Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The leftovers

Congress can celebrate one more destruction of their Left challengers. But its leadership has to remember that each such moment has led its very illustrious leaders ultimately to decline.

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My favourite on our wall displaying The Indian Express front pages, recording the major turning points in this newspaper’s 75-year history, is the one from January 21, 1957, and not because that is the year I was born, but because it tells how things can endure even as they change over 53 years.

The turning point that earns that front page a place on that wall is that this is when Nehru inaugurated India’s first nuclear reactor in Trombay, and promised that India will not misuse the atom. This is also the day his government announced strict limits on steel use and tougher foreign exchange controls, UN Secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld pleaded with Israelis to vacate Gaza and, reported in a single column, Eisenhower and Nixon took over in Washington.

But the most fascinating is the main lead. Because there were no Election Commission restrictions in those innocent days, Nehru also used his visit to address a three-lakh strong election rally in Chowpatty with what the headline-writer calls a stunning attack on Communists. The report describes Nehru’s condemnation of the Communists as an impassioned challenge of their tall-talk of proletarian revolution.

Now, what are we missing here? A stunning attack by Nehru on the Communists? Just when his own party had taken its most stunning turn to the left, with the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956? This, the mid-fifties, was actually the most Communist phase of Nehru’s own politics, as the purge of the Congress Right was more or less completed and its Left, from Krishna Menon to K.D. Malaviya, rose.

A look at the following decades tells you why it is not such an intriguing contradiction. It is a continuing phenomenon that recent months’ politics has only confirmed: that there is an inverse relationship in India between the decline of the political Left and the rise of the intellectual Left. In the sixties (1969) and the seventies (the Emergency, 1975-77) Indira Gandhi’s policy change was led by Left intellectuals and the CPI (then pro-Moscow) became her tail-wagging supplicant. The political Left could only rise again with her decline, and the banishing of the intellectual Left. The Congress, in short, has perfected the strategy of destroying the Left’s politics by renting and co-opting its ideologues who, unlike its politicians, have no patience for life out of power.

You go back two years, to see how this strategy continues to work. Two years, because that is when the Left’s political power was at its highest point since our independence. Somnath Chatterjee was not telling us a secret when he said that a politburo member boasted that they could order the prime minister to sit or stand up and he would. This is when CPM, and even CPI, leaders had become TV stars; and opinion polls, and reputed publications, were listing Prakash Karat among the top three in their power lists (after Sonia and Manmohan Singh, though some argued that he actually belonged in the middle). Where do he, his party and, most interestingly, his ideology stand now?

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

The nuclear deal, which he had made the test of his party’s new power, is signed, sealed, and now cemented by the nuclear liability bill. And how has that come about? The Congress got Parliament to sanctify the nuclear deal by stealing the Left’s most loyal, largest, and in fact its only Hindi heartland ally, the Samajwadi Party. It has now succeeded in getting the nuclear liability bill passed by winning over the BJP, the Left’s biggest ideological enemy. So within two disastrous years the Left has lost both its closest political ally and its biggest ideological foe to the Congress. Meanwhile, its parliamentary strength has more than halved, and it sits hapless on the wrong side of the only certainty in electoral politics as difficult to call as India’s: the loss of West Bengal and Kerala next year.

And where are its ideological fellow-travellers meanwhile? One by one, these usual suspects are jumping again on the Congress bandwagon, cornering the finest sinecures in showpiece cultural institutions, universities, even the National Advisory Council. Arundhati Roy is praising Sonia and Rahul, while the bhadralok revolutionaries of Bengal, from Mahasweta Devi to Aparna Sen, see Congress ally Mamata as a saviour.

And just when the ideological Left is rising, hailing Rahul’s speech at Niyamgiri and the interventions of Digvijay Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh as the Congress party’s return to its socialist, anti-corporate roots, the fate of their occasional political leaders was underlined just Friday morning in the Lok Sabha discussion on the amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Nishikant Dubey, BJP MP from Jharkhand, held forth in clear support of the bill, which he hoped would also prevent conversions of entire villages by Christians in his state and the rise of mosques and madrasahs all over the country with foreign money. Nobody interrupted or protested. The Left is too isolated, punch-drunk or maybe just nuked-out and, since

Che was after all speaking in support, why would the secular Congress protest?

Congress can therefore celebrate one more destruction of their Left challengers. But its leadership has to remember that each such moment has led its very illustrious leaders ultimately to decline and some disgrace because they allowed Left ideologues to take over their politics and their government. There is enough documented history to leave us with no doubt that Krishna Menon was the one individual more responsible than any for the debacle of 1962, and the fading away of Nehru as a broken, defeated man.

To underline just one fact, the man who fought to keep American domination away from the entire non-aligned world, left behind an American military mission (to help us defend ourselves from the rampaging Chinese he had once so loved) led by a two-star general in New Delhi, the only time in our independent history that we have had substantive foreign military presence. In his death, thus, he was denied the farewell he richly deserved. Krishna Menon, meanwhile, has an important New Delhi road named after him.

Similarly, the first time Mrs Gandhi took a Left turn, she ended up with tax rates of 97 per cent, inflation of 31 per cent and the Hindu rate of growth. The second time, the result was the Emergency which, though hailed by her pinko drum-beaters, would blight her legacy for ever. And, as she lost power in 1977, the ideologues disappeared, where else but to the revolutionary dachas they had gifted themselves in Shanti Niketan, Anand Niketan, West End, Sundar Nagar, Vasant Vihar, Jor Bagh, the sexiest New Delhi enclaves, while leaving us working classes to the mercy of the Delhi Destruction Authority (as the DDA should be more aptly called).

This is what the Congress, and the Gandhis now leading it, have to remember. This is not a case of history repeating itself. This is continuing history. The key question in post-nuclear deal and post-Niyamgiri politics, therefore, is, whether they will prove wiser than the two earlier generations of Gandhis, or again succumb to the same rented pinko charm that ultimately consumed Nehru and Indira.

Also read: Yogendra Yadav gets my Communism grudge right. But prescribes snake oil for India: Shekhar Gupta


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