In the aftermath of the violence at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley equated “ultra-left” forces with separatists, saying they “were speaking the same language”. In March 2016, Jaitley’s cabinet colleague, Venkaiah Naidu, had said: “Some separatist forces and disgruntled ultra-left are trying to create unrest in certain universities… Leftists are taking advantage of their presence in certain sections of the media. Institutions are carrying disinformation, because they are intolerant. The Communist Party is the most intolerant party in the world.”
Even outside the context of restive universities, the BJP and its ideological forebearer, the RSS, refer to the Left — often as a whole, rather than in its many and splintered shades — to a degree that seems outsize compared with the electoral influence of communist parties in India today. During the demonetisation exercise and the Prime Minister’s attack on “black money”, Minister Uma Bharti said the PM was “following Karl Marx” by trying to create samaanta (equality), and “Left groups across the world should compliment Narendra Modi”.
Naidu, writing in this newspaper, said demonetisation was part of a “new cultural revolution” (November 29, 2016) that would include “ushering in a behavioural change at all levels of society”. The terms and themes Naidu used invoked Mao and his original cultural revolution — even though he did not mention the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.
This engagement with the Left by the RSS and its offshoots, whether as an ideological foe or a political term of reference, is not new. Both the RSS and the (undivided) Communist Party of India (CPI) were formed in 1925. Neither was an umbrella organisation like the Congress which, in the pre-Independence period, had adherents of both Right and Left ideological streams within its fold. The Congress Socialist Party, formed in 1934, had a large number of Marxists and, until 1934, members of the RSS could join the Congress. For the RSS, the communists were the bigger ideological enemy because, like them, they possessed a grand narrative and vision of the future. Politically, though, it was the Congress that had the greatest spread and reach, both before and after 1947.
In 1966, M S “Guruji” Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak of the RSS and one of its most important ideological and political leaders, published A Bunch of Thoughts, in which he identified three “Internal Threats” to the nation: Muslims, Christians and communists. Communists, Golwalkar wrote, were a danger to the Hindu Rashtra because their attempt to “uproot our ancient and life-giving faith, a faith, which has sustained us and produced the finest flowers of human culture, is bound to bring about sure national disaster”. Besides being a product of Europe, communism was a danger also because it made economic exploitation the centre of politics, and contained no appeal to “higher sentiments like patriotism, character and knowledge”, or “any stress on cultural, intellectual and moral development”, Golwalkar wrote.
However, just about a year after A Bunch of Thoughts was published in 1966, the first Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments were formed in several states, often with the support of the CPI. The SVD was a coalition against the Congress, and political exigencies trumped the RSS’s ideological opposition to the Left. The SVD governments were short-lived, and crumbled as their internal contradictions came to the fore.
Both the communists and the Hindu Right saw the dismantling of the Congress as an essential precursor to their own growth and implementation of their grand narrative. For the communists, the Congress was a party of the haves — the bourgeoisie and landlords, classes that were the greatest impediments to an egalitarian society. For the RSS, the Congress’s “compromises” on minorities, Partition, and the idea of Akhand Bharat, and its venality were unacceptable. Its lip-service to diversity and constitutional nationalism was antithetical to the RSS’s idea of India.
Years later, in 1989, the mutual anti-Congressism of the Left (CPI and CPM) and the (RSS-backed) BJP brought them together to support V P Singh’s National Front government from the outside. That government fell after Singh implemented the report of the Mandal Commission on OBC reservations and the BJP started to vigorously pursue the Ram Temple issue. Since that time, the RSS-BJP have only grown in political clout and spread, while the Left’s pockets of influence have steadily shrunk.
An explanation for the current references — both positive and negative — to communists by leaders of the current dispensation may lie in their ideological and organisational roots rather than in the ups and downs of party politics. The core of the RSS has remained aloof from the electoral system, focussing rather on civil society and culture. A look at the pages of Organiser and Panchajanya, the RSS’s publications, shows that it continues to deeply value domains that are not strictly political — school curricula, universities, art, cinema, etc. In many of these areas, the Left has enjoyed an influence far exceeding its political weight — universities and academia in particular have been seen as a bastion of the Left, and the Left continues to have significant support on campuses even in areas where it otherwise has little political influence.
In the tussle for ideological space then, Saffron continues to perceive Red as a challenge, the virtual decimation of the communists in electoral politics notwithstanding. It is not as easy to dismiss the Left as corrupt as it probably is to do to the Congress — so, from the RSS’s perspective, a different strategy is needed. And it is the same as the one Guru Golwalkar articulated more than a half century ago — establish the Left as a foreign construct opposed to the Indian nation, and against its territorial integrity.