What do Keralites think of Tamils

The left in the recovery room

India's left has been asking itself many questions since the electoral defeat of its largest party a year ago. Has the parliamentary approach failed? Are there any new ways? The answers are as varied as the country.

By Joseph Keve, Alappuzha

A suburb of the coastal town of Alappuzha, the former Alleppey, a simple house and a reporter who is a little nervous waiting for the door to open. It's early morning, the wind is blowing from the sea. And there she is - the great woman of left politics in Kerala. She is now 92 years old, sat almost continuously in the regional parliament of the southern Indian state from 1952 to 2006, served as minister in six governments and is still venerated by hundreds of thousands, especially by the many poor families who came to a piece of land through her .

"It's good to see you again after such a long time," says K. R. Gowri, who is called Gouri Amma (mother) by everyone in Kerala. "Just come in." It leads into a sparsely furnished large room. There are photos on the walls showing individual sections of her life as a student, lawyer and politician. "After almost six decades in the communist movement, I sometimes sit here and think," says Gouri Amma. "In the late 1940s there was only poverty and oppression everywhere, so people like me had no choice but to fight for a better future," she says, dressed as always in a white cotton saree. “And it wasn't just people from simple backgrounds who got involved at the time. Influential and wealthy Keralites also welcomed communism and distributed hundreds of thousands of hectares of their property to the landless. " The land for the arable farmers - this demand was omnipresent at the time. "And that's why there are hardly any landless families in Kerala today."

In the meantime, however, a lot has changed. «Today the fight dominates everyone against everyone. Everyone thinks only of themselves, there is no race between ideas and visions, only competition: who consumes the most, who can show more? " The vortex of selfishness has gripped everyone, the poor as well as the rich, and so society stands on an abyss of apathy, corruption and self-deception. "Kerala urgently needs a new social contract if the social gains are to be preserved."

But hasn't there always been competition, including among wage earners? And pressure from above? Yes, replies Gouri Amma - but the climate used to be different: “Even as a student, I campaigned for the broad participation of the poor and especially women. And as soon as I was a member of parliament, I became finance minister and thus responsible for the promised land reform - I could hardly believe it. " Her family has also given away a thousand hectares of inherited land: "History was made back then, and I was there!" The land reform, which was pushed ahead more vigorously in Kerala than in other regions of India, the promotion of cooperatives, the literacy campaigns, the diverse women's emancipation programs, the egalitarian approach - all of this has contributed to the fact that Kerala has been the most progressive state in India for decades.

But why is the Left, to which so much is to be owed, in such bad shape? Gouri Amma: «The old Communist Party leaderships grew up in struggles and remained rooted in the grassroots, no matter what happened. The boys, on the other hand, come from the universities. " There is nothing wrong with that. “But they want to achieve everything immediately, seize every opportunity that accelerates their progress, accumulate offices and leave people behind. I soon became too old-fashioned for them with my principles. " And so it came about that at the beginning of 1994 the Marxist K. R. Gowri was expelled from the Communist Party of India / Marxists (CPIM), which was then successful in Kerala and in the state of West Bengal. Shortly thereafter, she founded the Alliance for the Protection of Democracy (JSS), of which she is still secretary-general - and was re-elected to the regional parliament.

Workers' uprising in Kerala

The history of the Indian subcontinent is a history of revolts. Again and again the impoverished masses rose against the princes, the British colonial rule, the large estates. Few of these revolts are scientifically documented. Among those historians have dealt with so far, the peasant rebellions of Telengana (state of Andrah Pradesh) from 1946 to 1951, the rural workers' struggles of Orissa and the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt of 1946 against the British-controlled principality of Travancore took place in present-day Kerala has a special role. Above all, the labor offensive in Travancore, supported by the trade unions, had far-reaching consequences. “In Indian history, the workers have often struck long and bitter strikes while the peasants revolted,” says Robin Jeffrey, a researcher at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the University of Singapore. "Only once did industrial workers take up arms, liberate areas and fight the military." Under the leadership of the Communist Party (CPI), from which the CPIM later split off (see “India's Left”), the local working class, which was particularly strong in the Alleppey region, had the prince's army with bamboo sticks, spears and swords challenged by Travancore and tried to push through the social revolution and liberation from the British yoke.

The battle was lost - the repression of the princely government cost the lives of around a thousand people. But in the south, the communist movement remained strong even after India's independence in 1947 and the introduction of parliamentary democracy. For example, the CPI became the strongest party in the 1952 regional elections in the province of Madras (in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu). "At that time, however, the communists there were unfairly denied participation in the government," says the economist and long-time government advisor Prabhat Patnaik, "as was the CPI in Kerala at the beginning." But in April 1957 - after long resistance from the central government in New Delhi, which did not want to accept a communist regional premiere - the left prevailed. "Kerala," says Patnaik, "was the first country in the world to have a freely elected communist government." And they quickly implemented their election promises. Just two years later, the power of the big landowners was broken.

