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Indian elections: Left, Right, and Centre


In a stunning reversal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has lost the election to the Indian Parliament to the alliance led by the Congress (I). Simultaneously, the electorate has returned the largest ever contingent of Left members to Parliament, surpassing the tally of 1971.


In our cynical times, it has become easy to debunk democracy. The damn thing rarely works.


This, however, is a landmark election. It has jolted the fascists out of their wits. It has also, for the first time, created space – limited space, but space nevertheless – for a somewhat more pro-poor economic policy.


In other words, it has thrown the Right off gear, it has propelled the Left to a position of relative strength, and it has forced the Centre to be seen as visibly close to the Left.


None of these are decisive, or even long term, gains. But the battle for hegemony, which the Right seemed to have more or less won, is suddenly open again.


I will return to this larger question. Let us first understand what has happened.


The BJP had ruled six years, and it looked like they were set to mete out more ferocity to the country. Not a single analyst, not a single newspaper, not a single television channel had predicted otherwise. Opinion and exit polls were, mostly, way off mark. The one that wasn’t, still missed the essential political point – that the BJP would get not only lesser seats than it did last time, it would even lose its position as the single largest party in Parliament. In other words, predicting a hung parliament is one thing, predicting the defeat of the BJP quite another.


They are all looking very silly today. If the BJP’s “India Shining” and “Feel Good” campaigns seem grotesquely disconnected to Indian reality, so does the mainstream media.


The BJP leadership has gone into a sulk. They are shell shocked. Not in their worst nightmares did they imagine this.


Its President, Venkaiah Naidu, mouth larger than head, was predicting BJP’s victory on counting day even after early trends clearly signaled his party’s loss; this, in turn, was a couple of days after the BJP-Telugu Desam Party’s rout in the Andhra Pradesh state assembly. When he had to reluctantly give up ministership to take over his party’s presidentship mid-term, Naidu had not ushered in large-scale changes in the party administration arguing that elections were not too far away and only after elections could they decide who to make minister and who to put in charge of party affairs. The electorate has solved his problem.


Others are busy arguing its not really a defeat. L.K. Advani, straining to take over Prime Ministership once the irritating formality of election was out of the way, pointed towards the slender lead of the Congress in terms of percentage of votes polled to argue that the verdict is a fractured one.


As most often, he is wrong.


Advani could not have failed to notice that the vote swing away from the BJP is a solid four percent. And while he may have secretly smirked at the defeat of Murli Manohar Joshi – the brutish Human Resource Development Minister and number three in the BJP hierarchy, who had ambitions of usurping Prime Ministership once Vajpayee stepped aside – he would surely have been saddened by the defeat of his deputies in the Home Ministry, I.D. Swami and Swami Chinmayanand, both hardcore RSS members.


And while we are at it, let us list some of the other notables from the ruling alliance who were defeated. Yashwant Sinha, Finance Minister. Manohar Joshi, Speaker of the last Lok Sabha. Ram Naik of the Shiv Sena, Petroleum Minister. Shahnawaz Hussain, the BJP’s Muslim face in the cabinet. Vinay Katiyar, ex-chief of the fascist Bajrang Dal and hero of the temple movement. Bhupen Hazarika, the disgracefully opportunist Assamese singer. Sahib Singh Verma, Jagmohan and Vijay Goel, ministers in the outgoing cabinet, all heavyweights from Delhi. Arif Mohammad Khan, who joined BJP with much fanfare recently.


There are other pointers to how badly the BJP has done.


The BJP’s total tally has fallen below 140. It has conceded 12 of 26 seats to the Congress in Gujarat, Hindutva’s laboratory. It was lucky to win two narrowly; else the Congress would have outscored the BJP there. It lost in the three temple towns of Ayodhya/Faizabad, Mathura and Varanasi. It lost 6 of 7 seats in Delhi; in Mumbai, the BJP-Shiv Sena has been crushed by the Congress; in Calcutta – in all of West Bengal, in fact – its ally, Trinamool Congress, could win only one, while the BJP itself lost both the seats it held; and in Chennai – as in the entire Tamil Nadu – the AIADMK-BJP combine has not got a single seat.


The verdict is clear and unambiguous: a defeat for the BJP and its alliance. A defeat for the Right.


The defeat of the BJP is not, however, the same as victory of the Congress.


In Punjab and Karnataka, where the Congress runs state governments, the party has faced defeat, as it did earlier in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In Gujarat, before this election, it was hardly a force to reckon with, notwithstanding sporadic success in a municipality here or a panchayat there.


In Maharashtra, its electoral alliance saved it the blushes, but there is no guarantee that it will return to power when the state goes to polls later this year.


In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is the fourth largest party, behind Mulayam Singh’s SP, Mayawati’s BSP and the BJP.


And in the three states where the Congress faces the Left, it has been decimated. It wasn’t expected to win in Tripura, and it didn’t. In West Bengal, where the Left Front has won a record six consecutive elections with two-thirds majority, the Congress got a mere five seats while the Left increased its tally to 35. And in Kerala, where the Congress leads the state government, the party, for the first time in its history, has failed to win a single seat.


