No Free Left : A Rebuttal to Ramachandra Guha

Indian communists not only have a glorious past, but also a promising future, said the farmer with the red flag during the Kisan Long March.

Ever since the colossal debacle that the Indian Left has suffered in the recently concluded general elections, I had been waiting for that singular piece which would shower invaluable advice on the Communists. I was in anticipation of a monologue or a monograph as far as the way forward for the Indian Left is concerned, from an author belonging to the liberal/secular/intellectual strand of the Indian society. Lo and behold, agaya muft ka gyan; that too, from none other than Ramachandra Guha himself!

In his piece Does the Indian Left have a future? published in The Telegraph's online edition, Guha makes quite a lengthy introduction - 6 out of 15 paragraphs - before cutting to the chase. He takes his own sweet time to lay the foundation for the crux of his piece, by talking about his recent visit to the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad's annual conference. While eulogising KSSP and its work, the point he tries to subtly make is that it is essential to have a broad Left based movement in a society; but, it should not be part of the larger Communist family. 

On Prime Ministership

Once that ground rule is established, Guha quickly moves to list out the pitfalls of the Left - read CPI(M) - in India. The first point he raises - though in passing - is the fact that Jyoti Basu did not become the Prime Minister of India in 1996. Many others have also pointed it out before him. Since he is suggesting that if Jyoti Basu had become the PM in 96, the fortunes of the Indian Left would have changed, let me ask him a simple question. 

What has happened to the Janata Party and its offshoots, which had Prime Ministers in the 70s, 80s and 90s? India had 6 PMs belonging to the Janata Parivar. One of those former Prime Ministers is still alive, and his party won only a single seat in these elections! So, I guess, parties getting their members elected as PM, does not necessarily ensure their stunning performance in successive elections.

Leninist Dogma, Bourgeois Government and Visibility

Guha's second point is about the CPI(M) not ever becoming a part of the Central Government. He mentions the UPA Governments and suggests that the communists could have increased their visibility and profile across the country, had they joined those governments. However, there are a few oversights in this argument.

One is about the two full terms that the UPA Governments ran. He forgets the fact that UPA I assumed office with the external support of the Left parties. The support was extended on the basis of a Common Minimum Programme. One of the major deliverables of that CMP was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It was the NREGA that revitalised the rural Indian economy, and the income that NREGA ensured to rural households was one of the major factors that helped the UPA to return to power in 2009. So, had it not been for the Left's support and the CMP in the first place, there would not have been a UPA II or the second of the two full terms!

After over a decade it is now crystal clear, that it was actually the Left's ideological underpinnings that prevented UPA I from going 'full neo-liberal' on the Indian economy. Allowing unregulated FDI and freeing up the insurance and banking sectors to such investments weren't possible during the UPA I, because of the Left's opposition to it. Ultimately, those checks imposed by the Left proved to be the saving grace when it came to the 'global economic slowdown' - in reality, recession for all those who bore its brunt - and the Indian economy and banking system surviving it. Ergo, it was the Left's political interventions during UPA I, that allowed UPA II to carry on without a serious economic downturn.

The other is about CPI(M) being bound by Leninist dogma, which did not permit it to take up a supporting role in a 'bourgeois government'. I wonder if he had read what he wrote, before it went live! If the CPI(M) had not supported the UPA I, how in the world did it form a government in the first place!

Yet another is about 'improving visibility and profile across the country' by being part of the government. Arey bhai, Congress party had been in Government - both at the Centre and in the states - for decades. Was it routed in 2014 and 2019 for lack of visibility and profile!? Also, the CPI was part of the United Front Government between 1996 and 1998. What good came out of it for the CPI, I wonder. I hope he will explain.

The Unimaginable

After mentioning the second pitfall, Guha goes on to say that socialism is having a resurgence in capitalist countries like the USA. He mentions it as something unimaginable. Dear sir, the only thing that is unimaginable is that one can imagine that when there is inequality and exploitation, people will not rise up against the system that causes it! And, because such an unimaginable uprising is happening in the good old US of A, he thinks that the Indian society with all its inequalities presents a fertile ground for the Left; at least in theory. 

Foreign or Indian

Subsequently Guha presents his first piece of advice to the Indian Left, that it should become more Indian. He says that Indian Communists have found their heroes in another country. He then names people from Marx and Engels all the way down to Castro and Chavez as those foreigners venerated by the Indian Communists. I am not sure if he is saying that foreigners should not be credited for the work they have done or that Indians shouldn't emulate foreign ideas that have worked. Either way, yea right! Does that logic even differ a wee bit from the militant nationalism promoted by the extreme right wing in our country, or is it just me?

It can't be the case that Guha does not know that the Sangh Parivar in India has always idolised the likes of Hitler. Their entire organisation(s) runs on the basis of the propaganda style introduced by Goebbels. B S Moonje, the political guru of RSS founder K B Hegdewar had called on Mussolini in Italy and visited fascist military academies in an effort to study them. The entire organisation of the RSS is built on a structure which emulates Italian fascist youth and military organisations. And, to top it all off, the Hindu rightwing in India was hand in glove with the British colonialists - even tendering apologies at will - and made every effort to torpedo the Indian freedom struggle. Still, in India, they are now in power. Yet, Guha thinks that it is the foreign connection that hampers the growth of the Left in India. 

Gandhi and Ambedkar

Guha even mentions that Indian Communists worshipped foreign heroes at the expense of home grown thinkers like Gandhi and Ambedkar. I don't know where he gets the idea of worship from, but, maybe that is what he does with his ideological gurus. Be that as it may, when even Gandhi's own party has left him on the wayside, the Indian Communists have engaged with some of his ideas. 

A case in point is the defence of the Cooperative movement, when there was an organised attack against it in the backdrop of the infamous 'demonetisation' in late 2016. It was the Indian Communists who took up the fight against the Centre to protect the Cooperative Sector, when Gandhi's own party members kept themselves at bay.

Even political leaders who swear by Ambedkar and parties which have emerged with his ideas as their raison d'etre, have failed to do something as remarkable as the Indian Communists have; which is to appoint Hindus from backward communities - including dalits - as priests in temples. Now tell me, if this is not a radical move to unsettle the caste system, what is!? 

This is not a standalone intervention, as far as the Indian Communists' attack on the caste system is. Let me mention Made Snana and Keezhvenmani alone, just for the sake of dropping examples. Indian Communists are being killed even as recently as last week, for opposing caste based discrimination. One also ought not to forget the fact that land reforms undertaken by the Left governments in Indian states have benefitted the socially backward. 

Indian Socialists

Guha goes on to say that Indian Communists should learn from Indian Socialists like Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia. I have only one question to him in response. Where are the followers of JP and Lohia today? Are they even talking about socialism? Despite having headed Central and State governments in the country, what socialist interventions have they made?

He says that JP's thoughts on political decentralisation were sharper than that of EMS'. However, one ought to point out that it weren't JP’s followers, but EMS', who went about with concerted efforts at political decentralisation and made it a grand success in Kerala. It needs to be noted that the so called Indian Socialists haven't even taken up fundamental issues like land reforms while they have been in power; which as I mentioned earlier, the Communists did.

The Grand Solution

Ultimately, Guha announces his grand solution, that the Indian Communists should be rechristened as Social Democrats. This is where he neatly ties up the end of his piece with its beginning, where he had painstakingly argued his case - utilising 40% of his write up - in favour of a broad-based Left movement that is not part of the Communist family. It is interesting that though he pretends to talk of the Indian Left in the beginning, he is all along talking about the Indian Communists. Could his omission of other Left parties, including the followers of the 'formidable Indian Socialists' - whom he says the Communists should emulate - have been an accident? Or was he just using the word Left to mislead the reader, while his real target was the Communist parties?

To me, Guha's omission of the so called socialist parties in India in his grand narrative on the Indian Left, is because he knows all too well that they are neither socialist nor left. For if they were, they would have at least attempted to make some of the 'mistakes' the communists dared to make, by opposing caste based discrimination and by undertaking land reforms. Yet, instead of calling them out - sparing the mention of a 'family run Yadava party in Uttar Pradesh' - he singles out the Communists. 

No Love Lost for the Communists

I doubt if that is out of any love for the Communists - he finds pride and happiness in writing regularly against the Communists in India. He observes that the word communist doesn't ring a positive note in people's minds. How could it with all the misinformation that has been spread and with the concerted smear campaign that has been undertaken against it, by the capitalists and imperialists, all these years? And, to me, Guha's piece is an addition to that effort. Why? Because he suppresses the facts and presents half truths, much like those who've tread his path before him.

