Can Sitaram Yechury save the Left – from itself?
The Left’s rhetoric fails to resonate except in pockets in Kerala, Tripura and (decreasingly) West Bengal.
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At university we were told: “When you’re young, you’re red because when you’re old, you’ll be dead.”
Marxism is the opium of youth. Growing up, most of us were left-leaning – some a redder shade than others but definitely anti-establishment, and certainly anti-capitalist.
And then you grow up. Communism suddenly looks an outdated and self-defeating ideology. The problem in India is most of our Marxists are old men who haven’t grown up. Look at the line-up of Left leaders: the newly elected general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury (62), VS Achuthanandan (92), Prakash Karat (67), D Raja (65), Gurudas Dasgupta (78).
Very few women make the cut: the formidable Brinda Karat is an exception.
The old Soviet Union, the Indian Left’s lodestar, is gone. China, the other communist citadel, has fallen on evil capitalist ways. North Korea is hardly an exemplar of Left glory. Nor is Cuba which, after 50 impoverished years, has accepted Washington’s warm capitalist embrace.
In India the Left has been reduced to a rump. From a strength of 60 MPs in 2004 who infamously propped up the Congress-led UPA-1 government, the CPI(M) and CPI have shriveled a decade later to 10 MPs in the current Lok Sabha.
But why “infamously”? Because the Congress, contrary to popular myth, did not win the 2004 general election. The BJP lost it. In 1999, the Congress won 114 seats with a 28.30 per cent vote share; the BJP, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, won 182 seats with 23.75 per cent vote share. In 2004, the BJP plummeted to 138 seats (22.16 per cent vote share) while the Congress edged up to 145 seats (26.53 per cent vote share). This constitutes the mythical “victory” of the Congress in 2004.
The hung Parliament of 2004 left the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, 127 seats short of a majority in the Lok Sabha. The roots of infamy were now planted: the Left gave the Congress support with 60 seats and the DMK, NCP and a coalition of “secular” parties joined in to provide the Congress-led UPA-1 a working parliamentary majority.
The seeds of infamy sprouted soon after. As documentary evidence in ongoing court cases has shown, the period between 2004 and 2008, when the Congress-Left combine was in power along with their coalition partners, recorded some of the most brazen scams in Indian history: 2G spectrum, Commonwealth Games (CWG), coalgate, Scorpene submarines and AgustaWestland helicopters.
Though the Left withdrew support to the UPA-1 coalition government in 2008 over the India-US civil nuclear deal, it was for more than four years a part of what is acknowledged as one of India’s most corrupt coalition governments. Left leaders were not in the cabinet but gave outside support based on a common minimum programme (CMP). They took part in coordination meetings with the government and cannot escape collective responsibility for the serial scams that occurred between 2004 and 2008. History will judge the Left’s role in UPA-1 far more harshly than contemporary journalism has.
Can Sitaram Yechury revive the Left’s discredited fortunes? A merger with the CPI is on the cards. In the Rajya Sabha Yechury has led the attack on the government’s policies, labelling the land acquisition bill anti-poor. The Left will also support the newly formed Janata Parivar and the Congress in an attempt to oppose the Modi government at every step – in Parliament and outside.
But the country has moved on: the Left’s rhetoric fails to resonate except in pockets in Kerala, Tripura and (decreasingly) West Bengal.
Moreover, with Rahul Gandhi’s Congress moving leftwards to combat the BJP’s perceived pro-rich position on key policy issues, the Left’s ideological space is shrinking. The Janata Parivar and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are competing for the same electoral space as well: minorities, Dalits and the poor.
As a result the BJP finds itself in a dilemma. The prime minister won the 2014 general election on three counts: One, his powerful campaign which created a huge electoral wave; two, strong anti-Congress sentiment after 10 years of misgovernance; and three, Modi’s own image of a chaiwala who would understand the problems of the poor and use efficient administration to bring prosperity and growth to them.
Instead the perception is gaining ground that the Modi government is pro-industry and anti-farmer. The land bill has been deferred to after May 5, once the black money, GST and finance bills have been debated and passed. It may not come up for voting in this session of Parliament at all if the opposition continues to obstruct Parliament.
In an interesting contrarian article in The Times of India, economist and columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria-Aiyar last Sunday (April 26) strongly defended the land acquisition bill. Conventional wisdom holds that the bill is anti-farmer and could cost the BJP the next general election. Quite the contrary, argues Aiyar:
“The (land acquisition) bill will gain votes, not lose them in the 2019 election. The 2013 land acquisition act of the Congress had so many onerous clauses that acquisition (and related projects) came to a virtual halt across India. Economic growth and job creation crashed, so voters turned against Congress with a vengeance. Its supposedly pro-farmer measure boomeranged.
"Seminal research by Poonam Gupta and Arvind Panagariya shows that voter behaviour in 2009 was explained overwhelmingly by the acceleration or deceleration of economic performance in a state, not doles or write-offs. In 2014, Rahul hoped to win mass votes through the food security act, promising wheat and rice at Rs 2-3 a kilo for two-thirds of the population. This failed, mainly because implementation depended on state governments. Besides, many state governments already provided food at Rs 1-2/kilo, so Rahul’s reduction of the central price merely subsidised the state governments, not consumers. Some elections are won by a popular wave, as in 1984 and 2014. Gupta and Panagariya’s fast-growth thesis does not apply to such elections. But nobody expects a fresh Modi wave, or Rahul wave, in 2019. So the performance of chief ministers will once again be critical.
“What does this imply for the land acquisition bill? All land acquisition is done by state governments. Farmers whose land is acquired will be happy or angry depending on the honesty and sensitivity of acquiring state government officials. Congress-ruled states can add the extra onerous conditions Rahul swears by — this will stall projects and ensure Congress’ defeat in these states at the next election. Modi has nothing to fear, and much to gain.”
Rahul, the Janata Parivar and Yechury are certain, however, to use the ongoing parliamentary session to continue attacking the government on the land bill. Rahul’s “suit-boot sarkar” taunt directed at the “anti-farmer, pro-business” government is ironical coming as it does from the privileged scion of a wealthy political dynasty. Rahul the politician wears kurta-pajamas. Rahul the incognito global traveller wears Gucci.
And yet the BJP will have only itself to blame if it loses the perception battle against a cast of characters as weak as this: the Rasputin-like Rahul, the discredited Lalu-Nitish-Mulayam-Deve Gowda Janata Parivar, and the regressive, out-of-touch Yechury.
The BJP though can no longer be carried on one man’s shoulders. It is time all the BJP’s 282 MPs begin to pull their weight. With just 44 MPs the Congress often outmaneovres the inexperienced BJP MPs in Parliament and on media platforms.
The government can’t succeed as a one-man army with a handful of lieutenants. It needs able soldiers who can counter with force and conviction the attacks, some based on blatant falsehoods, Parliament witnesses daily. A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Yechury, Rahul, and the self-serving Leftist members of the Janata Parrivar know that better than anyone else.
The BJP, meanwhile, must set itself up as a party that is both economically liberal and socially liberal. Economic liberalism and social conservatism don’t sit well together. The Sangh parivar’s extreme right wing groups need to shed their social conservatism or they will find themselves on a collision course with an India that’s moving in the opposite direction. The consequences could be dire – and we won’t need to wait till 2019 to find out. Bihar, later this year, will tell us.