In August of 1939, the Nazis reached a secret deal with the communists that historian Robert Forczyk has called the greatest criminal conspiracy of the 20th century. Signed by Soviet foreign minister Molotov and German foreign minister Ribbentrop, the pact divided Europe into two distinct spheres of influence. Thus began the Second World War, with the Nazis invading Poland from the west and the communists from the east. Was Hitler a communist? Definitely not. But the two sides found common ground due to a shared belief in authoritarianism.
In India of 2021, any political party contesting elections might wince at a comparison with Hitler. But when discussing serious political issues, we cannot dump the lessons of history for the sake of feelings. And current opposition parties in India have the least right to object to this, having made so many of these comparisons themselves.
A number of people have jeered at the alliance between the Left Front in West Bengal and the Abbas Siddiqui-led Indian Secular Front (ISF). Could the politics of Siddiqui really be described as secular? From his various pronouncements, does it appear that Siddiqui would be in favour of equal treatment of genders, sexual autonomy of women, scientific temper, and several other values that the modern Left claims to uphold?
Yet, while these jibes are well-deserved, they are only attacking the issue at its surface. They suppose that the alliance with the ISF is just another of the many embarrassing compromises that political parties have to make sometimes. They are missing the point. On the matter of stated principles, the Left evidently does not agree with the ISF. Then the question is: what did they agree on? The answer is authoritarianism.
Many people think the Left parties are desperate and will take anything they can get. Again, this is a misunderstanding of how communists do their politics. The communist parties are not like the others. They don’t just go along with whatever seems convenient. They have a much deeper sense of history and are far more doctrinaire than other parties. In fact, they are capable of having intense debates on arcane matters of principle that no other party would care about. In mid-2016, for instance, there was a bitter factional war between the Karat and Yechury factions of the CPI(M) over whether they should refer to the Modi government as “fascist” or “authoritarian”. Does this sound like a party that would make an alliance with Abbas Siddiqui without thinking?
The hints of this alliance have been around for a while now. While the Left claims to believe in gender equality, it has long been opposed to a uniform civil code. The 2018 Supreme Court decision making homosexuality legal in India did not apply to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was because of Article 370. Also because of this, several minorities and socially disadvantaged groups such as Gorkhas or Valmikis were denied residency in Kashmir, despite having lived there for generations. And yet, the Left has demanded that Article 370, with all its discriminatory provisions, be restored in the constitution of India.
The global Left has had a similar policy of mostly looking the other way on human rights violations, the status of free speech, and rights of women in states under Islamic theocratic rule. Most recently, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, there was widespread rioting in which Hindus and their places of worship were targeted. The atrocities committed against Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan have also never been a topic of concern for the far Left.
This is because the basic idea of a communist utopia is not very different from that of a caliphate. Both want a rigid society organised around authoritarian principles. While their reasoning may be different, the end result is not. This is what the Nazis and communists recognised when they came together in the summer of 1939.
In that sense, the alliance between communists and Abbas Siddiqui’s party is almost a natural alliance. In many ways, this is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of our time. And both sides intend to betray it once they feel they have achieved their other objectives. But for the moment, they are together. In 1941, when Hitler thought he had won the war already, he decided to break the pact and invade the Soviet Union. Until the very last moment, the Soviets had supplied and fed German troops occupying the rest of Europe.
It would be a mistake to interpret the Left Front-ISF alliance as some kind of desperate political act. Because the communist parties never do anything without thinking and/or checking with history. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact contained a number of secret protocols detailing how power would be divided between victorious Nazi and communist forces in a reshaped Europe. Rather than dismiss the alliance between the Left parties and Abbas Siddiqui as inconsequential, we should ask real questions about what this pact means for our country.
(Abhishek Banerjee is a mathematician, columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.)