congress has any opportunity to revive itself occupy the space left by left instead of craving to steal a peace of share from BJP in the name of soft hindutva. Cast politics dying next is communal politics though it may take a decade or so… Next big thing is centre left politics

  7. i think in left should be replaced by libertarian politics (or classical liberal if you like).. swatantra bharat paksh, along with the related shetkari sanghatana, is a good effort in this direction.. hope there will be more momentum to the movement

  8. The intellectuals all over the world were impressed by the Marxist analysis of the social strife and were ready to accept the idea that a well defined programme can be implemented for social transformation when revolutions overthrow the feudal imperial regimes. The thought acquired more followers after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the advertisements of the changes effected in the society of Soviet Union. But soon those who tried to see the changes on the ground themselves were disillusioned by the repression of individual freedom in the Practice of Marxist theory. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koesler and many other such books were shocks to the defenders of the Marxist theory. They conviniently accepted that the theory is correct but the implementation in Soviet Union was disastrous because the persons exercising power were bad. But wherever regimes were established in the name of Marxist ideology similar things happened.
    In the name of power of the society the rulers exercise it and opponents are crushed. This happens even in traditional conservative societies and political parties. That means absolute power to any ideologically united group is harmful to the freedom of dissenters.
    The Leftist parties in India have vanished because they were only parroting the theory from Marxist ideology oriented intellectuals and were neither able to study the real problems of the society where they worked nor could resolve the inherent contradictions in the answers to those problems. Their economic policies failed worldwide and can no longer attract as dreams of future “Achhe Din”. They can only criticise and ridicule others when they also fail. But if they have no programme which can convince the people of implementability, how can leftists of different shades unite to form a Mahagathbandhan of New Left. The agenda can be only destructive: only of defeating somebody or hijackings power from somebody. That is seen as leading to anarchy and chaos in the absence of a programme for future.

  9. India has seen enough of the left. Goodbye left. Now it’s time for- cultural conservative and economic liberal party, cultural liberal and economic liberal party.

  10. I would go one step further. Whatever the political / electoral fate of the Left, some of its worthwhile ideas on social justice should be part of the agenda of national / regional parties. In a country where so many are poor or lower middle class, it cannot be otherwise. Instead, the dogma and aspects of economic doctrine need to be discarded, as China has done to its everlasting success.

    • / In a country of so many /

      They are ” so many ” bcoz the successive govts both at centre & states pamper them by freeloader policies, reservations. They just love to triple themselves every generation

    • Social justice is dying in our governance and courts are toothless to defend the Constitution. The weakest link becomes the ministry for minority affairs and disability. Punishment postings for bureaucrats are in these ministries too. The fault lines become more visible and wider when we have majoritarianism taking over all aspects of politics and in turn, have utter disregard to the sustained oppression of the socially and economically weaker sections.
      Infrastructure and big business is money and that seems to be the ultimate incentive for those seeking power among the people. A toilet here, a flyover there, and a railway line elsewhere. That seems enough to win back votes while those are part of the job role anyway. Scientific temper, social sciences, critical reasoning, social justice, independent thinking media and other aspects that were critical in the making of a young India are disappearing. The golden age, unfortunately, is the age of socialist policies. Now we just need to stay relevant between China, the US and the Middle East (our oil suppliers). Even the wiser and older folks in our communities are polarised and hardly raise these issues.

      • Problem of social justice is no one can define it. It means different things to different people

  11. Orthodox Left did incalculable damage to Indian economy and Indian institutions. To say that they helped corruption under check is to ignore the realities all together. The vast bureaucracy to “command and control” the economy comes right out the Leninist playbook and is the leading cause of corruption today. The West Bengal “cut” phenomenon that infects every program was systematized by the left. To call them democratic is also absurd when they themselves said that they were opposed to democracy and wanted a dictatorship. The biggest harm that Left wing ideology did as that it took away India’s best and brightest – normally they would be assets of the nation and turned them into its biggest liabilities. Even this article, with its clear sympathies, shows how our intellectuals continue to flirt and apologize for a movement that left India in tatters. The last thing we need is a “new left”; what we need foremost is an accounting of the damage done by the left before our elites, like this author, take us towards yet another destructive journey.

  12. Left is democratic….???? Where in the world Left was or is democratic….??? Leftist who have more faith in Chinese communist party than in Indian parties or agencies…. History of left in India may be see in Bengal with largest share of their rule….. YY writes…..???? The people have seen that YY is also far away from the ground realities of today’s India like Leftists….. The Gen X with dominant MNC culture needs heavy industrialisation by cutting the non performers….. Bcoz of Leftists Bengal is at the stage of no return…… Nobody wants to listen to YY….

      • Internal democraacy?
        RSS has it as well, provides upward mobility to its members and relies on raw human emotion and early childhood brainwashing to control its cadres
        Fact is CPI and CPI(M) both have old leaderships like Sitaram Yechuri and the Karat Couple who have no new ideas, no will and no incentive to do anything except enjoy their comfortable party positions. They have lost touch with the ground, their cadres have deserted them

        Next in line of destruction is the private limited copany Congress run by the clueless Rahul Gandhi and his senile mother.
        I can see a BJP autocracy taking over India for the coming 30-50 years. Those famed regional satraps sitting in Bihar, Odisha and other states like AP and Telangana will soon sing to BJP’s tune to please the swayamsevaks sitting in the gallery.

        We were always a semi feudal society with elections used as a facade to maintain a democratic image, I suppose BJP has only done the inevitable. From independence to 1990’s it was near Congress rule, 25 years of coalitions and now again a 1 party rule. The bad news is that this buff political arm will reinforce the narrow yet dominant cultural ideology of the RSS. Last time an all male sangha prospered it lasted for centuries. Best of luck to the coming generations……

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