INDIAN DEMOCRACY AND THE LEFT EXPERIENCE
By Jyoti Basu
Seventh G V Mavalankar Memorial Lecture
May 18, 2002
Following is the full text of the seventh G V Mavalankar Memorial Lecture delivered by Jyoti Basu, former chief minister of West Bengal and Polit Bureau member of CPI(M) on May 18, 2002 at the Constitution Club in New Delhi. The lecture meeting was organised by the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies. Former speakers of the Lok Sabha, Rabi Ray and Shivraj Patil, veteran Congress leader Ram Niwas Mirdha, retired judge of Supreme Court, Justice A B Wadhwa - all associated with the Institute- spoke on this occasion. The meeting was attended in large numbers by MPs, leaders of various mass organisations, ministers, intellectuals and others. The speaker of West Bengal assembly Hashim Abdul Halim also attended this lecture.
I FEEL honoured to have been invited to speak on ‘Left experience in Indian democracy’ in a lecture series named after Shri Mavlankar, the first speaker of the Lok Sabha whose pioneering leadership established many healthy conventions that helped India to chart its course towards parliamentary democracy. I gratefully recall today his contribution in shaping our fragile parliamentary democracy in those early days.
I cannot say that I speak for the entire Left because there are differences within the Left partners in regard to the experience of working in parliamentary democracy in India after independence. But my views do represent in a large measure that of the united Communist Party and later the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from 1964 after the split in the party.
Before independence during the Muslim League regime in Bengal, I was elected to the assembly along with two other colleagues of mine. We sat in the opposition and implemented our well known policy of participating in legislatures along with work outside among the people. We are guided by the same outlook and policy even now in legislatures where we are in the opposition. In those days, I gathered a lot of experience which helped me later on. After independence when India adopted the Westminister pattern of parliamentary democracy and capitalist path of development, our party decided to participate in the legislatures along with our extra-legislative activities. In all these years we have had varied experience, both positive and negative in regard to democracy in our country. On the morrow of freedom in 1948 our party was declared illegal in West Bengal and some other parts of India. Many of us, including myself although still a member of the assembly, were detained in free India without trial.
After the adoption of the Constitution our party was legalised under orders of the High Court in Kolkata and many of us were released, although the Constitution permitted legislation to detain people without trial. In independent India I have been a member of the West Bengal assembly since the first general election in 1952, along with my trade union and other political activities. I have been a leader of the opposition for many years as well as deputy chief minister twice in 1967 and 1969-70, and chief minister since 1977 heading a Left Front government for 23-1/2 years. This is a record in parliamentary democracy. For the sixth time continuously the Left Front was voted to power with two-thirds majority, same as last time. Now it is 25 years old. This is no mean achievement in view of the limited powers of states, discriminatory attitude of central governments most of the time and role of some major newspapers denigrating our party and government based on falsehoods or half truths.
Within this entire period since independence, I, along with large number of our party members and supporters, have been imprisoned without trial on several occasions and many were arrested on various charges to stifle movements of the workers, peasants, middle classes, for their legitimate demands and for democratic rights.
I cite a few examples from West Bengal to illustrate the kind of experience we went through in our democratic polity. In 1967, with the formation of a new party under some important leaders of the Congress, that party was defeated in the election and our party along with some other parties formed for the first time the United Front government with a minimum common programme. Considering the interest of the people, our party conceded the chief ministership to ex-Congress leader Shri Ajoy Mukherjee despite the fact that the majority of the MLAs belonged to our party. But in the absence of democratic and pro-people outlook, dissentions among the ex-congressmen wrecked the government within 9 months. The chief minister Shri Ajoy Mukherjee was still for the continuation of the government and he fixed a date for summoning the assembly to test our government's right to continue in office. But contrary to democratic norms, the governor directed us to hold the assembly session on an earlier date which we naturally rejected. Hence he dismissed our government and imposed president's rule. Fortunately the people’s anger and annoyance against the undemocratic act of the governor helped the United Front to sweep the election in 1969. But once again after 13 months in office, we the partners fell out and with the chief minister's resignation the government collapsed and president's rule was imposed after the governor’s efforts to prop up a minority government failed.
In 1971, the next general election was held in the background of the support to the Bangladesh liberation struggle by prime minister Indira Gandhi. Our party was in full support of her on this issue. Our party became the first party but the governor refused to invite me to form the government and test our majority in the House. Discussing with different parties, he decided to call upon the Congress, the second largest party, to form a government which it did but it lasted for only 3 months and president's rule was imposed.
