Within a few days of CPI(M) ideologue Prakash Karat declaring that the Narendra Modi government is ‘authoritarian’ but not ‘fascist’, the JNU student organisations affiliated to Left parties are celebrating their victory over the ABVP in union elections as crushing defeat of ‘fascist’ forces.
In between — after Karat’s opinion piece in The Indian Express and before the JNUSU election results — Kanhaiya Kumar dared Karat at a speech in Kolkata: "There is a certain veteran CPM leader who is also a former student of the JNU. He said that the Modi government was authoritarian and not fascist. To him I want to say that comrade, if you don’t want to fight anymore, please retire and go to New York. We will fight our battle."
The timing of Karat’s position chiding the Left and liberal opinion for calling the Modi government fascist, sweeping win of the Left in JNUSU elections and Kanhaiya’s audacious fulminations against Karat may be a coincidence; the deep schism among the Left over the nature of the BJP government is not. It exposes the confusion and the crisis facing the Left parties.
The crises and the weaknesses of the Left have many shades of ironies, which either they don’t want to see or they ignore for avowed ideological purity.
Communist parties for a very long time have got used to patting themselves on the back for their sterling performance of affiliated student outfits in the JNU even as their performances in the national and state-level elections have been steadily declining.
While their base and influence have been shrinking among workers, peasants and middle classes — the ideological relevance holds in a small, post-graduate university. It’s a small island of their bastions in the heart of Delhi that reminds them of their ideological relevance amid steady decline elsewhere. That’s the irony.
At a time when they should been closing ranks within the party and working to unitedly face a ‘right-wing authoritarian’ or a ‘communal fascist’ government, the CPI(M) is quibbling over the ‘nature’ of the Modi government.
It’s quibbling that cost the CPI(M) as much as the post of the Prime Minister, which was offered to Jyoti Basu in 1996 at the head of United Front government. Basu was inclined but the CPI(M) hardline apparatchiks vetoed the proposal. Later, Basu himself described the moment as ‘historical blunder’.
The current differences in the party over the nature of the BJP and the Congress too might lead to another historical blunder in the future. For the moment, it exposes the sharp divisions in the CPI(M) between the general secretary Sitaram Yechury and former general secretary Prakash Karat.
When communist apparatchiks differ and debate, the common people, who are supposed to form the support base of the party, get confused and confounded. In simple terms, their differences relate to whether or not the CPI(M) should align with the Congress to fight and defeat the BJP.
Yechury is a pragmatist. He favours close electoral cooperation with the Congress to challenge the BJP. He views the Modi government espousing ‘fascist’ tendencies and argues that the BJP-RSS are working to establish a ‘fascist Hindu Rashtra' in India. He has used the analogy of Germany of 1930s to warn that just as Adolf Hitler used aggressive nationalism to establish fascism, the Modi government was using nationalism to turn the country into a fascist religious state.
Yechury’s line of argument opens the door for forming a front with the Congress. Karat’s disavowal of Yechury’s contention completely shuts the door on cooperation with the Congress.
Karat, as a purist ideologue, has determined that the Modi government is showing authoritarian tendencies but it doesn’t have traits of classical fascism as it developed in Europe. He views both the BJP and the Congress as representatives of identical social and economic interests. Therefore, Karat doesn’t advocate proximity with the Congress to challenge the BJP.
Karat’s openly anti-Yechury stand is well timed too. One, it’s Karat’s way of hitting back at Yechury’s decision that led to the CPI(M) and the Congress contesting the West Bengal assembly elections together. Two, it’s an attempt to preempt Yechury from taking initiative to form a front with the Congress and Samajwadi Party against the BJP in UP and later at the national level. He is also warning Yechury against aligning closely with the Congress in Parliament. Karat favours uniting the non-BJP and the non-Congress parties on one platform.
While the CPI(M) is riven with internal divisions, in the JNUSU, the Left student organisations came together to defeat the BJP’s efforts to strengthen its influence on the campus. The JNUSU victory is erroneously viewed by large sections of the Left and liberal voices as a major success.
It’s erroneous because over the years, the communists have lost the political space in the country they occupied. The united CPI was the second largest party in the Lok Sabha from the first general elections in 1952 till the third general elections in 1962. In the current Lok Sabha, the CPI(M) with nine members is ranked ninth from the top, the CPI has one member.
The Left parties, their supporters and sympathizers seem to take great pride in having larger than life presence in JNU. When they dominate the debate in the JNU and in auditoriums of Delhi, they fancy they can fight the battle to protect the interests of the powerless and dispossessed. That they can fight the battle to stop Modi government from pursuing ‘authoritarian’ or ‘fascist’ policies.
In a country which has the world’s highest number of poor, highest number of children with malnutrition, one of the worst drop-out rates in schools, Yechury and Karat’s party has been debating the character of the State and political parties for 70 years and has come to no conclusion.
That’s the irony of the Left.