Scorched by Blind-spots – Prabhat Babu and the CPI(M): Andaleeb Mondal
Guest post by ANDALEEB MONDAL
[Recently Prabhat Patnaik published an article "Dial M for modernity" in The Telegraph, about what is right about the CPI(M). This piece is a response to that article. There are some very elliptical Bengal-specific references in the piece that have been retained as they add to the flavour. AN]
The CPI(M) regime is alive in West Bengal and Kerala. As the numbers go, it could hardly be more alive in Bengal, its throbbing vitality being underscored by a now-famous comparison of assembly seats between the CPI(M) led Left Front and the principal opposition – “Amra 235, ora 35” ( We are 235, they are 35).This famous phrase was uttered by a self-proclaimed progressive writer with supreme empathy for toiling masses, who incidentally is the nephew of another writer-poet whose progressive credentials and dedication to people’s causes resonated in Bengal and beyond, without having the honour of being propped up by state sponsorship. Of course I am being snide and I do not intend to embark on a comparative literary analysis. To look for evidence of continuity among them is absurd – the filial accident being least of the reasons. However, conjuring up continuities do serve some purpose, occasionally.
Times shape people vice versa and such mutual shaping has always happened – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes vigorously. They do bear the imprint of past times and ethos and hence in the absence of observable points of radical change, one may fall into the trap of assuming a kind of “historical” continuity. This idea of continuity can obfuscate continuous drifts in time. In the life of political organizations and ideologies , such feigned continuities primarily have a three-pronged way of self-maintainance. Let me call them – rituals, manifestos and lastly, for lack of a better epithet, kula-devatas ( clan deities). This permeates most political formations in the Indian landscape – the present discussion is about the CPI(M). However, a semblance of similarity in these Three Great cliches can be kept up.
Rituals have a distinctively advantageous quality in this pantheon – they can be imitated again and again to the point of a faded photocopy of a photocopy and can still lay claim to be the real thing ‘ in essence’. Sadly, the juice of spirited struggle of people’s causes cannot be replaced by comrades split into pro and anti ‘haatkata’ Dilip factions ( a notorious arm-amputated goon sheltered by the CPI(M)) , by comrade promoter and comrade contractor lubricating the means of producing real estate wealth, by ‘people’s organizations’ like the All Bengal Teachers Association, WEBCUTA, AHSD , by that pathetic joke dedicated to the spirit of rational inquiry called Paschim Banga Vigyan Mancha or by the lists of “democratic-minded , progressive” people of local eminence that adorn election time pamphlets by the CPI(M). Notwithstanding a tiny measure of self-delusion among “ideologically educated” members, the CPI(M) knows it too. But it also knows how to call each other ‘comrades’, how never to forget ‘ Komoh’ when wall-painting the name of the contractor upstart who also doubles up as an upcoming Youth Federation star and a Local Committee member – the more “ideologically educated” may even exhibit symptoms of a non-existent nostalgia of a partisan war against imperialism, raring to hit the trenches for the cause - only IPL matches holding them back. Prabhat babu will call these ‘petty moralisms’ – sideshow to the real battle being waged by the CPI(M) against imperialism in our times. Prabhat babu possibly thinks that the CPI(M) is a onion of sorts, where there is a sanctum-sanctorum, sitting unblemished in all its Leninist glory, railing away at the highest stage of capitalism. Given its active role in evicting peasants from land at gunpoint and gunshot has had approval at the Politbureau in form of non-condemnation of Singur and Nandigram episodes, one wonders where is the mythical main-show that Prabhat babu wants us to imagine. Hopefully, it is formed of living beings and not a frenzied ectoplasmic mass in the mind of pro-CPI(M) intellectuals, which animate now as BTR , now as P Sundaryya or Kakababu. Until the time this is resolved, the ‘outer’ layers of the onion that is CPI(M) will continue adding ‘revolutionary’ spice to the heady simmering curry that is the structural adjustment program. CPI(M) cooks this concoction in its own backyard, with World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Mc.Kinsey and DFID. Like a true blue Bengali bhadralok, much to Prabhat babu’s delight , it sometimes does complain that the curry lacks ‘red’ , it needs a dash of chilli.
As manifestos go and the slogans that go with them, the CPI(M) document is easily reproducible by mass printing and no card-holding apparatchik will publicly differ from a comma or a full-stop of the said document. Its reticence on state atrocities in Chhattisgarh lest it blunts village encircling and capture projects under the cover of, shhh, forces of the state – that is apparently nothing but ‘the organ of the class rule of the bourgeoisie and landlords led by the big bourgeoisie, who are increasingly collaborating with foreign finance capital in pursuit of the capitalist path of development’. After the ‘liberation’ of these villages, one can be sure that soon certain vultures will swoop down to these areas, and speak to packed crowds in school grounds awash with red flags, under the careful watch of the advanced detachment of the anti-imperialist forces in this part of India, about the atrocities of the Great Bald Eagle. There will be a picture of this great show in publications that report from the frontline. And some in Delhi will sip a hot cuppa tea, may be even light up a pipe. All is well.
It is important to appreciate this process – lets call it the transference of reality. Dhona Bagdi’s village has recently been recaptured by the CPI(M), he is at this typical rally, he mumbles the slogans – in sync. The motif on the stage is a grotesque caricature of socialist realism frame of a muscular man and a vivacious and muscular woman, the earth, a broken chain, a dove. The scribe from the ‘non-bourgeoisie’ media is also there – to the Delhiite, this scribe’s account is more real, dripping in peasant sweat. Soon there will be a central march in Kolkata where some detachments from this village will go too. The folks at the American Center will watch the same people lead the march who were busy courting investors the day before and already has a busy schedule of meeting McKinsey consultants the day after. Somehow, this is , to the scribe and the lovers of the scribe’s account, irrelevant to the anti-imperialist spectacle on the day itself.
But let us cut back to Dhona’s village. The stage is being taken apart, the fire-eaters who graced the occasion have left with the pilot cars. The vulturehood has been passed on the anti-imperialists on bikes with red flags. They lack wings but nonetheless they circle the ground with their bikes. The dusty red soil refuses to settle, lashing the faces the 5000 people in attendance. Yenan indeed. Where exactly is the main show? Did it just leave in a bullet -proof car? where is the sanctum-sanctorum? on the seat of the car? inside the punjabi? inside his heart? in his dreams ? in his ‘unguarded’ moments? May be there is a better explanation for the location of the main show.It is like the sanctum sanctorum of a temple whose idols have been stolen. No one talks about it and evening prayers happen every day. the devotees come, some out of devotion, most out of uncertainty and fear. Even the priests are changed, periodically. If so many devotees come , there must be something, right?
The pantheon is intact too. It never recedes- it only expands. Who says the party is not Indian in character. A kula-devata was added this year itself. But those who really matter, whose invocations deliver pedigree and legitimacy are the ancient gods, the infallibles. This is crucial to claim continuity. A thousand AK Gopalans cannot give this real continuity, this intellectual veneer, this sense of what the party ‘really’ is an inheritor of. From the manifesto to the wall-writing, from LeftWord for the yuppie to the sheet on the newspaper board, the right quotes and some knowledge of Cuba is essential.This puts the intellectual at ease. What good is vocal jugglery about mass and party without a ‘mass party’ with the correct ideology. To the intellectual who fancies oneself as relevant in an interventionist way, a participant in change of sorts, this is the ultimate glory. The party is the perfect fallback for the intellectual of this kind, a flag that needs a ground to stand upon and feel important. Any ground. The colour of the flag will give colour to the ground. The ground too will wrap itself in the flag, as much as it can. Everyone likes the twin certitude of ideology and ‘mass support’ in these circles – they make up from each other in what they lack.
The ritual, the manifesto and the pantheon – especially the continuity bit, animate the imagination of those pathetically suffering from ‘mass’ envy. The slight tampering of reality here, the small self-delusions there combine into a coherent meaning of life, true as it can be- so coherent that the ‘small’ self-committed error of omission and commission cannot be disentangled. The beauty of coherence so captivating that to spoil it in a small way would be a sin, the attempt a subversion, at worse a lie. It is not easy to say goodbye to certitudes in life. A handful can actually do that in all honesty and not be suicidal- some are not enthralled by coherence. Sumit Sarkar is one such. Most are not.
A good criterion of belief without reason is when different standards are used to judge one’s creed and other creeds. Such marshaling of any straw to prop up belief has different fates according to audience- it is truth to the converted, intriguing to the unsuspecting , dubious to the critical sympathiser, damning to most others and evokes empathy in the psychologist.
If the durations of staying in power through provincial elections, with as much democratic manifestation and participation the Indian state allows, is taken as a yardstick of doing something right, then the following conclusion is not unwarranted. The BJP has been in power in Gujarat for 15 years now, with a brief interregnum of 2 years. This surely must be akin to doing something right in such yardsticks. This is especially relevant given most of the good karma that the CPI(M) accumulated in its reign are ascribed to the first 2 stints in government since 1977. By that measure of doing things right, CPI(M) then seems to be closely trailed by the BJP.
While generalized labelling of whole peoples as more intellectually advanced can be expected of an ideological tradition that measures advancement of state of consciousness and ‘revolutionary preparedness’ of diverse people according to their class and their relationships to means of production, the claim that the intellectual cultures of West Bengal and Kerala are advanced and somehow that is related to the support enjoyed by the CPI(M) in these areas, needs a little unpacking. Bright minds are of course more easily found among Bengalis and Malayalis. This curious inversion of the martial race theory surely will give moments of gloating to certain sections of the people in question. But still one needs to know, what are such yardsticks of relative intellectual advancement – in concrete terms, for setting apart Kerala and West Bengal is a concrete answer. What exactly does Kerala and West Bengal share except the CPI(M) as the ruling party? It has to be things that Kerala and West Bengal do not particularly share with Punjab and Tamil Nadu. It cannot be any similarity in life expectancy ( that is health care system), education or per capita income. Kerala and West Bengal are sadly widely separated in the Human Development Index and to put the intellectual theory peddlers to shame, Punjab and Haryana come in between the advanced intellectual brothers. Nor is it literacy. Perhaps it is a spectacular combination of mother goddess’ boons, eating fish rich in omega fatty acids and playing football. The alternative explanation is distinctly unpalatable to people who want to see in the CPI(M) an anti-imperialist battering-ram in an internationalist spirit – that the present CPI(M) largely represents, among other things, a certain version of middle-class Bengali and Hindu Malayali communitarian ethos. But in these circles, one cannot call a Bengali, a Punjabi or a Malayali as such, unless one if referring to some glorious revolutionary tradition or the other and hence the farce continues like a open secret of sorts that some people take seriously and others privately laugh at.
Dynasties are ubiquitous in India and not all of them are Gandhis. The dynastic culture of the Indira Congress revolves primarily around one family and such obeisances also in turn extract smaller sub-satrapies at various levels. The new Gandhi for his vision of transforming India has managed to enlist the new Sindhia and the new Pilot. Does CPI(M) have this problem. At a superficial level, no. There is no obeisance around a single family. However, it is an entirely artificial division. The scenario is rather different when one takes into account the thousands of micro-sycophancies which hold up characters and even micro-dynasties – they may not be the Lion King of the Indira Congress culture but even their smaller lair, these small cats roar.From Ananda ( father) and Suraj (son) Pathak – Siliguri commissars , sons and daughters of CPI(M) ministers being beacons of the student formation in elite colleges like Presidency college of Kolkata to the simple string pulls which gives the spouses ( generally female) plush state government jobs, with the standard of job corresponding to roughly rank in the party, something that shouts out is nepotism. What is dynasty but a form of nepotism? After all, Rahul Gandhi, has to be pulled by obsequious Congressites and also pushed by Sonia Gandhi. The crude dynasty which Prabhat babu sees is there alright. However he fails to see the thousands of sophisticated dynasties which conjoin members of CPI(M),key positions in the state government services and an elaborate system of keeping favour in the family, with the families sharing a allegiance to the CPI(M). This is far more dangerous than a cancer on the scalp like the Gandhis, but these are small cancerous deposits which are all over the body. Are these not ‘feudal features of our society’? Of the local goonish clout of brothers of ministers to the local promoter being the party local committee member’s son, these alliance, at this point are integral to keeping the machine going. They are the cake – gooey and rotting. Prabhat babu sees this or perhaps he does not. But he decides to stick to the relatively safe manifesto and protests in front of the American Centre, ordered by CPI(M), held back by CPI(M)’s police and out of town by sundown, without fail. Blindspots are dangerous things.
The CPI(M) , through couched words, are sending positive courting signals to certain Hindu sections in Kerala ( VS Achhutanandan’s recent comments on the Islamic ‘plan’ in Kerala) to trying to salvage the collapsing Muslim vote in West Bengal by offering carrots of religion-based reservation. By cynical pandering to communal identification on response to the collapsing vote in a community, CPI(M) is trying to do pathetically which BJP does more openly. Again, the devil is in the details. The religious demographic basis in which CPI(M) choses candidates ( Hindus in ‘Hindu’ areas and Muslims in ‘Muslim’ areas in West Bengal) also demonstrate the ground level working life of politics. This may not be exactly to the high political theory of drawing rooms but without this, one may argue, there would be no membership of Kerala State Planning Commission for JNU-ites. CPI(M) is also at the game of political survival -like other forces in Indian politics. The sharp ideological divisions between political formations simply do not exist on the ground.
While at the level of assembly segments there is no one party rule in West Bengal, let us again look at this issue at a deeper microscopic level. A summary look at the nature of politics in local representation bodies like panchayats, student unions et cetera before the rise of the Trinamul Congress would reveal certain startling facts . Let us look at the panchayat elections of 2003 in West Bengal. Nearly 11% ( that is 1 out of 10) of all the seats at the gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zila parishad levels were mostly won uncontested by the CPI(M). This translates into the situation that in 10% of rural Bengal, there was no opposition candidate who could be found to contest elections – such is the support of the people for the CPI(M). However this picture rich in red hue fades in even shabbier details – that in Hooghly district itself, 40 percent in panchayat Samitis and 25 percent in zilla parishad were won by the CPI(M) and its allies, unopposed. We are talking about a whole district ! It is possibly not out of place to note that in Singur is in Hooghly district. This possibly puts a little background to the claim of people’s consent in CPI(M)’s land-grabbing plans in the area. It gets dangerous when one starts seeing the triumph of democracy in uncontested wins over whole swathes of a district. The relationship of the CPI(M) with the Soviet Union style of democracy is not totally guilt by association , it is partly backed up by contemporary praxis. Prabhat babu says that there is no theoretical justification for this. The better question is, does the party which wins 40% on panchayat samitis in Hooghly even care? The student union scenario used to be a similar sad spectacle before the rise of the Trinamul. In student unions run by SFI in West Bengal for any period more than 5 years, there are”uncontested wins”, “unopposed victory” followed by cynical chants of
‘Biplobii obhinondon’ (Revolutionary greetings) in Ganashakti / People’s Democracy pages. More than 95% of which have students union results like 80-0, 45-0, 20-0 in the favour of the SFI. These form the core of the bright young things of Bengal Prabhat babu spoke effusively about. With such a field experience in democratic politics under their belt, no wonder they are battle hardened now to take on imperialism. If political practice does not differentiate political organizations, does one have to make differences based on press releases and manifestos? That sounds like the apologists for faiths who scamper to pure scripture when reminded of impure practices.
All these details about the CPI(M) is not withe objective of picking out this outfit for exceptional rebuke for the betrayal of some dream. Rather, the idea is to debunk this sort of exceptionalism in the first place. What has been said about the CPI(M) can be narrated at length for many a political formation in India. For Prabhat babu, conveniently, this does not matter ‘even if each of the alleged misdemeanours happens to be true’.It is the mantra you chant, not what you do, that matters. Having once claimed irrelevance of praxis or what is off-handedly dismissed an individual acts of misdimeanour, a fantastic claim is made, that CPI(M)’s anti-imperialism ‘ is a whole approach to politics that sees every issue of the day from the perspective of globally-spanning class relations of domination and subordination.’ Every issue of the day ! Now those are heavy words Prabhat babu. Does this ‘anti-imperialist’ approach extend to the conjugal relationship with the DFID in West Bengal to enable structural adjustment, to the slaughtering of resisting peasants to irrigate the bed of roses for South Koren capital ? Medha Patkar was stopped from reaching Nandigram by the West Bengal police. Anti-imperialism on all fronts indeed.May be these are non-issues. They only become issues when power is at stake.
When the CPI(M) withdrew support from the UPA 1 – two things which are now being presented as ‘obvious’, were not at all ‘obvious’. One, that the UPA would survive the no-confidence motion and two, that the CPI(M) would be defeated in West Bengal Lok Sabha elections. Does Prabhat babu claim that the CPI(M) , if it knew that withdrawing support from UPA 1 would cost them West Bengal, would still withdraw support. to keep up its anti-imperialist credentials? The negative political costs were apparently obvious. Was there any writing from Prabhat babu stating the ‘obvious’ that CPI(M) would have an electoral hammering in West Bengal ? If not, is it not a case of putting the party on a high pedestal on the basis of transforming post-facto realizations into pre-facto predictions? Why try so hard?
One thing is clear. The present predicament of the CPI(M), which has spawned ‘Dial M for modernity’, is not some ‘ultra-left’ success. At present, by systematic killing of dozens of CPI(M) functionaries in Jangal Mahal., the CPI(Maoist) has underlined the fact that they are fruits of the same tree – each claiming that they are the fertile fruit, the other being the sterile one. In their non-CPI(Maoist) avatar, they are insignificant cheerleaders in this process of destruction. Their arcane pamphlets and magazines may not have the gloss of the The Social Scientist. They have fund crunch too, having no advertisements from the West Bengal government’s Department of Culture. One might do well to pay heed to all critique, irrespective of arcaneness.
The role of the intellectual is to speak truth to power, not only when a power friendly to the intellectual is in some crisis, but at all times. When the timing and content is predictable, it does not bode well for the intellectual culture of the country.