Theory And Practice

Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), responds to Ramachandra Guha’s essay about the faltering fortunes of India’s communist parties.

A street scene in Kolkata prior to the May 2011 defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal assembly elections. DAVID H. WELLS / CORBIS
A street scene in Kolkata prior to the May 2011 defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal assembly elections. DAVID H. WELLS / CORBIS
01 November, 2011

RAMACHANDRA GUHA is a well-known historian of modern India. What he writes is taken seriously. His essay on the past and future of Indian communism—‘After the Fall’, published in the June 2011 issue of The Caravan—demands more attention particularly as he claims to be “an anthropologist among Marxists” and a “student of Marxism by habit”.

After the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal assembly elections in May, the first since 1977—“after a long span of 34 years”—much has been written about the fate of the communists, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in particular. Much of it is journalistic hyperbole.

But Guha is different. He seeks to analyse the causes of the defeat to the hidebound dogmas of the CPI(M) and the party’s inability to change with the times. He proclaims that “the central paradox of Indian communism is that its practice is vastly superior to its theory.” According to him, its theory is derived from Lenin and Stalin and is unable to come to grips with Indian realities. It is this claim that needs to be taken up and countered.

Guha’s conclusion about the theory and ideology of India’s communists stems from his own philosophical outlook. He is a self-confirmed liberal. He ardently believes in liberal democracy and liberal values. His intellectual aversion to Marxism arises from the bourgeois liberal standpoint—any revolutionary project is doomed to end in totalitarianism and unfreedom.

For Guha, as long as the CPI(M) grounds itself in a Marxist ideological world view, it cannot wipe off the stain of Stalinism. The only way out is the renunciation of Marxism and the embrace of social democracy. But we will come to that a little later.

BT Ranadive, who played a key role in the leadership of the CPI(M), pictured at a meeting in 1958. JAMES BURKE / TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

In drawing his caricature of Marxist theory in India, Guha has targeted BT Ranadive, whom Guha describes as “One of the most influential of all Indian Marxists ... known as BTR, and these initials were whispered with respect, or might we say reverence, by party members past and present.” Guha has employed one of BTR’s texts as the basis for his argument about the dogmatic theory of Indian communists.

Guha introduces the text as follows:

The text that I am going to resurrect was written in 1978, a year after a Left Front government dominated by the CPI(M) came to power in the large and crucial state of West Bengal. It took the shape of an extended review of a book by the Spanish communist Santiago Carrillo, entitled Eurocommunism and the State. The review was published over 33 closely printed pages of Social Scientist, a Marxist monthly edited by scholars associated with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Here, Ranadive attacked Carrillo as a renegade, the last in a shameful line of ‘revisionists’ who had abandoned the path of revolution in favour of the softer option of reform.

In dealing with BTR’s ideological writings, Guha displays none of the historical rigour and careful study that he has applied to the writings of other Indian national leaders in his historical works. The polemic against Eurocommunism by BT Ranadive is the sole text that Guha relies upon.

For Guha, Santiago Carrillo—who was the general secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) till 1982 and one of the initiators of Eurocommunism—is a model to be emulated by Indian communists. Set against him is BT Ranadive, whose ideology and politics exemplify the ossified dogmas of the CPI(M).

There is a compelling reason why Guha admires Carrillo to such an extent as to exhort the communists in India to follow his example. A look at Carrillo’s political career will explain why. Carrillo became a communist in 1936 and fought in the Civil War against Franco and the fascists. He became the general secretary of the illegal Communist Party in 1960. In 1977, Carrillo was one of the initiators of Eurocommunism, the ideas of which BTR so strongly attacked in the article cited by Guha.

What Guha does not say, however, is that what happened subsequently is exactly what BTR had foreseen. Carrillo and his followers were expelled from the PCE in 1985. In 1986, they set up their own party but failed to win popular support and remained a tiny group until disbanding in October 1991, a significant year, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist then. Carrillo travelled through Eurocommunism to social democracy and eventually renounced his communist past altogether. In 1991, he declared, “The Communist movement as such has completed its historical cycle and it makes no sense trying to prolong it.”

This is the path Guha hopes the CPI(M) will travel, too—towards social democracy and acceptance of liberal democracy as the ultimate objective of humankind.

Guha does not refer to any other writings of BTR except the Eurocommunism piece. As a historian, Guha would like to freeze BTR in the mould of general secretary in 1948, when a Left sectarian political line prevailed. BTR, who played a key role in the leadership of the CPI(M) since 1964, was a Marxist who had cast away the sectarianism of the early post-Independence period. One has only to read his historical appraisal of Jawaharlal Nehru, or his assessment of the 40 years of Indian independence, or how he evaluated the role of the great social reformer Jyotiba Phule, or his analysis of caste, class and property relations in India to recognise that he was not the person or the type of Marxist that Guha portrays him to be.

I would like to cite just one text: an evaluation of Jawaharlal Nehru by BTR on the occasion of his birth centenary. It appeared in the Marxist, the theoretical quarterly of the CPI(M) in 1989. Referring to the making of the Indian Constitution, BTR wrote:

The Constitution of India is a remarkable document considering the fact that it was drafted mainly by the representatives of the bourgeoisie of a newly liberated country in a period when capitalist society was on its decline. The bourgeoisie prepared a Constitution which declared fundamental rights, adult franchise, elected Parliament and its supremacy, right of free speech and agitation and freedom of conscience, etc. This is all the more remarkable because the dominant leadership of the Congress was still steeped in revivalist outlook. There is no doubt that Jawaharlal Nehru played a major role here.

BTR saw the existence of the parliamentary democratic system as a major advance for the Indian people but unlike Guha, he did not idealise the bourgeois democratic system. Recognising the class nature of the Indian State, he explained how democracy is restricted and the democratic system subverted by the interests of the ruling classes.

BTR has been misunderstood by Guha before. In his book India After Gandhi, Guha commits an error by calling BTR a Brahmin—he was not—in order to neatly counterpose one Maharashtrian Brahmin to another: RSS chief MS Golwalkar. The brahminical nature of BTR’s orthodoxy is a widely-held misconception, perpetuated since the 1950s, and is best laid to rest.

As stated earlier, Guha fails in maintaining elementary historical accuracy when it comes to writing about the communist movement in India. A glaring example of this is the untruth he has stated about the Telangana armed struggle.

Armed peasants of the communist-led Telangana struggle, which began in 1946 in the princely state of Hyderabad. COURTESY CPI(M) ARCHIVES

Describing the tactics of the communists after Independence, Guha has written that BTR led a “radical faction of the CPI”, which pushed aside then-General Secretary PC Joshi (“a cultured, sensitive man who understood that freedom had come through the struggle and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians”) and “asked that the party declare an all-out war against the Government of India”.

Guha writes that BTR “saw in the imminent victory of the Chinese communists a model for himself and his comrades”:

A peasant struggle was already under way in Hyderabad, against the feudal regime of the Nizam. Why not use that as a springboard for an Indian revolution?

On 28 February 1948—four weeks after Gandhi’s murder—the CPI leadership met in Calcutta, and confirmed that the revolutionary line would prevail. Joshi was replaced as general secretary by Ranadive, who declared that the Indian government was a lackey of imperialism, and would be overthrown by armed struggle. Party members were ordered to foment strikes and protests to further the cause of the revolution-in-the-making. Bulletins and posters were issued urging the people to rise up and “Set fire to the whole of Bengal”, to “Destroy the murderous Congress government” and move “forward to unprecedented mass struggles. Forward to storm the Congress Bastilles.” [...]

It took some more time to restore order in Hyderabad, where a recalcitrant Nizam was refusing to join the Indian Union, egged on by militant Islamists (known as ‘Razakars’) who were making common cause with the local communists.

According to Guha, the Razakars, owing allegiance to the Nizam of Hyderabad, made common cause with the communists. It is in fact the opposite. The Telangana struggle began in 1946, and it was a peasant armed struggle led by the communists against the landlords who were the pillars of Nizam rule. The armed militants of the communists fought against the Razakars and the police of the Nizam. It is by routing the Razakar-Nizam forces that more than six thousand villages were liberated from feudal rule. Incidentally, this struggle began two years before BTR became the general secretary of the party. Guha’s rather scrappy knowledge of communist history comes through when he accuses BTR of trying to foment a Chinese type of revolution in India. On the contrary, BTR was known for his disapproval of any Maoist tactics at that time.

