Debating India

A strategy against communalism

Saturday 11 September 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The Left parties share varying perceptions about the political approach to be adopted vis-a-vis the Congress(I) in the current context. However, in view of the need to mobilise democratic and secular forces against the BJP and its communal agenda, they have evolved State-specific electoral tactics.

in New Delhi

THE four main Left parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc - face the September-October elections on the basic premise that their representation in the 13th Lok Sabha has to be increased. This, in their view, is essential to advance "the struggle against the reactionary communal forces represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the struggle for alternative policies in government". These parties expect that elections will throw up a hung Parliament, and in such a situation having a significant strength in Parliament is crucial.

In order to enhance their parliamentary strength, the Left parties have to improve their position not only in States such as West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, where they already have a strong base and are in power, but in other areas, where they have no s trong moorings of their own. It is in this context that the need to strike alliances with other secular and democratic parties has been emphasised. In the opinion of Left leaders this kind of cooperation and mobilisation of secular and democratic forces will lead to the evolution of another Third Front, which will present a path of governance that is fundamentally different from the course followed by the Congress(I) and the BJP.

However, even while sharing this general perception, the Left parties disagree on how to achieve the electoral objective. The CPI(M) and the CPI have underlined that all efforts must now be concentrated on preventing the BJP from returning to power throu gh the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which it leads. They consider this their paramount responsibility because the Hindu Right represented by the BJP has marked tremendous growth in recent years. The CPI(M) argues that the central task having been i dentified, it will be detrimental to take a position of equidistance from the BJP and the Congress(I) as advocated by the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar. This line of the CPI(M) is based on a candid admission that the contours of the Third Front are yet unclear and that the proposed entity does not have the ability to take on the BJP-led alliance politically.

In view of this line, the CPI(M) has refrained from aligning itself with the S.P. or the NCP although both parties face the BJP-led alliance as their principal opponent in the areas of their strength, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra respectively. The CPI(M ) was a small but important ally of the S.P. in Uttar Pradesh until the 1998 elections, and both were members of the erstwhile United Front (U.F.).

The CPI agrees that it is counter-productive to remain equidistant from the BJP and the Congress(I), but it has a different perception of the S.P. and the NCP. The CPI leadership believes that although the S.P. and the NCP have "failed to understand the struggle against communal forces in the right perspective, these parties should not be kept away from a larger secular platform."

Interestingly, the smaller parties of the Left - the RSP and the Forward Bloc - are closer to the S.P.-NCP position. These parties have asserted that they would like to maintain a policy of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP. In fact, the two parties had taken this position as early as April, when efforts were made to form an alternative government after the fall of the BJP-led government. While the CPI and the CPI(M) were ready to support a minority Congress(I) government from outside, the R SP and the Forward Bloc made it clear that they would not support such an arrangement. They wanted a Third Front government put in place with the Congress(I) supporting it from outside.

THE differences with regard to electoral strategies have reflected in the alliances the Left parties have formed with other secular parties. Highlighting the centrality of the fight against the BJP, the CPI and the CPI(M) evolved specific tactics for Sta tes such as Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu and worked out seat adjustments with the Congress(I) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), among others. Although both the CPI and the CPI(M) had negotiations with the Rashtriya Janat a Dal (RJD) led by Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, only the CPI(M) could clinch an accord with it.

The Left had consistently opposed all these principal non-BJP parties not only on ideological and political grounds but also on account of doubts about the political and moral integrity of their leaders. Despite this, the CPI and the CPI(M), after consid erable inner-party debate, decided to align themselves with these forces on the ground that the paramount political task at hand was to halt the advancement of right-wing communal forces. The popular response to the new electoral alignments, particularly in States such as Tamil Nadu and Punjab, indicate that the decision of the CPI and CPI(M) has found considerable public acceptance.

The lack of agreement on electoral strategies prevented the Left parties from coming out with a joint manifesto. Central to this inability is the candid admission of the CPI and the CPI(M) that a Third Front, which would chart a path independent from tha t of the Congress(I) and the BJP, is yet to take shape. The Left parties’ joint manifesto in 1998 had branded the Congress(I) a party that had degenerated both politically and organisationally and castigated it for pursuing economic policies that hurt th e people’s interests, betraying its secular heritage by compromising with communal forces, and promoting corruption in public life. The manifesto had said that it was this dismal record of the Congress(I) that led to its humiliating defeat in the 1996 el ections. It projected the U.F. as an alternative to the "discredited" Congress(I) and as a firm secular response to the communal platform of the BJP.