Thanks to Stalin on the sidelines

After this impressive start, many leftists expected similarly spectacular election successes in other states. However, apart from West Bengal, there was no upturn. That had in part to do with history. The communist movements of India, China, and Vietnam had sprung up in the 1920s. But while the Chinese and Vietnamese communists joined or led the national liberation movements, the Indian Marxists held back on this central issue at the time. They were also in favor of independence, but distrusted Mahatma Gandhi's policies, whose congress party sought national freedom but not socio-economic upheaval. Worse still: during the Second World War, at Stalin's behest, they even called for the support of the British colonial power. And thus alienated many who had previously been well-disposed towards them.

This explains in part why the communists in India were never as successful as they were in China or Vietnam. They were only able to build a stronghold in three regions: in the small northeastern state of Tripura, in West Bengal and in Kerala. The CPIM still rules in Tripura today. In West Bengal, the CPIM was the uninterrupted government from 1977 to 2011, but suffered a heavy electoral defeat last year. And in Kerala the party lost a lot of its influence a year ago. In both cases, the causes were homemade.

For decades, two party alliances in Kerala - the Communist-dominated Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDP) controlled by the Congress Party - have been replacing their governmental responsibilities with regularity: the people in the Indian Southwest distrust the powerful and like to vote them off again. And so a defeat of the LDF was expected in 2011, which had won the regional election in 2006 by a large margin. A big defeat, because CPIM cadres got entangled in many corruption scandals. The fact that the election failure in May 2011 was not so devastating (the LDF scored 68 out of 140 seats) was mainly due to the left's top candidate, the 88-year-old Chief Minister V. S. Achudanandan.

Achudanandan, a humble, principled politician, like K. R. Gowri, belongs to the old guard. He grew up at a time when "the popularity of a political leader depended on how serious he meant it," says political observer Partha Chatterjee. "Self-sacrifice, devotion, seriousness were essential factors." But that has changed. "The political elite today appears self-centered, opportunistic, greedy." This also applies to the communists.

Example Kerala

In some cases, however, the CPIM has also fallen victim to its successes. The fact that the well-educated youth in Kerala no longer show any revolutionary zeal, but rather appears revolution-tired, has to do with the fact that social and political oppression in Kerala is a thing of the past. Some even compare Kerala with Western Europe. "Kerala is in relation to the rest of India what the developed industrial countries of Europe are in relation to the rest of the world," wrote columnist Anand Giridharadas years ago. Kerala is also suffering from unemployment and stagnation - and has meanwhile «so worker-friendly labor laws that investors stay away». A generous social welfare system, according to Giridharadas, also allows many to forego sweaty activities.

This analysis cannot be completely dismissed. The children of the coconut liqueur tappers and yarn spinners, the fishermen and potters took advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered to them. They strive for well-paid jobs, are looking for new challenges, and if they cannot find them in Kerala, they go abroad - to Australia, Canada, Western Europe or the Gulf region. For them, the left is a spent force that only clings to traditional claims, rejects the individual search for profit, happiness and prosperity - and enjoys privileges in the process. How much the climate has changed is also shown by the number of labor disputes: it has been falling for years. Still, the LDF has a chance of winning the next election in 2016. Because the CPIM has not lost everything. It also has a number of influential institutions, owns a newspaper, and controls a television station.

Take West Bengal as an example

It looks worse in West Bengal. There the CPIM, this once almost indomitable force, downright crashed in May 2011. Five years earlier, she had won 235 out of a total of 294 seats; now she only sits with 61 members in the regional parliament. The fact that the party lost so much ground so quickly, however, has less to do with social change than with itself.

For years, West Bengal's former chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had been the darling of the mainstream media. The “Buddha brand” stands for a completely new left-wing politics, they cheered - and they were right. Because Bhattacharjee ruthlessly pursued a business-friendly course. He set up trade union-free special economic zones, lured large investors into the country with numerous perks, drove the rural population from their land, fought the subsequent rebellions with paramilitary police - and tolerated the rise of politicians like Anuj Pandey. The CPIM secretary in the Lalgarh region of West Bengal had quickly made himself a rich man. He maintained close contact with the economic bosses, was always surrounded by private security guards armed with AK-47 rifles and did not tolerate any contradiction - until in summer 2009, during an uprising by the tribal population, an angry crowd stormed his magnificent villa (see WOZ No. 26/09). Pandey fled and has lived under police protection ever since.

The CPIM lost its model state neither through an overthrow nor through a revolt of the rising middle class, but through a rebellion of peasants who defended their land, their livelihoods and their security. Incidentally, the Lalgarh uprising supported the Maoist Communist Party of India / Marxist-Leninists CPI / ML (cf. “India's Left”), which came into being at the end of the 1960s. At that time the CPIM leadership had put down a peasant uprising in the region around Naxalbari; then left CPIM members turned to armed struggle. Today the Naxalites control many rural districts from West Bengal in the east via Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh to Andhra Pradesh in the south (see WOZ No. 7/10).