IT IS ONLY BT RANDIVE who exemplifies the dogma and bankruptcy of Indian communist theory for Guha. In an earlier book, Guha had trained his theoretical firepower against EMS Namboodiripad, who as chief minister of Kerala became the leader of the first democratically elected communist government in the world. In An Anthropologist Among The Marxists (2001), Guha devoted a short chapter to EMS Namboodiripad, which was titled ‘Stalinist and Indian’. Here we find the matrix of Guha’s thought. Communist leaders are good but their theory stinks.

EMS Namboodiripad taking oath as the first chief minister of Kerala in 1957. COURTESY CPI(M) ARCHIVES

If we wish to clearly understand the line of thinking that Guha adopts in his Caravan article, it is necessary to devote some attention to his text on EMS. In his portrait of arguably the most creative Marxist leader India has produced, Guha denies that EMS had any theoretical significance or intellectual achievements. Consider the following quotes, which should make clear Guha’s peculiar dialectic regarding EMS’s theory and practice:

EMS Namboodiripad who died in March 1998 was a fundamentally decent and public spirited man whose mind was messed up by too much of JV Stalin and VI Lenin.

In his writings, Namboodiripad was a craven follower of a crude despot, but as a practicing politician EMS was one of the finest in the land.

When one considers what kind of man EMS was, one must consider it a great pity that he mortgaged his mind to Stalinism.

Here again, we see Guha’s prejudices cloud his own claim, in The Caravan, that he has produced a “detached, dispassionate analysis”. Guha’s aversion to the Marxist critique of the Indian state and of the leadership of the Indian National Congress makes him blind to some of the seminal work undertaken by EMS. Guha, being widely read in Marxist writings on India, cannot be unaware of EMS’s “Note of dissent in the Malabar Tenancy Commission” in 1939. It is a classic study of agrarian relations in Malabar using the Marxist method. This study became the basis for the practice of the communist movement in Malabar in the struggle against landlordism. It is a theory that led to the growth of a powerful movement in Kerala for land reforms. EMS wrote original pieces on the nationality question, on decentralisation of powers and the role of caste in society in various historical phases. None of this shows the mind of a “craven follower of a crude despot”.

Both in terms of theory and practice, the CPI(M) has evolved and will continue to evolve. Guha, with his bourgeois liberal blinkers and sensibilities, cannot see this happening. This is most evident when he harps on the “totalitarian” theory of the CPI(M) at odds with its “practice” of democracy. According to Guha, the CPI(M) fights elections but still believes in one party rule. This is plainly wrong.

The party programme, updated in 2000, explicitly states that the CPI(M) does not only want and accept a multiparty democracy at present, but it also has a programmatic understanding of a multiparty political system following the People’s Democratic Revolution. It is why the party viewed the talk of a multiparty system by the Maoist leadership in Nepal in 2005 as an important advance.

Guha uses the term “Stalinism” as synonymous with totalitarianism. But the description by Guha of the life and work of EMS is by itself a negation of the pejorative use of the term “Stalinist” with regard to EMS. If there was any single major contribution by EMS to public life in Kerala, it was the deepening of democracy by bringing the working people and the socially oppressed into the democratic process. Here was a “Stalinist” who was in daily dialogue with the people through his columns in the newspapers and journals. He made mass politics meaningful by bringing every political issue to the people through polemics. Any policy that he and his party opposed would be critiqued and its alternative spelt out for the people to judge. Guha would be loathe to accept that it was the creative application of Marxism that made EMS such an unparalleled leader.

What Guha’s views about EMS reveal is how his own mind is bound by bourgeois liberal prejudices. At times in his various writings on history and politics, Guha shows flashes of brilliance and insight, but these, however, are constrained and made chimerical by his liberal biases.

Guha is either unwilling or unable to comprehend the crisis liberal democracy finds itself in today. Liberal democracy has proved to be the best political vessel for capitalism. Social democracy under capitalism would be the ideal for Guha. But unfortunately for him, the 1980s saw a stark transformation. With the advent of neoliberalism, liberal democracy and social democracy became denuded in the face of the savage offensive of finance capital. Guha’s admired model is an empty shell in most of Europe. In the United States it hardly existed at all.

