Post-ideological Politics and Left Politics

March 1, 2014

By Debarshi Das

Left, Right and Rights

A stream of liberal thought, popular among NGO’s, argues that political parties in India, including the Left, have not done enough for the poor. Leaders and ideologues have kept on harping abstract principles, without caring for stark manifestations of poverty, such as lack of food, education, health. A solution, it is argued, would be to legislate the provision of these necessities as rights, so that the State becomes bound to provide them.

Busy in their fight against US imperialism did the Left forget to what end their battle was actually waged [1]?

The performance of Aam Admi Party (AAP) in Delhi elections has a bearing on this kind of argument. According to its leaders AAP does not believe in ideological partitioning between Left and Right. Yogendra Yadav, leader of AAP, has commented that the party does not believe in such pigeon-holing, a relic of the twentieth century [2]. Whatever works for the aam admi, whatever empowers him, is what the party believes in. Having gauged that many citizens do not support high power and water bills the party promised to reduce charges if elected to the office. The pitch of their campaign was decidedly geared toward the concern of middle class and lower middle class urban residents of Delhi.

This politics is consistent with the above-mentioned emphasis on rights. Both insist on the actual delivery of essential services or goods, not on the principles which guide the actions [3].

Does the electoral success of post-ideological AAP demonstrate that there is a possibility to carve out democratic space within the post-colonial State, all that needs to be done is to focus on the delivery of amenities? It’s notable that the constitution of AAP, as well as articulations by Yadav and Kejriwal repeatedly invoke the word ‘democracy’.

Discussion on rights often takes us back to old treatises. Lenin’s State and Revolution, that sledgehammer of a book in the face of liberal obfuscation, is one such work. Arguing that the bourgeois democratic State is as much an organ of oppression of one class by another like all hitherto existing states, Lenin writes,

If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty” – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.

Marx grasped this essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when, in analyzing the experience of the Commune, he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament! [emphasis mine]

The twenty-first post-colonial State is too clever to come up with justifications such as ‘public buildings are not for “paupers”’. It deploys cleverer instruments. From March, 2013 terminated workers of Maruti Suzuki company plant of Manesar had been on dharna at Kaithal town. They were demanding their own reinstatement and release of co-workers who have been in police custody since July, 2012 (147 workers were in custody in all). They planned a major demonstration on 18th May. The district administration imposed section 144 of Indian penal code on 18th May [4]. The police lathicharged and arrested around 150 demonstrators. Charges which were slapped on them ranged from violating orders, obstructing police officials to perform their duty, to grave allegations such as attempt to murder. Paupers of 1917 have been replaced by potential murderers in 2013. The purpose of extinguishing democratic impulse is served all the same.

Sanhati website’s News Reel section hosts statements of trade unions, mass organisations, civil rights groups, fact finding team reports and other such documents received from within the country and abroad. A cursory glance through the section provides examples of basic democratic rights being routinely denied. Take the following sample.

The State of Democracy

On 18th September, 2013 Sati Prasad is arrested without any warrant for planning a protest against Reliance power plant in Sasan, Madhya Pradesh. Prasad is the leader of a local labour union which has been demanding that their employment be regularised, that those who were evicted during the construction of the plant be given compensation, etc. The said protest was to take place on 20th September. After Prasad’s arrest on 18th, on 19th September agitated villagers marched to the factory gate. They were threatened by the sub-divisional magistrate with section 144. Two organisers were arrested. Police did not even inform on what charges these three people were held.

On 1st August, 2013 Jayeeta Das was arrested by plainclothes policemen at a market place in south Kolkata. Flouting Supreme Court guidelines, her relatives were not informed of the detention for hours on end. Nor were the designation or insignia of police officers shown when the arrest was made. No memo of arrest was prepared, no signature of the arrestee or witness was recorded. A search of her house was subsequently carried out, without any search warrant.

Charges brought against Jayeeta are equally Kafkaesque. She is alleged to have been active in Nonadanga, Kamduni and Nandigarm movements. What were these movements about? In Nonadanga slum dwellers were resisting eviction. The slum dwellers came from varied backgrounds. Some have been roaming the underbelly of Kolkata for decades, setting up ramshackle shacks on overlooked land by canal or railway tracks before being thrown out as the city gentrifies. Some have migrated to the city from the Sunderbans after the Aila cyclone of 2009 devastated farmland and livelihoods there. It is rumoured that the Nonadanga land would be handed over to real estate developers. The anti-eviction resistance was treated with police action. Scores of shanty dwellers of Nonadanga were arrested (toddlers included). Six activists belonging to various rights groups and mass organisations were kept in police custody for weeks. The police said that Maoists had set up a den in Nonadanga.

