The shared predicament of the left in India and Nepal
For the leftists or the communists anywhere in the world including South Asia, to glorify and to attempt to recapitulate the so called communist regimes from then USSR and China is neither feasible nor desirable today. The longer they keep the vestiges of those regimes like hypocrisy and authoritarianism, the more detrimental to their long term future. A timely re-assessment of the legacy from the past will go a long way towards clearing path for the future. As the relentless neoliberal economic order increasingly veers towards authoritarianism--with corporations richer and stronger than nation states and geopolitics preferring pliant dictators over reasonable democracies--the relevance of the alternatives is set to only grow over time.
While George Orwell's masterpiece 'Animal farm' is deservedly the enduring satire at Stalinism and Communism, it is more than just that: the depiction of capitalism in the book is no more encouraging. What Orwell basically expresses through the analogy is that Communism has a tendency to degenerate into something as evil or even more evil than capitalism.
Still, the unique strength of the tale lies elsewhere: it ruthlessly dissects one vice of communism from which the capitalism of his day was comparatively free- the endless cycle of hypocrisy and deception, built layer upon layer; so thick that it stops being recognized as such after enough repetitions and recitals. The single sentence "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." is probably the most comprehensive statement ever formulated to unravel the factor of hypocrisy lurking behind the flowery rhetoric.
As time evolved, the web of hypocrisy and deception and the smokescreen of self-aggrandizement could not hold any longer and the USSR with its foundation in Leninism and Stalinism crumbled under its own weight over the late eighties and early nineties. China, the other giant state to be ruled by the communists had already deviated from its course dictated by Mao Zedong and was on way to unfettered state capitalism even though with a nominal garb of communism.
Is it then not strange that a couple of years after the spectacular collapse of the USSR and two decades from the triumph of the 'reformists' in China, a formal communist outfit in Nepal, a tiny nation state etched between the Asian giants China and India, chose to wage a guerrilla war against the state aiming to establish a socialist utopia?
It would appear so and many at that time called it a nonsensical and insane thing to do, especially when they had nothing more than some dozens of ragtag fighters and outdated firearms to start with. Yet the insurgency was started and it quickly spread like wildfire eventually throwing the Nepali state into a dire existential crisis within a decade. What is more, the insurgency came to a halt only when the monarchy holding the executive power at that time was forced into a humiliating retreat by the street protests eventually paving way for the ultimate uprooting of centuries-long institution.
One can choose his/her own words to characterize the insurgency--bloody, disastrous, anachronistic and inhumane, or revolutionary, transformative, momentous and heroic--depending upon where one stood relative to the positions and ideals of the conflicting sides of insurgency but one thing cannot be denied: it left clear footprints in Nepal's history in the early twenty-first century.
Indeed the transformation of Nepal into a republic from a kingdom along with the whole process of state restructuring and formulation of new constitution through constituent assembly (two tasks yet to be completed) were the logical outcome of that armed struggle. Whether taking more than thirteen thousands lives for those gains was justified is the question the people devastated by conflict have been asking to date to the proponents of so called 'People's war'.
Looking South, India too is no stranger to the issue of violent leftist rebellion. The so called Naxalite rebellion spanning many states in the East, North and Center of the country has been a major headache for the central as well as the state governments. Unlike Nepal where the violence quickly reached the crescendo and was brought peacefully to a halt within weeks, the waxing and waning course of the same in India has lasted for many decades.
The armed insurgency launched by the extremists, however, is only one dimension of the overarching 'leftist' camp that includes a spectrum of communist and quasi-communist political entities. Having practically abandoned the armed struggle to achieve their stated goals, the Maoists, the ex-rebels in Nepal, are an unarmed but significant political party having participated in two elections by now. India too has its share of leftist political parties that are not even remotely related to the Naxalites still fighting in the hinterlands.
In this essay, we shall deal with a question of momentous importance: what does the future portend for these political entities, peaceful and violent alike, given the comprehensive victories of the rival rightist or right-leaning political parties in both the countries in the latest polls? This also brings us to the inevitable question: are the leftist forces finally heading towards irreversible decline in the region as in many others?
An answer to these questions would go a long way towards characterizing the future political course in the subcontinent. This is not only from the perspective of rivalry between the leftist and rightist forces in the region but also because the leftist forces are a significant component of the secular camp in the religious-secular divide particularly in India and a dwarfed presence of the leftists will mean far less resistance to the relentless advance of the religious right in the country.
