In less than six months from now, the assemblies of West Bengal and Kerala will go to the polls. A lot is at stake for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, and its Left partners, who were reduced to their lowest ever strength in the 16th Lok Sabha. There is little doubt that the mainstream Left in India is faced with a question of survival. At a time when many have made efforts to attribute this serious political development to the role of mere individuals—reflected in the recent Prakash Karat versus Sitaram Yechury debate—Praful Bidwai’s book, The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left (Harper Collins 2015), fills the void by providing a comprehensive political history (extending till early 2015) of the Indian Left.

Bidwai’s overall tone and tenor is largely critical, but it does not smack of sectarianism. A large part of the text criticizes the Communist Party of India (CPI) and CPM (the post-1964 narrative largely focuses on it) on a number of grounds starting from the late 1920s. At the same time, Bidwai is forthright in admitting that the Left has made immense contributions—political, social and intellectual—to Indian society, especially through policies such as land reforms.

Chapters 4-7, which have been devoted to West Bengal and Kerala—the Left’s strongest bases—are worth reading for getting a historical perspective on what explains the Left’s current predicament in its strongholds. Bidwai’s main charge is that of parliamentary deviation. Winning elections became the end-all and be-all of the Left leadership in West Bengal and Kerala, at least a couple of decades ago. Rights-based struggles and politicization of the cadre were ignored. Vested interests were allowed to infiltrate party ranks. This also led to lethargy and a dilution of the Left’s interventions on policy. Land redistribution slowed down in West Bengal as the state government adopted a more or less neoliberal industrial policy in the 1990s. Bidwai is categorical in saying that the Left whittled down its opposition to the overall neoliberal economic consensus at the national level to tokenism instead of building militant struggles or attempting to evolve alternatives in states where it ran governments.

To be fair, Bidwai acknowledges that not all of the Left’s problems are a result of its own shortcomings. He terms the breakdown of synergies between socialist and communist forces—the former gravitating towards right-wing sections or getting entrenched in identity politics which subsequently lost all its socialist content—as a serious setback for redistributive and progressive polity in India. Similarly, he argues that the dominance of overseas remittances in Kerala’s economy, which gave rise to insatiable consumerism in the state, has eroded the ideological basis of the Left in the state.

One aspect where the book is unambiguous in its critique is the organizational principle of communist parties and their coalitions. It blames democratic centralism for the thwarting of constructive and corrective debate within the parties.

Bidwai’s alternative is to bring together the party and non-party Left in a struggle for fulfilling what he terms a People’s Charter, focusing on redistribution, justice and sustainability. The 21st century socialist project, Bidwai argues, has to be rooted in more democracy and less of stage theory based vanguardism.

Bidwai’s account of contentious topics like the India-US nuclear deal and Jyoti Basu’s near-miss prime ministership in 1996 is bound to provoke disagreement or criticism from many people on the Left. Unfortunately, he is not alive to engage with the debates his book will trigger. However, the book is definitely an important contribution towards the evolution of a political culture which Bidwai felt should be based on “a clear enunciation of openness and tolerance of difference and dissent, with full freedom for all to go public with their views, especially on policy matters".

Roshan Kishore is a data journalist at Mint.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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