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A SAD CHRONICLE

- The story of the Left’s disappearance from Bengal

The scale of the triumph of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party exceeded even what the opinion polls could dare to predict. Otherwise, the rest of the predictions concerning the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls have come true, even the comic drama of the mother and the son resigning together from their respective positions as president and vice-president of the Congress owning responsibility for the rout and their immediate change of mind following sobbing appeals from their henchmen. It was high entertainment, but there was one element in it which evoked both abhorrence and pity, abhorrence because the dynasty did not have the grace to spare the last ignominy for Manmohan Singh; he was made to move the resolution at the party meeting imploring noble madam and her equally noble offspring not to quit, they had not an iota of responsibility for the inglorious party performance, it was his abject failure as prime minister and of the government he presided over; pity, because even now Manmohan Singh continues to be so shamelessly obsequious to the family.

Anyway, that chapter is finally over and all speculation at the moment centres on how the BJP handles its super performance. It would be good if its leaders take account of the fact that even though it has won close to 55 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats, barely one-third of the electorate is with it. Even so, those who do the manoeuvrings in the stock markets are dizzy with Modi’s dream win; this is what they wanted and had worked for.

The Sensex, however, is not the real economy. The persistence, in recent years, of recessioning conditions in the developed countries, particularly the United States, has severely affected India’s exports; the hope of an early revival of export-based growth is dependent on whether the American economy would be back on course and refloat Indian exports. The current buoyancy in the stock exchanges, though, has led to a gush of speculative capital from overseas, leading to a boost in the country’s foreign-exchange holdings. It has, however, also caused an appreciation in the external value of the rupee, which is likely to further retard exports. The hard, harsh truth will continue to stare policy-makers in the face: a country with such a huge load of population as ours can hardly expect sustained economic growth merely on the prop of exports; even China, with its far superior technological base and its workers’ innate skill owes to export earnings at most a quarter or thereabouts of its aggregate GDP growth. As long as thoroughgoing redistribution of income and assets does not take place, adequate employment opportunities are not provided to the mass of the people, and a buoyant domestic market for goods and services does not emerge in the country, the economic crisis is most unlikely to resolve itself. True, this is a long-range issue.

Modi is unlikely to avoid experiencing the contradictory pressures that are bound to arise immediately. The top strata who have gained enormously from the economic liberalization process will demand faster advance towards full-scale liberalization, including freer entry of foreign capital. They had voted and carried out a campaign blitz for Modi precisely because they had this expectation in mind. To follow their prescriptions would however mean creation of even greater income inequalities, further shrinkage of employment opportunities, and negating all prospects of developing a vibrant domestic market. It will be interesting to watch how the new prime minister deals with this dilemma, which, in turn, will depend on the quality of ministers and advisers he gathers round him.

An equally greater worry would be with regard to the manner Modi tackles the wild Hindutva fringe in the party. If this berserk crowd take it for granted that since their kingdom has come, they could now go on the rampage, the country would have no peace from the very beginning: their aggression would be met with counter-aggression in many parts of the country, terrorists of diverse hues would activate themselves, Kashmir would possibly witness another round of uprising, several of the country’s next door neighbours would chalk out new strategies vis-à-vis India, and, who knows, the Taliban, already entrenched in Pakistan, might attempt to infiltrate across the border. Apart from the other consequences, the emergence of such a situation would rudely disturb the process of economic growth too. Perhaps the corporate sector, which had gone all out to ensure Modi’s installation as prime minister, might, in its own interest intercede with him. Again, much will depend on the group of close advisers, Modi chooses to lean on. Invitation to the heads of government of all the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is an excellent gesture and one would like to add, a good omen.

In any event, the BJP must remember, with all its faults and deficiencies, India is still a functioning democracy. Countrymen, who had reached the end of their tether because of the unprecedented and unchecked price rise, massive growth of unemployment and unashamed acts of corruption at high places during the UPA-Congress regime, have decided that the BJP was going to be their saviour. They are much too innocent to be able to comprehend that the BJP has basically the same class base as the Congress. Nonetheless, Modi, if only for tactical reasons, needs to offer the common people some relief in some directions. Otherwise, the herd instinct might once again take over, the ayes could turn into nays with extraordinary rapidity.

There is adequate reason for assuming a possibility of this nature. The Modi storm, helped by the quirk of the first-past-the-post principle of declaring the winner, has made mincemeat of the regional and caste-based parties everywhere except in Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, while Kerala too has not been disturbed from its traditional United Democratic Front and Left Democratic Front duality. Even so, perhaps with the exception of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which seems to have been almost completely swallowed by the other regional entity presided over by Madam Jayalalithaa, elsewhere the local parties have by no stretch sung their swan song. Despite the erosion caused by the Modi-BJP onslaught, regional parties, for instance, those guided by Mayavati, Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad, have not lost the basic core of their support. There is always a next time. A couple of gross errors on the part of the BJP, and they would spring back to action.

