Communists in India: Relevance and Challenges in Contemporary Politics

T K Arun

In 1994, when Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung as the supreme leader of North Korea, ET’s cartoonist E P Unny drew the communist theoretician E M S Namboodiripad trying to hide his totally naked self behind a tree, while peering, bemused, at the principal character of the communist world’s first dynastic succession in full military uniform. ‘Kim karaneeyam?’ ran the caption. That is, of course, Sanskrit for ‘what is to be done?’ The caption played on the Kim name and the dilemma of devout communists over this stark flouting of all democratic norms, while harking back to a tract famous in the Marxist universe, Lenin’s ‘What is to be done?’

Indian communists did nothing then. Ditto, when Jong-il was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. Now that Jong-un seems to be grooming his daughter to succeed him, Indian communists again display virtuous consistency.
Why should we waste our time over a dictator who loves geopolitical fireworks more than his own starving people and a party that has been decimated in two of its traditional strongholds in West Bengal and Tripura, holds on in Kerala on the strength of Faustian bargains and struggles as an endangered species elsewhere, on the charity of the Congress it pretends to despise in Kerala?

The communists remain true to the Nehruvian project of building inclusive democracy in India, at least as the first stage of the political transformation they seek. They are committed to the cause more than the party that swears by Nehru and is in thrall to his epigones. use more than the party that swears by Nehru and is in thrall to his epigones. The communists still attract a lot of young idealists, who take up political work as a route not so much to power and riches as to building a less unequal and iniquitous society.

India’s polity needs renewed, energetic commitment to building democracy more than ever before, and it is vital for communists to stop sleepwalking ever-deeper into the shadows of irrelevance, listening to unchanging dogma, chanted with the conviction of catechism by bespectacled ideologues who are too old and too tired to think outside their familiar rut. And North Korea’s relevance is that it presents itself as the embodiment of communist dogma when realized in practice, both in regard to the dogma’s non-capitalist ambitions and enforcement of unquestioning centralism in the party.

What of China?

China does not demur on fostering capitalism, even if it chooses to call it the lower stage of socialism or socialism with Chinese characteristics. Labour is a commodity in China, bought and sold just like other commodities. That is the quintessential characteristic of a capitalist economy. And the official ideology, since Deng’s time, of letting the cat catch mice, regardless of their color, asserting that it is glorious to get rich, has helped improve living standards in China and made the nation powerful.

But China also offers a picture of the consequences of one-party rule: workers in China are less free than in Kerala or Western Europe and live at the mercy of the party and its leader’s whims, devoid of rights or a mechanism to enforce rights. China is aggressively expansionist, with territorial claims on practically all neighbors, save Russia, including India.

China oppresses its minority nationalities and ethnic groups, in particular Buddhist Tibetans, the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang, and Inner-Mongolians. The Hukou system ties people to particular places, generally of their birth, and imposes a huge cost on migrants who work outside their Hukou domain. Mao said women hold up half the sky but women who assert their equality are ill-treated, even beaten up, and the courts rule feminism a deviant tendency.
Party monopoly of power has led to systematic abuse of power and corruption, Xi Jinping’s fight against which is as much settling of scores with party rivals as reform.

Clearly, Indian communists need to shed both the notion that capitalism has become historically obsolete and that it is toxic for human progress. Broad-based capitalism has been history’s biggest force for socializing production, delivering people from the drudgery of poverty and supporting relentless exploration of the limits of human possibility.

If communists present themselves as champions of broad-based prosperity, rather than as its ideological roadblock, it would go halfway to regaining relevance. Commitment to internal democracy, abandoning democratic centralism and other such synonyms for the dictatorship of the general secretary – or of the party secretary of the one state that supplies the bulk of the party’s funds – would cover the rest of the distance.

Creating a democratic sensibility in India calls for a cultural overhaul, undermining caste hierarchy, patriarchy, hero worship, superstition, cant, and ritual, while valorizing democracy, equality of opportunity, the potential of hard work, and assiduous nurturing of human capacity. Overt political mobilization can work only on top of such an attack on pre-modern, anti-democratic social sensibility.

Music, theatre, movies, computer games, poetry, literature, social media memes and posts, short videos, and the reclaiming of history and India’s traditional rejection of deviance in theology – every arena calls for concerted pro-democracy intervention. Communists need to be part of the ferment in the crucible of Indian democracy, not march toward North Korea.

The article was first published on The Economic Times as Communists, once a player in India’s democracy, is sleepwalking into irrelevance on April 11, 2023.

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