Dalit in CPM politburo: Better late than never, writes Sayantan Ghosh

The Left political parties understand class discrimination but not caste. In Bengal, the Dalit votes, which earlier used to be with the Communist Party, shifted towards the Trinamool Congress. This vote is now shifting towards the BJP. The Left has always called out Dalit politics as identity politics. But the real question is where is Ambedkar in the Left's politics?

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on: Wednesday, April 13, 2022, 08:09 AM IST


The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has finally inducted a Dalit leader into its highest decision-making body. It took 57 years for India's largest left political party to bring a Dalit leader into that position. The CPM inducted Ramchandra Dome (63), a seven-time MP from Bengal, into its politburo at its current party congress. It is indeed a welcome step. However, just inducting a Dalit leader will not make much of a change because the Left in India still does not have a clear stand on caste discrimination.

The Indian Left Ignored Caste

The problem of recognising caste discrimination has been very deep-rooted in the Left's politics. The Left political parties understand class discrimination but not caste. Dome told the media, "As a communist, I would not consider myself the first Dalit in the politburo or any such thing." This sole statement is problematic in the Indian context. In Bengal, the Communist parties have ruled the state for over 35 years but never gave any decision-making positions to the Dalits or the tribals. The top leaders of the CPIM like Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Sitaram Yechury, Manik Sarkar, and others come from highly privileged upper-caste backgrounds. And as noted, Dalit intellectual Kancha Ilaiah Shefford noted, "Communist leaders are supposed to be the most pro-poor. But they do not even seem to realise that their own names carry tags of their so-called castes."

Unspoken Caste Prejudice Has Hurt The Left

The unspoken caste prejudice of the Left is the most dangerous one, and this has also been one of the key reasons behind the decline of their political significance across the states. In Bengal, the Dalit votes, which earlier used to be with the Communist Party, shifted towards the Trinamool Congress. But with time now, this vote is shifting towards the BJP. In left-leaning Bengal, no one wanted to look into the realities of caste discrimination with empathy. Similarly, the CPI (M) ruled Tripura for 25 years, but today the BJP has taken over the state. The reason behind this decline is the failure of the communists to recognise the tribal politics of the state. They believed that centralised decisions should apply to all but did not allow the tribals the needed political space. The RSS came into this vacuum and gave a platform to the tribals. Gradually, the tribal votes shifted towards the BJP, and they won.

Avoiding Ambedkar In The Left Political Narrative

In 2018, the CPI (M) joined hands with Dalit political parties and formed the Bahujan Left Front in Telangana. The CPI (M) leadership adopted the slogan "Jai Bheem-Lal Salam" and it was the first time communists recognised Ambedkar in their politics. But this effort remained a state-specific matter because they did not give space to any Dalits or tribals in their politburo. The Left has always called out Dalit politics as identity politics. Despite this, the Left believes they understand Ambedkar better than anyone else due to their political high-handedness. But the real question is where is Ambedkar in the Left's politics? The Left has never approved of Ambedkar's annihilation of caste. When was the last time Left politicians in India discussed Savitri Bai Phule, Periyar, or Birsa Munda in their party conferences? The answer to this question lies in the realities of India's Left. Unfortunately, the BJP leaders mention Ambedkar more than any other communist leader in India.

First Dalit in CPI (M)'s Politburo Indicates Some Change

The Left will never approve that the induction of the first Dalit leader into its politburo is a strategic step. However, it is the reality. In the past few years, the left has realised that their political space is shrinking like never before. In national politics as well as in regional politics, people who used to connect with the Left are now moving towards other political parties. For example, recently in Mumbai, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee discussed it with a group of intellectuals. People like Javed Akhtar, Swara Bhaskar, and others interacted with Banerjee during that meeting. In Indian politics, the Left should get into those spaces, but now people are turning away from the left-wing political parties.

In states like Tripura and Bengal, the ground-level organisations, or the grassroots organisations of the Left, are in a deplorable condition. The leadership has realised that the only way to revive the organisation at the grassroots is by becoming more inclusive. It is encouraging to see that, after 57 years, the Left has realised that including Dalit and tribal leaders in the party's top decision-making body can bring about organisational change.

Left-revival Will Depend On Recognising Struggle Minorities

If the question is, "Will the Left ever revive in India?" The answer should be yes. But this revival cannot happen without approving the caste system, the discrimination of the minorities, and giving voice to them. The Left can become not only a party that believes in class discrimination but also one that opposes caste discrimination. Under the BJP-RSS regime, the lives of minorities are at risk. There is growing violence against the Dalits across India and against Muslims too. Despite attacks on the Dalits, they are voting more and more for the Bharatiya Janata Party because they do not have a space to trust. Similarly, the Muslims are coming out of the traditional political parties and voting for new political platforms like the Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, or AIMIM.

Today, the Left must recognise that if they truly are a pro-poor political party, why don't the marginalised and minorities believe in them? In India's caste-dominated society, their erroneous application of Marxism has ruined the space for the Left. Inducting the first Dalit leader into its politburo could really change a lot in the coming days. And the left should consider this change as the first step towards revival.

(The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and a former policy research fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Center. He tweets at @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are entirely personal)

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Published on: Wednesday, April 13, 2022, 08:09 AM IST