India’s 2009 general election: Lessons for the left
By Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation
May 24, 2009 -- The results of 2009 elections for the Lok Sabha elections (India’s lower house of parliament) can be described as a string of surprises, not only for many well-entrenched parties and seasoned politicians but also for a host of commonsense notions about contemporary Indian political reality. Of late, it has become customary to look at elections in India through the prism of coalition politics, caste equations and regional diversities. Verdict 2009 has given a serious jolt to this facile view and reasserted the underlying structural dynamics of Indian politics.
Conventional wisdom would not have given the Congress party anything more than 150 seats, but the fact that the Congress managed to notch up as many as 206 seats from across the country clearly reveals a national verdict which cannot be reduced to a mere sum total of the poll outcomes in different states and regions. The opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA, led by the right-wing, Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) had long been expecting the 2009 elections to go its way and BJP leader L.K. Advani had been duly designated its candidate for prime minister. ``Iron Man’’ Advani saw Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the weakest link of the Congress chain and hoped the chain would snap if only he could make it a direct clash between the ruling Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) ``weakest’’ and the NDA’s ``strongest’’! Advani tried to fight and win the elections in true US presidential style, but even before his campaign could take off he found himself overshadowed by two more self-appointed PMs-in-waiting, the redoubtable Narendra ``Nano’’ Modi and one Varun ``venom’’ Gandhi!
The results only reveal how miserably the NDA lost the plot in its own strongholds. Of all the NDA-ruled states, only Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Bihar went the NDA way while in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, Congress staked almost equal claims defying its obvious organisational weaknesses, and in Uttaranchal the NDA saw a complete rout. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s spectacular showing cannot really be treated as a typical NDA victory – it had more to do with the disintegration of the UPA and the continuing public anger in Bihar against the RJD-LJP (Rashtriya Janata Dal is the Bihar-based National People's Party, part of the UPA) brand of politics. Quite understandably, the Nitish-led Bihar NDA emerged as the overwhelming beneficiary of this public anger against the RJD’s legacy of chaos and misrule.
While the NDA remained confined to its own pockets, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ``Third Front’’ was humbled in its own strongholds. In West Bengal, the CPI (M) got its worst drubbing in three decades with its own tally getting reduced to only nine. The overall Left Front tally came down from the high point of 60-plus in the 14th Lok Sabha to a mere 24. The grand alliances forged in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh failed to click, and ``Mission Mayawati’’ failed to fire the imagination of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s own base in Uttar Pradesh (Mayawati is Uttar Pradesh’s BSP chief minister). Forged in agenda-less opportunism and a hurry, the Third Front had neither cohesion nor credibility; it thrived primarily on the exuberance of electoral expectation regarding the fortunes of regional alliances.
The Congress on the other hand benefited by default from an overarching mood that looked for some order and stability in an overwhelming situation of crisis and uncertainty. In the absence of any reliable cohesive pan-Indian alternative, the most trusted party of the Indian ruling class, now led by the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family, seems to have filled the vacuum. Various local factors only facilitated to crystallise this phenomenon. The Congress decision to shelve the UPA during the elections and try the party’s own luck in the two most crucial Hindi-belt states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar also bore fruit, paving the way for a Congress revival in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress won 20 seats, regaining its traditional base amongst upper-caste gentry, minorities and a section of dalits.
What lessons do the results hold for the future of the people’s movement and left and democratic politics in India?
The Congress party revival is being portrayed by various neoliberal commentators as well as the Congress establishment as a popular endorsement of its pro-corporate economic agenda and pro-US foreign policy framework. In the same breath the Congress is also attributing its victory to its ``pro-poor’’ policies. There is a fundamental paradox in such self-serving explanations: the verdict cannot be an endorsement of policies claiming to address the crisis of unemployment, farmers’ suicides etc., as well as an endorsement of the neoliberal policies causing the very same crisis!
The country is reeling under a massive economic disaster sponsored by the neoliberal economic offensive of indiscriminate liberalisation and globalisation and steady withdrawal of the state from productive investment and welfare-oriented public expenditure, and there can be no question of the people endorsing policies that spelled such disasters.
It is also equally clear that the country is not enamoured of the much-touted strategic spin-offs of a pro-US foreign policy when the entire neighbourhood is trapped in tremendous social upheaval and political turbulence. India’s growing identification with the US only renders it more vulnerable on every count. Signs of growing US involvement in India’s domestic affairs have also been quite visible with US officials of late making it a habit to call on leaders of different parties.
