IT used to be said till the sixties that a boy or a girl who was not a leftist by the age of 20 should consult a doctor. To cherish such sentiments was not a fashion but part of idealism. Students felt the gap between the haves and the have-nots was unjust and they would agitate against the order in one form or the other.
Today they are interested in cushy jobs or comfortable living. The word, Left, is taboo lest the corporate sector should come to suspect them of having “disruptive tendencies.” There are few study circles to discuss problems of the poor. But there are numerous seminars on how to build capital quickly.
A few NGOs are keeping the flame of service to the people burning. But they have little time to work on alternatives to overhaul the society. Their main hindrance is feudal thinking or the arrogance of the rich. The latter control even the democratic system. NGOs have not been able to reignite the liberal thinking, much less of what is considered Left.
I was studying at Lahore from 1941 to 1946. By then the idea of Pakistan had caught the imagination of most Muslims. Yet we were all members of Students’ Federation which was secular and pro-Left. Our different religious identities or the diametrically opposed thinking on partition did not come in the way of reacting to the demand for the release of soldiers and officials of Indian National Army (INA).
The trail of three officers, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Sikh, was a challenge to each of the community. Yet the students under the banner of the Federation came out on the streets. It may sound odd, but it is true that the noise to release INA men was as loud as the demand for Pakistan to “protect” Muslims from preponderant Hindu majority. The British had to give in and release all the INA men.
The Left thinking continued to prevail in the entire subcontinent even after partition, although less vigorously in West Pakistan than East Pakistan and India. When the communists won in Kerala in 1950, it was considered as if Yunan, a territory in China, had been established in India and the red would spread all over the country. But nearly 50 years later, the Left has strength of only nine in the Lok Sabha.
Unfortunately, the rout of communists in West Bengal and Kerala has focused attention on their governments’ failings, the infighting or incidents like those at Nandigram where its cadre joined hands with the police to commit brutalities on rural Bengali population. The real discussion why communism as an ideology has been declining in influence in India and elsewhere is not taking place.
No doubt, the victory of rich western countries in the cold war has been so stunning that there has been no organised Left formation since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Communist China is too nationalistic to revive the ideological dialogue. Its energy is confined to building the areas of influence. Who is there to talk about left? Intellectuals and thinkers increasingly concentrate on democracy as if it is a substitute for Left. The opposite of communism is capitalism.
Still discussions to find the correct terminology miss the very word, Left. The new idiom is reforms which is the anti-thesis of any revolutionary thinking. This is why new global economic policies have come to be seen as methods of exploitation of the undeveloped or under-developed. Financial meltdown is the result of the rich, individuals and nations, living beyond their means and expecting the poor to pay for their profligacy. The result is the world has more poor than before.
Still the outbursts in schools like Osborne in France, America’s belated fight against McCarthyism and most recently the mowing down of the youth by the Chinese forces at Tiananmen Square evoke hopes. They indicate the insuppressible desire of people to stay free. In India itself, the Naxalite movement to overhaul the society has reignited aspiration. But the cult of violence scotches the dream of a democratic change. Guns have become the ideology and fanaticism its vehicle.
India is aping the West while it should be preparing itself to usher in the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who said that the progress of a country should be measured by the effort it had made to uplift the poorest to the position where he could hold his head high against the rich and the powerful. And Gandhi warned that “wrong means will not lead to right results.”
The crisis of Indian politics today is a crisis of change. It reflects the widening gap between the base of the polity and its structure. During the last couple of decades both political and economic process has brought sections of the peripheral and deprived social strata into the active political community. Particularly in the north, the intermediate peasant castes have bettered their economic conditions with the help of new agricultural technology. They are no longer willing to accept a political dispensation weighed in favour of the traditionally privileged. This is a process which started first in the south.
The dalits too are aware of their rights now, thanks to the slowly changing opportunity structure and the efforts by political parties to mobilize their support. They are demanding a change for betterment. At the same time, there is growing demand for purposive and principled politics, a deep feeling of revulsion against policies of self-aggrandizement and a mounting anger over the neglect of public interest.
Public interest is also what the Left throughout the world has lost sight of. They claim to be its custodian. But their ideological dark glasses do not allow them to see that communism or any other ism or, for that matter, democracy is not the end by itself. The end is the individual, the common man who cannot be used for ideological purposes. He is not devoid of sentiments, nor is he part of a machine. The Left, I find, has denied people what may be called the moral and spiritual side of life, something basic in man and deprives human behaviour of standards and values.
When consumerism and commercialism take over the society, they kill the feeling of care. Over the years that feeling has gone down. It was part of idealism. And it was an instinctive desire to help. Embers of sensitivity are still burning. The need is to stoke fire. The mere structure of democracy is not enough. Its spirit has to be understood. Until idealism returns, stirrings against exploitation cannot take shape. Those who want to foster liberal thinking cannot afford to be out of touch with realities.