A Requiem for the Left?

Nirmalangshu Mukherji

Notwithstanding sustained euphoria in the mainstream media over Congress’ ‘victory’ in the recently-held general elections to the Lok Sabha, facts suggest a more benign picture. In the 2004 elections, the Congress won about 150 seats out of 543. In the 2009 elections, the Congress did increase its tally to 205 – far less than 50% – but it contested a much larger number of seats and its share of votes – below 30% – did not increase. The BJP, on the other hand, lost about 20 seats to settle for 115 seats while its vote-share also remained roughly the same. These figures do not suggest any definite shift either in popular approval or rejection. We must also take into account (a) the unified, aggressive, and almost shameless campaign by the corporate media in favour of the Congress (and against the third front), and (b) the rather dilapidated state of the BJP due to internal power-struggles. There is no conclusive evidence that the people of India cared either way.

Perhaps the only significant aspect of 2009 elections is the virtual rout of the combination of left parties consisting of the CPM, CPI, RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party), and FB (Forward Bloc) (henceforth, ‘the left’). From a total strength of 65 seats won in 2004 (less than 12% of the total), the left was reduced to 25 seats in 2009 with a considerable loss of vote-share in its strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal. In fact, to add insult to injury, the non-descript Trinamool Congress in Bengal alone won 19 seats out of 42, while the erstwhile formidable CPM, which had ruled Bengal virtually single-handedly for over three decades, could muster only 9. A closer look at the final tally suggests that a large chunk of Congress/UPA’s gains in 2009 can be accounted for by the left’s losses in Kerala and West Bengal. Otherwise, the picture basically remained unchanged for the rest of the country. Focusing on West Bengal, why did the people there punish the left so decisively?

Not surprisingly, the corporate media traced the debacle of the left basically to the left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA government on the issue of the nuclear deal with the US. If there was such a popular support for the deal, Congress and its UPA allies would have gained substantially, while the parties opposed to the deal would have fared badly. Except for the left, the picture just doesn’t fit. While the Congress gained only marginally, and the BJP – opposed to the deal – lost a few seats, the other supporters of the deal did not fare any better. Among the supporters of the deal, the SP lost many seats in UP, the RJD was virtually routed in Bihar; in contrast, Nitish Kumar’s LDU – opposed to the deal – won handsomely. Mayawati’s BSP – opposed to the deal – retained its ground.

Interestingly, the corporate media’s explanation of – and its big sigh of relief at – the defeat of the left nearly matched the CPM’s own explanation of the rout. The basic problem, the CPM concluded, was people’s disapproval of the attempt to create a third front consisting of non-Congress parties. On this analysis, the people wanted the left to continue with its alliance with the Congress no matter what; hence, at least indirectly, the people disapproved of the left’s opposition to the nuclear deal. Except for the corporate media and the urban elite swept over by the neo-liberal, pro-US policies of the Manmohan Singh government, people did not hold any such opinion, as we saw, even if the friend of the left, Amartya Sen, did. Moreover, it defies credibility that the people of Kerala and West Bengal – where the left contested against its traditional Congress opposition alone – voted against the left because the left joined hands with, say AIADMK in Tamilnadu! It is more an alarming reflection on the current state of CPM’s beliefs, rather than an explanation of the election results, that CPM’s opinion of itself basically coincides with that of the corporate media.

Saner elements from within the left, such as Prabhat Patnaik, offered more plausible explanations. Patnaik held that the words and the deeds of the left did not match. While the left correctly opposed the nuclear deal, it did not take the issue to the people in terms of mass campaigns; rather the left chose to pursue the issue in terms of opportunistic electoral alliances, losing thus the main political thrust of its opposition to the Congress. Although the criticism does bring out a significant organisational failure of the left, the issues of alliance with the Congress and the nuclear deal had little to do with election results in 2009, as we saw. To mention again, the resounding victory of Nitish Kumar is a case in point.

