The recognised parties are restricted to one large, one medium and one small state. There is reasonable dispute over the true strength of the Naxalites. Some argue that many state governments are too eager to declare some of their districts Naxalite-infested because this translates into non-budgetary assistance from the Centre to curb the “Naxalite menace” in the name of that variable virtue called “law and order”. But even if the Naxalites are not as powerful in the claimed 170 districts, there is no doubt about their influence in over 80 districts —sufficient to direct the course of the vote if they choose to do so. The Naxalites do not have a coordinated view on important issues, but it may be relevant to note that they were the first political force in the broad opposition spectrum to take an unambiguous view of the Indo-US nuclear deal. They rejected it comprehensively. We do not know if this will be reflected in the elections within those 80-odd constituencies, but it might if, as seems likely, the nuclear deal becomes a central focus of the next general elections.
A third aspect of the Left base goes largely unrecognised because it is not obvious. This is the vote that would have gone to the Left, if the Left had existed on the electoral map of that region. This is the “poor” or “garibi” vote that once automatically went to the Nehru-Indira Gandhi Congress, but which no longer recognises the party. Congress sensitivity is so heavily magnetised by the Sensex that it has no space for any parallel reality. This vote has switched twice, in the north, to regional parties. The first time it did so was in 1967; the second time was after 1989. The patterns in the South followed a different course, but there too the vote has shifted or swung between the Congress and regional parties.
The latest beneficiary of this phenomenon has been Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. There are two reasons why the BSP could break out from the limits of provincial success. Its core base, the Dalit, is spread across the country. The Dalits and Muslims constitute the only powerful nationwide vote blocs. Other vote blocs may be national in their sentiment, but they are not nationwide in their presence. There is also great overlap between the Dalit, Muslim and “poverty” identities. If Mayawati can harmonise and then mobilise these identities, she can extend her UP numbers into a much larger calculus.
Mayawati is essentially occupying the space left vacant by an absent Left. This is why she cannot make much headway in the states where the Left is entrenched. Alternatively, she succeeds handsomely where the Congress has ebbed.
What are the chances of a Left crumble, if not collapse, in the next general elections?
Kerala is a seesaw, so the Marxists cannot hope to repeat their success of 2004. They will succeed, however, in tiny Tripura, because they have delivered on the two basics of good governance: distributive economic growth and social harmony.
Uncharacteristically, the CPM has fumbled on both counts in the critical state of Bengal. While Nandigram may continue to dominate the headlines, Bengal’s Marxists should be equally worried by the riots against ration shops in their heartland constituencies, like Birbhum. Food riots destroyed the Congress before 1967, and they will eat into Marxist margins in 2008.
One of the curious myths, sponsored by the current mania within the upwardly mobile middle class, is that the underprivileged are either unreasonable in their demand for exclusive attention, or, worse, simply unworthy of too much attention since they are a drag factor on economic growth. It is obvious that such self-comforting panaceas have infected Bengal’s Marxists. The truth is that the poor are far more realistic than they are given credit for. They do not believe that there is some magic wand. They have more patience than the better off; not because they are more saintly, but because they have fewer options. What the poor do possess, however, and have every right to retain, is a powerful sense of justice. They can read a signal, or detect a nuance quickly, for they do not have the luxury of complacence. The Bengal government has increasingly indicated that it prefers middle-class cosiness to street sensitivity. The manner in which, for instance, it has repeatedly snubbed Muslim sentiment is spectacular in its amateurishness.
How big a price will the party pay? The Marxists may still be rescued by the stand that the national leadership has taken against the proposed strategic alliance with the United States that constitutes the core of the so-called nuclear deal. In real terms, this strategic alliance means involvement in American conflicts in the Middle East. The Muslims have a rather unique distinction: they are possibly the one Indian community with a foreign policy. They have no sympathy for George Bush, and there could be electoral rewards for the Marxists in Bengal and Kerala, if they retain the clarity to find it. This will compensate for some of the malfunctioning in governance.
But the true opportunity for the Indian Left lies in the phase or politics after the next general elections, between 2008 and 2012. And this opportunity will open up in the Hindi heartland. One can see the impetus that created the groundswell for regional parties (most of them splinters of the old Socialist movement) beginning to fade. We might not see the explosive self-destruction of 1971, but it will be difficult for the regional parties to hold their own against the resurgent claimants of this space. The Hindi heartland will probably return to one of the two mainline parties by 2012, either the Congress or the BJP, depending on which of them has managed to preserve its credibility. The outside option in this game is the BSP, but its rise will only be a consequence of Congress implosion, since their vote base is similar if not the same.
The only alternative to either the BJP or the Congress will be a Left Front on the lines of the Bengal or Kerala model. The Kerala model, in fact, may be more relevant, but with a northern manifestation of the Muslim League thrown in. The ground for such a collision will have many seeds, from the old Socialist movement of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia to the spadework being done by the Naxalites in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The Naxalite tactic of violence cannot be an end in itself; it must be the means towards a more sustainable political objective.
The future of the Left does not lie in the continuation of poverty. That is negative bias disguised with clever semantics. No one has a vested interest in poverty, least of all the Left. The future of the Left lies in justice, not poverty; in an economic programme that can create wealth without handing it over to a narrow apex.
That apex, however, is crowded by an orchestra of sirens. Can the Left leadership, as it negotiates its way through troubled waters in the next five years, resist the lure of those sirens?
Eminent journalist and intellectual M J Akbar is editor-in-chief of the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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