Why you should care
Because we’re witnessing the last sighs of an international political order.
Part of a series on the future of the political left around the world.
All along the squat buildings lining the railway tracks, there are symbols. A benign-looking flower, orange and green. A sweet lotus. A protective lion. Hammers and sickles. Some of the pictures are followed by a plea: Vote for this image on Election Day! There’s something beautifully, if unintentionally, frank about these campaigns, meant in part to provide illiterate voters with visual cues on poll day: Vote not for the party, the person or the platform — but for the symbol.
It’s election season in a smattering of Indian states, including this one, West Bengal, the northeastern state of some 90 million people (that’s larger than France or Germany). Here, over the course of April, voting is unrolling in six phases, with seven different voting dates. Like any Indian election, it is either a chance for a massive feat of democracy or an imbroglio waiting to happen. Already this cycle, several election workers have been killed, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cited the recent collapse of a bridge (which killed 20 people) as God’s nudge to Bengali citizens to vote out the ruling party.
Still fresh in the minds of Bengalis are the 34 years of Communist rule, which ended five years ago. From 1977 to 2011, the left — composed of a coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M) — reigned. But now, walking around the territory that is the subject of deep political turf wars, leftism is starting to look more like a liberal cocktail-party ornament than a movement. Intellectuals will tell you that the Communists bled the right dreams but royally screwed up their time in office; others will say they might not love the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) party’s Mamata Banerjee — the chief minister — but they certainly aren’t willing to let the Communists take the reins again.
It’s a familiar story by now: The left is a sickly version of its former self. Liberals are stepping toward the center, sometimes toward leaders about whom they feel little passion. (When upper-class Bengalis speak of “Mamata,” one is reminded forcibly of “Hillary” and “Dilma,” two other female leaders criticized for being moderate and diluted, yet more pragmatic than the Bernies or Marina Silvas.) From Latin America to Europe to Asia, radical, ideologically driven leftism is dying off, being replaced by parliamentary politics. But that change is easier said than lived.
It’s already begun. Here in West Bengal, where anyone who lived through the ’70s can recall the blood and danger associated with a hammer and sickle, the Communists are joining hands with a once unthinkable, moderate ally — the Congress Party, as bougie as they come, the party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic family. (The Congress isn’t the same as Banerjee’s TMC.) Embarrassingly, it probably won’t even work. The TMC will likely keep on keeping on, says Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of Government as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India. It’s a battle for the middle: On the right — fringe in Bengal — is Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and on the other end, standing athwart history shouting “stop,” are those who call themselves the left’s last stand.
Night is falling on this village of some 5,000 people in the Hooghly district, north of Kolkata. It’s six kilometers by dusty road to the nearest railway station. Even here, in the several-thousand-square-foot area you could call the town square, the pictorial politics continue. Sajal Adhikari, a schoolteacher, is gathering his small masses under the banners reading Communist Party of India (ML) — or Marxist-Leninist. On the next building over, there’s a weak little lotus representing the BJP — Adhikari’s friend is running for the state assembly on behalf of the far right, and he on behalf of the deep left.
Adhikari is a Brahmin — upper-caste — whose English is minimal, though he holds a graduate degree from Calcutta. He is the kind of Communist who was seduced by the romance of the movement. To understand that, it’s important to note that, decades ago, West Bengal was a more cosmopolitan, industrialized state. Once the erstwhile capital of the British Empire, it was a magnet for both international and Indian business alike. Bhattacharyya recounts a brief history of the left over nearly seven decades: Following partition, which divided Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), agrarian troubles begat food crises in Bengal and peasant discontent.
Little is better for nascent Communists than trouble among the farm laborers — not to mention economically precarious refugees from the East. Hence the rise of the Naxalites, insurgent groups that sought to mobilize a people’s war against the government, including through an industrial decline that knocked West Bengal hard from the 1960s through the ’80s. Adhikari was a preteen during the heat of Naxalite violence in the ’70s — the decade of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, when civil liberties were suspended nationwide and the Naxals went underground. Their rebellion appealed to Adhikari. “First it was the intrigue,” he says. “Then, afterward, came the ideology.”