A serious blow to parliamentary democracy was dealt in the 1972 general election when in connivance with the central government, large scale rigging and terror were resorted to, turning the election into a farce. The army was also called out, like in 1971, to patrol the streets. This was a unique experience for the people and our party was reduced to 14 MLAs from 111. I withdrew from the election at about 11 am after I saw the terror that was unleashed right from the morning and people were unable to vote. In numerous constituencies the same methods were resorted to as we had apprehended. The Election Commissioner expressed his inability to help us. Smt Indira Gandhi dismissed our apprehensions when we met her on a deputation earlier before the election.
After 1972, the subversion of democratic processes was such that thousands of our supporters and members were arrested and 1100 of our members and supporters killed, but no action was taken against the culprits. In this situation we took the unprecedented decision of boycotting the assembly for 5 years and went more determinedly to the people for organising struggles to restore democracy. From 1972 to 1976, West Bengal faced what we described as semi-fascist terror with more severe repression after declaration of emergency in 1975 by Smt Indira Gandi, when all liberties were obliterated, including the right to life. We however never surrendered to the enemies of the people. We reposed faith in the people. In 1977, when the emergency was lifted, the people gave a befitting reply to the autocratic rulers in the centre and many states including West Bengal.
However, we witnessed thereafter how once again they, who subverted democracy returned to power in the centre because of lack of proper political and ideological consciousness of the people. We, the Left and the democratic forces failed to give the leadership in most parts of India that was needed to bolster democracy.
The next experience I wish to place before you is that of Kerala where the first Communist-led government came into existence in 1957. It was dismissed in 1959 by prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru even though we had a majority in the house. You can well understand our apprehension thereafter about the future of democracy. But we did not lose hope and carried on mass agitation rousing the people against this grave injustice. In 1964, under the government of India's orders, all our central committee members attending the central committee meeting in Trichy, Tamilnadu were arrested except myself and EMS and detained without trial.
Throughout the state large scale arrests were made and our party was maligned and slandered by the central government. This was a desperate move to prevent us from winning the 1965 assembly election in Kerala. Democracy was of least concern to the central rulers. Even under such conditions, our party got the largest numbers of MLAs elected and some from prison and it became the largest party in the assembly. This was certainly a significant contribution of people of Kerala to democracy. But as no government could be formed, the House was dissolved and president's rule imposed. In 1967, again election was held and the United Front government was formed defeating the Congress party.
In the small North East state of Tripura where because of influx of refugees from East Pakistan, the tribals were reduced to a minority, there arose a serious political situation. However, the local Congress party based mainly on the Bengalees adopted a domineering attitude and suppressed the rights of the minorities leading to a great divide. Our party along with some other Left parties played a major role in uniting the two sections and could form our LF governments and look after the interest of the both groups. The Congress party and its government at the centre, paying scant regard to democracy, instigated a section of the armed tribals and tried to use them against the Left Front. Once, on the eve of the election, when a massacre of Bengalees had taken place, armed police forces were landed in Agartala by the central government to demonstrate that only a Congress government can save Tripura. A letter by the armed terrorists to the then prime minister revealed that they promised support to the Congress, if the communists who represented the major sections of the tribals are removed from power. For a time the situation did go against us and we were defeated. But later LF came back to power and by its programme, along with providing autonomy to the predominant tribal area, regained its position and was able to unite the Bengalees and the tribals. But even now some insurgency is there and the Congress party is trying to use sections of the armed tribals against our government which is rehabilitating those who are surrendering.
I have been dealing mainly with our experience in regard to the working of parliamentary democracy. It has also been our experience how legitimate and peaceful movements of various sections of the people for their demands have been sought to be suppressed by some central and state governments by violent means and use of draconian laws.
I need not to go into details of our experience all over India of how attempts had been made to block democratic processes. The states which stand out in this respect, as far as I remember, are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir.
I take this opportunity to tell you in summary how we have learnt from experience about democracy in practice and adjusted our policies as the reality unfolded itself in the Indian polity. Right at the beginning of independence we were doubtful whether the Left forces and parties would have the freedom to form governments in the states let alone in the centre. But after the formation of the first communist-led government in Kerala in 1957, we incorporated in our party programme the possibility of formation of state governments by the Left parties along with democratic parties. But such governments at the centre were beyond our conception. Later situations arose when we did support non-Congress governments at the centre from outside three times and once during the United Front government, which even received the support of the Congress for sometime when the danger of the BJP arose. Later it irresponsibly withdrew support giving advantage to the BJP. Taking the reality into consideration in updating our party programme we have now clarified that our party will consider participating in a government at the centre depending on the concrete situation. This decision is a tactical question which has to be taken into account as it can be helpful for our country and people. In fact, there has come into existence a Third Front consisting of Left and some democratic parties with a common minimum programme. But it needs to be strengthened to present it as a viable alternative.