In India, the focus of Guha’s narrative, the fashioning of a liberal, democratic, secular state has had to come face-to-face with the reality of the Indian ruling classes’ newfound fealty to the free market and neoliberal prescriptions. This is a reality with which Guha fails to come to grips convincingly in his otherwise fine book, India After Gandhi.

GUHA DEVOTES A FAIR AMOUNT OF SPACE of space to assessing the performance of the Left Front government of West Bengal. He strives to appear dispassionate in his analysis, but what is striking is the way that he underplays the remarkable record of success achieved by the Left Front in winning seven successive assembly elections since 1977. On two occasions the Left Front polled above 50 percent of the votes cast, something achieved by no other political formation in India in any state.

Guha acknowledges that in West Bengal and other states, communists “built their strength from the bottom up, by working with the poor and the excluded. They organised landless labourers, poor peasants, slum dwellers, industrial workers and the refugees of Partition in fighting for better wages, greater access to land, better housing facilities and the like.” He notes the “decades of patient and selfless work” that were devoted to organising the workers, peasants, slum dwellers and other subaltern groups. But this acknowledgement is soon derogated by attributing the party’s unprecedented levels of popular support to how “the police came under the control of the party cadres, helping them fix local elections and capture panchayats”. The biggest success in decentralisation and vitalising the panchayat system by the participation of the lower sections of the peasantry and the rural poor is then repudiated by his theory of police-cadre raj.

Guha writes that West Bengal “has performed poorly on conventional indicators of social and economic development”. The assessment that the Left Front government failed to do anything worthwhile in developing the economy and the social sector in the state can be contested. One has only to see the record of agricultural production in the state. The selective presentation of facts about the status of West Bengal in various fields is done with the intention to show that the “honest leadership” of the government and the CPI(M) are prisoners of dogma. According to Guha this, along with their bhadralok character, made them impervious to the actual needs of the people and to framing policies accordingly and implementing them.

The CPI(M) has never hidden the shortcomings in the performance of the Left Front government. It has acknowledged that the progress in the fields of education and health was not satisfactory. But an intelligent observer like Guha should have discerned the problem differently. The record in the social sector did suffer in the latter period of Left Front rule. One example would suffice. With the neoliberal policies adopted by the Centre, the scope for development in education and health has mostly been in the private sector. In the last two decades across most of the states in India there has been a rapid privatisation of education and health. The Left Front government was chary of adopting this path. But maintaining the public education and health systems has been an uphill struggle. In West Bengal, 73 percent of the people access the public health system.

Guha brushes off the industrialisation issue by vulgarising it. He writes that “in 2006, after decades of demonising capitalism and capitalists, the Left Front in West Bengal decided to bring in the demons to develop their state.” But the attitude to private capital and industry had been defined when Jyoti Basu was chief minister in the mid-1990s, after liberalisation had taken place. It was not a sudden turn around in 2006. A historian of Guha’s repute should be more careful with facts.

He goes on to say that “The Salim Group of Indonesia was allotted 40,000 acres to create a ‘Special Economic Zone’. The major Indian industrial house, Tata, was invited to start a car factory. These projects, in Nandigram and Singur respectively, became controversial, since local peasants were not consulted about them, nor were they given any meaningful stake in them.”

Activists burn an effigy of Tata Motors’ ambitious people’s car, the Nano, during a 2008 demonstration in Singur, where Tata had acquired 997 acres of land to build a factory. STR / AP PHOTO

In Singur, 997 acres of land were acquired; 80 percent of the landholders accepted the compensation and rehabilitation package. If any mistake was committed, it was in the selection of the site of the land—in an area that had a Trinamool Congress MLA and where a majority of the gram panchayats were under the control of the Trinamool Congress. The 20 percent who opposed the land acquisition would not have accepted any enhanced package in any case. In Nandigram, contrary to what Guha states, not a single acre of land was acquired. But the prospect of land being acquired for the proposed chemical hub project led to the agitation. Unlike what Guha states, the government did not make any coercive attempt to acquire land once it became clear that the people were opposed to giving their land. The CPI(M) has concluded in its election review that on the issue of land acquisition for industry in Singur and Nandigram, mistakes were made which proved costly for the party.

