Readers Write In #149: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 13 – The Indian Connection – Part Two

Posted on March 14, 2020


(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.

Chapter 12 is here.


India’s political economy was marked to head leftward even before its birth. The scars of English Imperialism were fresh and festering and the Congress think tank led by the visionary statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru had no other choice but to go socialist. The alternatives provided by the neighbouring USSR were too tempting to resist – by early 1950s the Soviet empire had revived spectacularly inspite of the devastating effects of the Second World War. Planned economy and a pro-poor welfare model summarised Nehru’s vision for India and he set out in that direction in spite of forces pulling him from behind and sideways.

The Communist Party of India by 1948 had called for an armed insurrection against the ‘bourgeois’ government led by Nehru and he responded just like every other national leader would do when faced with violent internal upheaval- deploying large scale repression. He was helped on this count enormously by Sardar Patel whose contempt for left wingers was widely known. The CPI, unable to withstand severe state retaliation, was literally decimated within a few months mainly due to lack of popular support coupled with poor understanding of Indian conditions. The loss sustained by the left was very huge which in turn reflected in the forthcoming elections. The rank and file too felt demoralised and the backfiring of their armed tactics sapped all revolutionary vigor they had nurtured right from the days of freedom struggle. Still, the party remained the second largest political outfit in India even after losing a huge chunk of its cadre to governmental repression.

Communists brace for a split:

Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised the role of the State in managing the affairs of the national economy and his government set out to establish a lot of public sector industries whose contribution to nation-building turned invaluable in the upcoming decades. Agriculture was given prime importance in the inaugural five year plans and India’s agricultural production doubled and trebled in the 1960s. The industrial output also grew manifold which in turn spurred a staggering revival of the Indian economy for the first time post Independence. Living standards of Indians also rose as a result of which questions about national unity and social cohesion post liberation were put to rest. Secularism was firmly drilled into the minds of Indians and national elections proved time and again that a majority of Indians identified themselves firmly with the idea of India despite racial and linguistic differences.

The Communists too were impressed by the progress India was making, guided by socialist ideals and Leninist principles of economic planning while, in parallel, disillusionment spread among a few left wing groups whose dream of a complete socialist revolution was rapidly fading. These groups were not quite wrong when they assumed that the Congress, inspite of Nehru’s efforts was increasingly falling prey to the designs of India’s reactionary classes and acting by and large against the will of the poor majority. A large number of Congress legislators and parliamentarians hailed from the wealthy upper castes and did everything in their power to block Nehru’s ambitious land reform programme. As a result, land reforms all over India were only marginally successful and in rural areas, wealth distribution continued to be skewed in favour of the traditional elites. Tensions simmered between landlords and lower caste peasants as India moved into the 1960s since governmental efforts to improve the lives of the latter were not bearing much fruit.

Communists divide yet rule:

Nehru’s ground-breaking policy of international non alignment was a tremendous success all over the Third world. The relationship of China, India’s communist neighbour with its progenitor, the USSR was souring steadily while Chinese leader Zhou En Lai joined Nehru at the Bandung Conference in 1955. China and India had petty border disputes ever since the birth of the neighbouring nations but Nehru’s anti American attitude which manifested in his efforts to get China a permanent seat in the United Nations helped in minimising tensions for a while.

The USSR was also impressed with India’s antipathy towards the West and helped the fledgling nation with massive economic and technical assistance. In its wars with Pakistan, the USSR steadfastly supported India in various international forums and assisted it militarily. But in 1962, China stunned Nehru by crossing the frontier and attacking Indian outposts. It is reported that Nehru was not informed properly about the deteriorating situation in the Aksai- Chin border and that his excessive reliance on Chinese goodwill was responsible for poor Indian preparations against the sudden Chinese onslaught. The conflict lasted close to a month and India had to cede a part of the disputed territory to the Chinese.

The impact of the Indo-Chinese conflict was felt nowhere as heavily as on the ranks of the Communist Party. A faction of the party ever since Independence had always taken a more benign view of the Congress and had trusted the grand old party in its ability to take India in a socialist direction. In fact, the party sent a few of its ideologues to infiltrate the Congress echelons and covertly influence policymaking. This faction supported India during the Indo-China war while the rest of the party wavered in its stance. The latter in less than two years broke away from the parent organisation forming the hugely influential Communist Party of India(Marxist) in 1964. The new party was considered to have stronger and more radical leaders and its influence spread all over West Bengal. During the days of Siddharth Shankar Ray’s chief ministership in West Bengal (1972-77), Marxist militants and activists proliferated all over the rural agricultural regions trying to liberate the peasants from the excesses of landlords. Ray taking cue from Patel’s methods in curbing communist insurgency indulged in extreme methods of repression that easily overstepped the bounds of constitutionality. Thousands of communists, innocent peasants and farm workers were arrested, assaulted and killed during Indira Gandhi’s emergency (1975-77).

