A slap, and mixed messages

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

The Assembly election verdict further robs the NDA of what is left of its legitimacy. The Opposition must now mount credible policy and organisational challenges.

HOWEVER one interprets the reasons, the verdict of the Assembly elections is unambiguous and decisive. It is firmly anti-communal and a big slap in the face of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Equally, it is an endorsement of change within a broadly secular-pluralistic framework. The people have rejected parties and leaders whom they consider jaded or less than fully responsive. The verdict is generally progressive. The results from Assam and Kerala, but not West Bengal, are a morale-booster for the Congress(I). With the reverses in Kerala, the outcome is both a warning and an encouraging signal to the Left.

The NDA cannot pretend that these elections were not important. Nor can the BJP claim it only had low or limited stakes in the four States and one Union Territory concerned. The elections covered 110 Lok Sabha seats and over a fifth of India's population. The NDA campaigned vigorously, led by its "star", Atal Behari Vajpayee. But it came a cropper. The BJP was hoping to quadruple its meager 1996 tally of just eight MLAs. But it only inched up to 12 MLAs - of a total of more than 800. The number is not even a third of the seats it would have won with its own 1999 Lok Sabha vote-share. Its partners too did remarkably badly - from Assam to Tamil Nadu - in alliance-building and campaigning.

At first sight, the verdict appears strongly anti-incumbent, except in West Bengal. But the quality of the NDA's defeat cannot be explained by anti-incumbency alone, which normally accounts for a one-to-three per cent vote swing. The DMK suffered a 13 per cent vote loss. In Assam, the BJP had the single largest vote-share in 1999. It has lost two-thirds of it. In Kerala too, factors other than incumbency disadvantage were at work. The voter was discriminating. For instance, despite shrewd "tactical" and seat choices, the BJP lost almost two-fifths of its vote-share.

This pattern differs from the earlier swing-of-the-pendulum phenomenon (of successive plebiscitary elections) of which the BJP was a major beneficiary even in States (for example, in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa) where it did not previously have a strong implantation. The new pattern is much less favourable to the BJP. Even its partners seem to be losing everywhere by allying with it. This has just been proved true with a vengeance - of the AGP in Assam, and the DMK in Tamil Nadu where the religious minorities are relatively numerous. Unlike five or eight years ago, the BJP is no longer a party to which voters want to "give a chance".

Not only has the "novelty" factor worn off after the BJP's three years at the Centre (where it is losing both popularity and credibility), but the party is steadily going downhill. Its national vote fell from 26 (its highest-ever percentage) to 23 per cent between 1998 and 1999. The BJP has lost a good deal of its appeal, and that process has not ended. It is not gaining new adherents, certainly not outside its established pockets of influence in west-central and northern India.

If the BJP ever aspired to displace the Congress(I) in a revived "one-party salience" system, those ambitions stand dashed, at least for the moment. Such a system is not about to be revived in the immediate future. Now a "two-parties-with-satellites" model is emerging. What we have is greater multiplicity of caste- and region-specific parties, coupled with a handful of organisations with a multi-State or national character.

The BJP's original strategy (from 1980 till the early 1990s) was to go it alone. This did not pay big dividends. It switched to open-ended opportunist coalition-building. This helped it come to power at the Centre, and impose its will upon its allies as their dominant partner. This also worked well in the late 1990s in States as varied as Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra and Haryana. But the coalition strategy too may be running into trouble. Despite the BJP's great resilience and willingness to make unscrupulous deals of all kinds, it has at best succeeded in becoming "half-a-Congress". Worse, it is no longer an ally/partner which can add value to a regional party's original assets. The BJP is no longer the preferred fulcrum of multi-regional groupings.

These elections, and other developments, show that Vajpayee is no great vote-catcher. He may be the BJP's sole "star," invested with charisma by the metropolitan media. But his popularity does not remotely approach the appeal of a Rajiv Gandhi, leave alone Indira Gandhi or M.G. Ramachandran in their heyday. The poor attendance at some of his rallies would embarrass even Sonia Gandhi. Vajpayee has again proved himself to be a mediocre, pedestrian leader unable to convince or enthuse his audiences or convert sympathy into votes.

THE single most important, and the sole world-class, story of these elections is the Left Front's victory in West Bengal for the sixth time in a row. The Front confidently fought off the greatest "challenge" supposedly posed to it since 1977. It retained its remarkably strong base in southwestern Bengal (which accounts for one-half of the Assembly seats) and even increased its vote-share in Kolkata.

No other party/alliance in India has equalled this. For instance, the Congress(I) may have enjoyed a long reign in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but it did not repeatedly gain a two-thirds majority, nor did it have the Left Front's programmatic character or coherence. No other formation has practised such remarkable stable coalition politics as the Left Front. This is a non-opportunistic, pre-election, principles-based coalition with consensual conflict resolution. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) could easily have formed Ministries on its own strength in West Bengal, but it always took its allies along.

The Left Front in West Bengal also has a foundation and history of land reform, and investment in education and other minimum-needs programmes, unmatched anywhere barring Kerala. It could thus build further on the gains from its relatively clean administration and command the people's respect to maintain its 49 per cent vote - itself no mean tribute to its popularity.

However, what went wrong in Kerala, where the same top leadership heads the Left Democratic Front? Kerala is, of course, a restless State which frequently throws out incumbent governments. But it still is not easy to explain the adverse 6 per cent vote swing - itself unprecedented since 1980 - nor a 10 percentage-point LDF-UDF vote difference in some 30 constituencies. Only one part of this shift can be attributed to "tactical" voting undertaken by the BJP with the express purpose of defeating Left candidates, or by polarisation along communal and caste lines.

In a small, highly literate and "sensitive" State like Kerala, even local factors like corruption in medical and engineering entrance examination, or the "hooch tragedy," can play a disproportionate role. As can (and did) the agricultural crisis. They probably influenced the shift of some eight lakh voters away from the LDF - instead of the less than two lakhs who usually switch allegiance. The LDF did have an innovative "counter-magnet" - the People's Plan for decentralisation. This achieved the construction and repair of 400,000 houses, 88,000 new wells, 17,000 km of roads and so on. But it was not enough to reverse the negative impact of other factors.

The short-term agricultural crisis in Kerala, including on the coconut front, is itself part of long-run stagnation, coupled with low rates of investment, and peaking of capacity in most plantation-based crops. There is no easy way out of the long-term crisis, nor has a solution been seriously attempted yet. The Left will have to evolve a new development paradigm, which combines available natural resources with social endowments, to produce results that are equitable, gender-just and ecologically sound. This means developing new, efficient, low-energy technologies to produce relatively high value addition. Developing such alternatives is not the exclusive responsibility of the Left. It is a much broader task. But a special responsibility is cast upon the Left - if it wants to be a pioneer - as in the 1950s in Kerala, or in the 1980s in West Bengal.

The election results spell a generally positive trend, but there are negative aspects to them. In Tamil Nadu, the voter punished the DMK for its misrule, brazen compromise with the communal BJP, and betrayal of the long-term gains from social reform. However, the AIADMK's victory is not socially positive. At its core is a combative Thevar-Vanniyar anti-Dalit alliance. This is further compounded by the contentious manner in which Jayalalitha was sworn in Chief Minister despite being disqualified from contesting the Assembly elections.

The results are a mixed bag for the Congress(I) too and should occasion some rethinking. The Congress(I) has made major gains - without working hard for them. The party had won by default in November 1998 too in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, but it could lose all these Assemblies today. The same could soon happen in Assam or Kerala.

The Congress(I) should not delude itself that the people are again ready to elect it as India's "natural" party of governance. It cannot regain credibility without radically changing its policies, especially on the economy. The party lost power in the first place because of bad economics. Equally deplorable is its dependence on "guided democracy", that is, direction even in the smallest of matters from the party president. The Congress(I) must learn to do another kind of politics, outside "the palace". It must launch a mass contact drive and agitate issues of vital interest to the people, with thoughtful policies.

Where does the Left stand? Despite its remarkable showing in West Bengal, and its general stature, the Left is not a growing force nationally. It is not seen as an agent of change which offers real alternatives to the NDA and its elitist policies. Its performance in Tamil Nadu, as well as Assam, raises questions about the tactic of alliances. The Left must project a long-term vision. It must formulate alternative plans in a number of areas: water, health, education, energy, transportation, telecommunications, housing, employment, women's empowerment, and promotion of secular values, to name a few.

The Left is uniquely placed to translate people-centred approaches into policy orientations and practical ideas. It must do so - with statistics and examples. It has taken a principled stand against nuclear weapons. It must translate this into both short-term demands and long-term perspectives, showing how nuclear weapons do not provide security, indeed, they degrade it. It is not enough that the Left defends the public sector against privatisation (which it of course must). It must argue for reforming the public sector so it becomes more responsive to popular needs and more efficient.

The Left is serious in demanding that 6 per cent of GDP be spent on education. It must show how and on what heads this should be spent. Again, nine Bengali economists have just published (The Telegraph, May 13) an agenda for revitalising West Bengal and improving its infrastructure and services. Some of the nine are neo-liberals, but their suggestions deserve a thoughtful and serious response.

The Left can fight the staid image attached to it by the media only if it innovates and renews itself with new ideas, fresh cadres and imaginative plans. The Left has only limited gains to make - and much to lose - from hurried tactical alliances with relatively unreliable anti-BJP forces. It should set a much higher priority on generating ideas and alternative policies - and on its own independent mass - mobilisation.

The two are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. The NDA's mandate to rule, and its moral-political authority, stands seriously eroded. It is not about to collapse, but its vulnerability will greatly increase under the pressure of the grim economic crisis that is now building up. The Left is uniquely placed to analyse and respond to the crisis with alternative policies. It also has the competence and the moral authority to begin shaping the evolution of an alternative secular Third Front. No other political formation is geared to take that initiative. This thrusts a special role upon the Left at a time when the BJP is devoid of authority, ideas and, increasingly, electoral support.

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