Guha describes the recent assembly election results as “the rout of the CPI(M) in Kerala and, especially, West Bengal”. It is surprising that he calls the results in Kerala a rout: the Left Democratic Front (LDF) lost the elections by the narrowest of margins, with just 0.9 percent separating the two fronts. In fact, the LDF came close to breaking the cycle of alternating between governments every five years that has been in vogue in Kerala since 1977.

With regards to the communist role in creating Kerala’s “outstanding record in social development”, Guha writes that the party should get “a fair amount [of credit], but not as much as that commonly accorded to them by party followers or fellow travellers”. I do not intend to argue against the thesis set out by Guha about the various additional factors responsible for Kerala’s advanced social sector; the communists would not claim to be the sole repositories of social change. But what Guha does underplay is the crucial role of the Left in Kerala as the political catalyst for social change. The land reforms for which Guha does credit the communists would not have been possible without the first communist ministry headed by the “Stalinist” EMS. The 1957 communist government pioneered many measures that proved to be pathbreaking, and those impulses are still unfolding five decades later. They include land reforms, social security measures, decentralisation of power and ensuring rights of agricultural labour.

Here again, the CPI(M) is conscious of the serious limitations of the state government within the constitutional set up. Nor can one idealise the Kerala model. EMS himself had critiqued this model, pointing out how the productive sectors—agriculture and industry—have languished. At the social level, despite the advances made and the advantage for women in a matrilineal society that existed among certain communities, the status of women leaves much to be desired. In politics and public policy making, the role of women is worryingly slight. In the recent assembly elections only seven women were elected out of a total strength of 140. The CPI(M) and the Left in Kerala will have to address the issue seriously.

Kerala is a good example of how public action and mass movements have shaped the democratic consciousness of the people. That is why the changes in government and the coalition governments headed by the Congress have not been able to roll back the progressive reforms. The CPI(M) and the Left in Kerala can legitimately take credit for this, too.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA would have liked the communists to be in Central governments whenever the opportunity arose. With regard to the decision of the left to remain outside the coalition governments assembled by the Janata Dal in 1996 and the Congress in 2004, he writes:

From the point of view of the national interest, the left’s decision to keep away from these coalitions is undoubtedly to be deplored. For they would have provided a much needed stiffening to the Central government. The communist ministers would have been among the most articulate and intelligent members of the Union cabinet, and certainly the most honest. They would have shown a commitment to maintaining communal harmony. They would have acted as a stable counterpoint to the sectarian elements in the Janata Dal, and to the corrupt allies of the Congress.

For him, this would have achieved the much-desired cooption of the communists into the bourgeois order. He bemoans the dogma that prevented this from happening. He makes the facile claim that the communist concerns such as land reforms, political decentralisation, employment and so on could have been put on the national agenda. Where the communists are strong and built up a mass base as in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, even the implementation of limited land reforms entailed a long period of conflict, of bitter class struggles and sacrifices. To assume that the communists, with their limited strength at the national level and their 10 percent representation in Parliament (as in 1996) in a predominantly bourgeois coalition, could have raised these policy issues and gotten them implemented is the height of naivety. Besides, it only exposes Guha’s rosy view of the character of the Indian state.

It is not because the CPI(M) still believes in a one-party government controlled by itself that it refuses to join governments. The CPI(M) has always run coalition governments in the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. It has done so when it did not have a majority in these assemblies and even when it had a majority, as in the case of West Bengal. The test has been whether it has the requisite strength to set the policy direction of the government.

The real issue for the CPI(M) is that joining a government is not for the purpose of sharing the spoils of power or the trappings of authority, but of having the adequate strength both inside and outside Parliament to get alternative policies implemented. This is not possible when governments are dominated by parties that represent the interests of the ruling classes.