If Communist is a dirty word, what could be a word dirty enough to characterise those who have pushed 400,000 Indian farmers to suicide over the last three decades? What could be a word dirty enough to denote those who have eaten up tribal lands and further impoverished dalits throughout their years in power? What could be a word dirty enough to portray those who sold off our national assets as a matter of policy? What could be a word dirty enough to encapsulate those who mixed politics with religion and has forever marred the secular fabric of this country? Or, does Ramachandra Guha hold the Indian Communists responsible for all this too?

While Guha lists the pitfalls of the Communists in India, he seems to have brushed aside what their contributions have been. Without that, how could one earnestly suggest the way forward? Or is he saying that the Indian Communists have been a failure all along, just because it is at its lowest point in its parliamentary representation? 

Granted that the Communists in India have had an extremely disappointing performance in the recently concluded elections. But, if that means that they are done and dusted, how does he explain the fact that farmers still rally around the Left, as is evidenced by the several struggles in the agricultural sector over the past few years? Also, if he was genuine about his tips to the Indian Communists, he should have bothered to study what the CPI(M) led government in Kerala has been doing over the last three years. One after the other, it has been making historic achievements and earning international acclaim. Yet, he overlooks it.

He should've at least looked at what is currently happening in West Bengal and compared it to the years of the Left Front Government there. Even in the most explosive political climates in India, Bengal was as calm as the still waters. Yet, Guha doesn't try to bring that into context while dishing out his invaluable opinion.


The Communists in India have had their pitfalls, no doubt. None of them are what Guha points out. Mind you, he makes no original contribution in this regard. Every point that he is claiming to make has already been mentioned by several others multiple times in the past. Even the discussion on Communist or Social Democrat has also been settled long back. Just a few years back, Prabhat Patnaik had clarified on that question - that anti-imperialism is what sets a Communist party apart. 

The Communists surely have not been able to take their ideals and messages to the larger masses. They have not been able to counter the misinformation spread against them on a large scale. If it is the work done as CM that was projected to ensure that our current PM reaches that office, the Communists have been deplorable in projecting their state level achievements on to the national level. More importantly, if winning elections in a democracy depends on creating a perception, the Communists have had more than their fair share of pitfalls when it comes to the perception game. Undoubtedly, the Communists will need to seriously look at these pitfalls, if they are hoping to make electoral gains.

Communists and Freedom Struggle

At the Mumbai LitFest in 2016, Guha had said that it was because of an unpatriotic Left that the way for the growth of RSS was paved in India. Guha is supposedly a historian of Modern India. I wonder how come he is unaware of the sacrifices made by the Communists (revolutionaries) in India for the freedom of this country. Just to cite an example, at least 80% of the prisoners in the Cellular jail in Andaman were from Anushilan Samiti, Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and Communist Consolidation. It gives me the chills that someone who could blame the Left in India for the rise of the Indian Right wing - as if the Left was ever a significant player - can have the audacity to lecture the Left on what it needs to do.

Price to Pay

What role did the Left have in Ayodhya? Or in Kandhamal? Or in Godhra, Muzaffarnagar and so on? Even in the present turmoil in West Bengal, what role has the Left played? It is appalling that someone who cowed down to the Sangh Parivar's threats and took down the picture of his meal from Twitter is advising the Left on the way forward. Guha may need to be told that, Left activists in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala are regularly having to give up their lives to the Sangh Parivar, in defence of the secular ethos and democratic fabric of this country. Identifying oneself as Left or Communist in India comes with a price to pay. The likes of Guha wouldn't quite know!

The right wing doesn't give two hoots about what liberals like Guha think or write. He knows that all too well, and for him or others like him to have a say or to even be heard, it is essential that there is a liberal dispensation in the country. Therefore, I can understand quite well, why he is so keen to have a democratic socialist arrangement in the Indian political spectrum. 

I have a humble suggestion. Ramachandra Guha should ask his friends - and he has a few in the most high places - in the party that declared in 1955 at Avadi, that their aim is to achieve socialism, to think about adopting the democratic socialist tag. They should go back to their roots and stay true to their original ideals. Had they stood by them, at least followed Nehru's ideas - which would do justice to the tag Guha proposes - India would not have been in the mess that it is in right now. But hey, there is a market only for lecturing the Left. To talk sense into Guha's friends would be to flog a dead horse.