In Kamduni village near Kolkata protests erupted when a college girl was abducted, raped and murdered. It’s alleged that the perpetrators were under Trinamul Congress protection. The chief minister had to face difficult, non-planted questions from women when she visited the turbulent village. Mamata characteristically dubbed them CPI(M) and Maoist supporters out to defame the ruling party. The charge against Jayeeta is that she has been active in these two movements.

Ironically, she is accused to have been active in Nandigram. Lest we forget, when the anti-land acquisition movement was at its peak in 2007, the Left Front government alleged that Maoists have set up base in Nandigram. Six years on, after Nandigram, Singur, Lalgarh movements have been wrung dry; after every killing, torture, rape of resisters by CPI(M) mercenaries and police has been traded for votes cementing Mamata’s ascent to the throne it is now her party’s turn to play the thug of the ruling class. So, the allegation that Jayeeta was active in Nandigram is not that bizarre after all. Given a chance, today’s Mamata, the chief minister of West Bengal of the Union of India, would arrest Mamata, the Nandigram-agitator. The institutions which secure ruling class’s interests have remained intact. They ensure that individuals who are at the helm, be it Buddhadeb or Mamata, do the right thing.

Related to Jayeeta’s arrest is the detention of Himadri Sekhar Bhattacharya of Krantikari Naujawan Sabha (KNS) and Mrinal Kanti Jana, a political activist and film maker. On 22nd July, 2013 both were picked up by the West Bengal police from northern suburbs of Kolkata. While they were being interrogated in police station crowds gathered outside. It is due to constant pressure from the crowd that the police eventually released them. Both have been active in Kamduni protests. Himadri had organized a successful protest meeting in the heart of Kolkata. No charges were leveled against them. The purpose of the detention was simply to intimidate.

In Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, space for democratic dissent was similarly elusive. People who were protesting against the setting up a nuclear plant faceed charges of sedition. As many as 8000 people were booked under this offence. The prime minster Dr. Manmohan Singh claimed that foreign-backed NGO’s were behind the protests. A Fukushima survivor who was to visit Koodankulam was denied visa. A German anti-nuclear activist was detained and summarily deported.

On 21st July, 2013 in the Kathikudam village of Thrissur district of Kerala, the police assaulted villagers. They entered houses, destroyed property, arrested many, including women and children. The charge was that villagers had removed the effluent pipe of Nitta Gelatin company (NGIL). The pipe passed through the land of a person (who did not give his consent for laying down the pipe) and panchayati land (neither did the panchayat give permission). The NGIL is a joint venture of Kerala Industrial Development Corporation and two Japanese corporations. Each day its plant uses “130 tons of crushed animal bones, 1,20,000 liters of hydrochloric acid, and 20 tons of lime. It also uses ferric chloride, alum, caustic soda and other unknown chemicals. It has been discharging large quantity of toxic effluents in river Chalakudy, main source of drinking water in nearby areas and distributing sludges as fertiliser to farmers in nearby villages.” Protests against the plant for polluting the environment have been going on for some time. The densely populated locality has huge tanks storing 30 lakhs liters of hydrochloric acid of the plant.

In all these incidents protestors played by the book. They expressed dissent using legitimate means. The State, to serve the interest of capital or to protect its goons, resorted to repression. It can be argued that there are many protests which go unhindered, their organisers are not persecuted, why are we not discussing them? But there could also be many which were suppressed and were not reported in Sanhati. Cities in India are eating up space of dissent. At times, quite literally. Places where protests are allowed are shrinking. The police is becoming more reluctant to give permission to hold demonstrations, meetings. Gentrified India has little patience for obstructionists.

