Thursday, May 14, 2009

A lot at stake (May 15, 2009)

Four years have heightened the Left's parliamentary ambition

By Swapan Dasgupta

The short interregnum between the final round of polling and the declaration of results is usually the occasion for speculation, grandstanding and some day-dreaming. This year, the activity in Lutyens’ Delhi, while conveying a sense of frenzied purposefulness, is markedly unfocused. There is genuine nervousness in the major political parties over the likely outcome on May 16, a tension that has only increased with the release of sharply conflicting exit polls. Yesterday’s political rivals are no doubt in contact with each other but serious negotiations over coalition-building for a new government have been shelved pending the declaration of results.

There are, depending on political preferences and anecdotal evidence, sharp disagreements over what the electronic voting machines will reveal on Saturday morning. Yet, curiously, there is one feature of the coming 15th Lok Sabha that has become conventional wisdom: the belief that the combined tally of the four Left parties — the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc — will be considerably lower than the 60 they won in 2004. It is understood, and even conceded by Left loyalists, that the Left will probably lose a majority of Kerala’s 19 seats and will definitely record a slippage in West Bengal — it is only the quantum of the setback that is in doubt. If exit polls are anything to go by, the Left presence in the new Lok Sabha may not cross 40 or even 35 members of parliament.

In the old days, before the proceedings of every politburo meeting were minutely scrutinized in the media, the Left viewed its parliamentary intervention as a small diversion from the more pressing task of building the party organization and organizing the “toiling masses”. Elections were seen as an occasion to spread the message and Parliament the forum to make political points and expose the bourgeois parties. I recall a present politburo member telling a social gathering in the late-1990s, “In the CPI(M), the first-raters work in the organization; the second-raters go to Parliament.”

Unlike the CPI, which was more accommodating towards “parliamentary cretinism”, the CPI(M) was very clear in its mind that there was no question of participating in a government where the Left didn’t have the decisive say. This was the ideological justification for the party’s categorical refusal to allow Jyoti Basu to become the prime minister of the Congress-backed United Front government in 1996.

It is important to recognize that while the CPI(M) hasn’t quite admitted its “Himalayan blunder” in 1996, it has certainly travelled some distance in accommodating its parliamentary wing. During the United Progressive Alliance regime, the Left didn’t enter the government, but it ensured that a host of fellow-travellers were generously accommodated in important posts and positions, particularly those under the purview of the human resource development ministry. Somnath Chatterjee was given permission to be Speaker, but this was an exception. For its members, the CPI(M) preferred a more informal role, such as Sitaram Yechuri’s involvement in back-channel diplomacy with the Maoists in Nepal.

It is conceivable that had relations with the Congress not soured over the passage of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the CPI(M) may have inched a little in the direction of the pre-1977 CPI. However, the sense of betrayal felt by the general secretary, Prakash Karat, at the Congress’s refusal to accommodate its “anti-imperialism” agenda has resurrected the latent anti-Congressism of the party. Yet, Karat’s priorities were not universally shared, particularly by some of the party veterans. For people such as Chatterjee, and maybe even Jyoti Basu, a meaningful understanding with the Congress was reminiscent of the united front against fascism that had inspired communists in the 1940s. This nostalgia was in sharp contrast to those like Karat, who felt that the Bharatiya Janata Party was a spent force and that the CPI(M) should devote its energies in forging a united front with non-Congress regional parties. Such an understanding would go a long way in undermining the importance of national parties and give the Left the requisite space to play a role disproportionate to its level of support.

There are two features of the CPI(M)’s present preoccupation with forging a “non-Congress secular government” at the Centre that are intriguing. First, it suggests that the four-year cohabitation with the Congress, far from lowering the party’s parliamentary ambitions, has, in fact, heightened it. Although the CPI(M) deftly used a measure of double-speak to create fissures in the Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance in West Bengal — a trap that the gullible Rahul Gandhi fell headlong into — Karat and his Left Front partners have been unwavering in their determination to give the Congress a run for its money after May 16. It is a measure of the Left Front’s determination that it is actually contemplating a meeting of the third front on May 17, followed by a joint delegation to meet the president. Such purposefulness in government-formation is not normally associated with the Left.

Second, the burst of activity around the third front has a more cynical objective. In normal conditions, the sharp fall in the Left’s tally would have provoked anger within and derision without. Drubbing by voters would also have been regarded as the rejection of the political line of the general secretary. By diverting the national debate into the possible future role of the Left — will it back a Congress-led government or will it stick to a third-front-or-nothing approach? — the CPI(M) has successfully put the focus away from the erosion of its moral authority to dictate the course of politics. By right, the Left should be in disgrace after May 16 — any other party leadership would have a lot of explaining to do — but, instead, it is readying to punch above its weight.

The extent to which it succeeds will, of course, depend on the totality of the results. For the Left, the ideal scenario would be a Congress slide, the emergence of the BJP as the number one party but without the requisite allies to go beyond, say, 210 MPs. This would enable it to rally the existing third front (or third alternative as J. Jayalalithaa prefers to call it), perhaps add a partner or two, and more or less browbeat the Congress into extending it outside support on the spurious secularism plank. Its worst nightmare would be a buoyant Congress, which breaks the third front and forces the Left to either repeat the 2004-2008 experiment or retreat into strategic abstention from the Opposition benches.

A contributory factor in the Left’s decision-making would be its performance in West Bengal. If the Congress-TMC alliance exceeds the Opposition’s best performance in 1984 of winning 16 of the 42 seats, there will be strong pressure from Alimuddin Street to break the mahajot at all costs by cosying up to the Congress. Rahul Gandhi has already indicated a willingness to leave the Congress local unit in the lurch and reforge a partnership with the Left. A section of the CPI(M) too has signalled its willingness to abandon the third front experiment after the election.

Over the past three days, as uncertainty mounts in New Delhi, a few Congressmen are considering the possibility of a chastened politburo and central committee delivering a snub to Karat. This may well be wishful thinking, but even Karat must know that he is going to have a torrid time unless he can demonstrate that his third-front-first approach has a brighter future than the anti-Congressism of the BJP. It is Karat’s future that will also be on the line on May 16.

The Telegraph, May 15, 2009

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