According to the CPI and CPI(M) leaders, there is no entity like the U.F. to be presented before the electorate this time. During the 13 months of BJP rule the U.F. collapsed with two of its principal constituents, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Dr avida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) turning allies of the BJP. According to CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, accepting the collapse of the U.F. realistically and seeking modified ways and means to defeat the communal threat is not tantamount t o succumbing to the Congress(I). Surjeet said that there were no two opinions among the Left parties that "the Congress(I)’s basic policies do not provide a democratic alternative to the BJP". The CPI(M) election manifesto itself had made it clear, he po inted out.

Surjeet said that on economic policy the BJP and the Congress had no basic differences. Whether it was privatisation and further liberalisation, or the opening up of the insurance sector or the question of the Patents Bill, the Congress(I) had no alterna tive to the BJP-led government’s stands on these issues. The RSP and the Forward Bloc, however, tend to believe that the U.F. or a similar Third Front can be built by the Left by joining hands with parties such as the NCP and the S.P., which pursue an an ti-BJP, anti-Congress(I) line.

In fact, an intense discussion had taken place within the CPI(M) on this issue when the NCP was formed. Among the opinions expressed was the one that advocated alignment with the NCP at least in Maharashtra. This came from a section of the Kerala unit of the party. Some of the participants in the discussion even recommended the severing of ties with the Congress(I) in all parts of the country. The Kerala unit had its own compulsions for advancing this line. For, unlike in West Bengal and Tripura, the ot her two power bases of the party, in Kerala the party’s principal opponent is the Congress(I). Secondly, the Congress (Socialist), a constituent of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front in Kerala, had merged with the NCP. In this situation a position of e quidistance from both the Congress(I) and the BJP would have helped its campaign immensely. Reports from Kerala suggest that despite the anti-BJP line prevailing over the equidistance policy, sections of the Kerala leadership state that the Congress(I) will have to support a Third Front government.

However, the manifestoes and election policy documents of the Left parties agree on most other issues. These documents assert that the Left platform represents the aspirations of all sections of the working people, of all patriotic citizens who are commi tted to a socially and economically just order. The parties affirm their resolve to strengthen the Left as the guardian of the interests of the working people and the promoter of self-reliant growth, employment, equal opportunities and reduction of inequ alities. All four parties criticise the mindless economic liberalisation and point out that economic reforms require a different orientation. They speak in unison about the need to implement land reform and the enormous contribution made by the Left-led governments of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura in this respect.

The four parties agree that the l3-month stint of the Vajpayee Government was an unmitigated disaster for the country, which threatened the very basis of the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution. The policy statements of the parties also warn that secular and democratic values, which had become part of the common consciousness of the Indian people, would be eroded if the BJP continues in government. The parties agree that the Vajpayee Government has through the Pokhran nuclear tests as well as by generating the Kargil crisis aggravated the strains on national unity. The arbitrary dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, and the refusal to discuss the matter in the Parliament have also been highlighted by the Left p arties as actions endangering national security.

The parties allege that the Government instilled fear and insecurity among the minorities by allowing the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, both members of the Sangh Parivar, to attack Christians and Muslims. The economic policy of the Gove rnment gave a bonanza to foreign capital and big business and imposed heavy burdens on the common people. By dismantling the Public Distribution System to benefit private traders, the Left parties say, the BJP has left the urban poor at the mercy of blac k-marketeers, hoarders and profiteers in the matter of buying essential commodities. The Vajpayee Government is also accused of being complacent and committing grave diplomatic errors following the euphoria created over the bus ride to Lahore.

The Left parties have launched a campaign on these issues. The popular response is rated as satisfactory by the leadership, both in their power bases and in areas where they are weak. In the 1998 elections the Left parties totalled 48 seats, of which 32 belonged to the CPI(M), nine to the CPI, five to the RSP and two to the Forward Bloc. By all indications, the Left is aiming at 70 to 80 seats this time.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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