Interesting thought, isnt it ? Especially when our neighbours beyond the Himalayas are going great guns, it doesnt seem like a bad one. I once asked one of my Chinese friends about what had made China so successful and strong, and he said “In China, we had a people’s revolution. Perhaps India also needs a revolution”. I replied that India did have a revolution but it was against colonial rule. So what if India had a commuist revolution in the 40s and 50s like many other countries did ? Would we be better off today ? Or would things get a lot worse (if they are already not bad enough) ?
So lets assume that its 1955 and the Communist Party of India has taken control of the state after a revolution. Many things would be different. For one, communism has a very egalitarian ideology, both in economic terms and gender roles. Virtually all developing countries that are/were communist, like China, Russia and others, faced a higly unequal and stratified society along with unequal gender roles. All the aforementioned countries today have had great success in gender equality and breaking down social barriers. It would thus seem that communism would get rid of two key problems in Indian society, casteism and the low status of women.
But it might not be that simple. While developing countries as a whole did have inequalities, inequalities in India had great religious and social significance. The difference between a Dalit and a Brahmin was never simply economic (in fact Brahmins are supposed to be rustics), it was supposed to be an inherent quality of theirs. Also there were the inevitable cultural differences that arose due to centuries of segregation and oppression. It is quite possible that the communist ideology would have even triumphed these deeply ossified injustices, Kerala is a great example. But whether it would have been broadly successful is an interesting question that I cannot answer, its success in that area would have definitely faced stiffer opposition in India.
The other major difference would have been the absence of any opposition parties. This seems like a very attractive notion for many Indians, but not for most, who dont seem very interested in the national parties today1. I will actually claim that absence of opposition political parties would have destroyed the Indian Union. To see this, we only need observe the other big communist country of the last century, the USSR. India, in many ways, is much like the USSR, successor state of an empire with large, virtually unrelated constituents. Although, one will definitely point out the difference in geographical size, but in the end it is the populations that matter. In the era of highly mobile armed forces and the fact that today any individual can do a lot more damage (with bombs and guns), it is much easier to occupy a large area with a small unwilling population rather than a smaller one with a large unwilling population. Kashmir and Punjab are great examples.
India for 40 years shared every feature with the Soviet Union, a hierarchy of bureaucrats, linguistic/ethnic federalism, socialism and Congress Party dominance. The difference was democracy and the presence of opposition parties who had already come to power in many states by the 90s. While the Soviet Union dissolved once the communist party collapsed, in many ways the Indian Union has become stronger after the ‘collapse’ of the Congress and the emergence of other parties. This has lead to a period of great political instability, which many might argue is not worth the price. But one must not forget that the collapse, though in many ways beneficial to Russia, has made many of the former soviet republics in East Europe and Central Asia outposts of oppression and stagnation. A similar collapse of the Indian Union would have had terrible consequences for both the Hindi heartland and remote states like Jharkhand and Mizoram.
The third difference would be the status of media. To see the impact of this one need not look abroad. Before the 90s, with Doordarshan’s and AIR’s monopoly over the airwaves and our oh-so-moral censor board, India was a stellar example of the media oppression seen in most communist countries. The print media was free, but it had little broad impact in a nation where the bulk of the population was not able to read. The situation today is actually mixed, the airwaves are free from state control but the news has to be ‘profitable’ :) . Make no mistake, India’s media revolution has dramatically changed things, I know a lot more about my country than Doordarshan would have ever told me. But the country is still a long ways from producing a BBC, a Rageh Omar or even a Giridhardas !
All in all, India as a communist state would not have lasted very long as far I am concerned. But that doesnt mean that we shouldnt learn from communist countries, past and present.
1: In the 2004 federal elections, almost 60 % of the electorate voted with the two major national parties garnering only about 49 % of the votes. There has not been a non-coalition government in power in Delhi since 1991.