Of Moral Authority and Political Bankruptcy
(In this article which first appeared in the July 20, 1996 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, Dipankar Bhattacharya joins issue with Aijaz Ahmad whose widely discussed article In the Eye of the Storm: The Left Chooses appeared in the June 1, 1996 issue of the same journal.)
Participation in bourgeois governments has historically been a matter of great debate in the international communist movement. In India, this is perhaps the most manifest programmatic difference that remains till date between the CPI and CPI(M). While the CPI has followed an extremely liberal policy on this question (given an opportunity it has joined all sorts of coalition governments since 1967), the CPI(M) stands for joining only such governments in which it has a decisive presence and say. After the recent Assembly elections, the CPI, for instance, has joined the AGP-led government in Assam with merely 3 members in an Assembly of 126 while the CPI(M), with 2 members, has stayed out.
The outcome of the Eleventh Lok Sabha elections had the Indian communists grappling with this question for the first time at the central level. At the end of the day, the two communist parties seem to have retained their programmatic difference on this score, but evidently not before the CPI(M) passed through a very serious inner-party debate. If the liberal left opinion in the country was overwhelmingly in favour of participation, or to be more precise for lending Jyoti Basu as the Prime Minister of the United Front government, so were almost half the Central Committee including several senior leaders of the party.
Against this backdrop Aijaz Ahmad stands out as a rare exception among pro-CPI(M) intellectuals who says that he was rather worried "that the CPI(M) might - just might, for whatever reason, under whatever pressure - succumb and put in the claim to lead the government" (Ahmad, EPW, 1 June 1996). If this position upheld by Ahmad in what he calls "that awful, prolonged moment of panic" when the BJP having already emerged as the single largest party in the Eleventh Lok Sabha was celebrating its victory with bold claims to power while forces belonging to the still amorphous Third Front were desperately looking for a leader is itself quite remarkable and refreshing, so are the candid and insightful observations with which he argues his case in defence of the CPI(M)'s ultimate decision not to join the UF government. Written basically as a response to the dominant view of "panic and euphoria" among liberal/Left intellectuals who were "a bit too sanguine about what we took to be chances of Hindutva prevailing", believing perhaps in the mythical theories of OBC invincibility and the generous opinion polls predicting a near majority for the NF-LF combine and a virtual sweep in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and then were rather rudely awakened by the poll outcome to the limits of charismatic regional strongmen like Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh and also to disturbing signs of the CPI(M)'s shrinking influence right inside West Bengal, Ahmad's article also appears to give a positive voice to the current spate of disillusionment in Left-liberal circles.
The first part of the article is devoted to examining and exposing the intricate linkages between liberalisation and saffronisation, the two rather inseparable and cardinal strands of the emerging consensus among Indian bourgeoisie. With his incisive and insightful analytical gaze, Ahmad brings out the essential commonality between the Congress and BJP. The slender difference between the two principal parties of the Indian ruling classes today consists only in their respective shades of saffron, or as he puts it, in the difference between programmatic communalism and pragmatic communalism.
Apart from their shared passion for the neo-liberal economic order, the two parties also share a strong streak of rightwing authoritarianism and a reactionary saffronised nationalism which only means coercive centralism in relation to all expressions of sub-national aspirations, aggressive chauvinism vis-a-vis neighbouring countries in general and Pakistan in particular and spineless capitulationism towards all sorts of imperialist pressure. In fact, in a backward country like India, the neo-liberal economic order cannot sustain itself without such a dangerous ideological-political mix. The interests of the Indian bourgeoisie and world imperialism with which the former is ingratiating itself converge on this point of political necessity. Recent Indian history is witness to the fact as to how this atmosphere in turn can facilitate the growth of communal fascist forces. And as Ahmad rightly observes, the difference between communal fascism and rightwing authoritarianism is at best an academic one, not only for the minorities but for the overwhelming majority of Indian people as well.