It is to be noted that the troubled limbs of the body politic have not been discussed here. Laws such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act which are imposed in those areas are more obvious examples of democracy being held in suspended animation. The above examples belong to here, the heart of the body, right here where the extraction of surplus value goes on almost uninterrupted, where capital and state are on a sure footing. Should not that degree of security have translated in toleration of jhandawalas and their attendant jholawalas? If rights are granted more in the breach in places where their most favourable conditions exist, their wellbeing in troubled parts is understandable. More importantly for our present discussion, what of the movements for extending these rights? Do such endeavours materialise into bourgeois democratic rights? Above examples tend to give a negative answer. But does not AAP’s success indicate that a space may be found if innovative means are deployed?

The Revolutionary and the Aam Admi

The first obvious point is that the route from protest demonstrations to movements to social revolution cannot bypass a tryst with the State. The examples above underscore that the State is one of the biggest hurdles on the path of democratisation of society. Instead of being the guarantor of rights, the State is ready to extinguish them at the smallest excuse. This is not a novel point. It reiterates the basic Marxist position that the State is an instrument of class rule, not an institution to maintain balance between classes. Democratisation would put all classes on the same footing, the very anathema of domination by a particular class. So, the State blocks avenues of democratisation. In the process it reveals itself. We get a glimpse of what it is: a ruthless, violent instrument of class oppression. Such moments of unmasking could be shocking to those with liberal illusions. For the revolutionary Left, they are moments of tactical victory.

The anti-corruption demonstration of Anna Hazare et al. confronted numerous chicanery by the Central government and Delhi state government. AAP was formed in the aftermath of anti-corruption movement. It wanted to engage with the State in order to bring Swaraj (loosely translated: democratisation). This change of tactic from being a simple demonstrator (to compel the State machinery from outside) to forming a party (to change it from within) perhaps proves that the State as an instrument of oppression is not easy to coax. To engage with the State AAP had chosen the parliamentary route: contesting elections, passing pro-aam admi legislations. The extraordinary power that business groups wield through financing of political parties is well-known. Expectedly, many were skeptical of AAP’s experiment. To its credit AAP surprised them by its performance.

Rights-walas are often found in cozy proximity of pro-status quo political parties. As if lobbying for legislation of rights is all that is important – politics is not consequential. Unlike them AAP has taken its politics seriously. In short, AAP should be commended because its engagement with the State is overboard, unlike rights-walas who invest heavily for securing seats in this or that durbar. It recognises the importance of a political party.

But what of the politics? What kind of demands is AAP raising? Here one begins to see why AAP’s success can not be replicated by Left parties. AAP wants to eradicate corruption in provisions of (mostly government) services. It demands provision of basic amenities at affordable prices. These are important issues. They deal with the day to day living of urban middle and lower-middle class. A political movement must take these as the starting point. There is no reason to sneer at the day-to-day travails of the middle class. The petty bourgeoisie is an important constituent of the ‘basic classes’ which is capable of bringing about New Democracy.

As Mao wrote, the petty bourgeoisie, along with the working class, are creations of a new society. This is a society which is different from the feudal society. One may question if the old Marxist schema of industrial capitalism demolishing feudal mores is valid in the twenty-first century when industries are on the backfoot, the trajectory from agriculture is more towards services sector. But it cannot be denied perhaps that the urban middle class (industrial or otherwise) is freer from traditional prejudice compared to their rural agrarian counterpart. They have to be engaged with. Fight for their interest is intertwined with the fight for democratisation.

But is that all there is to it? Does ideology not matter when the demand is for education or medical facilities? This again is an old question. Communist movement formulates the above as minimum programme. But these do not complete the conceptual grid of communist politics. Minimum demands are bereft of an impulse for revolutionary change. Their ‘economism’ focuses on the immediate, it is unable to look ahead and therefore incapable to chart out a course of action which would fulfill the minimum demands even. Transformative revolutionary politics combines the minimum programme with the maximum programme for socialism. Without the latter compass the former is bound to flounder. This is why the politics of AAP, the so-called post-ideological politics, is limited in its vision. By focusing on the immediate it fails to see the plot. Since it has no capacity (or willingness) to think beyond the present structure, its reformist vision willy-nilly ends up aligning with the status quo.

To give an example, low power tariff for the needy is a minimum demand. As logical extension of this demand, AAP demanded audit of accounts of private power companies. They are alleged to have had cut shady deals with the government to jack up tariff rate. But AAP’s logical progression seems to have got stalled there. It does not ask: why such deals are common between big companies and governments? [5] Why is the aam admi too poor to pay power bills? Is there a connection between the wealth of rich men who make those deals with the poverty of the aam admi? In which direction does a more rational system lay? Repeating Swaraj to each of the above is not helpful at all [6].

