Indian Left’s fate in balance Praful Bidwai Saturday, April 02, 2011

The assembly election process is about to begin in four states in India: West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam. The elections could prove a turning point for many parties, in particular the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), the All India Anna DMK (DMK), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and above all, the Left. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has no major support base or stakes in the four states, but the results will significantly influence the future of its alliances.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK-Congress alliance’s biggest challenge is from the AIADMK-led alliance comprising the Left parties and a state party led by a film-star. This would disproportionately benefit from even a slight decline in the DMK’s vote-share (26.5 percent in 2006). Jayalalithaa’s party already commands about a third of Tamil Nadu’s vote and is strong in its southern part.

If the DMK-led coalition wins, the Congress can be in government – for the first time since 1967. This would happen with a change in the alliance system long prevalent in Tamil Nadu, under which parties which help one of the two major Dravida biggies win don’t get to participate in government.

The DMK has consolidated its influence over various institutions, including the media, by fully exploiting both its power in the state and its participation in the central government for over 14 years, barring March 1998 to October 1999.

Yet, the DML isn’t going into electoral battle with great confidence. It’s trying to lure voters with all kinds of promises, including free laptops for college students and Rs4 lakhs in assistance to single women-headed households. The AIADMK is matching this with, among promises of other gifts, a fan, a mixer and a grinder for each household, 20 kg of free rice every month, besides 60,000 cows!

Such competitive populism isn’t confined to Tamil Nadu. In Assam, the Congress under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has promised nine lakh new jobs, 30 percent reservation in government employment for rural people, and a doubling of the monthly quota of 20 kg of rice to all below-poverty-line families. Also promised are new commissions on employment generation, skill development, knowledge, and education for the minorities.

Whether Gogoi becomes Assam’s first chief minister since 1970 to complete a decade or more in office will partly depend whether Assam’s Muslims, 30 percent of the population, support the Congress or the preponderantly Muslim All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

The AIUDF would have liked to cultivate the AGP, but it has a tacit understanding with the BJP: the two are not fielding strong candidates against each other. Luckily for the Congress, both the United Liberation Front of Assam and Bodo separatist groups, which call for election boycotts, have been greatly weakened.

However, it’s in West Bengal and, to an extent, Kerala that potentially the most dramatic changes could occur. In West Bengal, the Left Front – in office for an uninterrupted 34 years – is in decline and faces anti-incumbency.

The Front won 227 of the 294 assembly seats in 2006, with 48.4 percent of the vote. But, by the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it only led in 99 assembly segments, with a 43.5 percent vote-share. It also lost recent local body election and various by-elections. Besides, the opposition is now firmly united under Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

The Left Front’s support base has eroded because land reform and other progressive measures lost momentum, and the government pursued thoughtlessly pro-corporate policies ignoring people’s basic needs. The state’s health and education indices have stagnated or fallen, knocking out its claim to inclusive pro-people development.

The Left’s ideological image as a force of radical change and social transformation doesn’t hold much appeal to young Bengalis, over 60 percent of whom were born after the Front came to power in 1977.

The Front’s brutal crushing of grassroots resistance at Singur and Nandigram earned it popular ill-will and hostility, even as these became household words in India for the injustices of neoliberal policies. The Left Front hasn’t learned enough lessons from these fiascos.

Banerjee has systematically capitalised on the Left’s failures. Sections of the extreme Left and the middle-class intelligentsia, disillusioned with the Left, have extended support to her. She has bullied the Congress into accepting a measly 65 tickets.

This doesn’t mean that the Left won’t put up a fight. But it faces an uphill task. If the Left loses in West Bengal, it will suffer not just ignominy but also intense repression from the TMC, which remains full of lumpen elements that use strong-arm methods.

If the Left clings on to power, it will be a much weakened force, with little freedom to try innovative approaches to regain lost ground. Indeed, some Left supporters believe that an electoral defeat will be good, as it will force the Left to rethink its strategic perspectives and economic and social policies.

In Kerala too, the Left Democratic Front isn’t well-placed – not only because the state tends to alternate between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Alliance from one election to the next.

The LDF faces anti-incumbency because of its poor performance in public services delivery and charges of corruption, not least against the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM)’s state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, for allegedly receiving kickbacks in a financial scam. Vijayan is the first Politburo member of an Indian communist party to face a central police inquiry.

The CPM presents a picture of horrible disunity in Kerala. Vijayan hasn’t lost a single opportunity to embarrass Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, a well-regarded, popular politician with a Spartan lifestyle and great integrity. Worse, Vijayan has tried to undo many of Achuthanandan’s progressive measures, on the spurious ground that they are ‘old-fashioned’.

What the young generation needs in Kerala, Vijayan argues, is not education, healthcare and jobs in small industries, agriculture and plantations, but expressways, entertainment parks, glittering shopping malls, and service-sector jobs like those in information technology. But these jobs haven’t materialised.

The CPM leadership made another blunder by not presenting Achuthanandan as its chief ministerial candidate – thanks to pressure from Vijayan.

A defeat in West Bengal and Kerala will diminish the Left parties’ national stature and parliamentary strength. Their Lok Sabha tally fell from 61 in 2004 to 24 in 2009. If it falls further, the Left would become a marginal force in parliament.

But the Left can reverse its decline only if it completely overhauls its politics, mobilisation strategy and organisational structures. Clearly, among all major political groupings, the Left has the most to lose in the coming elections.

The Left’s decline will push Indian politics’ centre of gravity further to the Right. This would be tragic, as poverty-mired Indian society should naturally favour broad Left-of-centre politics, with empowerment of the poor and emancipatory policies at its core.

However, the Left’s decline doesn’t mean that India will evolve towards either a monochromatic politics or a bipolar system dominated by the Congress and the BJP. Many social trends and political currents in India inhibit such an outcome.

The Indian polity has become strongly polycentric with Dalit and OBC upsurges, the rise and consolidation of regional parties, and social movements which resist the onslaught of neoliberalism and globalisation.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.

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