Whenever international fashion mavens decide to favour a particular colour for formal wear in any season, we hear the term tangerine/red/fuschia is the new black. Similarly, in the Indian political context, I would say that the Right is the new Left. The recent kerfuffle in the CPI(M) says it all. The top two leaders are fighting over a 1978 political-tactical line. Please note 1978. It is classical Left, replete with references to bourgeois-landlord parties, which the venerable general secretary Prakash Karat feels must be shunned and senior leader Sitaram Yechury feels must be embraced. I hope I got that right because ploughing through the dense Left language is not for the fainthearted.
The Left and indeed the Congress were once seen as pro-poor parties, those who stood up for the little man. But today, the same little man is rejecting his interlocutors and going for the party which can bring him governance and development, and not those who almost glorify the soul-strengthening qualities of poverty. The Congress, to its credit, did come up with some big-ticket social welfare schemes. The BJP has picked many up, put a twist on them like a skilful chef and repackaged them as more viable. The Left was at one time the messiah of the poor. Today, the poor themselves do not aspire to remain poor and accept the small quantities of free rations and crumbs that the Left wants to dole out.
India is changing and it does not want to be trapped in a past where to be disadvantaged is glorious, with apologies to Deng Xiaoping. Both the Left and the Congress seem to be at the starting line still waiting to begin the race while the others have covered half the track. The Left is quibbling over ideology, with Karat sticking to his strictly theoretical approach, going by the bible of Marx and Engels. The Congress is going by the word according to the Family. Both seem anachronisms in today's vibrant and ever changing political scenario.
The Left has steadily lost ground in its own bastions. Its poor grasp of politics was evident in the Lok Sabha elections before the latest one when the cold-eyed Karat decided on cosying up to a decidedly communal Muslim party in Kerala. It resulted in the Muslim vote turning against the CPI(M). So much for political acumen. The Congress has not been the sharpest crayon in the pack politically, either. Despite diminishing crowds, despite obvious disenchantment, it stuck to the sacrifices made by the family as a talking point. We have seen the results. The good ideas that both the Congress and Left had have been taken over by parties like the BJP and restructured to its advantage. Today, whether you like it or not, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the disadvantaged are looking up to as the person who could deliver them from a life of grinding poverty. He is the one talking about providing employment opportunities, economic freedoms, skill development. In short, he is offering the poor a step up, not a few sops to make their already miserable lives just a little less miserable for a short period.
So the Right has crowded out the traditional parties which spoke for the voiceless, the Right is saying that both capitalism and socialism can co-exist quite productively as long as schemes for the poor are not left to ossify. The days when the Congress would dispense free goodies in return for votes, or the Left would dole out a 'sense of pride' in return for votes, are very much out of fashion now. People do want goodies, they do want pride, but they don't want to be on an intravenous drip of largesse forever. The Right has understood this and taken over and redefined the Left and Congress's political space.
Let me say this once and for all, there can be no redemption for either the Left or the Congress unless they take a good long look in the mirror and begin to refashion their images. The Family was good up to this point, but a new India wants new ideas and new leaders. A sense of obligation to a particular political family, and indeed there are many of them around, is no foundation for a lasting relationship with the people. Everyone today, even those on the peripheries are aware of their rights and are mindful of their aspirations. And it is no different from you and me. We want to move to the next level of ambition on our own terms. Why do we imagine that the poor are any different? They have chosen the parties which are saying 'we will give you a leg up with this or that social scheme, and then you have to stand on your own feet'.
Now you may argue that what the Right is doing is putting new wine in old bottles. Yes, but so what? As long as it tastes slightly different, the bottle looks brighter and sunnier, people will opt for that one off the shelf. There is no reason why the Congress and Left cannot be the new Right. There are no sharp ideological divisions anymore in today's political marketspace. Your wares may be the same, but it is all about ownership and branding. And, of course, of actually delivering on social schemes. As of now, it would seem that the BJP is best placed to do so, given its growing reach. The Left and Congress should not project themselves as pro-poor, everyone is pro-poor. But it is all about who has the tools to pull the poor above the poverty line, up to the lower middle class, then to the middle class and so on. And here, I am afraid, I have to concede that if I were a fashionista, saffron is the new black.