With state elections taking place in West Bengal and Kerala, this is a good time to ask a question that has always intrigued me: Why has communism not been more successful in India? A large proportion of the Indian population, in both the rural and urban areas, has lived in dire poverty (and still does), while a small minority has resided in unbelievably ostentatious luxury (and still does). This minority spends lavishly and wastefully on celebrations, drives fancy cars, and is totally unmindful of the poor and underprivileged, who surround them.
The contrasts should be intolerable in any civilised society. One would have imagined that such a scenario would have been fertile, breeding ground for Marxist ideology, and violent revolt. I mention Kerala and West Bengal because these are the only two Indian states where the communists had a degree of success and where they still have a substantial following. Kerala was the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government in 1957. And West Bengal at one time boasted of having the longest surviving communist regime (34 successive years), also democratically elected. However, nowhere else in India have the communists succeeded in coming electorally to power. That is a strange, confounding reality.
“Workers of the world unite,” declared the Communist Manifesto, as fashioned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” It was a stirring rallying cry directed at the proletariat, and it had enormous appeal. In the years following the Industrial Revolution, workers in factories and coal mines of Europe led a miserable, dehumanising existence, while their employers and owners, the “capitalists”, raked in the moolah. Marx and Engels predicted that the workers would revolt, overthrow their oppressors, leading to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. They said this would happen first in the most industrialised nations, like Britain and Germany. Ironically, what really happened, long after Marx and Engels were dead, was that communism initially came to a country that was barely industrialised, Russia. In fact, Russia became the vanguard of the worldwide communist movement, first under Lenin and then Stalin. Though communism was kept at bay in the rest of Europe, a milder form of it, “socialism”, took root there, inspired by Marxist ideology.
Actually, Marxism attracted not only the workers and the poor, but a great many well-off people as well, especially the idealistic young (disillusionment would only set in later). It was once said if you were not a Marxist when you were young, there was something wrong with your heart, and if you were still a Marxist when you were older, there was something wrong with your head! In the years after the Second World War, virtually all of Europe, with the major exception of Germany, either had a socialist or a communist government. In the UK, the Labour Party, which had defeated the Conservative Party led by Winston Churchill, was, in effect, a socialist party. Most sectors of the economy were run or owned by the government. The same was true in France and Italy. In a sense, Marx was triumphing, though not in the way he had predicted.
Turning to India, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, even though he had an upper-class “bourgeois” upbringing, similarly developed Left-wing leanings and an admiration for the Soviet Union. He put the public sector in charge of what was called “the commanding heights of the economy” (luckily, he left agriculture alone). Unfortunately, the public sector performed very poorly, not just in India, but elsewhere as well. The Conservative Party, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, initiated the liberalisation of the British economy and ended the stranglehold of the trade unions. The country’s main powerhouses, such as the railways, were privatised. This had spectacular and positive economic results. India, under Indira Gandhi, on the contrary, went disastrously further “Left”, with even more nationalisation. Other “socialist” countries had realised their mistake, and changed course. Not India, however.
Meanwhile, West Bengal ploughed its own, lonely furrow. A Nehru-like, upper-class charismatic figure, Jyoti Basu, brought his communist party to power in 1977. He served as the Chief Minister till 2000. But disillusionment set in with his uninspiring successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Meanwhile, the trade unions had run amuck, there had been constant strikes and “gheraos”. The law and order situation had deteriorated, much-needed capital had fled the state to more welcoming shores, and unemployment had risen. In effect, West Bengal had become de-industrialised. The public were fed up with the way they had been ruled for three-and-a-half decades, by a regime that promised much but delivered little. Into that vacuum stepped in a feisty lady from a humble background, with no ideological baggage, Mamata Banerjee. Almost single-handedly, she blew the communists away. Whether the West Bengal public is now as disillusioned with her 10 years in power as they were with the communists, we will know on May 2.
I have still not really answered my query: why communism has not done better in India. I believe the main reason is the fatalism that is deeply embedded in Hindu culture, which, in turn, is closely linked to caste. It resists radical change. You are fated to be under-privileged, goes the reasoning, and there is little you can do about it. Another factor is also at play: The loyalty demanded by the communists to either Moscow or Beijing. With nationalism still such a powerful force in India, any hint of extra-territorial loyalty is highly suspect. These are clearly inadequate explanations for such a complex issue, but they will have to suffice for the time being.
— The writer is a veteran journalist