Back to basics

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

THE Left parties have formally begun the process of analysing the causes of their unprecedented rout in the Lok Sabha elections and introspecting on their strengths and weaknesses to devise ways of recovering from the setback and rejuvenating themselves. This is welcome. But it must lead to serious rethinking on some ideological, political and policy issues in the present context.

The Lefts defeat is both massive and of global consequence. The Indian Left parties, which derive from the Third International tradition, are probably the most important such current in the world barring China. They have a large membership and parliamentary representation and a share in state power in territories populated by tens of millions.

Outside China, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the worlds biggest Communist party. So when the four Left parties suffer a 61 per cent loss in their Lok Sabha seats and fall to their lowest total since Independence with the CPI(M) going down particularly sharply from 43 to 16, its worst-ever score the international Left should take note.

The setbacks magnitude and impact are all the greater because it has occurred when the Lefts non-parliamentary activity and presence is at a historic low, unlike in the 1960s, 1970s or even late 1980s. Its influence in trade unions, kisan sabhas, student unions, community-based organisations and associations of artists, teachers and professionals has contracted even as some of these movements have declined. So has its influence within the intelligentsia.

The Left is unable to project itself as a vibrant force or stem the attrition of its young cadre because it no longer attracts young people and the intelligentsia in large numbers. This adds up to a substantial contraction of the Lefts universe of influence in a period that does not readily favour socialist, Marxist and other collectivist ideologies and has seen a long-term rightward shift in the centre of gravity of Indian politics.

In the current formal and informal debate, many explanations have been advanced for the Lefts setback. They fall into three categories: organisational inadequacies, tactical errors and a deeper structural crisis related to policy and strategies of political mobilisation. Those who stress the first cite the Left parties organisational weaknesses; their leaders/cadres alienation from the masses, including the inability to communicate their political message; their arrogance; inner-party disunity; and their failure to combat the combined onslaught of adversaries for instance, the Trinamool Congress and the Congress in West Bengal.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this. As argued in this Column (June 19), the CPI(M)s decision to accept the support of Abdul Nasser Madhanis Peoples Democratic Party in Kerala, on the basis of an untenable distinction between the presumably secular PDP and the communal Indian Union Muslim League, cost it seats. It also alienated the Communist Party of India and led to the Janata Dal (Secular)s walkout. But, for the most part, the organisational explanation does not address the causes of the phenomenon. Rather, it focusses on its effects.

Similarly, the argument that many Muslims in West Bengal were alienated from the Left Front a fact because the Sachar Committee highlighted their low representation in government and police jobs misses the alienations deeper causes, which are rooted in social exclusion and livelihood issues for example, in Nandigram, where Muslims are numerically substantial. It also elides the short-term effect of the Rizwanur Rehman case, which showed the government in a poor light because of its partisanship for the Todi family and the pressure exercised by senior policemen on Rehman, leading to his suicide/mysterious death.

In general, the Lefts cadre conducted the election campaign competently within the given framework. There were few signs of grave organisational weakness. Such lack of enthusiasm as there was on the cadres part can be rationally attributed to the difficulty of convincing people that the Lefts land and industrialisation policies were correct, fair and humane.

The tactical error and strategic crisis explanations are far more important, apt and convincing. The Left made the India-United States nuclear deal a litmus test of its relations with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Its main critique of the deal was based on opposition to a close strategic alliance with the U.S. and its implications for the autonomy of Indias nuclear weapons programme. (The Left also questioned the appropriateness of nuclear power for energy security and of the import of nuclear technology from the U.S. But this was secondary.)

On the nuclear weapons autonomy issue, the Left did not demarcate itself from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-occupied nationalist terrain and failed to underscore the deals far more crucial implications for nuclear disarmament to which the Left is committed just as it opposes Indias nuclear weapons programme.

The Left was right in opposing the India-U.S. strategic alliance. But that alliance is bigger than the deal and has other complex foreign policy and security dimensions, which are not easily understood by the public. After the lukewarm response to the Lefts marches to Visakhapatnam to protest the India-U.S. military exercises in 2007, it should have reconsidered the idea of toppling the UPA government on a foreign policy-security issue. It did not.

The Left lost leverage over the UPA when it agreed in November 2007 to let the government approach the International Atomic Energy Agency to get the deal endorsed. True, the UPA deplorably reneged on its promise not to push the deal through. But that did not translate into large-scale sympathy for the Left. The Left also underestimated the cynicism of the Congress in recruiting the Samajwadi Partys support in the confidence vote, and the latters opportunism. It also attracted opprobrium (albeit limited) for causing instability.

Even more flawed was the Lefts strategy of creating/sponsoring the Third Front based on equidistance from the Congress and the BJP against its own considered view that such a front should not be only an electoral arrangement but must evolve through common grassroots struggles and shared progressive policies. The public was unconvinced of the anti-imperialist or progressive credentials of the Third Front, with each one of its constituents having a record of right-wing policies and collaboration with the BJP.

The electorate probably preferred the UPA with its known proclivity to balance neoliberal policies with inclusive measures such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, the farm-loan waiver and social security for the unorganised, which the Left itself did much to promote.

The biggest loss from promoting the Third Front was a blow to the Lefts stature as a moral force of high integrity incomparably superior to the Fronts shifty, opportunistic politicians such as Mayawati, N. Chandrababu Naidu and H.D. Deve Gowda. Equidistance meant shifting the focus away from the BJP as the greatest menace to democracy and primarily targeting the Congress, the Lefts main adversary in its home States. That probably put off many secular-minded people and Muslims.

However, policy-level factors played an even more decisive role in West Bengal, and to a lesser extent in Kerala. The Left was widely seen as adopting and forcefully implementing the very neoliberal pro-Big Business approach to industrialisation and land acquisition that it opposes nationally. The setting in of conservative traits among significant sections of Left cadre, their increasing reliance on the state to further petty personal interests, and their coercive methods made matters worse. Singur and Nandigram became metaphors for sweetheart deals with business groups and for the expropriation of lands of the poor to promote elitist projects. For many Left Front decision-makers in West Bengal, these approaches derive from a mechanical reading of Marxs stages of historical development in which industrialisation based on squeezing the peasantry is seen as the only future for society after land reform. This is a serious theoretical-ideological blunder.

All this speaks of a massive structural crisis, itself related to the Lefts growing alienation from its core constituency the poor, dispossessed and underprivileged and its gravitation towards approaches that are callous towards the poor. This means the Left just cannot carry on in the old way. It must change and rebuild its relationship with working people.

If the Left is to regain its credibility as a moral-political force committed to the poor and to clean, principled politics, it must rethink its strategic line of march, project an egalitarian vision, and fight for radical pro-poor alternatives in every field: macroeconomics, industrialisation, health, food security, culture, education, caste, religious identities, affirmative action, gender, housing, the environment, national defence, foreign policy, displacement of people, the lot. It must produce position papers and practical plans on these subjects and disseminate them to re-educate the cadre, and it must draw inputs from the progressive intelligentsia.

Unless the Left creates a governance model based on a transformative agenda that goes beyond merely managing capitalism, it will lapse into a conservative mainstream mould and become a prisoner of electoral politics.

As vital as such serious ideological rethinking is mass mobilisation on issues that are important to the poor, working jointly with civil society movements that fight predatory interests, and developing effective strategies that build up the Left organisationally even as it seeks to expand its parliamentary presence and role. This will not be easy. But the alternative is marginalisation, long-term decline and irrelevance.

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