According to Bidwai, whether or not the Left manages to arrest its descent into political oblivion would depend on its ability to honestly address five fundamental problems.

The decline of the Left in India is now an old story. From being the largest opposition party in independent India’s first general election, in a span of 65 years, it has dwindled to a token presence in Parliament. It is not as if the Left’s social base – the poor, the working classes, the landless — has shrunk. Rather, it has only grown over the years. It still constitutes the overwhelming majority of India’s electorate, just as it did 65 years ago.

And yet, going by its electoral choices, the Left’s natural support base seems to have little faith left in it. Communist ideologues like to attribute this decline to external factors – such as the growth of consumerism and an aspirational mindset, change in the nature of the job market following globalisation, rightwing brain-washing, etc. But as Praful Bidwai demonstrates beyond doubt in The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting The Indian Left, the single biggest driver of the Left’s decline has been its own failures, or as some might say, betrayals.

Having tasted power, directly at the state and indirectly at the national-level, the Indian Left has had ample opportunities to prove its worth. But time and again it failed to deliver. The reasons for this failure, whether it can engineer a revival, and what such a revival would entail form the burden of Bidwai’s magisterial opus.

The late Biwai, who passed away last year, is a journalist and political analyst with Leftist sympathies. Therefore, unlike much of the criticism heaped on the Left, this volume is not an attack from the right that the Left can dismiss. Nor is it a moral-ideological quibble from the radical Left. Bidwai’s standpoint is that of the interest group the Left claims to represent: the Indian working class.

Divided into eight chapters and spanning 500-odd pages buttressed by voluminous end notes, The Phoenix Moment begins with the founding of the Communist Party of India in 1925, and concludes with the Left’s battle for survival following the 2014 electoral rout.

This masterful survey dwells primarily on the fortunes of the Parliamentary Left, steering clear of the non-Parliamentary currents. Had the party Left – which essentially means the CPI (M) and the CPI – focussed its energies on strengthening the Left as a movement rather than on winning state elections, they would have been in much better shape today, argues Bidwai.

Bidwai pays close attention to the Left’s record when in power. In Bengal, where it ruled for a record 34 years, it had a great opportunity to set an inspiring example for the working classes in the rest of the country. But after initial enthusiasm for social reform, as Bidwai documents with a series of statistics, the Left turned increasingly conservative. Even as it mastered the art and science of winning elections, it neglected its constituency. This neglect culminated in the ultimate betrayals of Singur and Nandigram, where a nominally communist government sided with its class adversaries (foreign capital) to launch a brutal assault on its own support base (peasants and agricultural workers).

The Left had a comparatively better record in Kerala, where it set the national benchmark on a variety of social indicators such as the literacy rate, sex ratio, life expectancy, and infant mortality. But here too, its success was short-lived, as it began to kowtow to the electoral calculus instead of sticking to its programmatic agenda of establishing the hegemony of working class interests.

Both in Kerala and Bengal, the Left’s short-sightedness led it into mistakes such as appeasing communal elements, ignoring ecological degradation, and calibrating its land reforms so as to not disturb the structure of power relations between the land-owning classes and the landless masses. Since its interventions were incremental rather than structural in nature – Bidwai argues, correctly, that these could have been more radical even within the bounds of the Constitution — the Left’s mandate of social transformation remained a non-starter. As a result, it could neither retain nor expand its support base.

According to Bidwai, whether or not the Left manages to arrest its descent into political oblivion would depend on its ability to honestly address five fundamental problems that have dogged it from the very beginning.

The first is the principle of democratic centralism, which has put a lock on dissent, debate, and inner party democracy, thereby condemning it to persist in folly even when said folly is evident to the entire world. The two ‘historic blunders’ – Jyoti Basu’s missed prime ministership and withdrawal of support to UPA-I over the Indo-US nuclear deal – are famous examples of such folly.

The second is its failure to address the caste question, both in terms of a lack of representation of the non-savarna castes in the top leadership, and a reluctance to invest its energies in Dalit emancipatory struggles.

The third is the absence of engagement with people’s mobilisations that it does not control – be it of safai karamcharis, adivasis, or anti-nuclear protests. Fourth, is the lack of strategic unity, not just between the constituents of the Left Front, but also within the individual constituents. The CPI (M)’s Bengal and Kerala units, Bidwai points out, not only contradict each other in their state policies, they often disregard the national leadership when it suits them.

And lastly, the absence of a clear political vision in terms of what the Left should aim to achieve via the Parliamentary route, and how these objectives relate to the struggles waged by non-Parliamentary Left groupings.

Bidwai concludes his book on an optimistic note, with a series of suggestions that could be construed as a road map for Left revival. Their overarching theme is that the Left should base its political project on the aspirations of the working people instead of some doctrinaire revolutionary agenda. This, of course, runs counter to the party Left’s political instincts, which look at doctrine for direction.

But the funny part, as Bidwai demonstrates, is that the Left parties till date have not come up with their own analysis of the Indian ruling class, nor a political vision that is home-crafted. Their doctrinaire politics, imported wholesale from Stalinist Russia nearly a century ago, have not served them well. Their successes have been despite their loyalty to the tactical lines laid down in Moscow or Beijing, and not because of them. In fact, many of the Left’s infamous inconsistencies – be it on Partition, or branding India’s independence as a chimera, or its stand on World War II – could be traced back to the ‘party line’ emanating from elsewhere, when it ought to have come from Indian communists themselves.

Now, after almost a century of training itself not to think, not to allow dissent in the name of democratic centralism, and not to venture beyond narrow Parliamentary politics, can the Left undertake a bold and honest introspection with a potential for radical course correction?

Going by the evidence of the last one year, this looks unlikely, says Bidwai. He pins his hopes on the potentialities of an Indian New Left — on the logic that even if the party Left fades into geriatric irrelevance, progressive politics would remain as relevant as ever. If such a New Left does come to pass, Bidwai would like it to operate in a framework that sees the Left not as a party but as a movement.

The agenda of such a Left grouping would not be something as limited as winning elections nor as pie-in-the-sky as overthrowing the capitalist state but something ambitious yet realistic: to establish the hegemony of working class interests in the national public discourse. In today’s India, where it is neo-liberalism that enjoys hegemonic status, this is easier said than done. But with a government in power that is not shy of targeting the Left directly and brazenly, the writing on the wall is clear: it’s either succeed or perish.

With the whole nation recently enthralled by the speech of a CPI student wing leader, the publication of this book could not have been better timed. India’s left parties should order it in bulk and make it compulsory reading for their cadre, and especially for each and every member of their politburos and central committees.

The Left’s phoenix moment is here. The future of democracy in India depends a great deal on whether the Left can seize it.