Returning to the question of CPI(M)'s participation in the UF government, Ahmad's rejection of this option is however based not so much on the strategic perspective of a communist party in a country like India as on his assessment of the situation at hand. To use his own analogy, barbarians are at the gate, but fascism has not yet arrived. So it would be wrong to play the ace on the first move in a knee-jerk reaction. Otherwise, Ahmad too feels that "a condition of national emergency exists" and it is precisely on this count that he justifies the CPI(M)'s alliance with forces like Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh and their ilk, who excel in scamsterism and many of whom are also "deeply hostile" to socialism which in turn also renders their secularism "profoundly suspect". Ahmad however chooses to understate the centrality of this alliance in the overall politics of the CPI(M) when he describes it as "some sort of understanding in order to try and forge an alliance of sorts against the emerging consensus of the ruling class on saffronisation of Indian politics".
Ahmad correctly points out that the United Front was not so much interested in the CPI(M)'s participation as in Jyoti Basu's premiership. The so-called liberal order in India has long perfected this art of detaching individual communist leaders from their parties and integrating them into its own framework. Such examples are galore in CPI and even today the political establishment can be seen singling out Indrajit Gupta, the best parliamentarian and not the party general secretary, for a similar kind of treatment. In Bihar too, Laloo Prasad has little interest in allying with the CPI as a party as in having his own nominees inside the party ensconsced as the party secretary or as the party's members of parliament. United front politics is always a two-way traffic. While communist parties seek to alter the balance of class and political forces by forging alliances, the liberal order too obviously has its own agenda for and interpretation of such arrangements.
Going by the CPI(M)'s own programme, the question of the party's participation in the central government should not have arisen at all, or at any rate deserved such serious consideration at the level of the party's highest policy-making forum. Yet the question arose and the party debated it with utmost urgency. It must have been a unique event in the annals of the international communist movement when a second emergency meeting of the party central committee was convened at the request of the "allies" to discuss the issue of participation and premiership after the CC had already discussed the issue threadbare and closed the chapter. If inside the CPI(M) there can be such a huge constituency in favour of participation, is it really surprising that the liberal Left intelligentsia associated with the party should also clamour for taking up this "new challenge"?
In fact, the CPI(M)'s decision not to join the United Front government has come as a surprise to many and quite logically so. Apart from the fact that the CPI(M) has been running the country's most stable state government in West Bengal since 1977, nationally the CPI(M) is best known by the enormous interest it takes and the energy it expends in putting the centrist castle in order. And to be fair to the CPI(M) and true to facts, the CPI(M) does it in its capacity as an all-India communist party and not as a regional entity like TDP, DMK or AGP. Granting what Ahmad calls "the most obvious material fact about the Left", namely "its overwhelming weakness and its inability to break out of its regional sequestration", does not reduce the Left to the status of a regional formation. It is not the West Bengal unit of CPI(M) which allies with the JD in Bihar or the Samajwadi Party in UP, nor is the alliance with TDP in Andhra maintained by the Kerala unit of CPI(M). The alliances have a direct bearing on Left forces in those states and the absolute centrality accorded by the central leadership of CPI(M) to these alliances stems not from the party's obvious material weakness in these states or merely "for the sake of the minorities and the secular forces in the country", the party considers it the crucial tactical recipe for growth and expansion in these states and for the advancement of its overall all-India interests and priorities.
Given the cardinal position the alliance occupies in the CPI(M)'s overall framework, in terms of both theory and practice, the party's decision not to participate in the United Front government seems more like a routine vow of communist celibacy than an obvious decision rooted in the party programme. Unlike the Morarji Desai government in 1977 which was known as the Janata Party government or the VP Singh government in 1989 which was known as the National Front government, the present government headed by Deve Gowda is run in the name of the United Front and the CPI(M) and its Left Front is an integral constituent of this Front as is the JD, SP or the Federal Front of regional parties. The CPI(M) played a key role in formulating the Common Minimum Programme for the United Front and Comrades HKS Surjeet and Jyoti Basu are important members of the steering committee which is supposed to run the show at the political level. Is this not participation in the government by other means?
