It was too good to be true. For one day this week, it seemed as if CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat had succumbed to speaking the truth in a simple and clear language. He was quoted as saying that Leftist forces in the country were still “banking on the concepts and theories of the 1940s”. Unfortunately, the very next day, Karat clarified that media reports of his talk at Cambridge were “inaccurate in part and misleading”. What he had said was that “The agenda of the 40s such as land reforms and struggle for land is still being pursued by Communists.” Where caste was concerned, Karat said he had said, “We should understand, both in theory and in practice, how class structure in India is influenced by, and integrated with, structures of hierarchy, discrimination and oppression that are particular to Indian society, reflected, for instance, in the caste system.”
Read that last sentence with care, it takes an effort. Karat is saying Indian Marxists should understand the interplay of class and caste. Only, he has couched it in language that reveals a worry at being caught stating the obvious. What Karat does not add is that in over 90 years of active Marxist debate in this country, no sane suggestion has been proposed to make sense of the question most relevant to any Marxist understanding of India. The only man who studied this question with some care was Ram Manohar Lohia, and he was not a Marxist.
In his terse formulation, caste was frozen class, which is not a bad beginning but is no help in understanding the interplay that continues to bother Karat. Without an understanding of this interplay, Marxists cannot formulate an intellectually coherent political programme in India. This is as true of the CPM as it is for Indian Maoists. Reading their respective constitutions is an exercise in futility; whatever the multiplications of -isms, there is no attempt to answer the question Karat has formulated in his verbose fashion. Much in the same way that the CPM has no understanding of caste, Maoists have no understanding of tribal issues; they reduce them merely to the economic in typical Marxist fashion. Their constitution has no mention of what distinguishes tribals from any other set of people who share similar economic circumstances.
Ram Guha, in his new book (see his interview in this issue), writing of his decision to leave out Marxists from among the 19 thinkers he feels have shaped modern India, makes the same point. He has not included a Marxist because he has not found an original thinker who has been able to adapt Marxism to the Indian context. This tragedy is at the heart of the Indian Left’s current failure. Indian Marxists have subsumed the space available for the political Left, and the socialism of Lohia or Jayaprakash Narayan has no takers today. As a result, a large number of our activists, human rights workers and all those who in general espouse the cause of the powerless and underprivileged utilise the default rhetoric of Marxism. Powerful as this rhetoric is, it is only rhetoric—because it has no means of coming to terms with Indian reality. Stripped of the words and passion, the reality is that Gandhian thought, the socialism of Lohia and JP, and even the obnoxious formulations of the Hindutva brigade have more coherence in the Indian context than what the Left has to offer.
This is a tragedy. In real terms, it has meant the space for a political Left is being vacated for the Congress. The Congress has piecemeal adopted suggestions for some ad hoc policies such as the right to food and the NREGA, but this does not make for a coherent Left platform. The questions that those on the Left have raised are far too important to be ignored, but the language of Marxism is making such people politically irrelevant. There is a serious need for a Left intellectual platform that is rooted in an Indian reality. It could borrow something from the Social Democrats of Europe, it could take something from JP and Lohia, but what it mustn’t do is regurgitate the tired and now irrelevant language of Marxism. Till this happens, we will be forced to survive the vivid but in the end pointless writings of an Arundhati Roy, or the far more turgid but equally pointless formulations of the Karats of this country. Till this happens, men like Jean Dreze will continue to fight for legislation which, however well-intentioned, does very little to address larger questions raised by the disparities liberalisation has wrought. A revolution is no answer, neither is it in the offing. A man who writes sentences such as those Karat has cited above will never come up with the answers we need.