It is worthwhile to spare a few paragraphs on the poll outcome in West Bengal. The Left Front there has met with total disaster; sorry to say it, never was such a disaster more richly deserved. The Front leaders initially attributed the poll results to large-scale terrorization and electoral malpractices in a number of constituencies by Trinamul Congress which the Election Commission failed to prevent. Even if the commission were a little less passive, it would frankly not have made much of a difference to the overall poll outcome, it was the general failure of the Front, particularly its main constituent, the CPI(M) to mobilize enough support which is at the root of its abysmal failure. Otherwise, how does one explain the complete wash-out of the Left in terms of seats won from the entire stretch of southern Bengal, considered even till a few years ago the impenetrable stronghold of the CPI(M)?

Obviously, the CPI(M) has steadily lost touch with its once formidable mass base. Errors and misjudgements on the part of the Front regime, supplemented by an odd kind of hauteur on the part of its leaders and ministers, during its final tenure led to a deep dislike of certain key persons who, in public vision, were mainly responsible for the Front government’s waywardness, their removal from positions of authority and decision-making was widely desired by large sections of the Left rank and file as well as mass supporters. The warning bell was sounded in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls; total votes cast for the Front declined by 6 per cent compared to what it had obtained in the assembly elections in 2006. The party leadership did not take heed, the faces the party’s erstwhile committed adherents wanted to wish away remained very much where they were. The inevitable followed. While the Front vote slumped from 49 per cent of total votes cast to 43 per cent in 2009, it dropped further to 41 per cent in the state assembly poll in 2011, leading to the seizure of power by Mamata Banerjee. The CPI(M) top brass refused to budge notwithstanding the greatest possible warning. This year’s Lok Sabha elections have shrunk its share of total votes cast to only 29 per cent, a stunning drop by as much as 12 per cent in the course of barely three years.

Not only have those whom the party’s lower strata and the broader range of sympathisers wanted to be evicted from leadership have continued in their positions, an ambivalence in policy articulation, too, has affected the CPI(M) most adversely. Its formal documents swear by equal dislike of the Congress and the BJP. Many of its prominent leaders in West Bengal, the speculation is widespread, are somewhat less inimical towards the Congress, a few of them were rumoured even to cherish the dream that the Congress would actively help them to oust Mamata Banerjee and get the Left Front back to power in the state. In the circumstances, when the poll campaign was at its height this year, one of these leaders — a member of the party’s politburo who also headed the Front government in its last, calamitous term — issued a statement to the effect that, should the necessity arise, the CPI(M) would help the Congress to form the new government in New Delhi following the outcome of the polls. Quite candidly, that did it. The people in the state, while generally secular-minded, have by and large no direct experience of BJP menace. On the other hand, they have been at the receiving end of the relentless attack by the Congress and the UPA on their lives and living over the years. A substantial number of them were outraged by the CPI(M) leader’s utterance. Many — in the past, staunch Left supporters — decided to cross over and vote for the BJP itself rather than those who were prepared to sell themselves to the wretched Congress. Some of them, who detested Mamata Banerjee’s antics and authoritarian ways, also opted for the BJP in the firm belief that not the nincompoop CPI(M) but Narendra Modi would be the most suitable person to extricate them from the clutches of Mamata. Ironically, even members of the minority community have mostly considered either the Congress or the CPI(M) a safer bet compared to the Left.

The CPI(M) leadership in the state, even at this stage, either do not know or do not intend to abdicate. They are, let me kindly suggest, merely ensuring the party’s total exit from West Bengal’s political picture in not an altogether distant future. Instead of admitting their own faults and deviations that have led to the party moving away from the masses, whom they should have taken the initiative to mobilize against entrenched class enemies. After a thoroughgoing cleansing process at the very top, they continue to quote party rules and procedures to justify their difficulty to effect crucial changes. What is farcical, those within the party who vocally speak for immediate reform and restructuring of the state leadership are being thrown out of the party: some of those who themselves deserve to be excluded from the party and its leadership sit in judgement, expelling those who want to save the party, its ideals and its traditions to mobilize the oppressed people against the exploiting classes.

This is the saddest part of the chronicle. Since Bengal was for long the main bastion of strength for the Left in the country, its disappearance in the state could not but mean that, in the country as a whole, it would be reduced to a nonentity. The country’s under-privileged, persecuted, immeserized millions would, at least for a while, have none to defend them against the aggression of immensely reinvigorated economic liberalization policies jointly sponsored by the country’s two principal political parties.