Journalist | Writer | Analyst
19 May 2009
Humility in victory, introspection in defeat
If the Congress party needs to guard against the triumphalist revival of ‘Congress culture’, both the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party must also re-evaluate their political strategy.
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 social-democratic 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 Left and the Congress, whose partnership for four out of the past five years provided the United Progressive Alliance both the aura of stability and the caché of populism, should have ended up such bitter rivals.
In the run up to 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 last year made no sense at all to voters in 2009.
On most issues 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 in 2008 — 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 make its implementation a priority. The Congress may have been a late and even reluctant convert; but what matters finally is that the party and Left ended up on the same page.
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 allied itself to a diverse set of political parties 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, Biju Janata Dal and Bahujan Samaj Party – groups that had no interest in pushing the direction of national economic policy one way or the other and which had all, in recent times, been closely associated with the BJP and its communal politics. This programmatic dilution of the ‘Third Front’ allowed the grouping to look strong on paper even thought it was devoid of any political ballast.
But even this might not have proved fatal except for another factor: 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 to storm the seemingly impregnable 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 its spokesmen thought Narendra Modi’s name would generate a wave in favour of the BJP despite the Supreme Court ordering a probe into his role in the 2002 mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat shows the extent to which they are out of touch with 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 INC defeated the Left fair and square but 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, vanquishing 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. The public got a glimpse of that culture when some leaders started pushing for Rahul Gandhi to be made Prime Minister as soon as the scale of the party’s victory became apparent. 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.