Prakash Karat, the former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), recently wrote a piece in the Indian Express candidly admitting to the declining appeal of the CPI(M) among the different segments of the middle class and the youth. This, he said, was largely because of the changes they have undergone as a consequence of being exposed to nearly 25 years of economic liberalisation. “The Left organisations are still stuck with the old issues and have not innovated in ways to reach out to them and take their concerns on board," Karat added.

Beyond rebranding

But to win the middle class the CPI(M) should prepare to commit heresy – it should rename the party and drop the word “communist” from the new nomenclature it adopts. This isn’t a plea for rebranding. It is rather asking it to convey through a new name what it has been for long – a social democratic formation, in contrast to its protestation of representing the idea of democratic socialism, or creating through democracy a socio-economic architecture (socialism) that could be an alternative to capitalism.

Indeed, its political culture, as it exists, strives to work within the overall framework of capitalism, to reform it and render it humane, and redistribute income. But even on this count, it can be said that they have been at best mediocre social democrats even as they wish to be revolutionary socialists, albeit of the democratic kind.

Karat’s advocacy of taking the “concerns” of the middle class “on board” will obviously not put the CPI(M) back on the long and bumpy highway to socialism. A segment of this class, as Karat himself admits, has benefitted from neo-liberal policies and can’t relate to the Left programmes. Worse, he accepts, the CPI(M) has failed to win other segments of the class because their concerns and problems have undergone changes, which the party hasn’t adequately addressed.

What ‘communist’ evokes

So even as the CPI(M) sets out to arduously court the middle class, it should reflect on the images the word “communist” evokes among them.

It is a reminder to them of an era in which authoritarianism reigned, the freedom to exercise choices was curtailed, and a culture of intolerance to criticism flourished. It rekindles memories of the brutal domination of the state.

The term “communist” connotes to the middle class a person opposed to entrepreneurial enthusiasm, disdainful of accumulation of personal wealth and consumerism, and to being opposed, in general, to the spirit of joie de vivre. These are precisely the values the middle class places great premium on.

Undoubtedly, some of these images have been grafted on the popular memory of India through films and books and personalised accounts, whether fictionalised or otherwise. India hasn’t endured the all-pervasive Stalinist culture, but the glimpses we have had of the communist style of functioning in India hasn’t been encouraging.

Human rights violations

Long before Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh happened in West Bengal, where the CPI(M) had a continuous run in power for 30 years, there had been rampant human rights violations. In his June 2011 piece, "West Bengal’s Quinquennium and the Future of the Left", in the Economic and Political Weekly, Sumanta Banerjee provides an account of police terror the Left Front government unleashed in Marichjhapi in 1979, that is, just two years after coming to power.

As an election promise, the Left Front had held out assurances of settling refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan in West Bengal. Its coming to power prompted many refugee families to shift from Madhya Pradesh to the Sunderbans. In an inexplicable volte face, the Left Front government arrested and sent these refugees back to Madhya Pradesh. Nevertheless, a good many of them subsequently slipped through the police cordon, entered Marichjhapi deep inside the Sunderbans, where they cleared the forest and started cultivation.

Refusing to relent, and taking the plea that the presence of refugees threatened the Royal Bengal Tiger, the government ordered a crackdown. Refugees were forcibly evicted, and in the ensuing conflict they, including children, were shot dead, their bodies dumped into the river.

Marichjhapi apart, Banerjee points out that between 1981 and 1982 there were 248 instances of police firing in which 62 people died. In the same period, the killing of undertrials in the police lock-up reached such proportions that the Calcutta High Court laid out procedures to prevent torture and extra-judicial murder. This the Left Front government challenged in the Supreme Court, which, however, upheld the High Court’s recommendations.

In later years, the CPI(M) spawned a network of musclemen masquerading as party members who took to dominating local institutions from villages to cities. They not only siphoned off funds and skewed the idea of participatory democracy, but also became middlemen between the state and the people by charging fees. Even routine tasks such as an addition of a room to a house required the owner to negotiate with the communist toughies.

They, in turn, innovatively rigged elections for the Left, or ensured voters in a village voted for it. But once Singur and Nandigram happened, and sensing the political wind had changed direction, these goons switched over to the Trinamool Congress. This is precisely the reason why the CPI(M) has become absent from parts of West Bengal, at times unable to open their election offices, let alone rally people around contentious local issues.

The odour of defeat

Indian communists can hold out hope of attenuating and altering these harsher aspects of their culture. Perhaps their chance to demonstrate that they have changed and become sensitive will come once the people of West Bengal begin to tire and rebel against the goons now in Trinamool Congress. Or perhaps, over time, the popular memory of their errant, brutal behaviour would fade away to the CPI(M)’s advantage.

But what the CPI(M) will find hard is to persuade a large segment of the middle class that the defeat capitalism handed out to them is reversible, or that they can still create a socialist utopia even as they remain ringed by the supremacy of global finance. Even communist China has become a votary of state capitalism.

So it is that the word communist has the odour of defeat, which is likely to keep away from the CPI(M) the aspiring middle class, particularly the youth, whose trait it is to support the likely winner of the future.

