The elevation of D Raja to General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) is a historic step. Raja is not only a well-known national communist leader but also a Dalit leader who rose to the status of a seasoned communist, theoretician and inspirational figure. Ever since the pro and anti-Mandal movements changed the course of Indian politics, Raja has been the only communist leader from within the left parties to negotiate between Dalit-Bahujans and communists as a authentic voice.
After Damodaram Sanjivayya, even the Congress has not made a Dalit party president. The BJP promoted Bangaru Laxman, not a very well-known leader in his own right, to the party president’s post. Unfortunately, Laxman was caught on camera accepting cash in a sting operation. The only Dalit who has served with distinction as the President of India is K R Narayanan, an intellectual in his own capacity. Ram Nath Kovind is in office now and we will have to wait and see the imprint he will leave on that office.
The CPI first split in 1964. The breakaway group, the CPM, split again with Maoist factions leaving the party. These Left parties could not become a national alternative in the settled constitutional-democratic set up of India. Even so, the CPI remains the fountainhead of the communist ideology, though the CPM has a bigger following and electoral strength.
With the Mandal movement and the growth of Ambedkarite ideology shifting the social and political status of the Dalits-Bahujans, the communist parties suffered a moral setback. In the long history of their existence, since 1925, not a single Dalit leader could become general secretary of either the CPI or CPM. By elevating Raja at this juncture, and since no ruling party has so far produced a leader of Raja’s stature within the party structure — including the Congress, BJP and CPM — the CPI has salvaged the communist movement from the stigma of prejudice.
Though Raja has earned his new position, his party deserves appreciation given the fact that the CPM has not promoted a single Dalit or Adivasi to its Politburo. This is the reason why the Dalit/Adivasi forces see no difference between the CPM and the RSS, which has also not promoted a single Dalit/Adivasi to the top ranks.
The communists need to lead by example, not just by talking. They must understand that the lower-caste masses have produced their own intellectuals who can judge everybody by deeds. As Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China said, if the communist movement is like a wave in the “Sea of People”, the leaders are like the foam that emerge from the waves. But in India, the waves came from the Dalit-Bahujan communities — as workers, peasants and labour — and the leaders came from outside the waves, from the upper castes. The communist leadership from the early days should have cultivated a Dalit-Bahujan leadership, at least from West Bengal and Kerala. But they did not. That gave the impression that the upper-caste leaders were deliberately keeping the Dalit/Adivasi activists at the mass level, never allowing them to become the foam atop the wave.
In a way, the Indian communist leaders believed more in Lenin who said that the intellectual leadership comes from outside the working class. For example, the Brahmins were never supporters of the communist movement but the communist intellectual leaders came from among the Brahmins. These people were always with the RSS-BJP, as these formations were close to their socio-spiritual heart and mind. On the contrary, the Dalit/OBC masses were with communist parties but not many intellectual leaders have emerged from them. Of course, education and intellectual exposure were a problem among the base mass of the communist parties. This is why their special focus should have been to train leaders from the base. By the time an intellectual class from these communities emerged from universities like JNU, Ambedkarism had generated suspicion among the left-leaning Dalit/OBC youth that the top leadership in the communist parties does not allow lower castes to emerge as leaders.
Raja’s elevation definitely creates a new atmosphere between the Left and Ambedkarite circles, as Raja maintained a living relationship between the two. Raja has emerged from Tamil Nadu, which has a long history of lower caste leadership emerging from the days of Periyar E V Ramasamy. Karunanidhi emerged from a barber community (whose ancestors were temple musicians and singers). Now, Raja has emerged from a Dalit community. But Raja’s own talent, the sagacity to be a communist through thick and thin, cannot be undermined.
Raja is a non-sectarian leader who can engage with any group without leaving his ideological ground. He is more suited to unite the parliamentary communist parties and groups and take India on the path of Nepal. One hopes that the CPM also uses this opportunity to bring in positive changes in the communist movement.
(Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author)