On another plane, the marriage of convenience between rightist politics and unfettering neoliberal economy in India under new government appears to transform the discourse on every issue on which the communist movements across the world have been mobilizing people: poverty, injustice (real or perceived), marginalization and exploitation. As the paradigm of the debate itself shifts instead of the arguments or arguing sides, the left in India is going to find itself in totally uncharted waters soon enough. Here, we shall try to see what options the left has in India as well as in Nepal in the changed scenario.
Historical roots: have the communists really thrived in Nepal and India?
The political rivals often blame the communists for nurturing poverty because 'if poverty ends, their politics also ends'. Though this point can be debated (myself being non-judgmental as we have a slightly nuanced issue at focus here), communists in the two countries can be justifiably criticized for their less-than-appealing record of governance when in power which has inevitably led to heightened poverty, exploitation and marginalization of people. Experience from nearly five total years during which one or the other communist outfit has led the government in Kathmandu over past two decades and more than three decades of uninterrupted leftist rule in Indian state of West Bengal make this point clear.
Let's begin the prognostication of the leftist political camp with the cursory look at the fate of the leftist forces--both believing in ballots and in bullets--over past two decades in India and Nepal.
It was a decade ago in 2004 elections when the leftists showed a strong electoral presence even at the center in India. Combined with their track record of winning elections in West Bengal, a revitalization of the whole leftist movement in India was not far from conceivable at that point of time. Indeed the purportedly left-leaning UPA government in its first tenure was pretty much influenced by the leftist allies in the coalition.
The electoral gains of the left in India, however, did not prove to be sustainable and two subsequent polls have mopped them away from very large swathes of territories mainly in West Bengal and in the far South which were once their bastion.
The story is, however, slightly different in case of the armed Naxalite insurgents in India and the whole of leftist camp in Nepal. The insurgents in India have proved particularly resilient in face of the attempts of the previous governments to wipe them out even though the initiatives of the new government are yet to show their outcome.
Ever since the Maoist insurgency gained momentum in Nepal in early 2000s, they have played a decisive role in Nepal's national politics one way or the other. That reality has only changed over the past year with the electoral routing of the ex-rebels though the right-leaning Nepali Congress, the largest single party, shares the power in Kathmandu with other political outfit named Nepal Communist Party (UML).
That said, while a sustained decline in the remaining clout of leftist forces in Nepal and India through the next decade is possible--many call that even logical outcome of the political processes in the region--that is by no means a foregone conclusion. They have seen harder times in the past and the politics in the region is no stranger to electoral surprises.
Before discussing the future of the leftist forces, let's deal with something more fundamental that dictates their political behavior.
A break from past? How today's communists view the past communist regimes
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Chinese Communist Revolution have been like the Mecca and Medina for the communist forces across the world. Glorification of those developments by today's communists is quite understandable. But even the cadres of these parties in today's information age are not in a position to completely believe the euphemized and sanitized versions of the communist rule in Russia and China. Accordingly, the developments like the Cultural Revolution and the Stalin's purges no longer elicit the same feeling of glory and accomplishment which were cherished by the communists of earlier age who were themselves duped about the former by the documents of the communist parties in each country.
Instead, there are many credible intellectuals in the left side of political spectrum today who frankly criticize Stalin and Mao for their unforgivable excesses. The party cadres of today's Communist parties are not immune from this kind of interpretation of the tenures of the two leaders. Indeed, the people idolizing the reformists in China lead some of the political outfits calling themselves communists like the CPN (UML), one of the ruling parties in Nepal mentioned earlier.
So how do the communists currently interpret these issues from the past? Do they still glorify the Stalin's purges and Mao's Cultural Revolution (only to exemplify) or are they ready to re-interpret the events that defined the protracted tenures of the two leaders? Do they still think the reform-minded persons and political forces traitors and counter-revolutionaries as was the practice once? How are they going to manage the increasingly horizontal flow of information defying the vertical system once nurtured by the communist regimes? If/when the communist rule in Russia and China in the twentieth century stops being the model to follow, what alternative do they have for the future?
Understandably, these questions do not stop being asked to today's communists just because they have chosen not to answer them explicitly so far. Unlike the cadres from earlier time who would faithfully embrace a party with no information other than the letters etched in the party documents and so called 'communist literature', today's educated citizens particularly in the urban area often pose these question to the communist leaders who are accustomed to being heard and not questioned.
The fact that many of the communist outfits like the Maoists in Nepal have chosen to ignore an enormous and increasing gap between rhetoric and reality--written words of party documents and the actual behavior of the party--is further muddying the water making them an eternally confused political force with enough amount of hypocrisy that Orwell so famously derided in Animal farm.