By all accounts, a more confident Congress-led government will now tend to pursue the pro-corporate pro-imperialist policies, as well as the repressive policies of draconian laws and human rights violations in the name of countering terror, with greater speed and aggression while cleverly deceiving the people with the rhetoric of secularism, empowerment and ``inclusive’’ growth.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced a "100-day" economic recovery plan to overcome recession and on May 18 the Indian stock exchange Sensex soared 2111 points, the highest single-day increase in any share index in the world, to celebrate the UPA's victory. But such exuberance and tall claims are unlikely to lead to any economic miracle, and against the backdrop of a deepening recession, livelihood issues are bound to assume explosive proportions in many sectors. Further, while the BJP’s communal agenda has been defeated, the aspirations of minorities and secular forces for justice against communal violence remains – a task that the Congress has historically betrayed.
Instead of being taken in by the deceptive discourse of the emerging ``new generation’’ Congress, the forces and friends of people’s struggles must now intensify public debate over the real state of affairs on different fronts and raise the level of popular mobilisation and resistance to press for a real change in the policies and priorities of the government.
The results have also exposed the limits of the politics of social engineering and alliance arithmetic. Reports from Uttar Pradesh indicate that while chief minister Mayawati failed to sustain her newly discovered upper-caste base, cracks have also started surfacing in her core support base among dalits. Down south, the Telugu Desam Party-Telangana Rashtra Samiti party (TDP-TRS) kind of opportunist bonhomie [in Andhra Pradesh state] and the desperate attempt of the PMK-MDMK-AIADMK alliance [in Tamil Nadu] to make political capital of the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils have also been squarely rebuffed by the people. The CPI (M) has only discredited itself by glorifying and peddling this opportunism in the name of ``Third Front’’ politics.
CPI (M) rout
Contrary to dominant media explanations (which are being echoed by some sections of CPI-M) itself), the rout suffered by the CPI (M) cannot be attributed to its belated oppositional stance vis-a-vis the UPA’s pro-US policies. The epicentre of the anti-CPI (M) political earthquake lies squarely in the Singur-Nandigram seismic zone where the CPI (M) has been punished for its arrogant and repressive attitude to the peasantry and the intelligentsia, for its ruthless attempt to implement the same economic policies that it claims to have been opposing all along. It is ironical that while the architect of the special economic zone (SEZ) policy succeeded in masking its true face behind legislations like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and forest land rights, the CPI (M) was seen as the brutal face of corporate land-grab offensive. Even when the CPI (M) quite correctly questioned and opposed the Indo-US strategic partnership and nuke deal, the point was allowed to get diluted and lost in the party’s desperate drive to somehow prop up a “Third Front” devoid of any kind of pro-people, anti-imperialist commitment.
It is interesting that in its steady right-wing drift, the noise emanating from dominant quarters of West Bengal CPI (M) against the ``dogmatism’’ and ``adventurism’’ of the party’s central leadership seeks to attribute the CPI (M)’s electoral rout to its belated act of withdrawal of support to the Congress. This is nothing but an exercise in barking up the wrong tree. If the CPI (M) had not withdrawn support, the Congress would have anyway subjugated the left in national politics, while the Trinamool Congress (TMC) would have still monopolised the public anger in West Bengal. Not ``dogmatism’’ or ``adventurism’’, the greatest internal enemy of the left at this juncture is opportunism and the intoxication of power.
The CPI (M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI, the older and more traditional communist party) clearly have a lesson to learn from the electoral outcomes. The lesson is certainly not to seek signs of anti-imperialism or pro-people concern or commitment in the emerging leadership of the Congress. If the Congress has retrained its focus on its own revival, any force claiming to be left must also rebuild and reposition itself as the core of the people’s movement for livelihood, survival, justice and democracy and for the nation’s quest for a dignified future beyond the strategic umbrella of the US.
The entire ruling class and its array of appendages from the liquor-barons like Vijay Mallya to corporate media mandarins have jumped to use this opportunity to discredit the entire left and the pro-people agenda of Indian politics. Resolutely challenging such attacks, any meaningful introspection must be aimed at identifying and eradicating the real malady and rejuvenating the left movement in closer integration with the people and their real needs and aspirations. A renewal and assertion of the communist identity as the most sincere, vibrant and fighting platform of people’s politics is the need of the hour.
It is true that CPI (ML), in spite of its unrelenting struggle and mobilisation, and its improved performance in Jharkhand, could not show an encouraging electoral outcome in Bihar. But this cannot be any source of demoralisation or despondency that may be sought to be drummed up across different sections of progressive forces in the country. The new challenge indeed calls for still greater struggles and more vigorous mobilisation.
By rejecting the communal BJP-NDA and rebuffing the cobweb of opportunist alliances and narrow identity politics, the 2009 verdict has opened up new possibilities for the entire left and democratic camp to assert as a fighting opposition in the national political arena. Revolutionary communists must take adequate note of the prospects and challenges unleashed by the verdict and rise wholeheartedly to the occasion.
[This article is the editorial of the June 2009 issue of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation’s monthly magazine, Liberation. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]