The Left has a historic chance to transform the United Front along radical lines while projecting Jyoti Basu as the leader of a pre-election coalition.PRAFUL BIDWAI
HISTORY has a strange way of punishing those who do not understand its processes but try to subvert them. This is what it seems to have done to the Indian National Congress, which cynically tried to exploit "revelations" in the Jain Commission's Interim Report to make a desperate bid for power. The Congress' serious miscalculation of the issue's salience, Sitaram Kesri's inability to outflank his party rivals, Sonia Gandhi's refusal to agree to lead the Congress' election campaign and the party's failure to attract external support have now resulted in an unravelling of its cynical stratagem.
Despite the efforts of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, the Lok Sabha has been dissolved. To delay dissolution, some Congressmen joined the dubious forum of "first-time MPs", probably the most self-serving body of its kind in Lok Sabha history. And some Congress MPs even toyed with the idea of supporting the BJP and Speaker P.A. Sangma - who has emerged as something of a middle-class hero by flirting with the BJP. They have only exposed their lack of faith in the party's future as well as their unbounded opportunism. Their leadership has proved inept and unworthy of respect. After the disastrous split in Uttar Pradesh and the failure of its latest move, the Congress may well go into sharp decline, if not a terminal crisis.
The BJP too has emerged from the crisis with its credibility mauled. The party on November 30 did not have the courage and confidence to make a formal claim to power. It only staked its claim "in a way" and hoped that a delay in the dissolution of the Lok Sabha would help it induce defections. Clearly, the BJP was playing to a score, written over the Deepavali meeting at Nashik of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's pratinidhi sabha, attended by S.S. Bhandari, K.N. Govindacharya and Kushabhau Thakre. This apparently mandated the BJP to do a Kalyan Singh in New Delhi; since the party is less and less sure of coming to power in New Delhi through an election, its best chances lie in taking power through horse-trading. Post-November 2 statements of BJP leaders clearly reflected this plan.
In the event, the party badly damaged its claim to integrity and its credibility. It repeatedly demonstrated its determination to grab power by hook or by crook - "using any means" as K.L. Sharma put it. Vajpayee cut a pathetic figure when he openly solicited defections on December 1. The BJP's complaint that it is being singled out and discriminated against now sounds like an irritating wail.
BY contrast, the United Front has emerged from the crisis relatively unscathed and with dignity, despite some rumblings from Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Tamil Maanila Congress, and despite fears that it would disintegrate. One reason for this is the maturity and high leadership qualities displayed by its Left constituents and by N. Chandrababu Naidu and M. Karunanidhi, and the sobriety displayed by I.K. Gujral - rarely seen in earlier coalition experiments. But there is a deeper reason, rooted in the process of learning from the experience with coalitions over the past 20 years.
In 1978-79, the Janata Party collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. There was a real, formal split, when the Jan Sangh moved out. In 1990, the National Front Government under V.P. Singh became unviable as a result of the head-on collision with the BJP's Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Although there was no immediate split, the Janata Dal eventually broke when the Samajwadi Party and the Samata Party quit it. This time round, the U.F., despite the variety of its constituents, has held together.
This is the result of the historic decline of the system of one-party dominance or salience; the growing regionalisation of Indian politics; the consolidation of parties based on committed Dalit and Other Backward Classes support; and the inability of the BJP so far to fill the vacuum left behind by the Congress' decay. The U.F's survival, then, is not an aberration or a product of contingent circumstances but of deeper social-political processes.
If elections are held immediately, the U.F. will have a truly historic opportunity, namely, to form a genuine pre-election coalition with an explicit, negotiated common programme and agenda. All the coalitions we have seen so far at the Centre - and most in the States - have been post-election arrangements, driven largely by expediency. They are negative in origin in that they come into being because something else cannot. Today, the U.F. could go to the hustings on a positive platform, with a forward-looking pro-active image and programme of its own, as an alternative to those who are stuck in the one-party groove or who see coalitions as a merely clientelist arrangement with smaller parties.
TO project a real alternative and to emerge victorious, the U.F. must understand its limitations. One of these is that it lacks a centrist supra-regional force that can give it political and ideological coherence. Such a force exists only on the Left. The Left component of the Front alone can impart a degree of gravitas, political seriousness, purpose and dignity to the Front. Many of the U.F's regional leaders have grown in stature, but they remain bound to their States and are for various reasons unable to play a national role or lay down the national agenda. And parties in the U.F. that purport to be all-India parties, such as the Janata Dal, lack leaders with high credibility, wide acceptability and popularity. H.D. Deve Gowda, for instance, was a compromise candidate, and I.K. Gujral is no vote-catcher.
Today's tallest potential leader, with exceptional credibility and acceptability, is undoubtedly Jyoti Basu. He is not a compromise candidate, but a prime choice. There is no one who can remotely rival Basu's experience in power or his integrity and maturity. A U.F. that projects him as its prime ministerial candidate will be infinitely better placed to take on the BJP (under Vajpayee) or the Congress (under Kesri?). However, Basu cannot and should not agree to stand as the U.F's candidate except as part of a principled (not expedient or pragmatic), comprehensive arrangement negotiated carefully before the elections.
Such an arrangement must of necessity reflect the Left's broad concerns and hence must aim to transform the U.F. in a radical direction. It must be explicit and based on programmatic conviction. Its programme must make a decisive break with economic neo-liberalism and the wishy-washy Common Minimum Programme (CMP) - largely a continuation of post-1991 Congress policies - which was negotiated in a hurry in May 1996 after the elections produced a fractured mandate. A new U.F. programme must endeavour to restructure the very foundations of this society and economy in the interests of the people, so as to empower them.
At the centre of such a programme must be a full-fledged, purposive, dedicated war on poverty and deprivation, and an emphasis on equity and growth. This must correspond to the requirements of need-based, equitable, socially cohesive, humane, gender-just and ecologically sound development. It is reasonable to hope that with its increased weight in the U.F. - thanks to the Janata Dal's decline and the TMC's relative marginalisation - the Left could seize the initiative and pilot such a programme through the U.F.
THE objection might be raised that the arrangement outlined above is only a repetition of what was proposed in May last year, which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee discussed twice and rejected twice. This objection is not valid. The U.F. was an ad hoc post-election coalition forged in response to an election that produced a hung Parliament. It was perfectly correct then to argue that the U.F., in particular the Left, lacked an unambiguous mandate to rule; and that joining a government dependent on the Congress' uncertain, shaky and devious support could not be in the Left's long-term interest.
Equally valid was the argument that the CMP fell considerably short of the minimum that the Left should demand and project; and that coming to power on such a programme would only damage the Left's credibility. The Left should only participate in a government with which it has a strong ideological affiliation and over whose programme and policies it exercises a reasonable measure of influence. That was not the case in May 1996.
However, the present situation is clearly different. The Left has a chance to act as the U.F's mentor, ideological guide and cohering force, and to help transform the U.F. politically so that it can better project a social emancipation agenda. This time around, there will be no post-election coalition-building on the foundation of a fait accompli, but a pro-active intervention to shape the outcome of the election. If the U.F. wins a mandate it would be a natural one, reflected in election results. It would not have to be invented or constructed.
This, of course, does not mean that everything will be smooth sailing. There is bound to be resistance from those who believe that there is, or can be, no alternative to neo-liberalism and globalisation. But the Left should not underestimate the force of its arguments against neo-liberalism, its moral strength and its intellectual influence. It is the most cohesive, consistent, the most evolved force representing the popular interest. It need not be added that the Left must not do any of this at the cost of its own ideological coherence, dignity and independence. There can be no compromise on principles.
The Left can play yet another important, perhaps irreplaceable, role. That is to impart organisational guidance to the U.F. and help it evolve clear, unambiguous rules that govern its internal conduct. This means creating stable structures of consultation and decision-making, and establishing mechanisms for resolution of conflicts when these arise. The ad hoc methods followed hitherto just won't do. Nor will it help to pretend that there are no differences within the U.F: the stress must be not on denying these differences, but living with and rationally managing them on the basis of agreed procedures and criteria. These include veto power on fundamental issues, and a two-thirds majority on others.
This alone can lay the ground for viable, solid, fruitful coalition politics. Such ideas are not romantic. A majority of the world's stable democracies are coalition-based parliamentary systems. We too can make coalitions work in India.
THE present conjuncture offers Indian progressives a unique opportunity: to combine the long-term agenda of radical social transformation with the short-term goal of containing communalism while also keeping the Congress out of power. It also offers a special opportunity to make the actual centre of gravity of politics congruent with the historic centre of gravity. There has long been a disjuncture between the two. The actual centre is determined by contingent factors and the relationship of political forces at one point of time. The real, historic political centre reflects the overall balance of social forces. This has shifted even further left owing to what has been called the Second Democratic Upsurge in the form of self-assertion of subaltern layers of society. The Left must try to reflect this new balance.