The Left's decline will adversely change the complexion of Indian politics by pushing its centre of gravity further to the right. This would be tragic, says Praful Bidwai
As the assembly election process begins in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Kerala and Assam, Indian politics seems set to enter a new phase which will unfold fully in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. May 13, when the results of the state elections will be declared, could well prove a turning point for many parties, in particular the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna DMK, the Asom Gana Parishad and above all, the Left. The Bharatiya Janata Party has no major support base or stakes in the four states, but the future of its alliances will be influenced significantly by the results.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK-Congress alliance faces its most formidable challenge in the shape of the AIADMK-led alliance comprising film-star Vijaykant's Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and the Left parties. Even a slight decline in the DMK's vote-share (26.5 percent in 2006) could tilt the balance disproportionately in the challenger's favour. J Jayalalithaa's party already commands about a third of the state's vote and is particularly strong in southern Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, if the DMK-led coalition wins, despite many disadvantages including the taint of corruption, the Congress would stand a good chance of being in government -- for the first time since 1967. This would happen with a change in the alliance system long prevalent in Tamil Nadu, under which parties which help one of the two major Dravida biggies win don't get to participate in government.
The DMK has consolidated its influence over various institutions, including the media, by exploiting to the hilt both its power in the state and central governments for over 14 years, barring between March 1998 and October 1999.
Yet, the DMK isn't going into electoral battle with great confidence. In 2006, its chief M Karunanidhi appealed for votes saying that it would be his last election. Today, at 87, he is still the chief minister but faces a serious succession problem. The DMK is trying to lure voters with all kinds of promises, including free laptops for college students, a mixer or a grinder for each household, Rs 4 lakhs in assistance to single women-headed households, Rs 30,000 in marriage assistance, and other goodies.
The AIADMK is matching this with laptops for all +2 students, a fan, a mixer and a grinder for each household, Rs 25,000 and 4 grams of gold as marriage assistance, and 20 kg of free rice every month, besides 60,000 cows!
Such competitive populism isn't confined to Tamil Nadu. In Assam too, the Congress under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has promised 9 lakh new jobs, recruitment of one lakh youths as teachers, 30 percent reservation in government employment for rural people, and a doubling of the monthly quota of 20 kg of rice at Rs 6 per kilo to all below-poverty-line families. Also promised are new commissions on employment generation, skill development, knowledge, and education for the minorities, and 25 percent subsidy on yarn and power for artisans and weavers.
Whether Gogoi becomes Assam's first chief minister since B P Chaliha (1957-1970) to complete a decade or more in office will partly depend whether Assam's Muslims, 30 percent of the population, support the Congress or perfume mogul Badruddin Ajmal's predominantly Muslim, All India United Democratic Front.
The AIUDF would have liked to cultivate the AGP. But the AGP has entered into a tacit understanding with the BJP: the two are not fielding strong candidates against each other. Luckily for the Congress, both the United Liberation Front of Assam and Bodo separatist groups, which call for election boycotts, have been greatly weakened.
However, it's in West Bengal and, to an extent, Kerala, that potentially the most dramatic changes could occur. In West Bengal, the Left Front -- which has an international record of being elected to office for an uninterrupted 34 years -- is in decline and faces anti-incumbency.
It won an overwhelming 227 of the 294 assembly seats in 2006, with 48.4 percent of the vote. But, by the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it only led in 99 assembly segments, with a 43.5 percent vote-share. It also lost the recent local body election and various by-elections. Besides, the opposition is now firmly united under Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress.
The Left Front's support base has eroded because land reform and other progressive measures lost momentum, and the government pursued thoughtlessly pro-corporate policies while ignoring the people's basic needs and livelihood issues.
The state's health and education indices have stagnated or fallen, knocking out its claim to inclusive pro-people development. The Left's ideological image as a force of radical change and social transformation doesn't hold much appeal for young Bengalis, more than 60 percent of whom were born after the front came to power in 1977.
The front's brutal crushing of grassroots resistance at Singur and Nandigram earned it popular ill-will and hostility, even as these became household words in India for the injustices of disastrous neo-liberal policies. The Left Front hasn't learned enough lessons from these fiascos.
Banerjee has systematically capitalised on the Left's failures. Sections of the extreme Left and chunks of the middle-class intelligentsia, disillusioned with the Left, have extended support to her. Banerjee seems to be riding a wave of popularity in the cities and towns. She has bullied the Congress into accepting a measly 65 tickets.
This doesn't mean that the Left won't put up a fight. It too is entering the campaign with all cylinders fired. But it faces an uphill task. If the Left loses in West Bengal, it will suffer not just the ignominy of defeat, but also intense repression from the TMC which remains full of lumpen elements, who have always used strong-arm methods against its opponents.
Even if the Left manages to cling to power, it will be a much weakened force, with very little freedom to try out innovative approaches that can help it regain lost ground. Indeed, some Left supporters sincerely believe that an electoral defeat will be all to the good because it will force the Left to rethink its strategic perspectives and economic and social policies.
In Kerala too, the Left Democratic Front isn't well-placed to win -- not only because the state tends to alternate between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Alliance from one election to the next. The LDF faces anti-incumbency because of its poor performance in public services delivery and charges of corruption, not least against the Communist Party of India-Marxist's state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.
Vijayan is the first politburo member of an Indian Communist party to face a CBI inquiry. This concerns the SNC-Lavalin scam for upgrading a hydroelectricity station, awarded to a Canadian company, with accusations of huge kickbacks.
The CPI-M presents a picture of horrible disunity in Kerala. Vijayan hasn't lost a single opportunity to embarrass Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, a well-regarded, popular politician with a Spartan lifestyle and great integrity. Worse, Vijayan has tried to undo many of the progressive measures that Achuthanandan promoted, on the spurious ground that they are 'old-fashioned'.
What the young generation needs in Kerala, Vijayan argues, is not education, healthcare and jobs in small industries, agriculture and plantations, but expressways, entertainment parks, glittering shopping malls, and service-sector jobs like those in information technology. But these jobs haven't materialised. The CPI-M leadership made a further blunder by not presenting Achutanandan as its chief ministerial candidate -- thanks to pressure from Vijayan.
A defeat in West Bengal and Kerala will further diminish the Left parties' national stature and parliamentary strength. Their Lok Sabha tally fell precipitously from 61 in 2004 to 24 in 2009. If it falls any further, the Left would become a marginal force in Parliament.
Yet, it would be wrong to write off the Left as a social movement and a force in the trade unions, kisan sabhas and women's and students' organisations. But the Left will find it hard to reverse its decline unless it completely overhauls its politics, its strategy of mobilisation and its organisational structures. Clearly, among all major political groupings, the Left has the most to lose in the coming elections.
The Left's decline will adversely change the complexion of Indian politics by pushing its centre of gravity further to the right. This would be tragic. With all its unaddressed social agendas, and its mass poverty and deprivation, the Indian terrain should naturally favour broad left-of-centre politics, which puts empowerment of the poor and emancipatory policies at its very core.
However, this doesn't mean that India will evolve towards either a monochromatic politics or a bipolar system dominated by the Congress and the BJP. Many social trends and political currents in India inhibit such an outcome.
The Indian polity has become strongly polycentric with Dalit and OBC upsurges, the rise and consolidation of regional parties, and social movements which resist the onslaught of neo-liberalism and globalisation.