Debating India


Ascendant Left

Saturday 20 May 2006, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The May 2006 Assembly elections place the Left in its strongest ever position in India’s parliamentary and legislative history.

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Left party leaders Gurudas Dasgupta, M.K. Pandhe, Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan.

ON the evening of May 11, as it became clear that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left alliances were marching towards massive victories in the Assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala, the atmosphere at A.K. Gopalan Bhawan, the headquarters of the CPI(M), was marked by a nuanced contrast. Outside the party office, activists and supporters were in a conspicuously celebratory mood, raising triumphant slogans and distributing sweets. The mood was one of joy inside the office too, but it was less demonstrative. The emphasis here, where the available members of the Polit Bureau met to evaluate the popular verdict, was on carrying out a precise and objective analysis of the verdict’s various dimensions.

Even so, there is no escaping the central message of the April-May 2006 elections to the Assemblies in the States of Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal and Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. CPI(M) general-secretary Prakash Karat was obliged to place this on record, despite his customary penchant for understatement, while releasing the party’s first comment on the election results. Addressing a press conference, Karat said that the "election verdict would pave the way for increased intervention of the Left parties in national politics ... to advance people-oriented policies".

A number of factors embedded in the verdict validate such categorical and confident assertions. To start with, the results mark a historical high point for the Indian Left in terms of its strength in the country’s legislatures and Parliament both quantitatively and qualitatively. With massive victories in West Bengal and Kerala, the Left parties simultaneously control three State governments (the northeastern State of Tripura where Assembly elections were held in 2002 is the third State) and their presence in Parliament is at an all-time high of 60 Lok Sabha members. The CPI(M) alone accounts for 44 of them. More important, the very survival of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre is dependent on the support of these 60 Left Members of Parliament (MPs). Equally significantly, the Left’s broad ideological and political positions are being increasingly accepted by centrist political forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which leads the ruling coalition in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a prominent political force in Bihar.

The Left had similar simultaneous control over three State governments nearly two decades ago, in 1987. However, at that time it only had approximately half of its present strength in Parliament. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government had a brute majority (415 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats) and the Left parties had virtually no say at all in the formulation of national policy.

The qualitative aspect of the substantial victories in West Bengal and Kerala is accentuated by the policy context of the April-May elections. The CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal and Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala took on the Congress and its associates, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, not only organisationally but also in terms of policy. Opposition to the Hindutva-oriented communal politics of the BJP has been a consistent characteristic of the Left’s politics. However, in both the States, the greater focus was on the policies of the Congress, which had more influence among the masses than the BJP. Throughout the campaign, the Left vociferously attacked Congress policies, particularly its proliberalisation economic policy thrusts and its pro-United States foreign policy initiatives.

The campaign was more marked in Kerala, where the LDF had gone into the elections as the Opposition. The proliberalisation policies of the Oomen Chandy-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government, particularly their impact on the farm sector, and the pro-U.S. tilt, in the foreign policy of the UPA government were the central themes of this campaign. Observers of Kerala politics are more or less unanimous in agreeing that the vigorous campaign against the pro-U.S. tilt, particularly the vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), significantly shifted Muslim votes from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a UDF constituent, to the LDF.

The most striking verdict was, of course, the Left Front’s seventh consecutive victory in the Assembly polls in West Bengal - an unmatched record in the parliamentary history of the country and in all probability the world. The Left Front, which been in power for 29 years since 1977, was elected for another five-year term. The CPI(M) Polit Bureau pointed out that this unmatched victory had been achieved by "retaining the support of the working people" of the State "and winning over new sections of the people". The party perceived the return of the LDF in Kerala as the "people’s indictment of the policies of the Congress-led UDF government of the last five years" and an "endorsement of the Left and democratic political platform".

According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, the significance of the May 2006 verdict lies in the Left’s ability to score both in the Opposition and as a ruling party. He pointed to that the fact that the present victory was obtained "in the background of charges against the Left Front of scientific rigging and the consequent intensive monitoring of the election process by the Election Commission also adds to its value".

Myths busted

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AT A MAY Day rally in Bangalore. The verdict of the Assembly elections will pave the way for increased intervention of the Left in national politics in favour of people-centred policies.

