To get rich is glorious, former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping said as he unveiled economic reforms in the country, but at the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s (CPM) 19th party congress that concludes today in Coimbatore, the badge to sport is austerity of the kind that would be the envy of any self-respecting Gandhian. In sharp contrast to the growing tribe of Indian millionaires clamouring to get on to Forbes’ international rich list, CPM party workers err on the side of abnegation.
Central committee member from Tamil Nadu U. Vasuki says she gave up her bank job in Chennai at the age of 42 because she wanted to devote herself to the party. She does not take a wage, but lives on the interest earned from the voluntary retirement scheme she opted for, about Rs6,000 a month. Her father, politburo member R. Umanath, still submits bills that don’t even amount to small change any more (Rs1.80 for bus fare, for instance). Her sisters, a doctor and lawyer, do their bit by offering free services to the party.
The severe simplicity reaches its logical conclusion in Parliament. All party members of Parliament (MPs) must donate their entire Rs42,000 salary as well as surrender all entitled accommodation to the party, in exchange for wages and rooms the party deems necessary. They are expected to live on the Rs1,000 daily allowance given to every MP when Parliament is in session, plus money earned from allowances if they are part of any parliamentary committees.
It is on the back of such stories that the CPM is built.
Clearly, in general secretary Prakash Karat’s school of thought, less is more.
You could argue that the party’s austerity reflects the black-and-white positions the CPM often adopts in real life: America is the evil empire and the economic policies adopted by the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, are almost as bad.
Moreover, at a time when other Communist parties worldwide have moved on to cope with the overwhelming forces of globalization, why does India’s Left choose to shrink within?
At the party congress in Coimbatore, the glaring contradictions were almost touching. When Karat welcomed delegates from foreign countries by wrapping mercerized silk shawls across their shoulders, the largest applause was reserved for the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Cubans.
Except that the Chinese, in keeping with the Deng Xiaoping maxim on the irrelevance of the colour of the cat as long as it can catch mice, have never shunned their ideological enemy. China’s largest trading partners are the US and the European Union (EU). The several stadia built for the Olympics in Beijing have been designed by foreigners, including the Japanese architect I.M. Pei. The Shanghai skyline changes every year in keeping with the foreign investment that continues to pour in.
As for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a website on the country’s Foreign Investment Agency states that FDI accounts for 100% of the total investment in oil exploitation, automobiles and other white goods, and has helped with “external economic relationships so that Vietnam could join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sign framework agreements with the EU, normalize relationships and conclude the bilateral trade agreement with the US.”
The Russian communist party, meanwhile, didn’t even bother to send a delegation, only a message. In a country that has been so empowered and energized, both politically and economically, by Vladimir Putin, what hope does the communist party have with yesterday’s doctrines?
Only the Cubans, still holding out to the evil Americans, continue to sing the Internationale with vigour. The Cuban delegation’s gift to the CPM in Coimbatore was a large, framed black and white photograph of the two eternal revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, in their prime.
The truth is, the egalitarian idea is hardly limited to the Left parties. Certainly, the break-up of the Soviet Union was a body blow to all those seeking to experiment with diverse schools of political and economic thought, but if the Russians can come to terms with it, then the rest of the world had better get a move on.
Just like the Chinese and the Vietnamese and the Russians are willing to get their hands dirty by doing business with the US, the Congress believes the nuclear deal cannot tie a self-confident India down to a junior alliance with Washington. Instead, it will open up global frontiers and allow India to do business with the world.
To be fair to Karat, he has never advocated the Robin Hood school, where you steal from the rich and give to the poor. Again and again, Karat & Co. have only sought to remind the Congress of its own egalitarian philosophy. Empower the poor, too, so that they can also have a shot at chasing the Indian dream.
In Coimbatore, Karat quoted Jawaharlal Nehru, not Karl Marx, as if hoping to remind Congress president Sonia Gandhi of her political inheritance. It’s not as if Karat is averse to the exercise of power. But instead of compromise, the CPM and the UPA have chosen confrontation. The Forward Contract (Regulation) Amendment Bill, which allows trading in futures trading in commodities, is a prime example. When the CPM told the government it would oppose the Bill, the government introduced an ordinance instead.
Spitting in each other’s faces, especially when the impending post-poll scenario indicates the Left and the Congress will have no option but to continue to break bread with each other, cannot be the political metaphor of their common politics.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and will write on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at email@example.com