Guha probably wishes the fate of the Italian communists to be visited on the CPI(M). The Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was the biggest in Europe in the post-World War II era and one of the biggest in the world, with a million members in the 1970s. From the early 1980s, when the bug of Eurocommunism bit them, they began to revise their theory and adapt their practice accordingly. By the end of the Soviet Union they had declared that theirs was not a Marxist party. The party’s name was changed to the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). A few years later, the “Left” was dropped as well and they became merely the Democratic Party, indistinguishable from any right-wing social democratic party in Europe. The Italian Communist Party was always kept out of government when successive coalition governments were formed, even though they polled more than 30 percent of the vote. All the efforts by the Communist Party to join the government failed. The United States and NATO would never allow it. They finally succeeded only when they ceased to be a Communist Party. Massimo D’Alema belonging to the PDS became the first ex-communist prime minister in 1998. Tragically, the Communist Refoundation Party, which refused to join the liquidation of the Communist Party and showed promise of becoming the reconstituted Internationalist Communist Organisation, too fell into disarray after a few years. After correctly refusing to team up with the government in 1996, they too could not resist the offer of joining the Romano Prodi government in 2006. Their leader, Fausto Bertinotti, became the speaker of the lower house. In the Parliament elections of 2008 not a single communist MP got elected, for the first time in the history of post-war Italy. Herein lies a cautionary tale for Indian communists, too.

Another refrain about the CPI(M) repeated ad nausuem by Guha in his writings is about their foreign mentors and reliance on foreign thinkers. He cites the portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and the like in the party’s congress venues as an example. Marxism and socialism are not nationalist but internationalist ideologies. Surely Guha would not want us to subscribe to the RSS outlook that would claim ancient Hindu lineage for socialism, traced to some form of Vedantic socialism. But Guha should be relieved to know that the CPI(M) party congresses have portraits of Indian communist leaders, those who were great freedom fighters and pioneers of the working class movement. He may be surprised to know that the venue of the party congress in Calcutta in 1998 had portraits of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam along with that of Muzaffar Ahmed.

CPI(M)’s 16th party congress in Calcutta in 1998. COURTESY CPI(M) ARCHIVES

Guha is wrong in calling Indian communists technophobic. In fact, it is the immense belief in science and technology as beneficial for mankind that led them to overlook the environmental question. Guha is right in his criticism about the communist attitude to the growing environmental threats, and this was so till the end of the 20th century. It is only in the past decade that the communists have addressed environmental issues seriously and taken up the resultant problems affecting the poor and the working people.

One can appreciate Guha’s vision for a modern, secular, democratic India. However, the problem arises when he views the Indian communists as inimical to this vision because of their ideology. Perhaps Guha has become a little chastened by what has been happening in the country since he wrote India After Gandhi in 2007. In a recent article titled ‘A Nation Consumed by the State’ (Outlook, 31 January 2011), Guha has said, “the scale and ubiquity of political corruption means that perhaps the most powerful enemy of the idea of India is the Indian State.” The next step for the liberal is to connect this clear-eyed view to the class character of the State and the political economy of India. Then Guha will find himself not as an anthropologist among Indian Marxists but as a fellow traveller, albeit on a slightly different path.


Ramachandra Guha's Reply

PRAKASH KARAT WRITES THAT “the matrix of Guha’s thought”, so far as Marxism in India is concerned, is that “communist leaders are good but their theory stinks.” This summary of my views is validated in part by Karat’s response. It is gracious and generous of him to exchange in a debate with a man he characterises (again, not inaccurately) as a ‘bourgeois liberal’, and to do so with care and courtesy. (It is not a privilege that is normally extended to me by politicians of the BJP and the Congress when I criticise their parties.) It is also gratifying to see that, unlike the overwhelming majority of Indian public figures, he is willing to admit to mistakes, in this case the lack of women in top positions in the communist movement, the excessively long time that Marxists took to understand that environmental degradation in India affects the poor and the insensitive and arrogant manner in which land was acquired for industry in West Bengal.

However, to say that I believe the theory of Indian Marxists ‘stinks’ is a simplification. I merely think it archaic and outmoded. Karat’s response does not really convince me that it is no longer so. Consider his dogged defence of the CPI(M) not participating in coalition governments at the Centre. Karat claims that his party does not have a doctrinal opposition to coalitions, adducing the ‘Left Fronts’ in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. However, in those fronts the CPI(M) was in a position of dominance, with the smaller parties in the alliance allotted minor ministries and having little say in overall government policy. The CPI(M) does not join coalitions where it is not Big Brother—which is why it stayed away from multiparty governments at the Centre in 1996 and 2004.

