The revival of the Left and the rapid demise of the Right in different parts of the world has an important lesson for India: only a political programme that seeks to address the common people's concerns can offer a genuine alternative to the Right.
A NEWS report on page 13 of The Hindu of January 22 quotes Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia, who was speaking at a press conference in Kolkata, as follows: "Time has come to reject Gandhi (Mahatma) and Karl Marx. Gandhi had preached non-violence when Hindu men and women were butchered by the minority Muslims and the followers of Marx have turned out to be appeasers of minorities." It is interesting to note that these comments were made the day after the NDA government, in yet another egregious display of its apparent nationalism, had made it a punishable crime to insult the national flag.
Clearly, insulting the Father of the Nation carries no such stigma for the government, since Togadia has not even been censured for his remarks.
Nor was there any recognition that such comments could offend the sentiments of many Indian citizens, perhaps in a more extreme way than the sentiments of Hindus are supposedly offended by all sorts of innocuous things. Instead, Togadia, and the political party that he supports, probably view such declarations not as a source of embarrassment, but rather as a way of winning more votes from the general public. Indeed, Togadia indicated as much in the same press conference, when he went on to argue that he foresaw "a Hindu backlash" in the country as indicated by the Gujarat election results.
Of course, this may be wishful thinking, but there is a real chance that Togadia and his ilk are far too "optimistic" in this respect. There are already indications even in Gujarat that the frenzy and fear that were whipped up by the BJP and its Sangh Parivar partners before the elections are being replaced by much more mundane and pressing concerns of ordinary people: the poor state of infrastructure, the higher rates for basic utilities, and the lack of productive employment opportunities.
Elsewhere in India, the Hindu Right may actually be misreading the mood of the electorate. If State governments are voted out of power, the causes of voter dissatisfaction are much more likely to be inadequate performance of the incumbent government in material terms, rather than some revival of Hindu sentiment which has been emboldened by the aggressive Gujarat campaign.
In fact, it is difficult to keep fuelling blatantly divisive and communalist sentiments among people without new events to stoke the fire. If we assume that the Hindu Right will not be cynical enough to spark off such incidents in order to ensure that communal sentiments remain dominant, then the likelihood is that these concerns will be replaced by those that directly affect the everyday lives of people.
Recent experience from other parts of the world actually reinforces such an assessment. Only last year, there was a wave of victories for the extreme right-wing in elections in different parts of Europe. But these victories, and the popular basis for support for the right-wing parties, have proved to be relatively short-lived. In the Netherlands, for example, in 2002 a new party emerged from nowhere on an openly racist and anti-immigration platform, led by a former professor of sociology, who was then murdered a few days before the election.
The List Pim Fortuyn, the party named after him, caused a major upset in the polls, became the second largest party overtaking the Labour Party, and formed part of the coalition government. Within a few months, however, the infighting and political chaos that resulted caused the collapse of the government and led the country into another election.
It now appears that in this recent election, the List Pim Fortuyn has been completely wiped out. The Labour Party appears to have made large gains, and the Socialist Party, a small party that had remained committed to real economic issues such as privatisation, health care and education, has improved its position significantly.
Elsewhere also the initial gains made by the right-wing have been eroded. The Far Right party that formed part of the Austrian government for a brief period has also been torn by infighting and has lost most of its support among voters.
Associated with this is another process that seems under way across the world, which gives some signs for hope. It is the emergence of new leaders of the Left and centre Left in several different countries across the continents, who seem to be capable of reviving support among the electorate, and even winning elections.
In the Netherlands, the fortunes of the Labour Party were assisted by its new leader, the young Wouter Bos, whose statements have become more and more Left-leaning on basic issues. In Italy, a new leader appears to be emerging for the Left in the person of Sergio Cofferati, who is a well-known trade unionist, and commands growing popularity not only for his consistent opposition to Berlusconi, but also because of his openly expressed views against globalisation and against a war on Iraq.
In Latin America, such a process is even more advanced and promising. The huge victory of Lula, the charismatic working class leader who is head of the Workers' Party and now President of Brazil, has been one aspect of this. In Ecuador, the newly elected President Lucio Gutierrez, was the son of a peddler and identifies with the poor of his country. He has been a champion of the socio-economic rights of the common citizens, especially the Andean Indians who have been so neglected and oppressed by the governments thus far.
These Left revivals, and the fairly rapid demise of right-wing forces in these countries, do have one important lesson for the Indian scene. The effective counter to the Right cannot come from those who espouse a watered down version of the Right's positions. There has to be a genuine alternative in terms of economic and social strategies and policies that address the common people's concerns. This means that any real and powerful opposition to the Right-wing has to be closely associated with a much stronger Left democratic agenda.