The reality: Why class struggle does not define everything under sun
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles", thus started the Karl Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party (1). One and a half century after the publication of the momentous document, the Maoists in Nepal started armed insurgency against the state with the vision to capitalize on the class struggle to establish an utopic communist rule.
But soon enough, they were to discover that class struggle was not everything that governed the society. Moreover for people, it was one thing to verbally agree with the explanation of history provided by the communists and altogether different to engage in armed manifestation of class struggle.
In other words, people's frustration and even acrimony towards the state that nurtured inequality never meant that they were ready to engage in bloodshed to change the situation. Rather, their resentment towards the rulers in Kathmandu meant that they would send their children abroad to toil and make a living by circumventing a corrupt state machinery but most of them were unwilling and often frankly opposed to the idea of sending their children to war against the state.
Having faced this reality after starting an armed insurgency, the Maoists looked for something more potent than the class issue to reach the larger population and to keep a steady flow of cadres and fighters. In the process, they tacitly ditched the class issue and brought the ethnicity issue in forefront to explain the deeply entrenched exploitation and marginalization in the society. The dividends of the change in tactics were prompt enough and the insurgency gained new heights soon enough with popular support from wider sections of ethnic communities in Nepal which were historically marginalized by the state during the centuries long dynastic rule of the Shah kings and Ranas, even the young democratic rule in the country having been unable to reverse the wrongdoings from the past.
The Maoists (the Unified CPN (Maoist) and the splinter party CPN-Maoist) still argue that their fundamental understanding of the society and the choice of weapons to fight the social ills is based on class conflict and add that there is no contradiction on collaterally pursuing the complementary thread of ethnicity-based exploitation and struggle, but that seems to be detached from reality. When the threads of the class-based narrative and the ethnicity-based narrative diverged and even contradicted one another at the decisive moment just before the collapse of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) in Nepal, they were forced to choose one of the two and they obviously chose the ethnicity thread.
As the rival centrist and rightist forces, indifferent and often disdainful to the class-based narrative, chose to strongly contest the ethnicity-based narrative too—their market-oriented spectacle interprets each of those threads as obsolete and anachronistic—that led to a vicious polarization of the society and the country teetered at the edge of strife during those tumultuous weeks.
In the latest elections for second Constituent Assembly (CA-II), the routing of the ex-rebels has effectively brought them full circle to the point from which they had started the insurgency two decades ago. With a significant chunk of voters from the purportedly marginalized communities having voted the rival parties frankly opposing ethnicity-based federalization of the country (that included positive discrimination for particular ethnic groups to make up for past injustices as proposed by the Maoists in first CA), the Maoists came to realize the harsh reality: after the failure of class thread to jumpstart the 'People's war' in early stage, the ethnicity thread had now miserably failed to revive their political fortunes at crucial moment.
The obvious reason behind the cataclysmic loss of the Maoists was their terrible record at governance as they led the government in Kathmandu during the tenure of first CA. Now that they were participating in the competitive politics, 'bourgeoisie morality'—that the communists all over deride so passionately—was now expected from the leaders of the party and that was something they were not ready for.
The very fact that the majority of people voted with concern about the governance in the country rather than on marginalization and exploitation based on class or ethnicity spoke very loudly about the changing face of the electorate in the twenty-first century.
India: Why the big party is spoilt every now and then
The troubles of the past five years have relatively subdued the enthusiasm but the dominant mood of the Indian middle class over the past few decades has been one of celebration. What can be more desirable than being transformed from a petty ally of a decadent USSR, an outcast in the world of civilized democracies, to a preferred and esteemed member of the capitalist camp ruling the world?
The desperation of the people in general to get rid of a decade of brazen misrule and the eagerness of the vocal middle and upper class (also the sponsors and customers of media industry) to see India as a strong regional power and potentially a world power have just combined to give an emphatic victory to the 'strong' leader Narendra Modi in the recent polls.
But this lasting celebration of the upwardly mobile section of Indian populace has been recurrently spoilt by the 'rogue' Naxalites adamant at preventing India's emergence as a capitalist superpower by choking the development that demands extraction of the mineral wealth from beneath the forests in the country. Instead of evaporating under pressure from the security forces, they seem to be surviving well if not thriving and advancing.
