Hammer, sickle and a touch of irony
If politics is nothing but a story of crowds and power, then the Indian Left’s recent successes are mind-boggling . Its mainstream variety, led by the CPI(M), has 62 members in the 14th Lok Sabha. This electoral feat, for the first time ever in 60 years of Independent India’s parliamentary history, is the least important of its achievements, though.
Much more vital perhaps is the kind of clout the mainstream Left has managed to buy from the Congress-led coalition government at the Centre in exchange for the life-giving support of those 62 MPs. On a less lawful note, the advances of the radical Left have been equally significant: more than 165 districts of the country are ‘affected’ by naxalite insurgency. Such historic left-wing advances, amid the cheery zeitgeist of the free market, are both ironical and shockingly counter-intuitive .
But then, shouldn’t politics equally be about how crowds are gathered and what is done with power? In that sense, the Left in India could not have been a more constrained, marginal and minor political tendency than it is now. For, it has clearly very little to do with the premises and promises of the original Marxist political project.
The Indian Left is trapped in the prison of, what Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls, parapolitics. Which means that politics is fine as long as it is confined within the framework of some predetermined morality; and is deemed undesirable the moment it seeks to question the so-called rules of the game. The pursuit of state power at all costs frames Indian mainstream politics in its entirety. As a result, an uncritical acceptance of reform-inspired socio-economic restructuring, even when it curbs the freedom and rationality of society and its members, has become di rigeur. And such political delegitimisation of dissent is as much the Left’s own doing as that of its neo-liberal ‘class enemies’ .
The Left’s schizophrenia has, of late, become rather acute. The CPI(M), for instance, sees no contradiction in being at the forefront of militant protests for the rights of people dispossessed by private businesses in various parts of the country, even as it contorts itself preposterously to justify a far higher order of state repression while acquiring (or attempting to acquire ) land from the farmers of Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal.
Indian Leftists can, if they are ready to be a little less stodgy, adopt the terms of neo-liberal discourse — which purportedly seeks to free all associations among human beings from the “distortionary” influences of a superordinate state — to make the proponents of free market a counterproposal for radical democracy. Such creativity would certainly render the Left’s original politics more acceptable. It would eventually also disabuse people of the free-market myth that individual liberty and social equity are mutually exclusive. That would, ultimately, transform liberalisation into its opposite: a programme for social democracy. It would, in the process, expose the bad faith with which the partisans of liberalisation have defined freedom merely as independence of big businesses from state control.
State control does not inevitably guarantee social equity. Equally, an unbridled free market does not automatically ensure that an individual will choose freely and rationally. The Left should, however, figure out that the terms of its traditional ideological-political discourse, which is centred on the state, no longer gels with the current climate of ‘anti-state ’ opinion. After all, the political economy of the Indian public sector has been an essay in inefficiency and unaccountability. Not surprisingly, most Indians today view all politics that demands state protection for certain sections of workers, farmers and other similarly exploited producers as yet another attempt to preserve the coercive and opaque political economy of the state, and its ‘vested interests’ .
The Left can hope to beat such suspicion by shifting the emphasis of its politics from the working-individual to the consuming-being . Only then would its original political project become relevant and intelligible once again. In any case, there is nothing inherently democratic about the modern state. It is not a neutral instrumentality that anybody can grab and use to accomplish anything they will.
The inability, or reluctance, to recognise the undemocratic institutional DNA of the modern state has seriously impacted the prospects of the far Left, too. Maoist insurgents, thanks to their anti-state monomania, have failed to engage with socio-economic institutions and processes that are ‘outside’ the institutional ambit of the state. Worse, they have ended up mirroring the local state in all its coercive iniquity.
Democracy can be meaningfully envisaged, not by setting up an opposition between the market and the state, but in terms of a certain politics that enables individuals to come together of their own free will in order to exercise control over all aspects of their social, economic, and cultural existence. Such politics would also empower people to ask whether the basket of goods and services, which the market currently delivers, captures all the needs of a complete human being. And whether less easily quantifiable things like clean environment, cultural pride and a sense of communitarian connectedness are not equally important.