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How To Retrieve Credibility


Manali Desai

GOVERNMENT AS PRACTICE: DEMOCRATIC LEFT IN A TRANSFORMING INDIA
By A. Raghurama Raju
2016, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 290, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 10 October 2016

This is an important book that tackles a question where more heat than light tends to be generated; namely why has the Left faced such catastrophic failure in Bengal, a State where it once ruled unchallenged? Of course some may consider this a moot question. After all the Left across the world, except in Latin America, has been in steady decline, unable to withstand the collapse of the Soviet model and the consequent rise of neoliberalism. But the story of decline is not the same everywhere, and conventional wisdom may be no more than lazy, unexamined consensus. Bhattacharyya takes as his starting point the concept of ‘government as practice’, which he defines as a process by which governments attempt to work through the messy terrain of social contradictions, grasping ideological polarities and transforming them into meaningful practice. He borrows this term from Foucault’s concept of practice: ‘the problematic of government … [that] … seeks to place the government of the self, the community, the society or the state on a continuum of interplay involving centralization and dispersal, regulation and dissidence’ (p. 32). Along with Foucault, there is an emphasis on the sociological Marxism of sociologist Michael Burawoy, with antecedents in Gramsci—neither capitalism, nor classes are created or unfold in a linear fashion. A keen historical specificity and attention to immanent, everyday practice are the key to moving away from the kind of abstractions and economistic analyses that plague discussions of the Left (and one may argue such a sensibility should inform Left practice). How well does Bhattacharyya follow these injunctions, and to what end are these pressed into the service of understanding Left decline in Bengal? The second chapter discusses the consolidation of Left power through land reforms, detailing quite poignantly the task faced by a Left government in the face of collusion between the lower bureaucracy, police and courts in support of landlords. This everyday violence had to be countered by any Left seeking power. As Bhattacharyya goes on to discuss, the Left faced a dilemma common to many Left Parliamentary parties—how to win and hold a majority when claiming to represent the agrarian and industrial working classes. In principle, the Left had to make concessions to the rich peasantry, for example with wages for agricultural labour, and continually shift its priorities. While this enabled a broad base, it compromised their ability to build a solid political base that ...


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