Mauled in its stomping grounds of West Bengal and Kerala, the Left must now address fundamental questions about its continued relevance in India’s political mainstream. It would be premature to write off its contribution, past and future. But, clearly, Left strategists must take a fresh look at tired shibboleths and think seriously about reinventing themselves.
Gearing up for a post-mortem enquiry into its near obliteration — the CPI(M) politburo will have met by the time this is in print — the Left must take note of an unsubtle irony. Most observers will concede — as, indeed, senior leaders of the Congress themselves have graciously done — that the Left’s contribution to the ‘inclusive’ agenda that has contributed decisively to the UPA’s stunning return to power has been considerable. Yet, as the Congress and the alliance it leads have swept into power at the Centre, the Left finds itself banished to the margins. Why has this been the case?
The centrepiece of the UPA’s inclusive agenda of governance has been the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), alongside which have been the loan waivers for farmers, especially in the suicide-plagued cotton belt of Vidarbha, and the intensified focus on rural and urban housing, healthcare and education. It can hardly be anybody’s case that fundamental breakthroughs have been achieved in any of these areas. Indeed, slippages between intent and delivery have been conspicuous, as always. But in the popular perception, the UPA in its first incarnation has been seen as a government that is not wholly uncaring. That is, presumably, one big reason for the Congress and the UPA’s showing in these elections.
In marked contrast is the popular perception of the government that has ruled a state all but unchallenged for over three decades and the political formation that has run it with an iron grip — the Left Front regime in West Bengal. After 32 years of Left rule, Bengal finds itself at the bottom of the league tables in almost every arena — on some indicators even lagging behind some Bimaru states. Education — primary, secondary, higher, you name it — is in a shambles; healthcare is almost non-existent; employment opportunities have been relentlessly squeezed; and physical infrastructure is in a state of utter decrepitude.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government has not been able to implement any of the Centre’s welfare projects to any degree of satisfaction, including the NREGA, with central funds remaining largely unutilised. The oft-repeated charge of wilful neglect by the Centre holds no water anymore, even in the public perception. Instead, the public perception in the state — an accurate reflection of ground reality — is that the Left establishment has no interest in delivering even the most basic of services to the people because it has been assured of favourable electoral outcomes and that when and what little it does deliver, it does through the corrupt patronage networks of the party to tighten its vice-like grip over the state.
The perception and the reality are of a behemoth wrapped in meaningless rhetoric and ritual, divorced from the reality of decline. The arrogance of the Left establishment has probably alienated the people even more than its indifference to the well-being of the people at large, if that was possible. This arrogance, this refusal to engage in dialogue and take people along is a trait shared by General Secretary Prakash Karat, the man being credited largely with the responsibility of the Left’s debacle, perhaps a touch unfairly given that the vote against the Left has much to do with local circumstances in Bengal and Kerala.
So where does the Left go from here? At the top of the agenda with assembly elections slated for West Bengal in two years, preceded by a slew of municipal elections in that time, including those in Kolkata, is to put governance back on the Left agenda. It has to put it back in a manner that reflects the Left’s professed ‘pro-poor’ concerns and rhetoric. The Left would do well to do some long-term thinking about perspective.
Fundamentally, the lesson has for long been that the Left should be less doctrinaire in its approach to issues relating to growth and development, especially when both in Kerala and Bengal on the ground it adapts, as it must, to the reality of the market. Within the market paradigm, it has to keep on pushing for policies oriented towards maximising welfare and creating the safety nets that are essential in a liberalising economy. And it has to contribute towards consolidating the ground of non-sectarian politics.
It cannot do this, quite obviously, if it chooses political trajectories that isolate it from the mainstream and lock into the kind of quixotic projects best represented by the search for a third front — a non-BJP, non-Congress or anti-sectarian, anti-imperial alternative. That the search for a third front so often involves negotiations with the most opportunistic of forces is obvious. Most of its purported allies do not share its reservations about liberalisation or market fundamentalism. Indeed, most of them would not even make a distinction between the two. And all of its allies are only too willing to do business with the BJP and its politics of exclusion.
The Left would do well to realise that its most constructive intervention in national politics has been in its partnership with the Congress. That partnership will clearly not be resurrected any time soon. But Karat and his comrades would lose nothing in reflecting on its principal lesson: that the ground left of the centre is well worth defending, as indeed it can be.
Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer