On 5th April 1957, exactly 60 years ago, a Communist government came to power in Kerala. Coming as it did after the Communist Party of India denounced its militant path it adopted in the Calcutta party congress, this victory in an Assembly election was touted as a proof of the Indian communists’ ability to tread a different path to achieve its goal of an egalitarian society.
A ministry was formed under the leadership of EMS Namboodiripad, which even now is considered as the best cabinet that Kerala has ever had. Justice V R Krishna Iyer, C Achuta Menon and T V Thomas – who had made a lasting impact on Kerala society – were members of the first communist government.
Though this development elicited huge interest from international and national political observers, the impending issues that a communist party would have to face internally and from class enemies, while treading the parliamentary path, reared its head in no time.
Though communist party came to power in Kerala and West Bengal several times after the historic win in 1957, the core political challenges it faced during the late 50s still continues and might figure as the main reason for the downfall of India’s parliamentary Left.
So what were the challenges that EMS ministry faced? First, the coming together of various anti- communist and anti-socialist forces under the banner of the Christian Church and Nair Service Society with the support of the Congress, who unleashed a violent struggle against EMS government which led none other than Jawaharlal Nehru to use Article 365 of the Constitution and dismiss the government.
This instance, more than anything else, proved one point about the limits of parliamentary democracy. Despite their grand posturing about democracy, the class character of the system would stand in the way for those who try to undertake revolutionary methods to revamp it. When a central government led by a person like Jawaharlal Nehru, who himself is considered as left-of-centre, dismissed a government which tried unshackle the feudal hold on the society, it showed the communists the limits of parliamentary democracy at a practical level.
The other, perhaps the most important lesson for the communists when they indulge in the parliamentary democracy, is expressed by legendary communist K Damodaran who was a state committee member and party ideologue of par excellence in his interview with Tariq Ali which was published in the redoubtable New Left Review. Damodaran’s stand after the police firing, which killed three workers, perhaps encapsulates the dilemma of a communist when they are in government.
He explains this to Tariq Ali “An important test for the new government arose a few months after they had been elected. Workers in a factory near Quilon, a town close to the capital city of Trivandrum, went on strike. The union in that factory was under the leadership of the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party). The strike was not against the government, but against the employer in that particular factory.
“It was a typical trade-union struggle. I remember vividly how the situation developed. We were sitting at a meeting of the State Council of the CPI (which consisted of about sixty comrades) when news was brought to us that three workers on strike had been shot dead by the police. We were stunned. Workers had been shot dead by the police while the Communists were in office. The immediate response of all the comrades present was to condemn the firing, institute an immediate enquiry, give compensation to the bereaved families, publicly apologise to the workers on strike and give a public assurance that such a thing would never happen again while we were in government. This was our instinctive class response.
“But a discussion started which lasted for two hours and at the end of it the decisions taken were completely different to our initial response.”
Damodaran then explains the logic of the comrades who wanted to defend the police action. “If we attack the police, there will be a serious decline in their morale; if there is a serious decline in their morale the anti-communist movement will be strengthened…The final resolution passed by the party defended the police action. It was then decided that someone must go to the spot to explain our point...I was asked to go and speak on behalf of the Kerala CP. My response was to refuse and maintain that I had been unable to digest the decision taken by the Council and therefore I could not defend it. I was then formally instructed by the party leadership to go and defend the party. I went. I spoke for about an hour and a half and it was pure demagogy”
This, and later events like Nandigram, show how the system dealt the parliamentary communists in a multi-pronged manner. On one hand, it tried to thwart any progressive measures which the communists tried to bring. At the same time, it effectively instilled ruling class values into the communist parties. Parliamentary Left, despite their repeated self-criticism, could not counter this hegemonic onslaught of the ruling class.
From Nandigram firing to the unbridled use of draconian laws against political dissidents in Kerala by the Pinarayi Vijayan government, show how the ‘Left parties are incorporated into the system’. Though the CPI(M) party programme and organisation resolutions adopted in various party congress warned the cadres against being carried away by parliamentary politics, the sixty years show that the party has largely been the victim of its parliamentary practices.
It is not to suggest that the mainstream Left parties have abandoned non-parliamentary path altogether. Several frontal organisations of CPI(M) are engaged in various struggles in different parts of the country. But the point is that these struggles have fallen short in the imagination of the marginalised sections of the society. This might be the reason for the dwindling influence of the mainstream Left forces in the country.
And the Left government, perhaps due to the practical difficulties or due to the limits of their ideological practice, has long ago subscribed to the narrative of neoliberal forces when it came to issues of development. This and the struggle against neoliberalism undertaken by the frontal organisations of the party on the ground can’t go together. This crisis is the main takeaway of the 60 years of Indian Left’s tryst with parliamentary democracy. It is ironical that the communists who took part in parliamentary democracy hoping to expose it by being part of it, fell victim of the machinations of the system.