The issue at stake would therefore seem to be not so much participation per se as the form of such participation. Ahmad discusses it in terms of "moral authority" and "accumulation of hegemony", some other commentator may interpret it merely in terms of practical political convenience or necessity. But in the best interests of the Left movement and for the sake of the working people, it is preferable to treat the debate in its programmatic perspective with reference to the current challenges facing the Indian communists. If the programme of a communist party is to be taken as a living guide to the party's living action, then it is obvious that there exists quite a gap between the CPI(M)'s programme and its current practice. That given its existing programme the CPI(M) could come so far in practice where the gap becomes so visible as a gaping wound is itself a pointer to the very centrist nature and genesis of the party's programme. But for sections of CPI(M) members who still care about the programme and for forces in the Left camp as a whole, the point of interest at this juncture would be to see which way the party chooses to bridge this gap - by 'updating' the programme to bring it in accordance with the party's ongoing practice or by initiating a struggle and rectification inside the party in line with the perspective provided by the programme.
Ahmad argues that the CPI(M)'s basic asset is its moral authority which is "very much far in excess of its numerical strength". By refusing to join the government and yet going out of its way to facilitate its formation and survival, the CPI(M) has not only not staked and squandered this moral authority but has raised it to a much higher level. This is what he calls in Gramscian parlance "the accumulation of hegemony", the earning by the party of its right (another of those post-dated cheques?) to rule the country at a future date when its moral authority is backed by a matching material strength. What does this celebrated moral authority consist of? Ahmad is quite clear and candid in tracing its sources:
"This authority exists because of an odd reversal of roles in "the world's largest democracy", in which all the political parties that represent the liberal order are seen as flouting the basic democratic norms and attempting to subvert the Constitution itself, while Communists have come to be accepted as the most honest defenders of democracy and the Constitution. The party is seen by large sections of the politically interested public as accepting the obligations and prerogatives laid out in the constitution, even when the exercise of some of those prerogatives work against the interests of the party, as in a thousand forms of direct and indirect interferences that the centre routinely exercises in relation to the CPI(M)-ruled states, not to speak of the fact that agreeing to form state governments within the republic of the venal bourgeoisie, and scrupulously observing the limits inherent in a constitutional order that vests most of the authority in the centre, is itself an act of enormous restraint. And the party is seen as defending constitutional norms even when its own interests are not at stake, as in the famous instance when Namboodiripad forcefully intervened in the tussle between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh that threatened to break those norms. Furthermore, as one judges from whatever one glimpse one gets of its internal functioning, CPI(M)'s 'democratic centralism' seems to offer relatively more inner party democracy than any of the so-called 'democratic parties', notably the Congress, the supposed pillar of Indian democracy."
Before we take a closer look at this moral authority, let us note that this thesis of central discrimination against the CPI(M)-ruled government in West Bengal presents an intriguing riddle. It was not difficult to substantiate this thesis in relation to the first communist-led government in Kerala which was toppled by the Centre while trying to implement certain relatively radical reforms. In fact, that toppling served as an early public demonstration of the growing rightwing centralising bias beneath the Left and federal proclamations of the Congress government at the Centre. But West Bengal, especially since 1977, has been a different story altogether. There have been cases of numerous state governments being toppled since 1977 - in fact most of the toppling cases have taken place in the post-77 phase - and some even coming back with an electoral mandate, but West Bengal has never been touched by this turbulence. If the earlier system of industrial licensing and freight equalisation is to be taken as the clinching evidence of central discrimination, as CPI(M) leaders have always made it out to be, it was not a specific discrimination against the Left government in West Bengal. And more problematically, it is on this ground of abolition of industrial licensing and freight equalisation that the CPI(M) has welcomed, albeit 'partially and conditionally', the new economic policy of liberalisation and globalisation and decided to make the most of the newly opened up opportunities of industrialisation by directly hobnobbing with imperialist capital, a fact which has made Ahmad regret that West Bengal's "industrial policy is not as sharply differentiated from the centre as it should be". In fact, the CPI(M) has always defended its participation in state governments - now with its uninterrupted stint in power for two decades it has virtually become the natural ruling party of West Bengal - on the plea that it is not the state governments which are the real repositories of state power in India, an argument it would have been denied in the event of its participation in the central government. With the emerging emphasis on economic federalism in the era of liberalisation (a euphemism for greater and direct penetration of MNCs in the states and closer collaborations between regional (agro-based?) bourgeoisie and imperialist capital), CPI(M) would in fact be under increasing pressure to take the power it has in the states more seriously and behave even more responsibly.
