An year ago, India’s red states, West Bengal and Kerala voted the communists out of power after a historical tenure in the government. Many people raised the inevitable question: Is India’s romance with communism over? How is it relevant in the post-liberalization era and the world’s largest spiritually oriented nation? Let us examine the history and growth of Communism in India before we evaluate the relevance of the movement today.
The roots of the communist movement in India go back to 1920’s when Communist Party of India was founded as an alternative to the existing Congress led anti-imperialist movement. The movement was driven by angst against the economic injustice of the propertied classes of both Britain and India. The “revolt” was not against the imperialism of the British but against the capitalist system in practice.
Victor Hugo once famously remarked that no force could stop an idea whose time has come. In many ways, Communism feels like an idea whose time never really came in India. Communism in India as it was practiced and offered to the people was never in sync with the socio-cultural norms of the majority. In trying to bring about radical change through a revolutionary zeal, the idea missed the opportunity of changing things at the margin. I cite two specific ideological errors made by the movement which I think explain the reason for its failures in India.
National identity: No real national spirit existed among a group of peasants, landowners and middle class proletariat who combined for socio-economic reasons. The fact that it failed to create a new national identity and unite the masses like Gandhiji and other Congress leaders did during the pre-Independence era was one of main weaknesses in its institutional structure. Not addressing the caste and religion issues through continuous dialogue was one of the biggest mistakes of the communist movement during this time. Imposing their caste and religion free ideology on the masses instead only further alienated them.
Means of revolution: The means of violence chosen by Communist movement was easy to be negated by the militarily powerful British opposition. Gandhiji's method, by contrast, was to slowly pick apart at the government's view of liberalism and tackle the issues on the margin. This proved to be highly effective because the colonial state found it more frustrating to battle a morally forceful yet peaceful movement. I would hence argue that this movement managed to damage the government more effectively than the violent and disorganized methods of the CPI.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Marxist roots only persisted in two of India’s most literate states of Kerala and West Bengal where people’s aspirations matched with the ideologies of the Left. However, the last year’s state election debacles of CPI and CPI (M) in both these states point to a trend of the movement losing public support even in these states. But it needs to be pointed out that the unruly offshoots of Naxalism and Maoism still dominate a third of our districts in India. After the Dantewada massacre where 76 jawans of the central paramilitary were surrounded and butchered in cold blood by well-armed Naxalites, the little romanticism public intellectuals and larger public had for such extremist ideologies seem to have evaporated. Our internal security as rightly pointed out by our Prime Minister is our greatest threat and needs to be dealt with utmost urgency and seriousness. In looking back at the history of communist movement and its loss to Gandhiji’s Satyagraha, Government and civil society will do well to pursue its own truth through a rigorous and community based development agenda in these affected districts. In a country like India, it would be hard and foolish to pronounce a judgment on the end of communist movement. But, by choosing to be not in sync with the socio-cultural and economic norms of the larger society, the communists are being clearly overpowered in the battleground of ideas.