The Left parties have been trenchant critics of the policies of Congress and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance governments. Do they have an alternative vision for the development of the country? An analysis.
MOST of the media attention in the run-up to the elections to Parliament has understandably been on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and on the Indian National Congress, given that these are the larger political formations in the electoral arena. Besides these two major players, there is the Left, with a very distinct political agenda, perspective, track record and programmatic alternatives to the people at large.
Even among those sections of the people who have some idea of what the Left stands for through mass media or other sources, the distinctiveness of the Left is seen mainly in terms of its stand on issues of economic policy. The Left does indeed have an understanding of the structure of the economy as well as an economic policy framework derived from that understanding, which is fundamentally different from those of all other political formations. However, the Left's political distinctiveness is not confined to economic issues alone. Right from its inception during the freedom struggle and through all phases of its own as well as the nation's evolution since then, the Left has articulated a distinctive viewpoint on the entire range of political, economic and social issues that have confronted the nation at various points in time. Interestingly, the Left put forward the demand for complete independence of India from colonial rule well before the Indian National Congress did. Similarly, the Left consistently took the position that mere political independence from the colonial yoke, though an important advance, would not by itself address the problems of poverty and deprivation, and that direct mobilisation of people on social and economic issues is required to solve the problems. On many issues, the position articulated by the Left, though initially dismissed as "ideological" or "unrealistic", has later on become the consensus view. A case in point is the view articulated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964 that the India-China border dispute should be settled only through negotiations and not by war. On foreign policy, the Left has often set the agenda, especially in the period immediately following Independence, when the Indian government, after a brief flirtation with a pro-West approach, moved to espousing the doctrine of non-alignment.
Both the Congress and the BJP hold the view that India needs to follow the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG), and the competition between them is about who should take credit for having initiated these policies. In point of fact, while the Congress initiated the LPG policies in 1991, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance regime accelerated them a great deal between 1998 and 2003, especially the policies pertaining to privatisation and much greater penetration of both the economy and the public sector by large foreign capital. The BJP regime was also more thoroughgoing and ruthless in implementing the LPG policies, including the virtual destruction of the public distribution system and food security, going to the extent of selling more than 10 million tonnes of foodgrain abroad at prices lower than what people below poverty line (BPL) had to pay during 2002. At the same time it refused to implement a large-scale food-for-work programme using the more than 60 million tonnes of foodgrain then lying idle in government godowns. The Congress now speaks somewhat differently on economic policy, marginally muting its earlier whole-hearted espousal of LPG policies, but in essence its economic policy stance is basically no different from that of the BJP. The difference, if any, is at best one of degree and not of kind. The claims of a consensus on economic policy may, therefore, appear to be justified if one were to compare the formulations of the Congress and BJP manifestos in this regard.
The Left position on the economy is very different from these and belies the claims made about consensus on economic policy across the political spectrum. What is distinctive about the Left's position is its emphasis on what has been a key ingredient in most success stories of development elsewhere in the world, namely thoroughgoing land reforms aimed at making everyone in the rural economy a stakeholder in growth and development, and expanding the home market. Secondly, the Left sees the role of the state as critically important to development, especially in a developing country where many key prerequisites for development - such as massive investment in physical and industrial infrastructure, research and development and human development in the areas of health and education - can be realised only through state action. The failure of the state in India, arising from its inability, given its class character, to mobilise resources from the rich for such development has meant that many of the basic tasks of development remain to be carried out. Thirdly, in the context of a very large and heterogeneous country like India, the Left sees economic decentralisation - in the sense of much greater autonomy and powers to the States, and further devolution from the State government to elected bodies at the district and sub-district levels - as crucial for greater efficiency, besides being valuable on its own terms as a means of enhancing people's direct participation in planning and development. Thus, the Left argues for a truly broad-based process of development in economic, social and regional terms.
IN the current context of a decade of pursuit of LPG policies, the Left highlights the crisis in agriculture resulting from these policies. In the Left view, agriculture and the rural economy have been negatively impacted by these policies in at least five ways:
* higher input prices for agriculture on account of decrease in subsidies;
* lower and more fluctuating output prices on account of removal of restrictions on imports;
* a large decline in public investment in agriculture, causing stagnation/decline in productivity;
* a sharp decline in rural development expenditure, causing rural distress and leading to increase in rural unemployment;
* a reduction of institutional credit for agriculture, driving farmers into the arms of rural moneylenders.
Besides these, the collapse of the public distribution system has resulted in widespread rural hunger and loss of food security.
In the view of the Left, LPG policies have meant a sharp demand contraction as the state has been obsessed with the reduction of the fiscal deficit. This has impacted negatively on industrial growth as well. It has meant, as statistics bear out, very slow growth in employment in the last decade, and more so in the last six years.
Given its diagnosis, the Left naturally argues for the reversal of LPG policies. It also argues for land reforms, greater attention to poverty and deprivation issues, devolution of resources to the States and elected local bodies and revitalisation of the public sector. However, it is also important to note that the Left's economic policy perspective is more nuanced than the "anti-private sector" position often attributed to it by critics. The Left visualises an important role for the private sector, and is even accommodative of foreign investment, but in priority areas where it would bring in new technology and enhance production capacities in new areas of importance.
The Left differs from the other major political formations on the understanding of the basis for national unity and the paths to its strengthening as well. First and foremost, the Left stresses the need for a consistent commitment to secularism and delinking of religion from the affairs of the state. Though the Congress has also proclaimed its commitment to secularism, in practice, it has tended to vacillate and compromise on this issue. The BJP's adherence to the doctrine of Hindutva is, of course, well known. Secondly, the Left believes that the interests of national unity are best served by a truly federal polity, given the country's linguistic, ethnic and cultural heterogeneity, and the need to respect this pluralism. Here, too, the Left view is very different in both theory and practice from those of the Congress and the BJP. Thirdly, the Left sees the need for balanced regional development to preserve and strengthen national unity. Such balanced development will not be delivered by the market functioning freely and independently, and far greater devolution of resources to the States as well as appropriate regulations to prevent regional imbalances in development become crucial.
On foreign policy, the Left seeks a consistent championing of the interests of the developing world against the attempts of developed countries to control them through economic and other means. In particular, it is critical of the NDA-BJP's pro-United States foreign policy and its tacit or explicit support to a number of aggressive, unilateral moves by the U.S. The Left seeks an independent foreign policy that articulates the demand for democratisation of the United Nations and other international fora. It takes the view that India ought to forge strong economic cooperation with such countries as Brazil, China and South Africa, and that it should build closer ties with both Russia and China to promote a multipolar framework of international relations. It stands for dialogue with Pakistan on all outstanding issues on a bilateral basis, and against U.S. intervention in India's bilateral relations with Pakistan.
WHILE the Left thus has a distinctive standpoint on a number of key issues facing the Indian polity and the people, it has also run governments in three States - West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.
Land reforms is one issue where the Left has been a pioneer. Both in Kerala and in West Bengal, the Left was able to carry out limited but highly significant land reforms through both popular mobilisation and the use of governmental authority. These two States account for close to a quarter of all ceiling-surplus land taken over and redistributed in the country. The reforms have also helped spur agricultural growth in West Bengal and led to a significant expansion of the rural market. Both in Kerala and in West Bengal, the Scheduled Castes have benefited substantially in the land reforms process.
In Tripura, the Left has developed a distinctive model of how to deal with the issue of oppression of tribal people. By providing substantial autonomy to tribal district councils and by championing the cause of tribals even while promoting the unity of tribal and non-tribal people, the Left has pioneered a promising approach to a difficult and complex issue.
The Left has devolved substantial power and funds to elected local bodies in the States where it has held office. In Kerala, it sought to carry out a novel, participatory approach to development through the people's planning programme, and succeeded to some extent.
On the issue of democratic rights, by refusing to implement the authoritarian Prevention of Terrorism Act as well as by upholding the right of workers to strike, the Left has again stood by its stated agenda and commitments.
While the Left may not have always been able to deliver on its promises, considering the constraints within which State governments have to function, it would be fair to say that the Left's scorecard compares more than favourably with the two larger national political formations, the Congress and the BJP.