More significantly, Patnaik argued, the left’s own adoption of neo-liberal policies in Kerala and West Bengal (while opposing it in the rest of the country) alienated the left from its principal electoral support – namely, the urban and rural poor. No doubt the events at Singur and Nandigram did finally expose the said duplicity of the left’s policies, argued against forcefully and repeatedly by Prabhat Patnaik – and, to be fair, by Amartya Sen – in recent years. It is questionable, however, how far this single element explains the massive character of the left’s electoral defeat. For example, there is no clear evidence of the correlation between adoption of neo-liberal policies and electoral rejection by the people in the rest of the country. Measured in absolute terms, neo-liberal policies are far more entrenched in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Orissa, and Bihar, and in each case the existing ruling formations fared reasonably well. In fact, apart from Nitish Kumar, the main success-story of 2009 elections is the resounding victory of the virulent – often murderous – neo-liberal regimes in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Contrasted to these states, the implementation of neo-liberal policies in West Bengal are in their infancy. In fact, Singur and Nandigram could be viewed as the first major attempts by the government to pave the way for big corporations to encroach on people’s habitats, and in each case the government was defeated by people’s resistance. So the real question is, where this new popular militancy against the left is coming from; adoption of neo-liberal policies does not seem to provide an adequate answer.

People’s apparent indifference to the growing encroachment of neo-liberal policies in their lives, as suggested above, is a deeply distressing issue. The corporate media champions this phenomenon as people’s support for neo-liberal policies, not surprisingly. But, as the widely publicised uprisings in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal – and the scattered and not so publicised resistance movements across the country – testify, neo-liberal policies are deeply unpopular. They have to be. Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik, among others, have done much empirical work in recent years to bring out the large-scale devastation caused by the aggressive adoption of neo-liberal policies in India: sharp increase in hunger and unemployment; loss of habitat; fall in rural productivity and income; increasing impoverishment; alarming fall in nutrition levels; destruction of environment; and increasing repression by the state and the state-sponsored mafia. Yet, apparently, election results do not seem to reflect this catastrophe.

Propagandistic appeals to Gandhian and Lohiaite doctrines notwithstanding, it is clear by now that, except arguably for the left, every mainstream political party in India is fully committed to neo-liberal policies of governance. It follows that any meaningful opposition to neo-liberalism can only be launched by the left, if at all. Notwithstanding the left’s complaints against neo-liberalism ensuing from party headquarters, journals, seminars, and speeches in the parliament, the left has failed to generate any people’s movement on this issue in the last two decades. Outside West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura, this has happened simply because the left has no presence in the rest of the country; better, it has lost by now its historical presence in states like UP, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Maharashtra, and the like. Resistance to the neo-liberal project could have been built up in the three left-dominated states in terms of alternative, redistributive forms of governance. These socialism-inspired policies could have acted as shining examples for the rest of the country, as Kerala once did in some respects. Indeed this was the general expectation when the left first came to power in West Bengal in the late 1970s. Instead, the left opted – albeit belatedly and hesitantly – for neo-liberal policies to address the usual problems of unemployment, lack of infrastructure, falling rural income, and the like. I think this is the basic complaint Prabhat Patnaik is making.

As suggested above, (late) adoption of neo-liberal policies does not by itself explain the electoral verdict. However, two important consequences seem to follow. First, the left’s failure to oppose neo-liberalism does explain why it is no longer a decisive election issue. Since the massive impoverishment and growing anger of the people could not find an organised voice in the mainstream, people may have given up on using the ballot as a tool for enforcing basic structural changes. In desperation, all that the people may be asking for is what has come to be advertised as ‘good governance’ by the corporate media: some signs of employment-generating activity at least for the lower middle classes; some new roads, canals, telephone connections, schools, and hospitals; some effort to implement central schemes such as NREGA, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, and the like; efficient action in natural calamities such as floods and earthquakes; and, most importantly, some semblance of law and order. This is what ‘good governance’ in Bihar, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa achieved within an overall neo-liberal framework; in the process, they reaped handsome electoral dividend. In this sense, electoral democracy in India is beginning to exhibit an alarming deficit. The left has emerged as a party to it. Second, the left’s failure – in fact, its capitulation – to neo-liberalism raises questions about its erstwhile leftist credentials. I will try to analyse this issue in terms of a short – decade by decade – history of left-rule in West Bengal.

