Readers Write In #125: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 12 – The Indian Connection

Posted on December 29, 2019


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

Chapter 6 is here.

Chapter 7 is here.

Chapter 8 is here.

Chapter 9 is here.

Chapter 10 is here.

Chapter 11 is here.

Before we venture out to investigate the climactic phases of the Soviet collapse, I really deem it critical to examine the role of Soviet inspired socialist movements in India whose influence on our political and social lives can hardly be exaggerated. The Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was a powerful influence not only over the areas it politically controlled but also over lands and regions which hardly knew nothing more than its name. One such country was India whose course in history was strongly tied to that of the Soviet Union and whose complex relationship with the latter demands a detailed examination that should span at least two chapters from here.

The first chapter will focus on the South where the Soviet influence was relatively more pronounced while the other chapters will try to give a pan-Indian account of the events. This chapter has additional emphasis on Tamilnadu’s politics for obvious reasons.


The October Revolution in Russia succeeded in 1917. The Communist Party of India was formed exactly eight years later. Communist ideas spread like wildfire and socialists proliferated all over India in the 1930s inspired by the tremendous strides made by the Soviet Union’s command economy. Jawaharlal Nehru led a very influential faction of Soviet-inspired left wingers inside the Congress party itself. The Congress in 1938 also adopted a resolution to follow a Soviet-style planned economic model once the British Raj was done away with.

E.V.Ramaswami, a social reformer who went on to lead the most influential ‘Dravidian movement’ in Tamilnadu started off as a communist in the early 1920s. The term Revolution which hitherto had not been part of popular parlance anywhere started becoming a household word all over India. Anything that was meant to represent something new and path-breaking was given a ‘revolutionary’ prefix.

Congress Socialism:
Post Independence, the first provincial elections held in Madras State gave a clear mandate to a Communist – led alliance. If not for an act of sabotage by the veteran Congressman C.Rajagopalachari, the Communists would have headed the first provincial government of Madras Presidency. However, that event could do no damage to the growing appeal of socialist ideas all over South India. The Congress Government led by Kamaraj from 1954 followed a welfare model giving prime importance to the growth of education and creation of public sector industries. Natural resources were nationalised, public schools with mid day meal scheme were opened all over, public distribution system to redistribute grain was created and strengthened. In parallel, the Dravidian ideologues who dominated the heights of the booming Tamil cinema industry ensured that the ‘bourgeois’ elements of the society were identified with the Congress party as a whole and portrayed the party in poor light through films that appealed to the nationalistic pride of Tamil speakers. Akin to Soviet propaganda films that usually showed scheming landlords and nobles being trumped in the end by impoverished workers, Tamil cinema too churned social dramas, historical films that shed light on the plight of the toilers, women exploited by rich men and landlords, religious godmen misusing the faith of the believers to amass fortunes, etc.

Trade unions mostly affiliated to the Communist parties spread across industrial towns and left wing peasant societies that fought caste, class and gender inequalities multiplied across rural South India. Militant left wing groups proliferated across Kerala and Telangana regions especially where caste exploitation was at its peak. Upper caste landlords whose excesses remained unchecked by successive Congress governments were eliminated by Communist insurgent groups and land redistribution programmes were implemented. When EMS Namboodiripad headed the world’s first democratically elected Communist Government in Kerala in 1957, a massive land reform programme to eliminate caste and class exploitation was launched. Kerala’s education which was hitherto dominated by land owning Christian orthodoxy was brought under the purview of the State Government. Meanwhile lands under Hyderabad Nizam’s suzerainty were liberated by Communist militants and redistributed to Telangana peasants.

Communists lose to ‘Socialism’:
In 1967, a left wing coalition government headed by the DMK dethroned the Congress Government in Tamilnadu and initiated another round of welfare measures. Land reform was implemented (whose rate of success was very questionable) for the first time in Tamilnadu, Hindu temples that owned huge acres of land were nationalised, primary education system was strengthened and a slew of redistributive schemes were initiated. The more the DMK moved leftward in the political spectrum inspite of rampant institutionalised corruption, the more marginalised the mainstream communist parties became in Tamilnadu. Their electoral fortunes steadily dwindled as the DMK soon split into two, a newer bloc led by cinema superstar MG Ramachandran in 1972. MGR, as he was affectionately called was the poster-boy of the Dravidian movement right from its days as a mass organisation. One of the most important reasons why Tamilnadu turned leftward moving more and more along Dravidian lines was the popularity of MGR whose public image was built strongly around the ideas of socialism and egalitarianism. He often played in his films, the champion of the working classes who had the rare guts to question the villainous landlords and rapacious vested interests. Most of his songs that outlived his time had great music and crowd pleasing social messages which played a critical role in disseminating Dravidian propaganda among the masses. As mentioned earlier, the Dravidian movement popularised the idea of calling newer and radical things ‘revolutionary’ hoping to steal some of the magic the October Revolution had created across the world and MGR was called ‘revolutionary leader’ by his fans on his road to becoming the first cinema star to get elected as the Chief Minister of a state in 1977.

The split of the DMK into two led to two important far reaching consequences. One, the quality of Soviet inspired welfarism soon deteriorated into becoming a model of corruption-driven populism where people were continually kept in the thrall of poverty while simultaneously being fed with a slew of State sponsored freebies that ranged from foodgrains to consumer durables. Two, with the appearance of newer actors in Tamilnadu politics, the mainstream Left shrunk terribly losing huge chunks of its electoral support to its pseudo-socialist rivals. The Left however continued to dominate mass organisations such as trade unions and peasant societies as a result of which workers and farmers in Tamilnadu managed to achieve reasonable standards of living through continuous struggles for better wages and living conditions.