All the while, Communism was manifesting many times over around the globe, from Cuba to Vietnam. Indian Communism evolved along with the rest of the world; an alphabet soup of parties bubbled up, some taking their inspiration from the USSR, others from China. There were debates over Mao versus Marx. Guerrillas arose and were suppressed. The strange legacies of those years are visible all over India, just as they are in the rest of the world — like the former mayor of Chennai, named M.K. Stalin. Just as the global disintegration began, India’s Communists began unwinding too, says Harihar Bhattacharyya, professor of comparative politics at the University of Burdwan in West Bengal. During the Cold War, he says, nations from Malaysia to Sri Lanka enjoyed international directives from Moscow.
But amid the rubble of the USSR collapse and the Berlin Wall’s crumpling, the direct line behind the Iron Curtain went staticky. And countries were left to maneuver the calcified ideology of revolution, written by men not native to their nations, into the future. Which is when ideology was painted over by ethnic identity, religious parochialism, pure realpolitik and pragmatism, Burdwan’s Bhattacharyya says. If you ask him, Communism was replaced by “market socialism” all over the world, from China to South Africa. “Karl Marx would be rolling in his grave,” he says.
The most famous of the West Bengal Communist letdowns happened here in Hooghly about a decade ago. One of India’s largest corporations, car manufacturer Tata Motors, scoped out a location for its next factory, to make Tata Nano cars. Industry encroaching on land. It was a perfect opportunity for the CPI(M) to live its truth — except it didn’t, instead making concessions to Tata, hoping to attract the factory. Politics happened. For the CPI(ML) supporters in Hooghly district today, the Singur controversy, as it’s called, sets blood boiling. They speak of it in the same tone as a massacre of their brothers.
In the end, Tata didn’t set up shop in West Bengal; it went across the country to Gujarat, the home state of India’s conservative, pro-liberalization, business-friendly political leader, Modi.
Still today, it seems as though the left dominates Bengali politics even in its public absence. Pundits and voters alike take for granted the anchoring effect of those 34 years of the left. The BJP has little chance here. Its state spokesperson Krishanu Mitra is also contesting an election north of Kolkata; 40 years old and baby-faced, he makes a case for his party as being in touch. He talks of creative BJP problem-solvers, like the railway minister who replies quickly to citizens’ tweets, and portrays the Communists as a bunch of old gray-haired bullshitters. It’s a nice speech, but the BJP’s predicted to get only four or five seats in this go.
So how might the tussle for Goldilocks territory change policy? Say the Congress and the left really do link arms. It’ll be a new, bipolar power-balancing game, JNU’s Bhattacharyya explains. Communists like to fiddle with institutions, universities and the like; that’ll be tempered, he says. And economic policy probably won’t involve peasants’ rights conversations. The Communists will cease to look like Communists; by allying with the Congress, they’ll be less able to depend on the party as a kind of proto-government (a la China), there to crack the whip beyond legislation.
Back in Hooghly, the scene is one that an intellectual Communist could be proud of. Surrounding Adhikari are the people on whose behalf he will toil, the toilers themselves. Sadhan Mal, a peasant laborer and local political leader, strolls up, shirtless, wearing only a long white dhoti around his waist. He begins hanging the CPI(ML) banners advertising the rally tonight. He takes to the middle of the dirt road with a megaphone: Comrades, the meeting will start soon! Comrades, come to the meeting!
The comrades fail to assemble. Instead, the main happenings are the cars passing through the village on the way to somewhere else. One stops: an open-backed truck packed with women in bright, dusty saris — adivasis, or indigenous peoples, fresh from work; fellow travelers in the struggle. The men chant inquilab zindabad (“long live the revolution”). The audience includes just a few people lingering in a tea shop, accidental listeners and a group of cops and government election officials, dispatched to monitor and videotape proceedings in case of corruption or intimidation.
A few days earlier, in the Kolkata office of the CPI(ML), I’d shaken hands with Partho Ghosh, the party’s state secretary, an avuncular former physician who found his ideology through books. He was jailed in the ’70s underground years, he says, and describes Naxalites as essentially peace-loving people. “Yes, we do have people contesting elections,” he said, as though that were not the main event. “But we also have other organizations we cannot declare because we’re doing parliamentary politics.” His eyes flashed to the line of portraits hanging around the office — revolutionaries, one after the other, who spilled blood and lost their heads.