Speaking to Frontline, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Atul Kumar Anjaan pointed out that, along with the charges of scientific rigging, several other myths about the Left Front’s successive victories had busted with this election. "Until the last election in 2001, the propagated myth was that the Left Front won because of Jyoti Basu, and it was campaigned that once he was out of the picture the Left would lose. Though that campaign has collapsed with the first election under Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, there are efforts to project him as a new, all-controlling icon." Anjaan says that the efforts to portray the present victory as that of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s reformist agenda not only negates the Left Front’s track record over the past 30 years but also insults the initiatives taken by the Chief Minister. "In fact," the CPI leader said, "Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would be projected in the proposed new national intervention of the Left as an icon who advanced new concepts in economic development without succumbing to the diktats of the pundits of liberalisation."

In the context of such projections, there is little doubt that one of the manifestations of the proposed new interventions of the Left would be enhanced efforts to highlight its various development initiatives in West Bengal since 1977.

According to a CPI(M) document prepared in 1996, the basic difference the Left has created on West Bengal’s development scene is the creation of awareness about development among the common people. The document underlines that it used bodies of local self-governance such as panchayats for this purpose. It also highlights the land reform undertaken by successive Left Front governments as an important contribution to the awakening of the rural masses.

Gyanpeeth Award-winning Kannada litterateur and social activist U.R. Ananthamurthy has witnessed some inspiring scenes of this mass awakening in rural Bengal and seen the positive impact it has had on concepts of development and governance. He told Frontline that the so-called reforms being undertaken by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had to be seen in this context. "These reforms are taking place in the background of ... extensive land reform and tenant rights schemes and cannot be compared to the reforms in States which have not undertaken such measures." In other States where this climate is absent, reforms could easily lead to the rampant corporatisation of agricultural land.

The new initiatives in West Bengal could prompt a restatement of the Left’s fundamental precepts on industry and labour, as encapsulated in the CPI(M)’s policy documents. The party terms its governments as people’s democratic governments and states that such governments can "allow foreign direct investment in selected sectors to acquire advanced technology and upgrade productive capacities", even though the basic thrust would be to "assist the small and medium industries by providing them credit [and] raw materials at reasonable prices, and by helping them in regard to marketing facilities."

Without doubt, the results of these Assembly elections will empower the Left to strengthen its efforts to ensure that the UPA government at the Centre adheres more steadfastly to the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), upon which the Left supports it. "The very nature of the verdict," Karat told Frontline, "contains this message. It shows that people have responded positively to the Left’s perception on economic reforms, privatisation of public sector units, particularly the profit making ones, unbridled and thoughtless foreign direct investment in key areas and the pro-U.S. tilt in India’s foreign policy."

It is a moot point as to when all these initiatives might ultimately lead to the formation of a Third Alternative, which the CPI(M) has articulated as one of its major long-term political goals. At the May 11 press conference, Karat said that at the moment he and other Left leaders were more concerned with immediate issues such as the formation of governments in West Bengal and Kerala and would examine the possibility of political alternatives only at a later stage. He added that the Left had no plans to withdraw support to the UPA government at this stage though it would continue to highlight the deficiencies in implementing of the CMP.

There can be little doubt that the ultimate aim of the proposed and perceived initiatives from the Left is a Third Alternative. However, the Congress leadership is of the view that the present enthusiasm and political projections of the Left will recede into the background in the next round of Assembly elections, in Gujarat, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. The principal fight in these States will be between the Congress on one side and the BJP and the Akali Dal on the other. The fight against a Narendra Modi-led BJP in Gujarat will most likely result in a Congress-Left alliance, said a senior Congress leader from Kerala. Clearly, large sections of the Congress see these future polls as an instrument to counter whatever new initiatives the Left may take. Congress leaders such as Kapil Sibal see the contradictions between the Left’s traditional rural support base and its new support among the urban middle classes growing over time and impeding its new initiatives at the national level.

Whether the Left will ultimately achieve its Third Alternative could well depend as much on how it manoeuvres in future elections as the ideological questions thrown up by its growing support base.

See online : Frontline


Volume 23 - Issue 10, May. 20 - Jun. 02, 2006.

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