Moribund communism :
As the century drew nearer to a close, Tamilnadu owing to its successive welfarist governments led by both the Dravidian parties had above average literacy rates, better roads and infrastructure and decent health standards, all of which came in good stead, when in 1991, India moved towards a market driven industrial economy. Multinational corporations which saw cheap labor in India gravitated more towards the South than the North for want of better technical skills and systematised professional education in order to establish factories, software development centres, export processing units,etc in its huge well maintained urban areas. Cities such as Chennai, Bangalore, Coimbatore grew into industrial hubs under the aegis of the State thereby providing well-paying jobs to millions of people who in turn moved swiftly along the economic ladder. A newer middle class which was the immediate beneficiary of the trickle-down market economy expanded in size greatly and promptly lost all its formative allegiances to socialist movements and ideas. The mainstream Left parties which had ceded their space to pseudo socialist forces during TN’s pre-liberalisation era, by early 2000s had almost been completely excised from the political discourse of the state which was now increasingly being dictated by the new, aspirational, cosmopolitan middle class that ironically prided itself on its fashionable ‘political ignorance’.

The unravelling of the mainstream Left in Tamilnadu (and even in Andhra) had plenty of reasons. Firstly, the Left parties were hugely dependent on meagre donations and contributions from its party cadre, union members and common people for their day-to day organisational expenditure. As the size of the election market grew with time its rival parties were able to rake in millions from their rich patrons and corrupt practices while being in power. Hence the perennially penurious Communists logically stood no chance against their cash-rich rivals who were only quite happy to co-opt them into their temporary electoral alliances. Secondly, the Left parties could not find means and ways to sensitise their own union workers and peasants on class issues and offer lasting solutions to their problems, at least on paper. As a result, even members belonging to the Left wing trade unions cared less to vote for the party during the elections, making use of their organised strength solely to achieve quick fixes for daily problems within and outside their workplace.Thirdly, in the era of liberalisation, the free market had infused a completely different socio-cultural outlook on its people where careerism, consumerism and an all pervasive fear of survival easily trumped Independence-era virtues such as idealism, sacrifice, social awareness and moral anger. In addition, the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 confused the ideological core of the party who suddenly couldn’t respond adequately to questions doubting the validity of their founding theories. A terribly confounded party elite mired in self-doubt such as this one, must have found it difficult to pass their rich theoretical inheritance to their next generation who naturally could have had no inclination to educate the lower rungs of the party on Marxist principles and ideals. An intellectually vapid Left party not only impoverishes the society it inhabits but also receives in return, ignorant and ideologically bankrupt cadre into its fold who complete a self reinforcing cycle of intellectual scarcity and never ending knowledge drought.

Kerala, Soviet Union’s last relic:
However, Kerala owing to its completely unique socio economic history went through a remarkably different political journey from that of its neighbouring Tamilnadu. The early advent of Christian missionaries into Kerala, the swift conversion of Hindu lower castes into Christianity and Islam, rapid spread of education through missionary owned schools, extreme oppression of lower caste peasants by their upper caste landlords and other crucial factors mined the soil for the sprouting of militant insurgency movements led by Soviet inspired Communists all over Kerala. Communists bore the brunt of the excesses unleashed by landlord-police nexus before and after independence which fortunately gave them a great electoral advantage over that of their opponents. Kerala was the first state in India to vote for a non-Congress government in 1957 and the state made great progress in health, education and sanitation indices. Communists played a significant role in deepening of democracy in Kerala by empowering panchayati institutions and local civic bodies. Agricultural and industrial cooperatives encouraged by the State brought workers and farmers together in great numbers cutting across rigid caste and religious divisions. Implementation of government schemes were spearheaded by party cadre and local masses which played a great role in effectively rooting out bureaucratic and political corruption. Kerala became the first state to achieve 100 percent literacy in the country and also remains the only state in India to have more females than males.

However such a climate where the masses played an active role in political affairs, was not considered suitable for industry by investors when India moved towards a market economy in 1991. Kerala’s economy it must be admitted was considerably dependent on its massive diaspora housed in the faraway Gulf in spite of concerted efforts by the State to build strong cooperative and public sector industries. Without proper federal autonomy, no government can aspire to create a self reliant state economy in a diverse country such as India. State governments, as is the case with the rest of India need to keep appealing to the Centre for funds time and again and hence building an industrial economy without the participation of the local private sector by the State government is close to impossible.
In today’s scenario, on one hand ,a young and an aspiring urban middle class in Kerala taught by a heavily regulated pro-poor state education system, and one that was weaned on massive remittances from the Gulf slowly gravitates towards a powerful Hindu Right that emerges on the promise of high paying jobs, glitzy malls and gated communities through market driven economic policies. While on the other, the lower classes keep favoring the traditional welfare economy built by Left and local Congress governments in election after election.

However, Kerala remains the only state in India which continues to buck the nationwide trend in more ways than one. It keeps recording the highest levels of Human Development indicators in India year on year competing with the great Industrial West on almost all of them. On a similar note, it is the only place in India which still holds the ideas of Marx and Lenin close to its heart even after 27 years of the collapse of the Soviet Union, at a curious time when the rest of the country is fast unmooring itself from its benevolent legacy.