However, Ray’s tactics backfired when the Left Front swept the assembly polls in 1977. Bengal within a few years showed the way for the rest of the country on implementation of the land reform programme and Jyoti Basu’s efforts as Chief Minister in breaking the hegemony of feudal landlords over the traditionally oppressed peasants and workers won plaudits from activists all over India.

Relative Tranquility (1977-2008):

After CPI(M)’s victory in West Bengal in 1977, the Indian mainstream Left, it could safely be stated, attained a period of relative stability in their fortunes for the next three decades or so. Naxalism on the other hand, which originated in the late 1960s as a result of CPI(M)’s split with its radical Leninist sibling was confined within extremely backward rural areas in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. However within years, the Left had surprisingly developed an easy relationship with electoral politics and their frequent alliances with bourgeois parties appeared more expedient than genuinely idealist.The radicalism of the early 1920s too, was fast disappearing even among the Communist elite and disenchantment within both the left parties kept surfacing time and again in the form of increasing splinter groups and expelled intellectuals. The Left parties however, were able to secure a minimum of 40 seats in the Lok Sabha during every subsequent general election which gave them substantial leverage with respect to policy-making and implementation. The numerous trade unions and peasant societies, under the huge Communist umbrella benefited a lot during this period owing to considerable left wing presence in the Parliament.

Indira Gandhi’s emergence as the most powerful leader in the post Nehruvian era continued to give hopes to the survival of socialism in Indian policy-making. The abolition of privy purses and nationalisation of banks in the late 1960s, both of which significant advances in the socialist direction drew the admiration of the Left parties. Indira always ensured that the political rhetoric morphed easily into a mythical battle between the left and the right- she representing the pro-poor Good and her opponents belonging to the anti-poor evil camp. However she was extremely careful as not to allow the struggle to blow up into a full scale class conflict and hence used the Emergency as a means to blunt the edges of both the right and left wing elements in the country. Her unexpected assasination in 1984 marked a significant turnaround in the direction of Indian political economy. As the rest of the world under the influence of Reagan-Thatcherite ideas, was unmooring itself from welfare legacies inspired by Keynesianism, India too made use of the opportunity of Indira’s demise to move towards the right. Rajiv Gandhi and subsequent leaders of the Congress, moderated now and then by countervailing forces of left wing trade unions and mass organisations paved the ground for economic liberalisation in 1991.

A peek into the organs and journals of the left parties that were published during this era offers stunning predictions on the future impact on India’s polity and the impending aftermath of its move towards economic liberalisation. The Left parties had continued to warn as early as in the 1990s, about a possible collapse of India’s agricultural sector in the event of a reform-driven State withdrawing itself from the market. Warnings about unsustainable levels of economic inequality, unmanageable levels of crime as a result, corporate plunder of India’s natural resources and irreversible alienation of Adivasis and tribals from their traditional habitats, possibilities of disturbances from Islamist-Wahabbist armed groups in the event of India’s embrace of Hindutva nationalist ideas, perils of getting entangled into the sticky web of international economy all of that which sound eerily prescient today appear all over left wing journals and organs during this period. Calls for action against black money stashed in tax havens abroad and their deleterious effects on Indian economy can be found in press statements issued by left wing leaders as early as in the 1990s.

Left wing governments in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura continued to implement welfare schemes in their respective states even after India’s embrace of neoliberalism. Tripura, under the Left Front Government for close to 25 years made great strides similar to Kerala in terms of education and health. It became the first state in the North-East to get rid of the draconian AFSPA law whose repeal was an indicator of political stability forged by the weakening of local partisan and secessionist forces. In the 2004 general elections, the Left parties recorded their highest tally in Lok Sabha and made a post poll alliance with the Congress led UPA to keep the Hindu nationalist BJP out of power. They were instrumental in bringing about the biggest flagship programme in neoliberal India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme which ensured a minimum of 100 days of employment in rural areas. Their influence also significantly slowed down the reform-oriented UPA government’s attempts to sell public sector companies to private entities and also played a major role in keeping rising petrol prices in check.