So where has the Congress done well? Andhra Pradesh, where it rode on the back of massive popular discontent against the horrendously pro-rich policies of the Telugu Desam Party. Tamil Nadu, where it rode piggy back on the DMK and the alliance swept aside Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. Bihar and Jharkhand, where the Congress became junior partner to local satraps. Gujarat, where it pulled off a near-miracle by coming almost at par with the BJP. And the relatively smaller states of Delhi – where the Congress has a very decent Chief Minister – and Haryana – where the BJP helped its cause by breaking with its former ally.


In all this confusion then, does the election have a larger message?


No, and yes. No, because in a country as large, varied and diverse as India there will always be a huge variety of local factors that will tilt the electoral balance one way or the other in each constituency or state, and also because this diversity and variety has thrown up, and will continue to throw up, a large number of political formations that will represent this or that regional, linguistic, caste, class, or national aspirations. Particular formations also do sustained political-ideological work among particular groups of people, and that too leads to their success: BSP among dalits and Muslims, RSS-BJP among tribals, SP among Muslims and intermediate castes, and so on.


And yet, the election does have a larger message. Over the past couple of years, the one pattern that has become clear in electoral battles is that the people have by and large voted out those governments that have pursued policies of liberalization, globalization and privatization aggressively.


The largest number of farmer suicides in the last two years have taken place in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab. In all three, the ruling dispensation has had to pay the price for aggressive neoliberalism in this election. The same holds true for Kerala this year, and for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last year.


Psephologists and bourgeois analysts call this “anti-incumbency.” That is nonsense.


Why doesn’t “anti-incumbency” work against the Left regimes in West Bengal and Tripura? Why does “anti-incumbency” only work against regimes following aggressive neoliberal policies?


Quite simple. Because the poor are crushed by neoliberalism, and the democratic process offers the poor an opportunity to punish, even if ultimately futilely, those who subject them to such hardships. This is the larger message of Election 2004.


Amazingly, the worst neoliberals recognize this today.


Two days after the results came out, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s oldest and most ideologically committed ally, lambasted the policy of selling profit-making public sector undertakings. Bal Thackeray! Whose party held the petroleum ministry which wanted to – illegally – privatize oil companies!


The same day, Sharad Pawar said pretty much the same thing. Sharad Pawar, his hands stained with Enron!


The very same day, Manmohan Singh said privatization was never an ideological issue with the Congress, and that his party was in favour of “reforms with a human face.” Manmohan Singh, father of Indian neoliberalism!


This does not at all mean that any of these gentlemen or their parties have had a sudden change of heart. It does not mean, moreover, that the new, Congress-led regime, is about to put in place pro-poor policies.


But it does mean that the prestige of the Left, the only formation that has resolutely opposed the neoliberal agenda – even when its own state governments have been forced to work within the neoliberal paradigm set by the central government – has shot up beyond its strength in Parliament, impressive as that is.


Not for no reason does Amar Singh, who spends more time jetting around in Reliance and Sahara jets with filmstars and socialites than with his party rank and file, suddenly start insisting that he has been a comrade all along and that he has only two leaders, Mulayam Singh of his own party and the Communist Harkishan Singh Surjeet.


Suddenly, red is the colour this summer.


The Left recognizes that. Surjeet has spoken of disbanding the notorious Ministry of Disinvestment, and the CPI leader A.B. Bardhan has asked for setting up a new Ministry of Employment.


The moment these statements were made, the stock market registered its biggest single-day fall of the last four years. A bunch of speculative capitalists, by withdrawing their money from the market, were signaling to the to-be-installed government that it had better watch where it steps. In other words, a handful of very rich and very unscrupulous men were trying to subvert the democratic verdict of a billion people. The media, of course, went into a tailspin, as if the heavens were about to fall.


There is no question about it: a change in the balance of forces between the Left and the Right, however impermanent, has taken place.


The CPI (M), the preeminent party of the Indian Left, has increased its tally in Parliament significantly, as has the CPI. But this increase has come primarily in the three states where the Left has traditionally been strong. In all three, the Left can increase its strength no further – the limit has been reached. From here, the Left can only go down.


Unless it can expand to areas where it currently has little presence.


A beginning has been made by the Left’s impressive show in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In both states, the Left led massive and militant struggles against unpopular state governments, and when the time came, it was able to forge tactical alliances with centrist parties to reap the electoral harvest of its mass struggles.


Such struggles can force the Congress to adopt policies that will mitigate the sufferings of the poor to an extent.


The Left is also the only formation that can exert pressure on the new regime to systematically undo the tremendous havoc that the RSS has caused in the realm of education and culture.


Election 2004, then, is the election of crossroads. The Indian people have dealt a serious blow to the ambitions of the Right to usher in fascism. They have also augmented the strength and prestige of the Left.


If the Left goes on to gain strength from here – Parliamentary strength of course, but more crucially strength on the ground by unleashing mass struggles – the Centre will have no option but to concede ground to the Left on a number of key issues.


If, on the other hand, the Left fails to grow, the historic verdict of this election will become a mere hiccup in the rise of Indian fascism.


Sudhanva Deshpande is Editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi (www.leftword.com). He is also a member of the street theatre group Jana Natya Manch. He can be reached at deshsud@rediffmail.com.

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