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The Centre court game

The Left?s victories won?t signal a change of relationship with the Congress at the Centre, writes Shikha Mukerjee.

india Updated: May 15, 2006 01:23 IST

Two straight wins for the Left alliance led by the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala, more seats in Tamil Nadu, and two seats for the party (against none in 2001) in Assam. This can be interpreted as a fresh lease to reopen the suspended political fight over policies with the UPA at the Centre. But however necessary the Left may have felt a win was in order to allow it to flex its muscles in Delhi, it is not sufficient to overturn the established order of things.

To imply, as the CPI(M) and its Left allies have, that it is reckoning time now on the performance of the Congress and the UPA is a gambit aimed at raising the political heat without actually, deliberately, queering the pitch.

Since early this year, the CPI(M) has been unhappy with the Congress-led UPA — for ignoring its warnings on economic reforms-liberalisation-globalisation of which airport privatisation-modernisation, FDI in retail, the Prime Minister’s announcement that full capital account convertibility is being considered, foreign policy, particularly India’s relationship with the US are a part. Petrol and diesel price increases, the slowdown or modifications to the Common Minimum Programme, especially budgetary allocation cuts for development schemes and tax policy, constitute the remainder of the Left’s grievances against the Congress.

Critical evaluations, however, do not threaten the existence of governments. And it is unlikely that the CPI(M) and its allies will push the moment to a crisis. For, at no point was the Congress’s lease to lead the UPA the focus of the campaign. The election outcomes in Kerala and West Bengal, in particular, are a verdict on the CPI(M)’s ‘outstanding’ achievements, but it does not signal a shift in the interlocking interests that sustain the partnership with the Congress at the Centre.

The CPI(M) had promised itself on March 13 at its last central committee meeting that it would review CMP implementation once the elections were over. It will no doubt do so, as it believes its triumphs have “strengthened the role of the Left in national politics”. Axiomatically, the Congress will be lambasted for failing or falling down on its promises. But that is a default response.

The election outcomes in West Bengal and Kerala — particularly in the expectations that have been aroused — have dumped a problem on the Left’s plate. It is  ironic that the two broad divisions within the Left have both won in this election. V.S. Achutanandan in Kerala and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in West Bengal belong to opposite poles of the CPI(M). The old war horse from Kerala has little patience with the new order of things, while Bhattacharjee is openly acquisitive, declaring himself a champion of “capitalists, even if they are bloody capitalists”.

The difference between the old and new schools of thought within the CPI(M) is evident from the response to the challenge thrown up by the trajectory along which the success of the Indian economy has been plotted. Bhattacharjee, having set himself the goal of “reform, perform or perish” and triumphed spectacularly, has no qualms about declaring himself on the side of the capitalists. The promise to deliver development to the poor and profits to the MNCs is like the philosophers’ stone, an impossible transformation. Orthodox leaders like Achutanandan would prefer the first through massive State intervention and spit on the second.

The failure to exclude Achutanandan as possible CM in Kerala is a pointer that the Left understands the practical need to install leaders who can work within the new circumstances it finds itself in. The fact that he could not be dumped is a reminder that the party’s socialist conscience is still active and assertive.

Like Machiavelli’s fabulous minotaur, the Left needs to deal with the contradictions of Indian political reality. In Marxist terms, the party has adopted the “path of people’s democratic revolution”, which requires it to win elections, instead of waging war against class enemies. Its election victories, however, reflect support for the beliefs and values that are its staple — namely a vague promise to steer government policy in the direction of social equity and justice, since socialism is not achievable under the present order of things at the state and national levels.

Post-2004, the Left has had trouble in getting down to the task of comprehensively figuring out, for instance, where and how money can be found for development schemes more ambitious than the National Employment Guarantee scheme, or contract labour welfare schemes, or higher outlays for education and health, as well as land and money for more airports and retail stores to satisfy the consumption fantasies of its new middle-class supporters. Traditional Left constituents such as labour are unlikely to welcome reform, and the marginal peasant even less welcoming to the idea of selling his land to enable FDI in healthcare, for instance. The tricky part for the Left is to maintain the correct balance.

As the original globalisers via socialism’s international interconnection, the communists have a historic responsibility to fight imperialism, especially US imperialism. Indian hostility to foreign partnerships are not the exclusive preserve of the Left. The Congress, as much as elements in the Right-wing, are equally allergic to strategic partnerships with the US. The communists, therefore, have emerged as the proxy voice of political opinion that shares its disapproval of ‘surrendering’ Indian interests to promote an unequal relationship with global capital.

Winning remarkable majorities and defying the spectre of anti-incumbency is heady. Landing on one’s feet requires enormous skill. The difficulty is in scaling up West Bengal’s methods and converting it into a model for nationwide application. This election has delivered the dilemma to the Left’s doorstep. It would be a pity if it were to walk back down the stairs after a hundred visions and revisions. The opportunity to put its particular imprint on national politics is now — not via tinkering with the CMP or in meetings of the Coordination Committee, but by working to deliver an alternative mode of governance.

The Congress is still weak, even though in a mid-term election, it could do exceedingly well which would end the Left’s spectacular success in hogging centrestage, politically.