On the day that the news of the Left’s defeat in Bengal trickled in, Rahul Gandhi returned from Bhatta-Parsaul, rebranded as the mascot of India’s dispossessed kisans.
A communist party founded on the mobilisation of the middle peasantry destroyed itself by attacking the class it had empowered, in its frantic wooing of capitalist investment while a bourgeois party that inaugurated the economic ‘liberalisation’ of India in 1991, managed to position its dynast as a champion of peasants menaced by capitalist predators.
It’s the sort of lumbering irony that wouldn’t work in a novel, but Indian politics is as subtle as Bombay’s cinema and so the coincidence is both neat and dramatically satisfying.
After the brass-faced shamelessness of the DMK’s response to political scandal and corruption, its pulverisation at the polls was particularly satisfying. But that said, it’s hard for the outsider to discern a larger significance in the Tweedledum-Tweedledee routine of Dravidian politics.
AIADMK’S J Jayalalithaa denounced the DMK with the vicious poise that is her trademark manner and told us that her political life was spent repairing the ruin that was the natural consequence of every DMK term in office. Which made me wonder why she had ever lost an election to these profligate, dynastic, corrupt ne’er-do-wells.
But then I remembered that she had won more than 200 seats in a 234-seat house and was entitled, at least for one press conference, to say anything.
Her victory and the Trinamool’s Mamata Banerjee’s means that India now has four chief ministers who are women. They are single, they don’t have children and they are routinely represented in India’s print and electronic media as temperamental viragos.
This tells us something about both the unselfconscious misogyny of our journalism and the toll that Indian politics takes of women who want to exercise power in their own right.
Jayalalithaa referred to the dynastic corruption of the DMK in her press conference and Mamata made a point of saying she had no family but the people of Bengal. So it would be tempting to read this result as a vote for non-dynastic politics if it weren’t for the fact that the Trinamool’s coalition ally, the Congress, is led by the longest-lived dynasty in republican history.
Also, despite the many defects of the party she demolished, the one thing that comrades don’t do is promote their families in politics.
As a spectator it was hard not to feel a pang of disappointment when the Congress-led UDF edged the LDF in Kerala. Had the LDF won, it would have been 34 years since an incumbent government won a second term in Kerala, a nice counter-point to the end of the Left Front’s 34-year incumbency in Bengal.
It will be interesting to see how the Left fares, cut off from the patronage and power of provincial office. It has never been in this position in living memory and its defeat in Bengal has been so comprehensive that even the prospect of returning to power must seem remote.
The CPI(M)’s apparatchiks had been privately saying anything above a 100 seats would be respectable and a nucleus to build on for the future.
But given that the Left barely topped 60 seats, a miserable fifth of the strength of West Bengal’s legislative assembly, these years in the wilderness will test the ideological commitment of its cadres.
I hope the Left survives this exile from office. As an outsider who hasn’t had to suffer the countless (and seemingly endless) little tyrannies of Left rule in Bengal, the hubris of its leaders and the thuggery of its cadres, I want to diffidently suggest that the Left has a pan-Indian significance that’s quite separate from its record as a party of government in the provinces.
It’s worth remembering that there have been no large-scale communal pogroms on its watch. As someone who lived through the Congress-inspired mass murder of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, I recall the peace rigorously preserved by Jyoti Basu’s government in Calcutta during that hideous time.
The real value of the Left was that it stood in the way of Indian politics being polarised around the Congress and the BJP. Despite electorally being a regional player, largely confined to Kerala and West Bengal, the Left saw itself ideologically as a national force.
Consequently, unlike powerful regional parties like Naveen Patnaik’s BJD or the Kazhagams or even Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) that willy-nilly allied with one or the other pan-Indian party for political leverage and money, the Left constantly tried to create alternative alignments.
In this, it was chronically unsuccessful but it did, in its awkward, perverse way, try to create a social-democratic space in Indian politics.
The CPI(M)’s tragedy was that it was a pragmatic and successful social-democratic party that refused, ideologically, to accept that characterisation. It should begin its long road to political rehabilitation by purging its politburo, then purging the word itself.
And then, perhaps, it could try and remind Bengal’s electorate, and India’s, that its leaders were once, in the best sense of that word, bhadralok.
A woman I know, whose interest in the minutiae of Left politics is scant, once observed that of all the members of Parliament who surface on television, the only ones who seemed entirely respectable, were veterans of the Left, men like Indrajit Gupta and Somnath Chatterjee and Sitaram Yechury.
“They’re the only ones I’d trust in the same room as my daughter,” she said crisply. For that bygone bush-shirted respectability, if nothing else, we should hope that the Left will live to fight another day.
(Mukul Kesavan is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal)