What CPM must do to stay relevant in Modi's India

The party needs to renew its stand on the development debate to become prominent again.

 |  5-minute read |   01-05-2015
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Much has been written about Sitaram Yechury's recent elevation to the general secretary's position in the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM). Some voices have lamented the fall of the Left. Some have welcomed Yechury’s anointing as a progress for the CPM. Some, like member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha and CPM politburo member Brinda Karat, have utilised the occasion to restate the CPM’s well-known anti-neoliberal economic argument. These are just a sample of perspectives. Many other commentators have addressed one query: How is the CPM going to gain relevance in 21st century India? But only a couple of the views, partly, have tackled this question given the CPM’s ideological character. Really, the generational change in the top echelon of the CPM begs this question: What is the future of the CPM ideology in the context of contemporary India?

A critical ideological challenge the CPM faces is that neoliberal economic policy has reigned regardless of the party in power at the Centre over the last twenty years. For long, the CPM and other variants of the Left have denounced an economic model that finds acceptance in large pockets of the most powerful and influential demographic of contemporary India. The policy’s critics, like the Left, have been consigned to the margins of Indian politics.

Barring perhaps Calcutta, the CPM’s argument doesn't resonate with large parts of urban, urbanising and semi-urban India, which consists of tier-one and tier-two cities. How does the Left then formulate a policy and discourse plan that popularises an urban and urbanising population? How does it rouse a constituency that appears to uncritically accept the flawlessness of the neoliberal economic private sector expansion model? Indeed, can the CPM consider the hypothesis that Indian politics today needs also to be seen through the lens of urbanisation? Therefore, can the Left then discern that it needs to tackle rapid societal depredation in the name of urbanisation and “development”?

The lens of urbanisation could help the CPM retain its ideological core, while it maintains a relentless focus on the flip side of the “growth story”. A nuanced and sustained campaign dealing with issues of urbanisation naturally bring into perspective issues over which the CPM and the Left have sound command: Unemployment, labour mistreatment, increasing inequality – phenomena that punctuate the urbanisation story. Indeed, the CPM could absorb the parlance of “development” to mount a critique on it. And that need not mean an ideological climb-down. For instance, if the CPM helps rally the information technology sector in Bangalore and Hyderabad over better rights, better wages and greater transparency, does that qualify as ideological volte-face? No. Does this mean a critique of capitalism? Yes. The CPM must be inside the neoliberal frame to be able to point out its glaring drawbacks and shortcomings. An abstract censure from the outside is what it has done for years and got nowhere.

This implies a subtle shift in registers. While the CPM and the larger Left highlight the surge in social inequity in India under the neoliberal economic policy regime, they mustn't forget that capitalism isn't only a middle class and upper middle class predisposition. The small-scale industrialist and small-time farmer is as much a capitalist as the others mentioned. In this schema, how does the CPM maintain its critique of neoliberalism without alienating its core constituencies? Therefore, the Left must renew its ideological position on neoliberal economics. Even ideologies are read anew with each generation. In the past, the Indian Left created a unique kind of Marxism during the freedom struggle and thereafter. Its intellectual challenge lies in regenerating Marxism that can make it useful in today’s India. Sounds far-fetched? Well, our experiences may widely differ, but there is a case for the CPM to learn from the rise in centre-left politics in many Latin American nations recently.

The ideological question brings us to another significant matter: Religion. In the interests of secularism, the CPM must re-establish a vigorous conversation with organised religion and religious discourse in India. As long as it remains jargon free, the CPM has a tremendous opportunity to make a dent in public discourse over matters of faith. Again, it must shed being a distant critic and become a critical insider.

Consider a small example. Last year, Brinda Karat wrote an article in The Times of India ("Tirupati's labour rules aren't divine", November 16, 2014,) on the condition of temple workers in Tirupati. The makers of Tirupati’s world'-famous laddoos, are underpaid, must be preferably Vaishnava Brahmins and have not been made permanent employees despite working there for a decade. The article pointed out the caste, religious and economic fault-lines present in organised religion and ended up being a critique of contemporary popular Hinduism. It raised a query in this writer's mind: If the CPM could so eloquently speak of Hinduism and its problems in Tirupati, where was its voice during the attacks on churches in Delhi? What has been its understanding of the rise in religious fundamentalism in its political backyard of Kerala and Islamic radicalisation in various parts of the country?

Unfortunately, discoursing on these issues on party platforms is insufficient mobilisation. In the current era, the Left and the CPM must become the preeminent voice of secular and inclusive diversity in this country and it’s a message that can powerfully connect with the young Indian. In fact, the CPM’s ideology equips it uniquely in espousing secular causes. And finally, the CPM must lead the way on women and children’s welfare and rights. A huge constituency of India’s women are waiting for a political choice that can be exclusively theirs. Imagine an Indian political party that captures the imagination of the female voter by according her primacy in the political sphere.

Why doesn’t Indian politics have a women’s party of India? Can the CPM help provide us one? Why can the CPM not think out of the box? In the interests of Indian democracy, we really need a new Left review.


Rahul Jayaram Rahul Jayaram @rajayaram

The writer is Assistant Professor at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities.

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