It was the tenth anniversary of the historic revolution in Russia that shook the world by establishing that the real power lay in the hands of common people who could rise up to overthrow their exploiters. The future prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru paid his first ever visit to the land of socialism that he had been studying minutely since the earliest days of the revolution. In Russia, Nehru strove to find a solution to the struggles of a colonised India. He studied the works of Marx and Lenin and admitted that he was greatly influenced by their ideologies of development. “We began a new phase in our struggle for freedom in India at about the same time as the October Revolution led by the great Lenin. We admired Lenin whose example influenced us greatly,” he wrote later.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Indians were slowly but steadily acquainting themselves with the Gandhian philosophy of peaceful confrontation as a means to overpower their colonial rulers. The Russian revolution, however, set in a new course in the trajectory of nationalist struggle. The Marxist ideology of the working class, overthrowing the propertied exploiter, by sheer force, struck a chord deep within the hearts of the agitators of nationalism. The appeal was almost uniform among all those looking for an alternative to the Gandhian mode of peaceful demonstration, and in fact, inspired even a staunch Gandhian like Nehru. The aggressive revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, is noted to have studied in detail the life of Lenin and the Communist Manifesto during his time in jail. So deep was his attachment to the Russian philosophy, that his last wish was to complete reading the life of Lenin. Down South, on the other hand, the social activist Periyar, who started the ‘self-respect movement’ and also the Dravida Kazhagham, is known to have drawn inspiration from the Russian Communist method of bringing social justice, which he thought was best applicable to the plight of the lower castes in India. But, of course, it was M N Roy, the founder of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who was personally mentored by Lenin in Russia to prepare Indian soil for revolution against the foreign colonisers.
The history of Left politics in India runs deep into the very heart of the freedom struggle. It can hardly be denied that both the freedom struggle and the political landscape of free India was for the longest period of time hued in various shades of red. “It is very difficult to conceptualise Leftism in terms of one country of India as a whole. You need to think of the cultural specificity of the context in which you are talking about ideology. For instance, Periyar drew on empowerment of underprivileged. Now this is leftist ideology, but this is also the ideology of Jyotirao Phule, of Hinduism, of Jainism,” explains political scientist Bidyut Chakrabarty speaking about the unique way in which Leftism in India developed in close ties with the culture in which it was rooted.
A party is born
Despite the broad appeal of Left ideology though, it was MN Roy’s CPI and its later offshoots that went on to become the face of Left politics in India. During its initial days, the CPI focused on mobilising peasants and workers towards a revolutionary cause, while at the same time influencing the Congress in developing a sturdy Left leaning ideology. However, having its roots in the international Communist movement meant that the CPI struggled hard to keep its feet rooted in the nationalist movement. Trouble arose when in the 1940s Gandhi launched the Quit India movement against the British almost at the same time when the Soviet Union urged the CPI to back the British war efforts in the fight against Fascism. In their efforts to please the Russians, they alienated themselves from the nationalist struggle.
Post-Independence though, the party sprung back to form leading armed struggles in several principalities where the princely rulers were reluctant to give up on power. Most noteworthy among these was the rebellion against the Nizam of Hyderabad. In Manipur and Bihar too, the party made its ideological impact felt strong in terms of the agrarian and trade union movements they led. By 1952, it realised the need to occupy the space of governance rather than just the streets and decided to embrace parliamentary politics. Having been successful in garnering enough support among some sections of the Indian population, it soon emerged as the first leading opposition party that the Congress faced.
Soon after, the party experienced its first-ever electoral success in the state of Kerala in the 1957 Legislative Assembly elections. Two decades later the party gained a footing in West Bengal and soon after in Tripura.