Be that as it may, from the above appraisal of the CPI(M)'s bulging bank-balance of moral authority, it is clear that this authority is just the other name for the CPI(M)'s smooth and satisfactory track record in the test of compatibility and dependability vis-a-vis India's liberal political establishment (the term is being used in its best constitutional connotation and not in a pejorative sense). What sort of hegemony can be expected to accumulate on this basis, especially as far as the Left's basic social constituencies are concerned? Does hegemony in the Gramscian sense grow spontaneously on the soil of material weakness just on the strength of HYV seeds (home-grown and patented!) of moral renunciation? Can a communist party, a party which does not want to end up as a social democratic party or a slightly leftwingish version of the Janata Dal, expand its hegemony on the basis of negative virtues, merely by being less corrupt, less lumpenised, less communal than any of the other major parties on offer? If the answer is yes, only Ram can save the CPI(M) in Hindu India from its social-democratic nemesis. But if the answer is no, then hegemony is to grow on the basis of the party's positive achievements, whether in the states it is and has for long been in power or for that matter on the different fronts of its political practice among and concerning the working people in particular.
Looked at from this point of view, the West Bengal experience and the party's whole "national line" for that matter should clearly call for a thorughgoing review and introspection, something which has been meticulously avoided by the party leadership in congress after congress. Why is it that even a commentator as sympathetic as Ahmad has to regret that West Bengal's "industrial policy is not as sharply differentiated from that of the centre as it should be ... and that Calcutta is fast becoming a White city in the midst of a Red countryside"? Talking of Calcutta alone may be misleading, barring a few pockets in North 24 Parganas, the entire industrial and working class belt covering Howrah, Hooghly and Burdwan has acquired an equally whitish (anaemic?) complexion after this election and it is a pattern growing since the last municipal poll in the state. What is happening to the party's moral authority and accumulation of hegemony right inside West Bengal and within the working class whose party the CPI(M) is supposed to be? And while Ahmad has certainly admitted that "one could add many other harsher criticisms", he has chosen not to mention another disturbing area in CPI(M)-ruled West Bengal, namely, the much discussed abuse of human rights: the record number of custodial deaths, the state-sponsored protection and promotion of Runu Guha Niyogis and the mysterious disappearance of Bhikhari Paswans?
In the event of Jyoti Basu assuming the stewardship of the UF ship, Ahmad visualises two possible case-scenarios of shipwreck apart from the insidious process of shipwreck being caused from within by the decay, degeneration and eventual dissolution of the UF into the scam-studded, saffronised, globalising consensus of the Indian ruling classes. One case-scenario is that having come so close to power and yet being denied a stint, the saffron brigade would have gone on a rampage a la Advani's rathyatra and the subsequent marauders' march to Ayodhya and after. An explosive situation the poor premier would have been hard put to tackle - the bourgeois state would not have come to his rescue and nor does he have an army of communist partisans. In a mocking, near-contemptuous tone (in desperation?) Ahmad asks, "Do you have an army of communist partisans? Do you call on Vinod Mishra?" The other scenario is that the captains of industry and the sundry string-pullers of the Indian and global economy would have precipitated an acute economic crisis complete with the fast vanishing rupee losing its way in the spiralling maze of inflation and an overnight exodus of capital leaving the entire economy in dire straits.