Rhetoric and action

It isn’t just about capitalism triumphing, or India being in thrall to neo-liberal economic policies. Partly, it is a lot about the Left mismanaging the economy of West Bengal. Hundreds of factories closed down there and thousands of people were thrown out of jobs, but the Left failed to provide an alternative. Banerjee says the workers heeded to the late chief minister Jyoti Basu’s advice to refrain from lightning strikes, but he at the same time allowed owners to resort to lockouts and closures.

Banerjee writes,

“The number of strikes came down from 43 in 1981 to 29 in 1982, while during the same period 54 factories imposed lock-outs affecting the livelihood of 53,000 workers, and industrial houses announced closures of 13 units throwing out 12,300 workers.”

Even as recently as 2005, the number of strikes was 26, as against 182 lockouts.

On quite another trajectory was agriculture. Initially, the Left Front government ensured rights of sharecroppers and redistributed land, winning the gratitude and votes of the peasants for years to come. But, ultimately, as is true of large parts of India, agriculture started to become a losing proposition as landholdings became smaller and unviable. Not only did the state fail to alleviate their plight, but it also managed their alienation through a mechanism which terrorised them into submission.

Against this backdrop, the Left Front government’s decision to uproot peasants and hand over their land for establishing manufacturing and other economic activities trigged a backlash, the intensity of which the CPI(M), in its hubris, underestimated. Police brutality in executing these projects not only turned the peasants against the party, but also invited charges of hypocritically opposing the economic policies of the Congress-led UPA at the Centre, but pursuing the same in Bengal with astonishing brutality and contempt for the people.

It is this difference between rhetoric and action which continues to dog the CPI(M), prompting many to wonder whether the critique of neo-liberal policies will be forgotten once it rides back to power. The trust deficit the CPI(M) faces also presents it with a strange dilemma – belief in its intent can’t be restored unless it is demonstrated through action. However, it can’t get the chance to walk the talk unless it is back in power for a substantially long period in the large state of West Bengal.

Nothing inevitable

There are some who believe in the inevitability of the CPI(M) returning to the centre-stage, citing the rise of the Left in Latin America and, more recently, Greece. Their rise, it is argued, was a consequence of the popular backlash against neo-liberal policies, which haunt India as well. Might not the CPI(M) stage a spectacular comeback, too?

However, what is forgotten is that traditional communist parties in Latin America played a secondary or even marginal role in the rise of the Left in Latin America. The Left there has risen either through mergers or alliances of forces as widely varied as social democrats, extreme Left, ecologists, centre-right, and a myriad of social movements which sprang to oppose the consequences of neo-liberal policies.

This is best understood through the four-fold classification of the Latin American Left that CornelL University’s Kenneth Roberts had made. There is the Left which comprises the parties formed before structural adjustments began and which subsequently went through a “process of ideological renovation and moderation.” This kind of Latin Left is essentially social democratic which came to power in Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.

Roberts’ second type pertains to a “Left-leaning government rooted in an established party from Latin America’s populist tradition.” He cites the case of late Argentine President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, whose party was rooted in Peronism, a movement which rejects the extremes of communism and capitalism.

The third type is called the “Populist Left”, which relies on a top-down populist mobilisation based on charismatic leadership. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez remains the most obvious, and celebrated, example of this type.

Roberts calls the fourth type “Movement Left”, a descriptor of Leftist governments coming to power based on a “network of powerful social movements”, often in response to neoliberal policies. The sheer malleability of the Latin American Left can be discerned from the fact that Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, among the most respected of Latin American leaders, dropped the tag of socialist from his party – Partido dos Trabalhadores – before the 2002 election, which propelled him to the post of President for the first time.

In Greece, Syriza, or Coalition of the Radical Left, is bitterly opposed by the Communist Party of Greece, or KKE. When Syriza won the September election last year, the KKE refused to align with it on the ground that it was a “Left reserve force” of capitalism. The KKE in the September election polled less than half of the 11% votes it had gathered in 1981, suggesting a gradual slide into irrelevance. Interestingly, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras won his spurs in the KKE as a youth leader.

In Nepal, the much-celebrated communist ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, quit the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to form his own outfit, Naya Shakti. That this name does not have the word communist is a testament to his belief that traditional communism has lived its course. In an interview to Scroll last year, Bhattarai had said,

“Maybe, the communists of the present-day world have not been so successful in evolving concrete practices and developing upon the Marxist theory to make it suitable for the 21st century.”

These examples suggest the CPI(M) can’t hope to return to the centre-stage unless it begins to reflect, both in its ideology and praxis, the spirit of our troubled times. Some of its current crop of leaders is among the best in the Indian political class, both for the erudition they bring to debates and in the morality of their conduct. But they certainly haven’t been revolutionary socialists in action, even of the democratic type, nor perhaps can they convince India that they would be so in the future, nor perhaps even on the practicality of socialism as we knew it.

It is perhaps better for the CPI(M), and for the country, that their leaders accept that they are social democrats who have learnt from the past the perils of being poseurs. And what better way to signify this change than to rename their party and drop the word “communist” from it after, obviously, the elections in West Bengal and Kerala are over.

Considering the Hindutva’s march forward, India needs them to do it fast.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.