The decision, both times, cost the party, and perhaps cost the people of India too. Back in 1977, the socialist Madhu Dandavate, after decades in opposition, decided to join the first non-Congress government in New Delhi. Allotted the Railway Ministry, he added two inches of foam to the hard wooden sleepers of third-class compartments. He also introduced the computerisation of railway bookings. These two innovations made railway travel more bearable for the labouring poor as well as for the middle class. In 1979, Dandavate had to demit office; but in those two years he had perhaps done more for the ordinary citizen of India than any other Union minister past or present. Who is to say that if some likewise intelligent, honest and public-spirited leaders of the CPI(M) had joined the Union Cabinet in 1996 or 2004, they would not have brought about reforms that would have enhanced human dignity and diminished social suffering?

Another example of the good that leftists can do while collaborating with ‘bourgeois’ parties in government comes from Prakash Karat’s own state of Kerala. Karat writes that “the land reforms [in Kerala] that Guha mentions would not have been possible without the first communist ministry headed by the ‘Stalinist’ EMS [Namboodiripad.]” In fact, these land reforms were taken further and deeper by a later government, which presided over Kerala between 1969 and 1975, and which had as its constituents the Congress, the Communist Party of India and some smaller parties. The government was led by the outstanding CPI leader C Achutha Menon. This multiparty government (with a significant ‘bourgeois liberal’ component) is widely acknowledged to be the best that Kerala has had.

Early in his piece, Karat says (again, correctly) that “according to [Guha], the theory [of the CPI(M)] is derived from Lenin and Stalin and is unable to come to grips with Indian realities.” However, in the rest of his essay Karat does not mention Lenin and Stalin at all. It would have been interesting to see in what ways he thinks their work and legacy is relevant to the India of the 21st century. My own view is that they are not just irrelevant, but positively harmful. Lenin had a contempt for multiparty democracy that the CPI(M), despite its general secretary’s protestations, has not wholly overcome. Karat thus writes that the CPI(M) “accepts a multiparty system at present …”. It should accept it forever and always, and accept also that it can, and sometimes must, work as an active junior partner in multiparty coalition governments. As for Stalin, he was one of the three great mass murderers of modern times (Mao and Hitler being the others)—how then does the CPI(M) justify displaying his portrait at party congresses?

Karat claims that I “idealise the bourgeois democratic system”. I am a sceptic and anti-utopian—I do not idealise anything or anyone (not even Sachin Tendulkar). However, my historical studies have made me keenly aware of the deficiencies, in theory and especially in practice, of left-wing as well as right-wing alternatives to liberalism. Hence my simultaneous aversion to Hindutva and to Maoism. To be sure, liberal regimes are subject to corrosion and corruption from within, as is certainly the case with the Congress-led government today. What is needed is a renewal of liberalism, its infusion (or re-infusion) with democratic ideals, not its abandonment. I am a liberal who inclines (slightly) to the left, hence my admiration for democratic socialists like Madhu Dandavate, and my desire, or hope, that the CPI(M) will finally follow a path laid down by the great German Marxist Eduard Bernstein more than a century ago, when he rejected armed revolution in favour of incremental social change by using the instruments of constitutional democracy. Bernstein was vilified by Lenin, but he was admired by left-wing democrats in France, England and Scandinavia, who, in succeeding decades, built socialist movements and welfare states that helped moderate the inequalities created by unbridled capitalism without sacrificing personal freedoms and individual liberties.

CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat at a press conference in New Delhi. K ASIF / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

Finally, some factual points. Karat is correct in pointing out a mistake in the first edition of India After Gandhi: BT Ranadive was not a Brahmin (the error has been rectified in later editions). But he is mistaken in his claim that the communists in Telangana opposed the Razakars. When their land struggle began in 1946 there were no Razakars at all. These Islamic supremacists came to the fore in the middle of 1947, whereupon they advised the Nizam not to join the Indian Union. This was a demand the communists were sympathetic to, since they thought an independent Hyderabad would be more congenial to a Leninist revolution. This dubious legacy is carried on by the armed revolutionaries of the present day—the leading Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao is on record as saying that the Nizam should never have joined the Indian Union.

Prakash Karat is General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Ramachandra Guha’s books include India After Gandhi and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He lives in Bengaluru.