So far only lip service

"Arrogance and corruption have isolated the Indian left," said A. B. Bardhan, former general secretary of the once Moscow-oriented CPI, after the 2011 elections, in which his party played no role.

Has anything changed in the meantime? Many party members hopefully followed the 20th CPIM party congress in early April 2012 - and were disappointed. Politburo member Sitaram Yechury said at the congress in Kozhikode (Kerala) that the Leninist line would be pursued further. "No progress was discernible," stated the left-wing journalist Monobina Gupta, who has been following the politics of the communist parties for a long time: "There is talk of new directives, but rhetoric and thinking have hardly changed." After all, the CPIM leadership is gradually moving away from the Chinese model, which has long been its role model. At the party congress, the growing nationalism of Chinese youth was criticized, as was the decision of the CPC ten years ago to accept capitalists into the party. Even the CPIM is probably going too far.

Does the left still have a future? "It is particularly sad that more and more people expect the solution to all problems from the political elite," says K. R. Gowri. "But that is impossible." The well-informed young people could easily organize themselves with all the new means of communication: "If they network, analyze the situation and plan actions, a lot can be changed, and not just at the local level," hopes the Grande Dame of Kerala. But the attitude “that others should act” still dominates. Complacency is our greatest danger. "

The daily repression

Not all are so pessimistic, not all are waiting for others to take action. Since the beginning of neoliberal politics in the early 1990s, there have been numerous struggles across India - which, however, have only rarely been supported by the CPIM and certainly not waged by it. The Dalits («untouchables») and the Adivasi (descendants of the Indian indigenous population), the landless and the oppressed peasants, the shepherds and the textile workers - many of them defend themselves. And then there are those who used to be the bastions of Indian Marxism: the teachers, the cooperatives, the skilled workers and the students. But they too turned away from the visionless party. Many criticize the parliamentary left has long been part of the establishment; one expects nothing more from her.

That was different once. It used to be easy for left-wing parties to recruit cadres from the many social movements and receive moral or even financial support from cultural organizations, urban think tanks and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These contacts were lost because the leadership of the left parties did not cultivate them. However, it should not be easy to revive the old alliances: Society has changed, the rural movements and progressive urban institutions such as university departments and cultural institutes hardly produce any leaders.

And then there is the now commonplace repression. The economic liberal forces, the right-wing parties and the fundamental religious groups are celebrating the decline of the left - and seizing the opportunity. Suddenly everyone who works with the poor or supports them as human rights activists is suspect. "Anyone who takes the side of the 3,000 villagers who oppose the Kudankulam nuclear power project in the south of Tamil Nadu is considered a Naxalit or a traitor," says an activist in Tamil Nadu who does not want to be named. "It can easily happen that one is arrested and imprisoned - as is the case with hundreds of people every month who are arrested by the police as alleged Naxalite sympathizers."

India's left is on the defensive. Is it even at the end? No, it says in a statement that was signed by over 200 activists a year ago."The Indian left consists not only of the left parties and cannot be reduced to parliamentary forces and party apparatus." The spectrum is much broader. This also included the non-party unions, the left-wing intellectuals, the ecological and social movements. And the text published by South Asia Citizens Web also says: "The media and the middle class are fooling themselves if they believe that the resistance will decrease with the defeat of the left parties." The desperation in the country is too great for that. Basically, the loss of administrative power even has an advantage: "Now there is room for the development of a new, stronger left-wing movement that reflects the desires of the masses more creatively and with greater integrity." That sounds like whistling in the forest. On the other hand, there is still broad resistance to large-scale projects such as nuclear power plants, coal-fired power plants or dams. Opposition to the planned free trade agreement with the EU is also growing. The business liberals and the right have not yet won. And something new could soon emerge on the left.

Translated from the English by Pit Wuhrer.

India's left

The Communist Party (CPI), founded by Indian exiles in Tashkent in the 1920s with the support of the Soviet Union, is considered the country's oldest left-wing party. The organization, which for a long time belonged to Moscow - from which many spin-offs arose - now has only limited influence.

The Indo-Chinese War of 1962 and the ensuing Sino-Soviet conflict split the CPI. The pro-Chinese wing was constituted in 1964 as the Communist Party / Marxists (CPIM), which was also very popular because the CPI approved Indira Gandhi's draconian emergency law in 1975. In its strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala, however, the CPIM pursued a policy that was essentially social democratic.

After a peasant uprising in 1967 in Naxalbari, West Bengal, left-wing CPIM members founded the Maoist Communist Party of India / Marxist-Leninists (CPI / ML), which is still fighting as a guerrilla for the revolution to this day. The armed strategy of the Naxalites is mainly supported by the rural population in the poorest districts.

In addition to the large CP parties, there are also many smaller regional and national organizations such as the Marxist Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party or the Communist Marxist Party. However, their influence is marginal.

This article was made possible by the research fund of the ProWOZ association. This fund supports research and reports that exceed the financial possibilities of the WOZ. It is fed by donations from WOZ readers.

Support the ProWOZ

If you value the independent and critical journalism of WOZ, you are welcome to support us financially: