Following the severe attrition in the numbers of Left candidates elected to India’s new parliament, a smug doyen of the Foundation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) could not contain his corporate glee.
Thus he pronounced on the people’s verdict: “a vote for stability, continuity, and the Left being left out.”
He was right on all three counts, but misread the content of all three epithets.
That it has been a vote for a stable governmental dispensation is true enough; but stability for purposes wholly contrary to how the gentleman construed the matter to be.
Where the FICCI and other corporate conglomerates wish to propagate that stability has been chosen for a continuation of neo-liberal reforms, it is now amply clear that the verdict has been in favour of another sort of continuity, namely, of further expansions of public spending for the upliftment of the common Indian, some 78% of whom spend less than Rupees Twenty a day.
The reforms thus sought by the electorate are those wherein the state further asserts its interventions through financial policy to direct investment in rural employment, health services, education, a pension scheme for the unorganized work force (a massive 95% of the total Indian work force), housing schemes for the urban poor who inhabit vast slums, road networking in the hinterland, building of infrastructure where none has existed thus far through the operation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a qualitatively new attention to the forest rights of Adivasis, water conservation, and renewable energy missions.
Indeed, the government proposes to seriously pursue also reserving a third of parliamentary seats for women, and enacting legislation to prevent/curb communal pogroms. All of these measures open to fine-tuning and amendment.
That in the just-concluded short session of the House of the People, the prime minister, replying to the debate on the President’s address to parliament which overwhelmingly emphasized reformist programmes of the latter sort, should have devoted most of his address precisely to these imperatives confirms the direction the government wishes to take. Indeed, it is a happy departure in ruling class perceptions that the prime minister acknowledged that “left-wing extremism” has its roots in concrete issues related to land-ownership, land-use, and forest rights. Halelujah!
Happily, it no longer seems deterred by the fashionable class view that an economic agenda calculated to benefit the vast majority of the dispossessed is bad, “populist” policy, a mere unconscionable diversion from and depletion of the national resource.
Piquantly, thus, the organized Left parties may have been reduced to a third from the numbers they had in the previous House, Left agenda, far from having been left out, both won the Congress its impressive numbers, and is seen by the party now to guarantee both its own further successes as well as a just pattern of “development” in the long term.
The Left parties may want to ponder the irony that whereas on the one hand they sought admirably through the life of the previous regime which they supported from the outside to press this agenda, they may have forgotten to administer the same in the states of the union where they held the reins of state power. It is a pity that the gulf between that agenda and the Left’s closeness to the audience it seeks to benefit should never have seemed more yawning.
Having said that, it is to be much seen how rigorously the new government led by Manmohan Singh seeks to implement the social-democratic vision it has given to itself.
Because it would be a serious mistake to under-estimate the clout of those who, despite all that has happened world-wide to capitalist economies, find it hard to eschew foregrounding their greed—all, no doubt, in the name of “good economics” and sound “national interest.”
The significance of what is happening in India is most starkly underscored by what has just happened in Europe.
To wit, in the just-concluded elections to the EU parliament, the centre-right parties, including forthrightly fascist ones, have trounced the centre-left.
Ominously, Europe seems set on a path reminiscent of the events subsequent to the Wall-Street crash of 1929.
High unemployment, insecurity about pensions and other social security givens have turned the voter back towards racist/nationalist axes of preference. It is to be noted that many of these right-wing parties have scored victories on unabashedly anti-immigrationist and anti- egalitarian platforms.
In Austria, for example, the extreme right-wing Freedom Party campaigned on an anti-Islam platform, with the election posters calling for “The Occident in Christian Hands.”
Same with the Geert Wilders anti-Islamic party in the Netherlands.
The singular contribution of the vote in India, by contrast, has been to defeat such forces of exclusiveness and solipsistic bigotry. In addition to a call for an economic vision driven by public investment, the Congress has won on a plank of social and cultural inclusiveness. As did Obama in America.
That India still grows at a handsome 6-7% is an inspiring enough fact to prevent the new government from being pushed towards a policy direction intended to fatten the already fattened, and impoverish further the already impoverished.
History tells us where the European choice is likely to lead Europe, having been there once before. A thought that must further embolden the Indian government to be persuaded of the rightness of what it proposes to do in the coming five years.
Needless to say, that an exclusivist, right-wing agenda at a time of economic constraints can only be a fatal proposition in every conceivable way.
Given this ascendance of a left-of-centre agenda in India, it behoves the Left parties not just to bemoan their particular electoral losses but to build mass movements in the coming days to ensure the continuance of an agenda they have had so much to do with.
But all that can happen only if they learn not to wish away the concrete failures which led in the first place to their electoral losses. Among these, an ambiguous equation with exacerbating faces of private capital in their own spheres of influence, a style of arrogant, top-down leadership, a failure to amalgamate the multiple axes of distress among the people, and a failure to identify properly and then relate to democratic forces outside of a pristine/doctrinal Left ideology.
Indeed, a larger initiative is due—one that offers a historic challenge to the diverse falanges of the organized Indian Left.
This is to push the desire for party hegemony into relegation, join heads over a common Left agenda, forge a unified Left, and let the country have the benefits of a concerted Left opposition to right-wing politics.
Such a project could be directed at creating a real, new bipolarity in Indian politics, one where the fake bipolarity as between the Congress and the BJP is replaced by a contention between all right-wing persuasions on the one side and a country-wide alternative of a left-of-centre one.
What the Left parties sought to do with a fatal adhocism in the just concluded elections was quite a different thing, one flawed from the outset.
Any initiative in what is proposed would have to come from a unified and refurbished Left, refurbished by some years of intimate contact with the masses not just through the agency of shut-down cadres but a more amorphously human dispersal of effort wherein listening long and hard to grass-roots wisdom takes precedence over prescriptive gems of bookish thought.
If such Left unity is to be attempted, routinely-held notions of a pecking order would require to yield place to an acknowledgement of concrete contributions on the ground of diverse orders of the Left. A sectarian Left—a malady that seems to afflict all sections of it—is not a Left that can either deliver the goods or that the immiserated masses of India are asking for.
Such a refurbished and unified Left would also then require to strike a modus vivendi with progressive sections among other formations, chiefly the Congress party.
It must now seem a truism that India’s economic realities and social and cultural plurality demand a caring, left-of-centre politics. A macro-historical imperative that was proved in recent years first by the defeat of the cocky, corporate-driven NDA regime in 2004, and by the re-election of the Congress-led and Left-supported regime that followed now in 2009, however depleted the numbers of the Left in parliament.
This recognition must continue to fuel Left-of-Centre forces in India, however the electronic corporate channels may demoralize, or the globally-networked middle-classes scream murder at the least measure to enhance equity.
Meanwhile, it is both instructive and amusing to see how India’s metropolitan media are day in and day out busy wracking their analytic heads to advise the BJP how it may best renew its fortunes, even as many of them openly concede that the BJP no longer has either any “core beliefs” nor a leadership that can put it to the rights.
Contrarily, despite the visible victory of a left-of-centre record and agenda in the general elections of 2009, all of these worthies are equally busy pronouncing the final demise of the Indian Left, and wishing that it never return.
Wondrously wonky are the ways of an elite that even though vanquished can stridently and shamelessly argue still.