People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

March  20, 2011



                             Prabhat Patnaik

INDIA has witnessed a veritable social transformation in the twentieth century. A society characterised for millennia by institutionalised inequality in its most grotesque forms, such as “untouchability” and “unseeability”, has made a transition to juridical equality, a set of fundamental rights for all citizens, and a form of government based on parliamentary democracy with universal adult franchise. The significance of this transition, despite the fact that it still falls far short of authentic equality, cannot be overstated. It constitutes a part of our long democratic revolution.


This revolution is the outcome of a massive and historically unprecedented popular upsurge that occurred in this country in the twentieth century. The upsurge had diverse manifestations, from the social movements led by Periyar and Ambedkar to the grand political struggle against colonialism. True, the leaders of the anti-caste social struggle might not have involved themselves in the anti-colonial struggle, and several leaders in the latter struggle might have had scant sympathy for the anti-caste struggle, but at the level of the oppressed there was enthusiastic participation in both these struggles, which they rightly saw as interlinked. And the sweep of the anti-colonial struggle could acquire the necessary width only when it included in its agenda all the features, marking an end to institutionalised inequality, mentioned earlier, which in turn were duly enshrined in the constitution of independent India. This upsurge was greatly influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution, and some of the most dedicated and committed activists within it, upon whom the epic saga of the emergence of the Soviet Union had made an indelible impact, came together to constitute the Left.




This democratic revolution needs to be carried forward, for if it is not, then there will be an inevitable slide-back. Revolutions do not stand still; they either move forward or are overwhelmed by counter-revolutions. The Indian democratic revolution today is faced with the prospects of being so overwhelmed: counterrevolution is gathering strength, and the main reason for this lies in the shift in the position of the bourgeoisie.


The fact that the old social forces, the custodians of the old order embodying institutionalised inequality, were not dealt decisive blows is well-known. Their stranglehold over land, which was the key to their economic, and hence social strength, was not sufficiently loosened. Of course, even if it had been, the destruction of the old order would still have been a protracted and arduous affair; but in its absence, the strength of the counterrevolutionary possibilities remained unimpaired. In addition however, the bourgeoisie which managed to retain its leadership over the anti-colonial struggle, carried its compromise with imperialism several steps forward when it adopted a neo-liberal agenda in the place of the old dirigisme that had been the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle. The consequence of this has been to produce within a very short span of time a deep hiatus within the Indian economy between two groups: a small group of financial and corporate magnates and the middle class professionals around them, who have enriched themselves immensely, and the vast mass of working people, viz workers, peasants, petty producers, agricultural labourers, craftsmen, and all those working in the informal sector, who have witnessed growing absolute immiserisation.


This hiatus itself, which follows inevitably from the attempt of the big bourgeoisie to consolidate capitalist development in the country, no longer in relative autonomy vis-a-vis imperialism but instead through closer integration with international finance capital, is fundamentally anti-democratic. In addition however the effort to “accommodate” this hiatus within the structures of the democratic institutions that were erected through the constitution, necessarily leads to a rolling back or attenuation of these structures, ie, to a counter-revolution against the long democratic revolution experienced in India.


The onslaught on the democratic revolution in short comes not only from the old reactionary forces that were a part of the old order, but from the powerful and acquisitive class of “modern” big bourgeoisie that unleashes a process of primitive accumulation of capital, strives for a strategic alliance with imperialism to buttress its position, and attempts a rolling back of the democratic rights of the people so that their opposition to such primitive accumulation is enfeebled. To say this is not to suggest that the bourgeoisie prior to “liberalisation” did not attempt to reduce the democratic rights of the people; it did, as the infamous “Emergency” showed, but such attempts now acquire a systematic and urgent character when the hiatus within society has become immeasurably wider.


How, it is worth asking, does the big bourgeoisie manage to impose upon society such massive increases in inequality, even though the people enjoy formal democratic rights? What in other words are the mechanisms of abridgement of democracy that permit such inequalities? The range of such mechanisms is wide; some of them are well-known; and all of them are clearly visible. A formal abridgement of democracy is the obvious first option. Indira Gandhi during the Emergency actually succeeded for a brief period in doing this, but eventually came a cropper. The BJP-led NDA during its attempt to “revise” the constitution sought to institutionalise such an abridgement, but that attempt too failed. Even so, however, thanks to a plethora of measures, often initiated by the judiciary, like bans on bandhs, restrictions on the right to strike, and curbs on public meetings, there has been a whittling down of people’s democratic rights.


The second obvious mechanism is the nurturing of communal-fascism, which, as Kalecki put it, is kept like a “dog on a leash”. It is occasionally unleashed, with devastating impact; and, even when it is leashed, the fear of its being unleashed serves to reconcile people to the neo-liberal measures of a non-communal-fascist bourgeois government. Since unemployment and distress provide fertile ground for fascist tendencies, this is a mechanism that neo-liberalism spontaneously generates for itself.


The third mechanism is to “incorporate” dissent, and to criminalise such dissent that cannot be “incorporated”. Here the very fact of the economy being open to the vortex of financial flows helps the neo-liberal cause: any attempt to pursue policies different from what international finance capital favours is fraught with the danger of capital flight, and this forces a degree of uniformity in policy-making among all political formations that do not have the courage to go beyond the existing arrangements altogether. Ideologically too, slogans like “keep development above politics” which is a euphemism for “let us unite to endorse neo-liberalism”, and “let us endorse primitive accumulation of capital”, play the role of “incorporating dissent”. Refusal to be so “incorporated” on the other hand brings the charge of sabotaging “the nation’s prospects of emerging as a super-power” and hence being “anti-national”. Through a myriad means in other words, involving in particular the use of corporate media, a propaganda barrage is unleashed that identifies the interests of the corporate and financial magnates as the “nation’s interest”.


