Fear of the Unfamiliar: Responding to Patnaik – Partho Sarathi Ray
[Partho Sarathi Ray writes this response to Prabhat Patnaik. It was first published in Sanhati.]
A spectre is haunting the CPI(M)- the spectre of the People. All the powers of the old Left (or to borrow their term, the “organized Left”) have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prakash Karat, Prabhat Patnaik and N. Ram, party cadres and state police.
The first step in the process of exorcism is delegitimization. The resistance of the people of Singur and Nandigram has long been attempted to be delegitimized by attributing it to the so-called unholy alliance of the Trinamool Congress, Jamaat and the Maoists. That is familiar terrain, to
brand all opposition as the handiwork of right wing or ultra Left forces, and hence deny it’s political legitimacy. However, what was unfamiliar for the CPI(M) was “so many intellectuals suddenly turn(ing) against the Party with such amazing fury on this issue”. That tens of thousands of common people would accompany these intellectuals, many of them long time fellow-travellers and supporters of the Left Front, out on the streets in a spontaneous show of outrage and protest was something totally unfamiliar to the CPI(M), which has converted “the people” into a fetish. And, Prabhat
Patnaik’s essay seems to have been born out of a fear of this unfamiliar.
The problem for the CPI(M), and for Prof. Patnaik, has been the category in which these intellectuals could be included in order to rationalize this unfamiliar phenomenon, and to delegitimize their protest. Here they were, marching under no party banners, vociferously opposing the party with which several of them were associated till “yesterday”. Prof. Patnaik, in his essay, first tries to suggest that these intellectuals were basically “anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPI(M)), belonging as they do to the erstwhile “socialist” groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of “Free Thinkers”, and to various shades of “populism””. But he himself finds this explanation wanting, in his black and white world of “either you are with us or against us”, as “they did make common cause with it (the CPIM) on several issues till recently”. So he opens up a new line of attack, the ultimate rationalization, of accusing these intellectuals of not just being anti-”organized Left”, but being anti-political. He thinks that once it is possible to attribute their opposition to a “withdrawal from politics”, to a “messianic moralization”, it can be proved to be devoid of any political content, and correspondingly attributing the resistance of the peasants to the handiwork of Trinamool Congress, the Jamaat and Maoists, the spectre of the people rising up can be firmly put to rest. This is a dangerous stratagem of denying all legitimacy to the opposition from the intellectuals, of making it “smug, self-righteous, self-adulatory, and, above all, empty”.
Why is this cunning rationalization required? I would be presumptuous to remind Prof. Patnaik the etymology of the word “political”. It derives from the Greek politikos, “of the citizens or the state”, which in ancient Greece was the “polis”. By actively playing their role as citizens, coming out on the streets and organizing to publicly oppose actions of the state, are the intellectuals not doing exactly what Prof. Patnaik accuses them of doing, of demonstrating “disdain for politics, this contempt for the political process”? Or does the “political process” for Prof. Patnaik just mean the dutiful casting of votes during elections, of docile participation in meetings organized or sanctioned by the Party, or of indulging in “friendly criticism, articles, and open letters”? Or is it that the intellectuals are really making a political statement by their protest, a statement of their involvement in the affairs of the state, which makes Prof. Patnaik so uncomfortable? Would he have been more comfortableif they marched under the banner of the Trinamool Congress or the Maoists,as that would have placed them in his comfortable dualistic world wheretheir protest could be attributed to the opportunistic or anarchist “politics” of the opposition?
I understand that Prof. Patnaik finds it hard to believe that “the people” can start organizing outside the auspices of a political party, that such organization can, and has become in the past, the nucleus of a very political movement, and rather than being a process of “destruction of politics” it is the very affirmation of the “political”. Or maybe it’s just that what unnerves him, and the CPI(M) bosses, that “the people” have finally refused to just being a fetish which can be invoked according to convenience, and have decided to mobilize politically, to actively assert their role in the affairs of the “polis”. This would put into serious jeopardy the mantle of the “organized Left”, which Prof. Patnaik claims for the CPI(M). It is a surprising mantle of monopoly, considering the fact that several Left political parties have been actively involved in the people’s resistance and the protests. Does Prof. Patnaik consider them to be “disorganized Left” or “organized non-Left”? Or does “organized Left” for Prof. Patnaik just means the Left entrenched in power, the Left which can use the contrivances available in an electoral democracy to regularly churn up votes during elections. It is evidently unfamiliar for Prof. Patnaik that hundreds of struggles are breaking out in India, where the people have correctly identified imperialism to be the “principal contradiction” of the times – imperialism that is equally represented by the nuclear deal between the USA and India and the attempts to take over their lands and livelihoods for the profits of corporations like the Tatas and the Salims – and have therefore consciously distanced themselves from the “organized left” in their struggles against imperialism. It is the fear of this unfamiliar that has shaken the “organized Left” or rather the “un-Left”, a description inspired by the mythical “un-dead”, like which it has the appearance of life but is actually dead,ensconced in its grave of power for the last thirty years, now busily hammering the last nail of neo-liberalism into its own coffin.