The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon: Lessons for the Indian left

The emergence of the “hard left” Labor MP, Jeremy Corbyn, as opposition leader in the British Parliament has been viewed as part of a broader phenomenon in Europe of the leftward shift of the masses, witness: the performance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in recent British election, the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

The austerity imposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the disenchantment with the choices offered in mainstream politics may be considered the trigger of these developments. Western European social democratic parties tended to embrace neo-liberal agendas contrary to the interests of the constituencies they represented. The British Labour Party had moved closer to Tory agenda but still lost the 2015 elections it was expected to win.

Labor's Jeremy Corbyn

Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn who was elected with the support of 60% of the total votes polled and 50% of the full members of the Labor Party, is not a revolutionary. He wants to reform capitalism rather than replacing it.

In India, the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA-I) governed from 2004 to 2014, with a social democratic left-supported Common Minimum Program (CMP).  In 2014, the UPA II government, having got rid of the CMP, lost the parliamentary elections to the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The victory of the Labor Party MP Jeremy Corbyn in Britain must be causing concern to the right-wing politicians Indian politicians in general and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular. Though badly hit in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the social democratic left forces in India do retain their mass base; the ruling BJP had won the elections with only 31% of the popular vote against a badly divided and fragmented opposition.

The newcomer in politics, the Aam Admi (“common man”) Party (AAP) performed remarkably well in the crucially important state assembly elections in Delhi and won 67 out of the 70 available seats defying the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vigorous campaign against it.

What are the lessons for the social democratic left in India from the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the British Labor Party?

The prime lesson seems to be the need to think fresh and be bold in the conceptualisation of a new strategic and tactical line of action in tune with the needs of the poverty-stricken rural and urban masses of India today.

Though the social democratic left in India were badly hit in the 2014 parliamentary elections, there may be reason for some optimism given the huge blunders that the ruling BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in pursuit of its openly proclaimed agenda to convert multi-religious, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-caste parliamentary democracy in India into a virtually Hindu kingdom under his not so benevolent control. Further, there is the ill-considered corporate developmental agenda including the prioritisation of Internet technology in favor of the provision of basic needs to the people — including providing education, health, employment, housing, human security et al. Add to this, his focus on “national security” in place of human security as spelt out in the UNDP Human Development Report, 1994.

The decline of the Congress party in 2014 has created space not just for the right but also for centrist forces and for a rejuvenated left. A centrist push from the newly-formed AAP could be potentially significant.

Since 2011, the AAP has been a largely urban-based, middle class anti-corruption movement. Its real organizers are a group led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant turned social activist whose campaign ended with a ruling Congress promise to pass an Act setting up a powerful and independent monitoring body and Ombudsman to check corruption. The AAP contested and majestically won the state assembly elections in Delhi in 2014. It concentrated on opposing corruption, including illegal corporate funding of parties or bribes for personal or policy favours. It produced 70 local manifestos for each of the 70 local assembly seats in Delhi, focusing on concerns such as protection against crime and harassment, cheap and adequate provision of water and electricity. It used the Internet and social media innovatively to make transparent its own funding through high-volume small donations directly from the public as well as getting across its party messages and for recruiting members for a nominal fee. Large numbers of middle class youth and professionals of all ages joined it in Delhi while it also had a national impact.

The AAP presented itself as a “non-ideological,” pragmatic, problem-solving entity. Its ideological fuzziness was a major deficiency at a time when clarity of purpose was needed. It did not erect an internally coherent structure for debate and democratic decision-making to go along with its otherwise positive efforts at setting up neighborhood committees for regular consultations with the local public. It aimed to challenge both the Congress and the BJP by outflanking them not from the right but from the left. But how far to the left will it move remains unclear. Does it have a classic social democratic vision of capitalist development? Or will it remain within the confines of a neoliberalism with a human face?

In Latin America, new parties have developed out of social movements based on the factory working class and/or the poor peasantry and/or the indigenous population. They developed a solid core base with concerns reflected in their programs and the social character of their activists. Operating from this position of relative strength they sought to attract sections of the middle class. The AAP trajectory has been the reverse. First attracting middle class activism, it has sought to extend its appeal downwards. This has already created debilitating tensions and contradictions within. It wants to grow as a movement-cum-party, but also wants to avoid sharp class and caste conflicts, i.e., be a something-for-everybody centrist force. Whether it will survive and grow as such, whether it can be pulled significantly leftwards, or whether there will be a substantial left-directed breakaway grouping that wants to engage in more transformative class actions from below, are imponderables.

The challenge in India today is to build a broad anti-neoliberal platform to prevent and reverse the Hindutva project. Where does the left figure in this effort?  The social democratic left of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI (Communist Party of India), separated by bureaucratic rivalries, and not unresolvable programmatic differences, suffered their worst ever defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections and secured only nine and one seats respectively in the 247 member Parliament. Long-term co-optation into the system reduced this left to trying, when in provincial power (West Bengal and Kerala), to become “better” managers of capitalist development even after its neoliberal turn; and otherwise to being a “responsible” opposition nationally. Stalinist-Communist collapse put an end to an already ongoing process of ideological demoralization of its cadres, rendering this left no longer capable of leading sustained mass mobilizations. This loss of interest in, and capacities to, pursue politics of mass protest is its real dilemma. In programmatic and policy terms, the left has become a social democratic force drifting rightwards domestically. It does not oppose the state crackdown on the Maoists, or defend the right to full self-determination in Kashmir or the Northeast. Though it maintains a stance against Western imperialism, its criticisms of Russia and China remain muted.

Indian Maoism for the most part has rejected electoral involvement. The CPI-ML (Maoist) is rooted among the poorest and most deprived Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and especially Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) of central India. It has waged armed struggle against the state for decades and survived, even grown, with a membership estimated in a few tens of thousands. But it fails to recognize the basic strategic dilemma facing Marxist revolutionaries everywhere: How to bring about a fundamental transformation in class power in liberal democratic capitalist societies. Liberal democracy in India though weak and brutalized, is still meaningful and real. Moreover, even in backward capitalisms, armed apparatuses of the state are strong and can look for outside support whenever seriously threatened. Ruling classes have learnt that if quick victory is not possible, prolonging the war plays into their hands. Internal divisions arise among the insurgents and their mass base gets war-wearied. As it is, there is a disjunction between the Maoist base that looks primarily for concrete, near-term improvements in livelihood and the more uncertain, remote and ideologically driven aim of the leadership to capture state power. Over the last few years there have been many more defections and captures from the middle and higher levels of leadership. It is quite possible that the party has passed its peak of strength and influence and is in decline. Certainly, the Modi government promises to ruthlessly crush them.

Kadayam Subramanian is a former Director General of Police, Tripura in Northeast India and author of “State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India” by Routledge, forthcoming.   He is grateful to Achin Vanaik for useful discussions.

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