You Reform, You Die:

The Left Front Government in West Bengal by late 2000s was drawing immense flak from various quarters for not having nurtured a business friendly climate in the State even after being in power for close to three decades. The criticism initially was not taken seriously by Jyoti Basu when he was in power but his successor, an irked Buddhadeb Bhattacharya wanted to respond differently. He invited the Tatas to invest in Bengal and assured support to them in issues of land acquisition. The Bengal farmers most of whom were beneficiaries of Basu’s land reform were not quite receptive to the government’s idea. They resisted land acquisition egged on by rural Maoist and other opposition forces causing great embarassment to the ‘reformed’ Communist leadership. Confused as to how to respond to public outcry against its pro-business measures, the Left Front Government suppressed public agitation violently in 2007. Inside a province whose people were known for their hostility towards big business houses and corporate entrepreneurs, a curious attitude which was sowed and cultivated by the incumbent government itself for more than three decades, this move to violently suppress legitimate dissent amounted to nothing less than political suicide. In the 2009 general elections, following the UPA-Left divorce in the Centre on the contentious Indo-US nuclear deal, the Left parties suffered a major electoral reversal in West Bengal. Their tally, as a result shrunk to 29 in Lok Sabha, their lowest ever in post Nehruvian India. In the subsequent assembly and general elections, the Left suffered massive losses in Bengal and in the last ten years or so, their shocking obliteration from Bengal’s memory appears to be almost complete. Having been unable to expand beyond their limited frontiers, the Left parties have been marginalised effectively from India’s electoral arena and subsequently from the nation’s political discourse as well.

A cut above the rest:

The reasons for the Left’s decline are quite obvious and have been sufficiently discussed in the previous chapter. Here I would like to discuss the legacy of the Left in India which has for the most part either been continuously misrepresented or grossly underreported. The Left movement, it must be noted, played a key role in India’s freedom struggle and sacrificed thousands of its rank and file to the cause. All over rural India, they were the first people to raise their voices against centuries-old hegemony of the upper castes and traditional elites over the poor and underprivileged. They played an indispensable role in the deepening of democracy in a feudal, strife-torn, backward India and in propagating the values of European enlightenment such as secularism, free speech and social equality among the masses.

Post Independence, their armed as well as peaceful struggles against local elites and capitalists ensured that the peasants and workers were able to improve their working conditions and standards of living significantly. Their mass organisations brought forth both illiterate and literate women from the working classes and allowed them to occupy top leadership and administrative posts. In both Bengal and Kerala, panchayati raj institutions received a major boost under Left rule as a result of which women were represented adequately in local bodies. Most importantly, the Communists’ role in preserving India’s secular identity amid frequent communal clashes and ever-rising identity politics cannot be overstated.

Having spent close to 70 years both at the heart and periphery of India’s electoral polity, the Left still preserves the distinction of being the only mainstream political outfit in the country to remain untainted by scandals or political corruption. Most of the leaders of the Left have remained paragons of personal virtue, leading simple and selfless lives. In addition, it can safely be said that the number of intellectuals, academicians and scholars in the Communist fraternity alone might easily outnumber those belonging to rest of all the political parties put together. The fact that both Bengal and Kerala produce the finest works in various cultural and artistic disciplines and the deep entrenchment of communism in the socio-cultural landscape of both the states are not mere coincidences.

In today’s neoliberal India, the crusade of the Communists against class and caste exploitation are not over yet. In the hills and forests of deep interior Chattisgarh, where the Indian Army siding with the state sponsored terrorist outfit Salwa Judum take on thousands of poor and landless tribals and Adivasis to chase them away from their traditional habitats in favour of huge mining corporations taking over India’s largest deposits of bauxite and minerals, it is the Communist militants(Maoists) who are at the forefront of the struggle working tirelessly to restore the land to whom it rightfully belongs. As novelist Jeyamohan writes in his blog, no other party or movement is as dedicated and committed to the cause of the poor and underprivileged as the Left in India. Whatever may be their flaws, tactical failures and historical blunders, it is not an exaggeration to say that amid the multitude of parties mushrooming here and there in India’s democratic polity, there are genuinely only two types of political organisations in India – the Left and the rest.