by G Pramod Kumar
When Kanhaiya Kumar captured the nation’s imagination with his televised speech at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus after his release from police custody, it appeared to be nothing more than a storm in a tea-cup because the grounds for his arrest were silly. In the subsequent days, Kanhaiya, however, gained considerable eyeballs and heavyweight fans across the country.
Still, JNU didn’t become Sorbonne.
But, when he met Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday, along with a delegation from the JNU Students Union and the All India Students Federation (AISF), much to the chagrin of the BJP and its proxies, it indeed signalled something really significant - the possibility of the expansion of the secular, socialist, democratic political space in the country, spearheaded by the youth. BJP sympathiser Madhu Kishwar thought that Rahul’s and Kanhaiya’s coming together betrayed the desperation felt by the left and the Congress in taking on the BJP.
Obviously, the BJP proxies didn’t like it.
Some of Kishwar’s points such as the decline of the communist ideology and how it failed the poor and the downtrodden across the world seem valid, but terming Rahul and Kanhaiya finding each other as opportunism is a prejudiced view because their ideologies and politics do overlap. The convergence of the left and the Congress — which incidentally had a strong socialist past except for the Manmohan Singh interregnum — is good for the country. The secular, socialist, democratic space that they can create together is more critical to the existence of India — as our constitution wants it to be — than ever before.
What we often forget is that in the overall history of the Congress, the neoliberal phase governed by the Manmohan Singh doctrine, had been rather short. Most of the Congress rule of independent India had been dominated by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Nehru was a card-carrying socialist, or rather a democratic socialist; and Indira Gandhi, a socialist created by circumstances. Nehru worked towards establishing India’s political economy on a clearly socialistic path, while Indira Gandhi embraced it to trump the powerful “syndicate” with the help of the socialist block of “young Turks” within her party. In fact, in comparison, Indira Gandhi appeared more radical than her father, particularly given their circumstances.
Indira Gandhi nationalised banks, insurance, mines and oil and stopped the privy purse to erstwhile royals. She emphasised on labour intensive small scale industries, curbed foreign investment through Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), restricted land-ownership through the Land Ceilings Act, brought strongest measures to protect workers’ rights and so on.
It’s certainly debatable whether the Nehru-Indira doctrine helped India or not; but undeniably both were socialists. Frankly, in terms of socialist policies and state intervention, Indira Gandhi did more than what the first communist government did in Kerala in 1957.
By aligning with the left and joining the rightful agitations of students, peasants and workers, Rahul is only reclaiming a slice of his personal and political legacy, and rising up to the current socio-political and economic challenges faced by the country. The rot in the Congress, beginning to set in during its socialist regime that during the course of time doubled as a conduit to crony capitalism, became worse since the economic liberalisation in 1991. During UPA 1 and UPA 2 it became a free-for-all, not only for the Congress, but also for the allies. The only way the party can come back to relevance now is by stemming this rot, which means that it has to change tracks and look for answers within.
That’s what Rahul, although intermittently, has been trying to do and whenever he does it, he certainly looks left, rational and humane.
Going back to a bloated state and soviet style socialism is rather impossible, but strengthening social protection of the poor and the weaker sections of society — including those who are marginalised, disabled, sick and less capable — alongside wealth generation is inevitable. Indians need their welfare state. The country also needs stronger rule of law and a credible human rights environment to ensure that the capitalists don’t ravage the country, and the state doesn’t tyrannies its subjects.
Sans their habitual reference to Marx and Lenin, these are also the values of the Indian left. In fact, it’s these values along with its commitment to secularism that made the the left parties support Indira Gandhi’s socialist policies and nationalisation efforts and the UPA I. In hindsight, the left-Congress reconciliation in 2004 was a progressive step because the former indeed had a decisive correctional influence on many of the UPA 1’s economic policies. Unfortunately, the stubbornness of Manmohan Singh over the nuclear deal and the left’s inability to see the larger picture, including the emergence of communal forces, stopped further exploration of common grounds. Had the left stayed with the UPA, it wouldn’t have fallen into the morass that it did over time and the communal forces wouldn’t have had an easy run.
Therefore Kanhaiya and Rahul joining hands is a great sign of a third coming together. Unlike the CPM, the CPI had been less doctrinaire vis-a-vis its relations with the Congress. In fact, CPI, Kanhaiya’s parent party, had been with the Congress during the emergency and it had no problem justifying Indira Gandhi. During the same period, it was the CPI chief minister C Achutha Menon who shone like a star for his progressive policies and institution building in the public sector.
The mutual influence Kanhaiya (along with his left block) and Rahul may have on each other can lead to a common ground where communists and laissez-faire economists give up ideological territories to more humane and practical ideas of social democracy, personal liberty and human rights. It’s a hugely promising premise because Rahul, and even Sonia Gandhi to some extent, had long since been converted to left politics. The big challenge before Rahul, however, is dismantling the old block, a challenge that Indira Gandhi too faced and successfully overcame in the late 1960s.