With the poorly conceived, programmatically agnostic Third Front promising little more than political instability and the Bharatiya Janata Party standing for greater social turmoil and division, the victory of the Congress is a vote for calm, centrist stability of the kind the country has not seen for more than two decades. That voters have attached a premium to both the formation of a stable government and to the pursuit of centrist policies should come as no surprise given the spectres of economic hardship, terrorist violence and communal polarization that haunt our collective psyche today. The only irony is that the Congress and the Left, whose partnership for four out of the past five years provided the aura of stability to the United Progressive Alliance, should have ended up fighting each other.
On the eve of the general election, the coming together of major challenges like the world financial crisis, the implosion of Pakistan and the rising tide of religious intolerance within India and the region had shifted the matrix of rational policy in such a manner that the issues on which the Left and Congress had parted company in 2007 made no sense at all. On every issue of consequence, domestic and foreign, the distance between centrist and leftist policy was getting eroded. Having resisted the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme when activists first mooted the idea in 2004, the Congress took it up seriously only after the Left parties made it a priority. Even then, conservative elements within the ruling establishment like Montek Singh Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission remained skeptical and sought to limit the central government’s fiscal commitment to it. Only when the economic slowdown hit India last year and the importance of NREGA as both a politically convenient safety net for the poor and an accelerator-multiplier to kickstart the economy became apparent did the Congress party make its implementation a priority.
On other economic matters which divided the Congress and Left like financial sector liberalization, the fact that the Indian banking and insurance sectors were insulated from the global turmoil which felled giants like AIG and Lehman Brothers provided a further basis for the two sides to speak the same broad language. Instead of celebrating the return of the social-democratic paradigm and using this to leverage a further shift away from neoliberal dogma, however, the Left found itself holding the can on the one free-market policy its rural support base viscerally opposed: land acquisition. If nationally, the CPI(M) and its allies were pilloried for a leftism that was largely declaratory, the Left Front paid the price in its bastion of West Bengal for the “rightism” of its policies that allowed Mamata Banerjee to emerge as a defender of the peasantry’s right to till the soil.
Consider the irony: the Left broke with the Congress because it felt the latter had deviated from the Common Minimum Programme of 2004. But in 2009 it joined hands with forces without any programme other than the desire to establish a “non-Congress, non-BJP” government. So it was that the Left found itself at election time with allies like the Telugu Desam Party, the All-India Anna Dravida Kazhagam and Bahujan Samaj Party – groups that had no interest in pushing the direction of national economic policy one way or the other. And as a result of its break with the Congress over an issue that was not so decisive to the direction of Indian foreign policy in the long run – the nuclear deal – the Left facilitated the creation of a coalition that went on successfully to storm the red fortress of Bengal.
To be sure, there were and are valid reasons for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to have wanted to build a Third Front. But its failure to articulate a positive pro-people programme around which such a front could be established rendered the exercise electorally and politically futile. As it looks towards rebuilding itself in Kerala and Bengal and enlarging its prospects as a genuinely national alternative, the Left will have to be self-critical about its preference for conjuring up expedient top-down coalitions rather than organic, bottom-up alliances based on the kind of struggles and movements the communists know best. Unless it does so, the parliamentary communist movement will find itself increasingly squeezed by Maoist extremism on the left and the electoral machine of ‘bourgeois’ parties on the right against which it cannot easily compete.
If the Left needs to introspect, what of the BJP, which paid the price for believing that the Indian voter would prefer divisiveness and strife to the comforting anchor of centrism?
The rot in the party runs so deep that it cannot be reversed by the resignation of L.K. Advani. The very fact that several of its most articulate spokesmen thought the promotion of a leader who stands accused of facilitating mass murder would generate a wave in favour of the BJP shows the extent to which they simply do not understand the pulse of the country. But since the party did relatively better in Gujarat and Karnataka, especially the coastal region where Christians, Muslims and “immoral” Hindus have been targeted by the sangh parivar, it is possible the RSS will conclude that religious polarization is a good electoral strategy for the BJP to pursue. If this is the direction the party takes, its capacity to generate tension and insecurity in civil society will increase even if its national political prospects continue to remain dim.
As for the Congress, the party needs to guard against the hubris that usually accompanies the kind of dramatic, unexpected victory it has just received. The party defeated the Left fair and square but it must realize its success owes more to the social-democratic elements of its economic policies than to the ‘reforms’ the party’s more affluent backers espouse.
Second, defeating the politics the BJP stands for requires more than electoral success. The socio-economic and administrative support structures on which the politics of communalism thrives need to be dismantled through careful, sensitive intervention. The party must resist the old Congress way of pandering to identity politics as a low-cost way of doing the right thing by India’s diverse electorate. India’s Muslims, for example, want equal opportunities and justice, not the banning of a book or the expulsion of a Taslima Nasreen. Providing these will involve taking on entrenched interests and attitudes, especially in the police and administration, something the Congress has always shied away from doing.
Finally, the re-election of the UPA must not be seen as a license to indulge in the ‘Congress culture’ of the past. We got a glimpse of that culture when some leaders started pushing for Rahul Gandhi to be made Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi did well to nip these demands in the bud. If she can go further by pensioning off entrenched interests and democratizing the functioning of the party’s leadership, the Congress will be better placed to meet the expectations of those who have voted for it.