On the other hand, an ardent search for answers could take AAP deeper. It would enable them to move away from the one-point inane agenda of fighting corruption. Who is not against corruption? Even the Hindutva brigade is mighty upset about it. Corruption, at the end of the day, is a symptom. The real test lays in coming up with the diagnosis of the disease. As AAP reneges on the promise to regularise casual workers its politics becomes suspect. AAP’s silence on Muzaffarnagar riots or Maruti workers’ struggle is loud. Perhaps AAP is too naive or conflicted to diagnose the disease behind corruption. More sinisterly, perhaps it is does not want to diagnose at all.

From the above, it should be obvious that AAP is no force to transform the system. It has a limited agenda, much of which would be on the agenda of a Left party. AAP can be given the benefit of doubt of being a social democratic force [7]. It is raising important issues, the issues have a democratic content reflected in the rousing support the party received from the urban middle and lower middle class pushed to the wall by backbreaking inflation and indifferent job prospects. This constituency incidentally has rarely been mobilised by revolutionary Left politics. So, there are lessons to be learnt. In the final analysis however myopic democracy is no democracy at all. Not only does AAP’s democracy not go deeper than power bills, it does not dare to venture into Kashmir valley either.

The over-ground communists may not have raised the minimum demands forcefully or sincerely enough [8]. To that extent Sen is correct. On the other hand, Maoists, it has been reported, have paid attention to them. One of the first steps that Maoists take after entering a rural region is to hold medical camps. This attention has not been restricted to provision of services. In a recent article anthropologist Alpa Shah writes,

[A]ll other developmental functions of the government have been allowed, even encouraged – the functioning of schools, hospitals, developmental schemes such as the building of wells etc. And indeed it is in fact highly probable that without the Maoist mass mobilisation activities, many villagers in these areas would not be as aware as they are of the many faces of the Indian state – from the nation-wide National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, NREGA, (which gives them a guaranteed 100 days of wage work a year), to their food rights through the Public Distribution System..[9]

Differences notwithstanding, communists, both Maoists and the over-ground official ones, have clearer answers to the questions listed above. The answers shape their maximum demands.

Paradoxically, their answers work against them. The answers put them in direct confrontation with capital, with its logic of accumulation. Once exploitation of labour is put to question, owners of media houses raise the flag. At best total blackout, at worst, attack from all institutions of the State follows [10]. The space of democracy which is granted to AAP because of its silences, and worse, support for capitalists, is denied to revolutionary politics because it has the audacity to speak truth to power.


[1] In an interview published in the Anandabazar Patrika on 8th January, 2014 Amartya Sen made this charge: . This was not the first time he did so. Nor was it going to be the last time. Subsequently, in the keynote address at the Jaipur Literature Festival he made the same point.
[3] It is not a matter of coincidence that many leaders of the AAP are from NGO activism background.
[4] Section 144 of Indian penal code: “…Whoever, being armed with any deadly weapon, or with anything which, used as a weapon of offence, is likely to cause death, is a member of an unlawful assembly, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
[5] Take the infamous deal between Enron and Maharashtra government for example.
[6] The 22 page long constitution of AAP and its vision statement have catch phrases, inanities, but lack substance.
[7] This too can become trying at times. Speaking at a CII meet, Kejriwal assured the capitalists’ lobby group that he was not against capitalism, but against crony capitalism (he used the term ‘business’). He soothed their nerves further by declaring that the government has not business to be in business, it should be left to private players.
[8] Sorry state of education and health in West Bengal ruled by self-proclaimed communists for three decades is an example. Kerala, a Left-ruled state, has performed better in this count. Which perhaps explains why they are relatively well-placed there.
[9] “The tensions over liberal citizenship in a Marxist revolutionary situation: The Maoists in India,” Critique of Anthropology, 2013. Shah goes on to criticise such moves. For these, according to her, end up extending legitimacy to the present State through promotion of bourgeois democratic rights. Our argument here is evidently different from hers.
[10] AAP tasted orchestrated hostility when their Delhi government disallowed foreign investment in multi-brand retail.

[The author thanks the Sanhati editorial team for suggestions on an earlier draft.]

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