The first scenario of course looks quite a possibility, and for all the constitutional improprieties and presidential indiscretions that the present President may be justifiably accused of, with hindsight it appears that his invitation to Vajpayee did help abort this possibility. As for the second, while it is pointless to join issue with Ahmad in such a conjectural competition may it be noted that if Basu's name was being discussed so seriously as the first (or was it the second?) choice of the UF for premiership, it was not only because of his moral stature and commanding charisma but also because of his proven track record of compatibility (nay leadership) in relation to the neo-liberal economic order of the day? And if economic policy could really become the embarrassing Achilles' heel for the CPI(M) (though Ahmad would like us to believe that it is not so much the CPI(M) but its other partners in the Left Front who are "hard on 'Hindutva' but soft on liberalisation"), it would be interesting to see how the CPI(M) tackles its own UF government going hammer and tongs on the economic front first with the austerity measures and now with this biggest ever hike in the pricers of petrol and petroleum products.
Coming back to the first possibility and Ahmad's mocking reference to the question of an army of communist partisans, does he choose to forget that in the only historically recorded case of defeat of fascism, the defeat was inflicted by none but the best army of communist partisans the world has ever known? Nor is Vinod Mishra any mysterious commander of a communist army operating from some ISI- or CIA-backed camp in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Myanmar who can be asked to hire out his squads of armed communist partisans. If Mishra's name has come to be associated with the concept of communist partisans in contemporary India, it is because such peasant fighters have indeed been generated and tempered by the fierce anti-feudal class struggles that have been and are still being waged by the communist party of which Mishra is the general secretary. The undivided CPI too had such contingents of communist partisans in the Telangana days. The CPI(M) too can have and will surely need such squads if it shifts its emphasis from its currently number one priority of accumulating moral authority through constitutionalism to the neglected area of building class struggle of landless labourers and poor peasantry in the countryside. May it also be pointed out that Mishra's so-called army of communist partisans has indeed played and is still playing a key role in combating the communal fascist menace in Bihar. In India fascism too has a strong feudal content and the emergence of the Ranvir Sena, the latest in the series of private armies of the landed gentry in central Bihar, with its strong ties with the BJP is a clear testimony to this fact.
Ahmad sees in the formation of the United Front the glorious materialisation of the CPI(M)'s priority project of working out a national coalition of secular and democratic forces. But he also shares with us a number of candid and insightful observations regarding the front and its constituents. It is a front "two-thirds (of which are) ... anti-communist and rightwing", he says in one place. At another place he predicts that because of the delicate balance of numbers, the would-be United Front cabinet is likely to be decorated, if not packed, with "rank 'liberalisers', scam-ridden crooks, and representatives of charge-sheeted criminals". He is also clear, if quite cynically so, that the MPs of the curious coalition called the UF would hopefully be able to hold out against the BJP's attempts to buy them up, for "(they) have smelled power - power of their own - which will give them the chance to make far more money than a one-shot bribe can"!
Summing up the significance of the United Front, he also writes in a more theoretical vein, "Meanwhile, the UF is also an authentic expression of contemporary liberal order of the Indian bourgeoisie, in that it accurately represents the shift of political gravity toward the states of the south and toward the capital gravitating and growing there, in new industries, new information technologies, agro-based accumulations, and research and development complexes, even as to the west, where similar accumulation processes are also at work, BJP holds Gujarat quite firmly and shares Maharashtra with Shiv Sena and the Congress. It is also quite possible that in case the UF actually comes to power, it will start supervising a transition in Indian politics from the inherited mechanisms of viceregal centralisation to the American-style negotiations among constituent states as they are represented by regional leaders, racketeers and strongmen; within the predicates of the liberal order, we could confer on this process the title of 'democratisation'." Call it democratisation or federalisation, but let us note in passing that just as the mechanisms of viceregal centralisation were once inherited from the now retired masters of British colonialism, this possible transition to the so-called "American-style negotiations" would be taking place in the shadow of the American imperialism. If that happens it would signify not just a questionable victory for federalists of diverse hues, but also an unprecedented penetration and consolidation of the economic interests and political influence of the American imperialists.