The epic essay 'Walking with the Comrades' by Arundhati Roy (2) and furious reaction of the Indian middle class laced with visceral hatred towards 'terror sympathizers' aptly represent the debate surrounding the Naxalite rebellion in India. The reign of terror unleashed by the state-sponsored militia named 'Salwa Judum' and the brutal murder of its founder last year by the rebels form important subplots of the story.
Even the new government in India under Modi seems to concede that it is the brazen neglect and misgovernance on part of the state that has resulted into a flourishing armed rebellion. The complicated saga has multiple dimensions but that much of admission goes beyond the conventional understanding of the rebellion in India as a purely law-and-order problem to be dealt with force.
That is where, however, the apparent convergence between the understanding of the rebellion by the new Indian government and the likes of Roy ends.
For Modi's government, the future is in ensuring that the fruits of development reach the remotest hinterlands in the country removing the incentives for the tribal people to join the insurgency. That way, the fabulous mineral wealth can be extracted with little resistance helping India to propel itself into prosperity and heightened political and military clout in the region and the world.
For Roy and a host of critics of government's approach, the future is in preserving the ecosystem in forests and swamplands and leaving alone the tribals with their rustic life. Development in the tribal region, for them, is a mere euphemism for the corporate project to uproot the tribals and decimate the forests to siphon off the mineral wealth that lies beneath thereby egregiously enriching a select few at enormous cost to the state and the poor people. They argue that this is going to be disastrous in the long term because the material prosperity for the wealthier sections of society and obscene level of profit for some corporate houses in no way mitigates the inevitable environmental catastrophe.
The future: short term
This discussion brings us to the central question of this article: what happens next for the leftists in India and Nepal.
In Nepal, the combined strength of political parties calling themselves Communist has been historically comparable with that of the so called center-right parties with one or the other crossing the simple majority threshold. The equation had rather changed with the emergence of significant regional political parties from the Southern plains of the country after first CA polls but they too have been remarkably downsized in the second CA polls.
The enduring rivalry among the leftist parties and their diverse and conflicting political principles and practice—particularly the Maoists who have a legacy of violent insurgency behind them and the CPN (UML) which has participated in parliamentary democracy for more than two decades—means that they often find themselves at each other's throat. With rapidly declining political fortunes of the ex-rebels after recent polls, the UML, one of the ruling parties in Nepal today, is set to promote its reformist and often frankly capitalist policies to new heights.
In other words, capitalism will find little resistance in Nepal in near future regardless of the increase or decrease in the clout of leftist forces.
In India, it is anybody's guess when the unarmed leftists, battered by two successive electoral setbacks, will reorganize themselves to pose any credible threat to the rivals. If there is a significant change under new rightist government towards better governance and accountability, they will be pushed further towards oblivion.
The fate of the armed Naxalites, however, is far less predictable. Even though faced with the wrath of hostile state in so called Naxal-infested states, they are free from the kind of paradox that the then ruling Communists in the state of West Bengal were entangled in: preaching the liberation of workers and peasants yet forcibly evicting the poor farmers from their lands to provide land for a business house.
Even though they are unlikely to significantly change the trajectory of India as a robustly thriving capitalist regional power and not even a provincial government is likely to be threatened by their activities, the hindrance they have caused towards the encashment of the mineral wealth in the tribal regions has been significant. In a world where the unchecked corporate power hardly hits any limit, that has been enough to draw the ire of the most vocal and powerful section of the Indian society.
To what extent the tribal people will keep risking their lives by siding with the rebels instead of participating in the developmental drive of the new government is an open question and very important one. The fate of the tribal people as well as that of an important section of the leftist political force in India will thus hinge upon the ability of the government to win over the tribal people.
The future: long term
For their survival in the longer term, the leftists in Nepal as well as in India will have to rediscover themselves to suit the changed circumstances; after all, Karl Marx had no advice to offer to the denizens of the information era and no amount of denial can make today's generation forget the horrible rules of Stalin and Mao. Time can blur the bitter experiences from the communist rules in the past but that hardly makes people willing to join the communist parties today.
As the experience from Nepal has showed, a political party with a pathetic record at governance can never win an election that is reasonably free and fair, whatever its other credentials. When all contesting political parties have negative track record on the realm of governance, one with least perceived wrongdoing is likely to triumph.
The routing of the incumbent 'secularists' first in Pakistan and then in India in the region shows that even the lofty social ideals like secularism, tolerance and social justice do literally nothing to convince people so long as a political power has the stain of bad governance. That is not to say that people do not value or cherish the other virtues but before anything else, they want to feed and clothe themselves with minimum hassle and that is exceedingly difficult when corruption rules the roost from the PM's office down to a village body.