The fourth is the spread of religiosity and the resurgence of pre-modern authoritarian institutions like khap panchayats which the bourgeois political formations treat with benignity. No doubt, an individual has a right to pursue any religion in his or her private life; but religiosity which entails the intrusion of religious practices and rituals into public life, serves to depoliticise and disunite people.




 Indeed the essence of the project of the big bourgeoisie is to depoliticise and disunite people, convert them into atomised empirical entities, rob them effectively of any subject role, and enfeeble them in the matter of defending their democratic rights. The uniqueness of the Left consists in the fact that it is opposed to all this, that its agenda  on the contrary is to unite and politicise the people which alone can make them capable of defending their democratic rights. The Left in short is the only consistent force that works in the direction of carrying forward the long democratic revolution in our country.


The fact that the Left is consistent in its fight against the counter-revolution that seeks to overwhelm the democratic revolution, the fact that it is consistent in carrying forward the democratic revolution, follows not from any particular “good qualities” of the Left, or from its being particularly “well-meaning”. It follows from its very theoretical premises. All political formations which lack the courage to visualise going beyond the boundaries of capitalism, have willy-nilly got to become complicit in the project of the big bourgeoisie to depoliticise the people, to rob them of their democratic rights, and to unleash a counter-revolution against the long democratic revolution; some of them may resist some particular measures but ultimately their resistance against this project must crumble before the logic of capitalist development which necessarily requires an enfeeblement of the subject role of the people.


The Left is different from all of them because it can visualise going beyond the boundaries of capitalism. It can be consistently democratic because it is not imprisoned within the antagonism between capitalism, dominated by globalised finance, on the one hand, and authentic democracy on the other. It is prepared to resolve this antagonism by going beyond capitalism, which is why it can be consistently democratic.


The Left in India, notwithstanding its many mistakes, has consistently stood for the carrying forward of the democratic revolution; for further abrogating, systematically, the millennia-old institutionalised inequality of our old order; for struggling against the hegemony of international finance capital and the deep hiatus that a regime characterised by such hegemony produces; for struggling against communal-fascism; for resisting all attempts to curb the democratic rights of the people in the name of “order”, “combating chaos and anarchy” and “development”(to the point of even issuing public rebukes to senior leaders whose remarks could be interpreted otherwise); and for overcoming religiosity and separateness through political praxis.


Any weakening of the Left weakens the democratic revolution in our country and hence our march to “modernity”. India’s march to “modernity” requires not 8,9,10, or 11 per cent growth rate; it requires a carrying forward of the democratic revolution. This is the touchstone by which all  political formations have to be judged, and on this criterion the Left, notwithstanding all its weaknesses, emerges superior to all other political formations.


The opposition to the Left alas has now gathered momentum to a point where many, claiming to be “progressive”, use the very arguments mentioned above to attack the Left. I can hear for instance an immediate riposte to what I have said above: what about Singur, what about Nandigram?


Much has been written about Singur and Nandigram, and we need not go over all that here. Let us for argument’s sake accept the account of the events put forward by the opponents of the Left. Even so, nobody can possibly argue that they reflected the Left’s subscription to an abridgement of the regime of rights of the people. However mistaken one may think the handling of those two cases by the Left Front government was, one cannot say that they represented an attempt by the Left to dilute or abrogate the regime of democratic rights of the people. Of course, any police firing can be interpreted ipso facto, whether rightly or wrongly, as constituting an attack on the democratic rights of the people; but there is a difference between an episode of police firing and a change in stand on the regime of rights. The Left has never changed its basic class position on the regime of democratic rights of the people. It has stood consistently against all attempts to abridge the regime of rights (to a point where it even opposed the banning of the Maoists despite their rampant murderous attacks on CPI(M) cadres). Nandigram and Singur in short were tragic episodes; they do not represent an iota of shift on the part of the Left to any alternative, abridged, regime of rights.


Likewise one often comes across the following argument: elections in West Bengal, indeed politics in West Bengal, is characterised by violence; since all parties resort to poll violence, a shift from an entrenched political formation like the CPI(M)-led Left Front to a new one led by the TMC, that will take time to consolidate its position, will amount to an empowerment of the people in the interim.


I shall give just one statistic against this “all are the same” argument. During Left rule in West Bengal there have been numerous occasions when the Left has lost heavily: in the Lok Sabha elections after Indira Gandhi’s assassination (even though it did not lose in a majority of the seats), in the recent Lok Sabha elections and of course in the recent panchayat elections. Its alleged muscle power and violent proclivities did not prevent its opponents from making serious inroads into its bastions on several occasions. But on one occasion when after Geeta Mukherji’s death, Gurudas Dasgupta was contesting from Panshkura Lok Sabha seat, he lost the election because in Kespur, which had been “liberated” from the Left by its opponents, he got two votes out of the 25000 polled! To say that “all are the same”, that the Left uses violence to prevent free elections, just as the others do, is a travesty of the truth.


All this has a vital importance in the current election season. The outcome of these polls will have a crucial bearing upon the future of the Left in India. And if the Left receives a setback then the democratic revolution in our country will be in jeopardy.