One tends to agree with Ahmad in his characterisation of the UF on the whole, but it is difficult to share such generous generalisations as the following: "Its most redeeming feature is that it is profoundly opposed to saffron, represents a pluralisation of regional aspirations and populisms, is on the whole anti-brahminical in its caste politics without the stridencies and caste opportunisms of a Kanshi Ram". Just a few paragraphs before, Ahmad correctly exposes the essentially illiberal rightwing character of India's liberal order and remarks that "Far from saving us from Hindutva, it is precisely the political and economic liberalism of the Indian bourgeoisie and its managing committee, the Indian state, that has brought us to this impasse". We are also told that Deve Gowda is "at the cutting edge of the class offensive of a newly emergent but already very powerful fraction of the Indian big bourgeoisie, namely, the agro-based barons" and that "the UF is also an authentic expression of contemporary liberal order of the Indian bourgeoisie". If between themselves the BJP and Congress represent an ideological-political continuum, a consensus on liberalisation as well as saffronisation, albeit with a difference of shades, and if the UF is also an emerging authentic expression of the contemporary liberal order, can there really be a rupture of any consequence on just one point of this continuum, namely on the issue of secularism?
There can of course be two ways of tackling fascism. "In the entire history of fascism", says Ahmad, "fascist takeovers have required two preconditions: a fully-fledged crisis of the constituted state, and an insurgent working class aspiring to seize power". Accordingly, we have often seen a defensive line or response emanating from within Left-liberal circles which esentially boils down to preaching an unqualified defence of the state and maintenance of class peace and harmony, lest the fascists are 'provoked unnecessarily'. But such lines of least resistance have always proved counter-productive in history. Any genuine and effective anti-fascist agenda in India has to be the real democratic agenda without any dilution. And there can be no democratic agenda in backward India which is not vigorously anti-feudal and anti-imperialist. In a popular tactical framework this project was initially designated as the process of building an anti-Congress, anti-BJP Left and democratic front. Even though communist parties in India are still known as communist parties and not as social-democratic parties or slightly leftwingish versions of the Janata Dal, this project has however acquired a new name over time: Non-Congress, Non-BJP Government of Secular and Democratic Forces. This theorisation has been perfected through successive experiments and exercises in united front practice, from supporting a National Front government together with the BJP to participating, directly or indirectly, in a United Front government backed by the Congress. The issue of secularism or opposition to communal fascism has been skillfully but suicidally separated from its counterparts in the overall democratic agenda and a false theory of stages has been introduced. Secularism, however saffronised, first and at all costs; everything else can wait. It is precisely this political bankruptcy (call it moral authority if you will) of the dominant forces of the Indian Left which has brought us to the present impasse where the CPI(M) is either accused of cowardice for having missed the historic opportunity by not heading a secular government or lauded to heights of moral authority for playing the dutiful midwife's role in managing the birth pangs of the emerging "authentic expression of contemporary liberal order of the Indian bourgeoisie".
Balancing his optimism of the will with its "necessary complement", the pessimism of the intellect, Ahmad concludes his survey of the unfolding Indian scene with the caution that "the reprieve (provided by the coming to power of the UF government) should be used, above all, to put one's own house in order, before the Congress, or someone else from within the UF, trips the wire". A timely reminder, but will we, the Left in India, heed it?