By the early 1960s, however, the international conditions affecting Communism had altered yet again, the ripples of which would be felt strongly in the Left politics of India. The Soviet Union and China (two most important Communist powers of the world) were at daggers drawn over ideological implications of Left politics. The Chinese, led by Mao Zedong, denounced the Russians for leaning towards the West as a diplomatic means of spreading Communism, rather than leading to an armed struggle. The ideological conflict between the two countries had its immediate effect on the CPI, drawing sturdy lines between those who leaned towards a Soviet philosophy and those who supported the Chinese. The political soil in India too was conducive to the conflict within the CPI. The Indo-China border war in 1962 affected the politics within the party with one section backing Nehru, while the other radical section opposed to what they believed was an unqualified aggression towards China.
The party splits
The internal politics within the CPI soon manifested itself in the famous split of 1964, when the radical section leaning towards China walked out of a meeting held in Delhi, calling themselves the ‘real communist party’. Soon after they would form the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), which eventually overshadowed the CPI in parliamentary politics.
Three years after the split of 1964, however, there was yet another dissension within the CPI-M, with a faction of radicals claiming that the party, engrossed in parliamentary politics, had given up on the original cause of armed revolution. In 1969, this group, led by Charu Mazumdar led violent attacks at Naxalbari in North Bengal in an effort to replicate a Chinese revolution. The movement was soon crushed when the CPI-M, which was at that moment part of a coalition government in Bengal, came down heavily upon it, ironically accusing it of drawing inspiration from Mao, rather than following what India stood for. Despite the failure of Mazumdar’s movement though, the revolution he attempted to ignite, established the roots of what is now the Maoist movement in the country.
The recurring splits within the party, primarily based on what precisely the Marxist ideology entailed, however, could not shake the Left’s influence on the three states it had gained control over in the 50s and 60s. In Kerala the Left Front kept alternating with the Congress in presiding over the government, in West Bengal the CPI-M, once elected to power in 1977 under Jyoti Basu’s leadership, held on to power for the three decades. In Tripura too the CPI-M came to power in 1988, and except a brief moment of Congress rule between 1992 and 1998, the state was governed by the Left up until the overthrown by the BJP earlier this month.
The saffron challenge
Interestingly, while the Congress and the Left kept tussling for power in these three states, they were rather insulated from the approach of saffron in their territory for years. “The sort of ideological disposition that Jan Sangh had it was not culturally conducive to draw on Bengali psyche. For instance, in Bengal Ram Navami has no appeal because Bengalis don’t have anything called Ram Navami in our cultural universe,” says Chakrabarty explaining why the Jan Sangh could not effectively make space for itself in West Bengal in opposition to the Congress. He extended the same argument to Kerala as well, where he said historically, a rich cultural tradition of internationalism existed that could not cohabit with the ideological leanings of the Jan Sangh or the BJP that was rooted in a nationalist spirit.
However, what is noteworthy is that cultural tradition and ideological positioning of a certain community can never decide the fate of a party in electoral politics. This was first made evident when the Left suffered a drastic loss of power in West Bengal in 2011 to the All India Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee. The policy of rapid industrialisation of the state since 1994, leading to a spree of forcible land acquisitions soon alienated large sections of the rural population, made space for an alternative political party to take center stage.
But a ruder shock for the Left was yet to come in March 2018, when the BJP made history by introducing saffron to the land of red in Tripura. The trouncing of the ruling party has raised serious questions over both the future of Left politics in India and the extent to which the ideology of Marx has been effective in improving the practical realities of everyday life in India. “When you think of elections in India, they are decided not on the basis of ideological priorities but on the basis of people’s disillusionment with the ruling authority. If you look at Tripura, do you think BJP has got any cultural authority there? I doubt it. BJP has won because people are disillusioned with the incumbent Left Front government,” says Chakrabarty.
As Narendra Modi’s party makes its first-ever inroads into a Left bastion, the real question on everyone’s mind is if the era of Left politics in India is about to meet its end. “In India Left ideology has evolved in contrast with the prevalent system of government led by Congress. Since it is oppositional politics, conceptually it cannot be over ever,” explains Chakrabarty.