The mini-elections in five states have made a number of points. The one which stands out is, of course, grim confirmation of the low depths the Congress has sunk in the view of countrymen. Its imperial style of governance, with corruption and cronyism at its core, does not wash any more; the party needs to change itself radically, otherwise it might well run the risk of total obliteration. Opinion is bound to differ on whether there is any inner reserve left in it to energize its revival.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party, too, it is not hunky-dory all the way. It has proved its strength and durability over a large part of the traditional so-called cow belt, but the touch-and-go in Chhattisgarh has rung a warning bell: even if you have a seemingly free rein, an iota of introspection could do no harm; ruthlessly presiding over illegal mining and unscrupulous expropriation of land that has been the natural habitat of the tribal people do not go unnoticed, nor does the alibi of suppressing Maoist excesses provide enough cover for blatant, continuing violation of human rights across the board.
It is the poll tidings from Delhi, though, that are by far a phenomenon that commands the most careful attention. One particular datum is of considerable relevance here: New Delhi, the nation’s capital, an important segment of the electorate in the state of Delhi, is no longer the sleepy village it was at the time of Independence. It is now on the way to turning into a huge urban complex, outstripping both Calcutta and Chennai. It has also ceased to be a casual fringe of Punjab. Every day it is adding to its features as a near-cosmopolis; almost all linguistic, ethnic and religious entities that make up the national population are ensconced in this or that part of Delhi. In that sense, its electorate reflects, in miniature form, the sum-total of moods, emotions and attitudes of the entire nation at a given moment. The extent of disgust it has expressed with respect to the Congress is a precise echo of the nation’s overall judgement. That party would be sadly mistaken to treat it with any indifference.
The Delhi poll verdict has conveyed a message that is clear and categorical; this one is beamed specially towards the BJP. In case there is a credible alternative to two established political formations, both of which have been sources of at least some disappointment, the voters would have no hesitation to choose this third entity. The basic issue, however, is its trustworthiness to the electorate. The Aam Aadmi Party, a bit of a happenstance, fitted the bill because it was at the right place at the right time and said things — and said them in a manner — that sounded believable. Those residing in Delhi have one extra advantage; they are next door to the Central administration, which is the principal agency for malfeasance in high quarters. Its population includes a fair sprinkling of retired employees at various levels of the civil and military establishments who have adequate knowledge of techniques and processes whereby shady deals are executed or the ways and means through which the corporate sector makes ruling politicians putty-clay in its hands. Government employees still in active service cannot be prevented in indulging in whispers either; they know how files are manipulated or made to disappear, when the government announces its decision to increase the price of this or that essential commodity, public employees get singed along with the rest of the nation, but they conceivably are better aware than the rest of the nation, and fully aware that the fable presented in the official notification justifying the price rise was at quite some distance from the truth. And their anger reaches the point of explosion when a government hoity-toity has the audacity to launch on a pretentious discourse that raising prices was the best way to curb inflation over the long run. The Aam Aadmi Party has a large contingent of decision-makers and close advisers who had worked in the part for government and were in a position to expose official falsehoods.
The Bharatiya Janata Party no doubt needs to sit up: howsoever dishevelled the Congress might happen to be, if a third worthwhile alternative were there, the voters could, as they have done in Delhi, opt for it. Many honest and well-meaning, but otherwise naïve, citizens in different parts of the country might be tempted to assume that the answer to their prayer lies in setting up replicas of the AAP in their midst. But that could be a day dream. The combination of factors that eventuated in the Aam Aadmi Party is not readily available in other locations; time and place do matter. It may sound somewhat riddle-like, but it is because of the AAP itself that the rise of yet another AAP at another region of the country is most improbable. The AAP’s main problem is its single-point agendum. The issue of corruption — and the resulting travails of daily living multiplied by, again, the resulting breakdown of discipline at all strata — cannot sustain a political formation for long. For instance, suppose, despite the confusing situation at present, the AAP, falling for the bait, formed the new state administration, it might perhaps weave together a slap-dash programme of do-good activities it wanted to perform during its tenure. But most of such activities would in some manner or other hurt the interest of entrenched groups. The removal of these groups would merely mean the arrival of new groups that would know how to win over a new set of politicians who were sans ideological roots and come from different backgrounds. In the process, and without a common, shared goal or ideology, internal differences might well crop up between erstwhile comradeism combat against corruption. And that could herald the beginning of the end.
A social agitation can rest on a single point; a government needs an ideological base; it is more than just crossing a bridge. The ideology might be arcane or abhorrent, but a political party has to have one if it wants to stay around. A pledge to clean the stables is no ideology, it soon runs its course and its sponsors fade away.
Particularly for a political entity that aspires to provide an alternative to the National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level, a coherent political philosophy, which is easily comprehensible and can draw attention across the country, is an essential pre-requisite. The bubble of the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party is not unlikely to fulfil that role; the various regional formations in the different states are similarly altogether ill-suited for the purpose, they exist only to further their specific and narrow sectarian interests.
This is where the wilting of the Left assumes the form of a major national tragedy. True, economic liberalization, alongside the thoroughness that has marked its penetration, has been a major factor behind the rapid erosion of Left influence in the country. But the lack of imagination on the part of its leadership has been no less responsible for its spectacular decline even in regions where it was a formidable force till the other day. On top of everything else, its bane is the rigidity of an organizational structure that renders it difficult, if not impossible, the removal of entrenched leaders who have proved to be total nincompoops.
Not that the Leftists have ceased to be relevant; that is impossible in a land with persistence of such massive poverty and embedded income inequalities. The Left has merely been made — or made itself — defunct. It continues to genuflect, but the gesture appears soulless, and evokes little response. A resurgent Left, on the other hand, could have transmitted to the nation a message of a tough resolve while emphasizing their position that corruption was synonymous with crony capitalism — as borne out by the history of the early decades in the United States itself; that engineered price rise was one familiar instrument to shift income distribution in the system further against the poorer classes and in favour of the more affluent sections of society; that the reluctance of ruling groups to agree to restructure fiscal and monetary policies for developing a wide enough domestic market goads them to expand the export sector, but the pursuit of this objective involves the collateral imperative of allowing external capital untrammelled entry into the economy while exposing the farm sector, still the main source of livelihood for the majority of the people, to the danger of being further immiserized by the invasion of heavily subsidized agricultural products from the US and Europe.
Opportunity would have been knocking at the door of the Left. But it has preferred to play hooky or maybe made to go awol. Whatever the reality, the lament remains.