When K. K. Shailaja, a member of the central committee or the highest decision-making body of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the country’s largest parliamentary Left party, refused the Magsaysay award on the advice of her party, it became yet another instance of Indian communist parties failing to acknowledge the contributions of individual members.
Collectivity above individualism, they preach, and put it into practice in Shailaja’s case to set an example. The achievement she is being credited for was actually a result of collective work, the CPI-M argued. Ideology comes first, its leaders said, citing Ramon Magsaysay’s anti-communist background as another reason for declining the award named after him.
Evidently, in declining the award the party was looking to take the high moral/ethical ground to show India and the world how they are different.
Or, is there more to it?
Shailaja was offered the award for her role in tackling the Nipah virus in 2018 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has been ruled by a CPI-M -led coalition since 2016. Shailaja served as the health minister during the time of the pandemic and her role was widely acknowledged, nationally and globally. She appeared on top of the list of Top 50 Thinkers of 2020 prepared by the U.K.-based Prospect Magazine, leaving New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adhern in second place.
However, she was not given a berth when the government returned to power in 2021. The party decided to change all faces in the government, except of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The party made another exemption for Vijayan – even though it decided in 2021 to cap the age of central committee and politburo members at 75, Vijayan found a place in both committees despite being 76. It also cannot be overlooked that for a party so committed to discouraging individualism, Vijayan has a personal website, named after him.
Throughout the history of communist parties around the world, individual leaders from Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Kim Il-Sung in North Korea have often risen above the collective to shape the party. Of them, Stalin is a unanimous darling of the Indian Left, while Castro and Mao are heroes to sections of them.
But Indian communists refuse to acknowledge that the popularity of individual leaders draws the masses to a party.
A similar rejection of an individual’s charisma happened in 1996. Jyoti Basu, one of the founder-leaders of CPI-M, who served as West Bengal chief minister for 19 years straight by that time, emerged as the unanimous choice of a coalition of regional parties for the post of India’s prime minister. Basu was never in the running for the post but his stature as a politician and experience in governance prompted India’s regional parties to look up to him to keep India’s two largest parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, away from power. Basu was known as a pragmatist among leftist ideologues.
The CPI-M was opposed to Basu taking on the top post. It’s all about policy, they said, arguing that the lack of majority will disallow them from having control over economic policies.
This was the closest a communist ever came to becoming India’s prime minister. Basu later called the party’s decision “a historic blunder.”
In 2001, Basu was allowed to accept the Mother Teresa award, named after the Kolkata-based late Nobel Peace Prize winner. Globally, as in India, the Left has been a champion of rationalism. Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity believed in and promoted the idea of miracles – leading to Teresa’s sainthood – a belief most leftists dismissed as superstition. So if Basu was allowed to accept the Mother Teresa award why was Shailaja prevented from accepting the Magsaysay prize? Was the party afraid that refusing the award would send out the wrong message to the Christian community?
Stature mattered. Some have always been more equal than others.
However, it is not the CPI-M alone that has suffered from such contradictions involving ideology and practice. A decade ago, Kobad Ghandy, who was a politburo member of the banned CPI-Maoist, India’s largest armed insurgent group, raised uncomfortable questions about restricting individual growth in communist culture.
Referring to the socialist adage that “only the petit-bourgeois speak of individuality, the proletariat stands for class,” Ghandy wrote, “In practice though, it is often the ‘leader’ who is able to assert himself as he likes, while the ranks are confined to the herd.”
“The flowering of every member of any organization only lends it strength, as the more creative its members, the more effective the organization,” Ghandy wrote in one of his series of essays while in jail during 2010-13.
Subsequently, his stress on the role of individuals, criticism of the erstwhile socialist countries for their lack of democratic space, and certain practices among India’s Maoists distanced him from the organization. This culminated in his expulsion in 2022.
Even though the Left proclaims to discourage hero worship, raising questions on Stalin’s role in Soviet Russia is beyond acceptable. Feminist leader Kavita Krishnan, a prominent face of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation), one of India’s many communist parties having a regional influence, realized this the hard way.
On September 1, following the news of the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the communist party that governed the Soviet Union, she wrote in a social media post, “My friends on the Indian Left… could never reconcile to the fact that the peoples of USSR and especially its colonized Republics, chose not to retain the Soviet Union and that Gorbachev at the end of the day respected that choice instead of ‘imposing socialism by bayonets’ on people who had rejected it.”
In less than 12 hours, she made another announcement on social media – that she was quitting all posts of the party to “pursue certain troubling political questions,” exploring which was not possible while holding prominent positions in the party. “It is not enough to discuss the Stalin regime, USSR, or China as failed socialisms but as some of the world’s worst authoritarianisms that serve as a model for authoritarian regimes everywhere,” she wrote.
For the Indian Left, Joseph Stalin has been a hallowed figure; his photos can be seen hanging in any office of a communist party, alongside Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin.
Krishnan found a contradiction in this approach. Can the Indian Left effectively fight the alleged shrinking of democratic space in Narendra Modi’s India without denouncing the lack of democracy in erstwhile socialist countries, or present-day China and North Korea, she asked. The Left needed to “accept the oppression and atrocities by our gods, our heroes,” she said.
Her party decided not to create any bitterness, at least visible publicly and opted for a mutual, respectful separation. Krishnan, however, suffered intense trolling on social media, mostly by alleged supporters of the CPI-M.
Communists have, and do, highlight individuals. But when and for whom it would apply has depended more on the party’s internal equations than ideology.