Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Wall Street Journal Asia asked me to do a piece on why the Communists in India are such a key player in the national elections. Here’s my two cents worth of analysis [and apologies in advance for the rather silly headline, for which the WSJ desk is entirely to blame!]…
8 May 2009
Wall Street Journal
MAY 8, 2009
Indian Communist Chic
The Left Front stands to be a big electoral winner.
By SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN
From Today’s Wall Street Journal Asia.
At first blush it may seem a paradox to some that India, the world’s largest democracy, is also home to one of the world’s most politically influential Communist movements outside of China. But India’s coalition of Communist parties, known as the Left Front, isn’t disappearing any time soon. They may very well gain influence after the results of India’s national election are announced May 16.
If they do, the Left Front could reshape Indian policy abroad as well as at home. The Communists can be expected to call for policies that India’s elites, who aspire to greater liberalization of the economy and closer corporate and strategic ties with the U.S., may well find unpalatable. They might seek to slow down the pace of military-to-military and nuclear cooperation between the two countries. The Left Front would also want the government to build closer economic and political ties with Russia, China and perhaps even Iran.
The Left Front has gained power not so much because of the popularity of its program but because it has positioned itself as a kingmaker between India’s two largest parties, the Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Although the Left Front has never held more than 12% of seats in Parliament, it has wielded more influence over the past five years than ever before. In 2004, the support of the Left Front was crucial to the ability of Mr. Singh’s Congress-led coalition to form a majority government. Today, Congress is wondering whether that scenario might repeat itself this year.
Because of this dynamic, the Left Front could gain in influence in this election even if they win fewer seats in parliament than their current 64. Aware of their own strength as powerbrokers, the Communists have moved aggressively to capitalize on it. On the eve of the election, they resurrected a loose coalition of leftist and regional parties known as the Third Front to present voters with a viable national alternative to the two big players. The group is disparate in terms of leaders and ideologies, but it is expected to perform well in states like Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
If the BJP were to do extremely well in this election, the Left Front might play little or no role in government. But in a best-case scenario for the Left, if the Third Front does well it might well become a magnet for regional parties previously allied with one of the major parties. With coherent national policies and several decades of administrative experience in Bengal and Kerala, the Communists are a logical pole toward which regional players can gravitate. And if the Communists are the single largest formation within the front, they might even stake claim to lead the new government. The front-runner under such a scenario would be Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who, as chief minister of West Bengal, is, paradoxically, seen as an investor-friendly administrator.
Part of the reason India’s Communists have been able to remain relevant is the long-term decline in the electoral fortunes of the Congress and the BJP. Its policies too have appeal. While parties like the BJP inflame religious passions for political ends, the Left is seen as a consistent defender of minority rights and secular values. As the economy slows down in the face of worldwide recession, the Communists are also credited with saving India from a worse fate by blocking Congress efforts at banking and insurance deregulation and strongly rooting for an employment guarantee scheme for millions of poor families in the countryside.
The Communists’ ideological pragmatism has also contributed to their political success. Whatever the Communists might say in Delhi about the evils of economic reform, their state-level governments have tended to be pro-business. In Bengal, for example, the Marxist-led government of Mr. Bhattacharya came under fire from human-rights activists, Maoists and leftist intellectuals for attempting compulsorily to acquire land from peasants on behalf of large corporate investors like the Tatas.
The Communists are not unstoppable, though. The problem for the Left is that the pragmatism which makes them such an important player in the superstructure of Indian politics is also eroding their traditional support among workers and peasants at the base. The Marxist party’s emphasis on parliamentary politics and top-down coalition building has not helped it to expand its influence nationally. As the party and its allies vacate the space for “revolutionary” politics, Maoist insurgents have moved in to fill the void, establishing a strong presence in nearly 20% of the country’s districts. In Bengal and Kerala, unpopular policies — including those that smack of the “neoliberalism” the comrades excoriate — are likely to produce setbacks for the Communists in the present election. In the long run, these trends might well lead to their permanent weakening as a parliamentary force.
Yet in 2004, the two biggest national parties together polled fewer than half of all votes cast, the first time this had ever happened in countrywide polling. The story this time is not likely to be very different. The Communists, therefore, are going to remain a force to be reckoned with, at least for this election cycle and in the future too.
Mr. Varadarajan is associate editor of the Hindu in New Delhi.