We have also reiterated in the Programme that our ultimate goal is people's democracy leading on to socialism - a classless and non-exploitative society. To reach that goal it is necessary to change the correlation of class forces by taking advantage of opportunities under the Constitution and parliamentary democracy. We have called upon the people to be eternally vigilant to preserve the democratic rights guaranteed in our Constitution and its basic features which includes secularism. Some of the Supreme Court decisions have helped to strengthen democracy. We have been suggesting certain amendments to further enhance the rights of the people to alter the centre-state relations with more power for the states, which alone can strengthen Indian unity. We need also to delete or change certain negative provisions such as Article 356 and powers to impose emergency. These are illustrative and not comprehensive.
We believe that is the people who create history and we have firm faith in them. They may make mistakes but ultimately they will take the correct path. Along with struggles in political, economic, social spheres we are of the view that ideological confrontation with communal, fundamentalist, obscurantist, undemocratic and pro-imperialist forces are of prime interest in today's situation.
I reiterate that we do believe that our Constitution, despite its limitations, is a document of great relevance to the advance of our people. But it does need changes keeping in view the experience and demands of the people.
We reiterate in our updated programme that the threat to parliamentary democracy comes not from the working people and the parties which represent their interests. The threat comes from the exploiting classes and the parties which represent their interests. We also state that it is of utmost importance that parliamentary and democratic institutions are defended in the interest of the people against such threats and skillfully utilised in combination with extra-parliamentary activities.
I do not deal with corruption and criminalisation of politics which are eating into the vitals of Indian democracy. It is a separate subject. But I think all right-thinking people feel seriously concerned. It is a matter of satisfaction that despite all travails, democracy, however imperfect, has survived. The necessity of electoral reform, also came on the agenda during the Congress regime but was put in the cold storage. It needs to be taken up in parliament and consultation held with the Election Commission. The latest view of the Supreme Court is worthy of consideration.
I think it is necessary to clarify, in brief, our stand on a particular point on which some confusion prevails in regard to our stand in the complicated situation which has arisen in our parliamentary democratic system in the state and in the centre. Our party may consider participation in such governments or lend them support from outside. We try sincerely in both cases to help to implement a common minimum programme whilst advocating changes necessary to take our country forward. When we do not support governments at the centre and states, we act as responsible opposition party to serve the interests of the people.
Through our participation in parliamentary democracy which includes as I have said carrying on extra-parliamentary activities, we try to raise the consciousness of the people so that they understand through their experience the necessity of bringing about fundamental change and advance towards the establishment of people's democracy and socialism, a non-exploitative and classless society.
In the end, I wish to place before you some thoughts which have relevance to the topic I have been speaking on.
In the evening of my life after 64 years in politics, on my return from London, in 1940 when I became a whole time worker of the Communist Party, I feel satisfied that people have acted again and again to counter reaction and to assert democratic processes, though continuity has been lacking. I particularly feel perturbed at the situation which has arisen today with communal and fundamentalist forces trying to destroy our grand concept of unity in diversity, to alter the secular nature of our Constitution and its basic features. These forces leading a government at the centre are weakening our economy by blindly accepting the World Bank and IMF prescriptions and making it more and more dependent on foreign countries particularly America and inviting it in the defence and intelligence sectors. Today, our country's foreign policy of non-alignment has been given the go-by reducing India to a non-entity. However, I cannot but think that such a disastrous state of affairs is a temporary phenomenon.
I am amazed to see that the Congress party which got isolated from the people after long years because of its various policies but is yet the biggest opposition party in parliament and still adhering to secularism, is not making any self-criticism about its mistaken policies in the political, economic and social spheres which hurt India's interest.
It is unfortunate that the Left and democratic forces all over India have been unequal to the task despite their attempts to counter reaction. But efforts are on to present a viable alternative. It is heartening to see massive struggles of various sections of the people breaking out. These have to be given proper direction and a correct political perspective.
I have a few comments to make on the Gujarat happenings after all that have been revealed by most of the newspapers, various delegations and debates in both houses of parliament. I feel sad, ashamed and also angry but I refuse to be overwhelmed by the forces of darkness. It is welcome to see a kind of consensus which has arisen all over our country in condemning barbarism let loose under the patronage of the state BJP government and acquiesced in by the BJP-led central government, on the entire Muslim community after the diabolic attack on the karsevaks in Godhra by some criminal elements. Democracy and civilisation will prevail.