As long as the left was viewed as a potentially emancipatory force in the first decade of its rule in West Bengal, it did enjoy considerable popular support especially among the rural masses. The innovative tenancy act, attempts at large-scale land reform, establishment of a meaningful panchayat system, release of political prisoners (including a large number of naxalites incarcerated during the previous Congress rule), pro-worker interventions during industrial disputes, standardisation of rural wages, and the like, raised the prospects for a redistributive form of governance. During this period, despite the liberal winds blowing across the state, extremist and reactionary forces virtually disappeared from the scene.

But once state-power was consolidated and a winning vote-share of about 45%-48% was assured, the ‘Kerala Complex’ took over. It was clear by then that any further extension of redistributive policies will lead to a direct confrontation with the centre, which, in turn might result in the dismissal of the government, as in Kerala in 1959. Also, the progressive reforms so far, while raising the expectations of the impoverished masses, had alienated sections of urban and rural population used to corner a larger share of the resources of the state. The government thus was faced with a major class conflict, both inside and outside the state. But by then, over a decade of unhindered rule had created a vast network of vested interests, which did not cherish the idea of losing the grip on state-power. Thus, instead of continuing with socialist reforms and escalating class struggle to its logical direction, the left decided to basically put on hold any further structural reforms, and directed its attention to mollify the urban elites and middle classes.

The second decade of its rule, then, signaled a progressive withdrawal of its fundamental leftist agenda. As far as electoral politics – the task of winning the required number of votes – was concerned, a vast army of power-hungry, partly corrupt, and otherwise feudal apparatchiks was already in place through several elections. Using the municipal system in the urban areas, and the panchayat system in the rural, this army was fine-tuned to organise the familiar brigades of unemployed youth (euphemistically called ‘cadres’) to ensure – often with arms, intimidation, and selective distribution of favours – the vote-share consolidated in the first decade. The second decade could thus be characterised as control of the people through a progressive lumpenisation of the social order.

In the process, at the beginning of the third decade, the left began to lose its greatest asset: the TINA factor. The beginning of the left-rule in the late 1970s was preceded by perhaps the darkest period in the recent history of West Bengal. The Congress chief minister Siddharth Shankar Ray unleashed a reign of terror in which armed lumpen youth, in close collaboration with the security forces, virtually took over the functioning of the state. The rest of India may not be fully aware of the bloodbath, but the people of West Bengal were simply unwilling to relive the nightmare. Since the only opposition to the left – namely, the Congress, and its tributary, the Trinamool Congress – consisted mainly of the rogue elements of the Ray-regime, the left enjoyed considerable electoral immunity for nearly two decades despite its growing unpopularity. The combination of withdrawal of pro-people policies, increasing control of the mafia and repression of the state, the misuse of the panchayat system, the appeasement of urban elites, adoption of neo-liberal policies, and almost absolute failure in terms even of ‘good governance’, finally convinced the people that there really is no basic difference between the previous Congress-rule and the current left-rule. This allowed the previously unwanted elements to crawl back into the mainstream of politics as a viable alternative to the left. It is of some interest that although Mamata Bannerjee is very much a product of the Congress, she appeared on the scene much after the horrors of Congress rule. Hence, her personal image is largely untarnished by the terror of the 1970s.

The dam of unvoiced resistance finally burst when the system of repression invaded people’s habitats in Singur and Nandigram under the direction of big business. The electoral verdict of 2009 is essentially a verdict against the very character of left-governance; the people of West Bengal have finally been able to see through sustained propaganda to conclude that there is not much left of the left anymore.

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