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Who gave the Left authority to dictate economic policy?

May 18, 2004

There is a school of romantics who uphold the view that the Indian electorate is so amazingly canny that it should get honorary membership of the Mensa club for earthly geniuses. Its unceasing ability to either quietly reject existing rulers or boisterously endorse new claimants for governance has won it many admirers.

Democracy, as every member of the political class is only too aware, means never to take the voters for granted.

In the past, the Congress learnt this lesson and on May 13 it was the turn of the BJP to imbibe the cruel knock of unexpected rejection.

It is a lesson that will no doubt be digested by yesterday's rulers, regardless of whether or not they make a song and dance of the learning process. For the moment that is the least of the nation's concerns.

Far more relevant is the question: did the voters choose wisely?

The 14th general election has resulted in a categorical rejection of the NDA and, by implication, its entire leadership. It is a rejection of the NDA mascot Atal Bihari Vajpayee as much as it is a rejection of L K Advani, the most lucid advocate of India Shining.

I have little doubt that it is also a repudiation of the type of campaign the BJP mounted. There is no point pretending it was a half-way rejection or to point an accusing finger at individuals like Narendra Modi or Jayalalithaa who were not central to the battle.

The NDA may have given India six years of good governance whose worth will be recognised by history. For the moment, however, it has been designated second-best by the voters.

The problem is there has been no unequivocal endorsement of an alternative. The Congress and the DMK-led alliance may have together won 216 seats, which is 29 seats more than the NDA. That is still well short of the majority. Add the 61 seats won by the Left and the 36 won by the Samajwadi Party and the Congress can easily command a majority. But that still does not answer the fundamental question that the people will be asking in the coming days: what is the nature of the mandate?

The facile answer is that it is a secular mandate. In reality this means absolutely nothing. Except for V P Singh who addressed some press conferences during the campaign, the secular-communal was an invisible feature of this campaign. Even in Gujarat, neither the BJP nor the Congress raised it. However, in the final stages of the campaign, the Left did use Gujarat to successfully scare minorities away from the NDA in West Bengal.

Likewise, the suggestion that the verdict constitutes a categorical rejection of economic reforms and an endorsement of socialism is preposterous. The three Gandhis, by their own admission, didn't believe there was anything to feel good about. Yet, the Congress campaign -- if the party's advertisements are anything to go by-merely questioned the BJP's right to appropriate all the credit for India's achievements. We were there before, claimed the Congress, maybe legitimately, although P V Narasimha Rao was conveniently dubbed a non-person.

I raise these issues because since May 13, the vocal apparatchiks of the two Communist parties have been, in effect, demanding that the new government should be pursuing the regressive and antediluvian policies of the Left. The foreign policy of the NDA has been dubbed 'pro-imperialist' and its economic policies described as 'pro-rich and anti-poor,' whatever that means. The Left has demanded an end to divestment in the public sector and the CPI's A B Bardhan has even raised the question of control over education.

While the Congress has been preoccupied with promoting the prime ministerial claims of its Italian-born leader and the more energetic section of the BJP-RSS in questioning its legitimacy, the Left has been dominating the policy battleground. It has focused exclusively on their rather sinister bid to reshape India in their image.

The stock markets have, predictably, voted with their pockets to this new onslaught. That was only to be expected, although the magnitude of the collapse has left most people stunned and frightened. Yet no one has asked the basic question: who gave the Left the authority to dictate the economic policy of India?

Looking at the body language of CPI General Secretary A B Bardhan, you would be forgiven for imagining that he is a leader of a party that has won a resounding mandate, not a man whose party won 10 seats -- all courtesy someone else.

This is not a spurious wariness. History suggests that the Indian Communists have made the hijacking of political authority their special skill. Between 1969 and 1977, Indira Gandhi pursued the material interests of her family and allowed the Left to play havoc with the economy and with education. The overdose of controls and the needless nationalisation of sectors of the economy were the contribution of the Left and their fellow-travellers in the Congress.

A repetition of this scenario cannot be ruled out, not least because the Left has the numbers to blackmail any Congress government.

For India, the consequences are horrifying.

Every government deserves a honeymoon. It is unlikely this government will be blessed with a trouble-free initiation. With the Left at the wheels of decision-making, the Opposition cannot afford to put off the fight for even a single day. The battle against national humiliation and the battle against the Left has to go hand in hand.

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Swapan Dasgupta

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