At this point, it is worth noting the arguments of many scholars that the regimes in then USSR and China were harsh forms of state capitalism governed by authoritarian leaders; opaque, inefficient and brutal as they were, but not truly socialist. Many Marxist scholars also argue that it is through letting the capitalist system to mature and develop enough contradictions from within that it can be demolished to establish socialism, not through any shortcuts or distorted interpretations of history as was the case with establishment of the purportedly communist regimes in Russia and China.
Chaitanya Mishra (3) and Pradip Giri--two such scholars in Nepal, both harshly critical of the purportedly communist regimes in Russia and China--had predicted the failure and counterproductive outcomes of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal from very early on for this precise reason and their short-term prognostication of the movement has turned out to be very correct.
They have argued that the theoretical framework of Marxism was distorted first by Lenin and then by Stalin and Mao to make an essentially authoritarian state capitalist structure appear as communist one. In today's context, they argue that the values of truly competitive and participatory democracy never contradict with the overarching goals of the communists to establish a utopic rule in the future.
Whether capitalism develops enough contradictions in future to become nonviable or not is something the future will decide, but the advice of these scholars to today's communists is quite prudent: ensure maximum possible social justice for people and do everything in your capacity to establish nationalist capitalist economies with maximum accountability towards the people as opposed to what they call comprador capitalism and crony capitalism that rule the roost in the developing world today.
Even if the leftists in Nepal and India today are unwilling to take advice of one scholar or the other, the spectacular failure of the Maoists in Nepal to make giant strides towards socialism through 'People's war', as stated at the beginning, should make them realize their own fallacy thereby prompting to make the much needed course-correction.
On a parallel note, now that the tools traditionally used by communist regimes like the restriction of flow of information have been rendered utterly useless, with China scrambling to 'manage' online communication and North Korea degenerating into a rabidly paranoid cocoon, a complete re-assessment of the legacy from the past communist regimes is long overdue.
In Indian democracy, there is enough space for dissenting voices including from the left side of the political spectrum regardless of the political parties or coalitions at power. But for any meaningful presence in the national politics, the unarmed leftist forces in India should transform themselves from a party dependent on muscle-power of the cadres to a party advocating and practicing good governance and accountability along with the values of social justice and secularism.
The armed leftist rebels in India may be able to keep doing what they have been doing so far well into the future but even that will be increasingly difficult with a more decisive state. And if/when the state becomes able to forcibly decimate them as well as the protesting tribals, the deforestation and mining that has been checked so far will take place at war footing with literally no weapon left to fight against it.
For specific tactical goals like sustainable empowerment of the tribal people and lasting preservation of the fragile ecosystem as well as for the longer term strategic goals like checkmating the relentless advance of corporatocracy in the world, they too have to seek the alternatives by realizing the limits of an armed insurgency in the new century. While I may not be in a position to advise them a particular way of doing that, fighting the pro-rich bias of the system through peaceful and democratic means may be a less appealing but far more sustainable way of doing that.
To conclude, for the leftists or the communists anywhere in the world including South Asia, to glorify and to attempt to recapitulate the so called communist regimes from then USSR and China is neither feasible nor desirable today. The longer they keep the vestiges of those regimes like hypocrisy and authoritarianism, the more detrimental to their long term future. A timely re-assessment of the legacy from the past will go a long way towards clearing path for the future. As the relentless neoliberal economic order increasingly veers towards authoritarianism--with corporations richer and stronger than nation states and geopolitics preferring pliant dictators over reasonable democracies--the relevance of the alternatives is set to only grow over time.
Whether the leftists can catch that opportunity by meaningfully fighting for the interest of the people marginalized and trampled upon by the 'winners take it all' capitalist order depends entirely upon them. And as a means to that end, a competition in ballots with faith in accountability is far more potent and dependable than the use of bullets; bullets are the last things the ruling elites in today's world will run out of.
(1): Chapter 1: Bourgeois and proletarian , in Manifesto of the Communist Party see: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007, accessed July 20, 2014
(2): Roy, Arundhati: Walking with the Comrades, March 29, 2010, see at: http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Walking-With-The-Comrades/264738; Accessed July 20, 2014.
(3) Regimes in USSR and China were harsh forms of State Capitalism, an interview with Prof. Chaitanya Mishra, April 13, 2013, see at: http://jiwankshetri.blogspot.com/2013/04/regimes-in-ussr-and-china-were-harsh.html, Accessed: July 20, 2014.