[What was the left doing with the natural allies of the Congress and the BJP?]
This is the draft I wrote for the editorial of the Economic and Political Weekly VOL 44 No. 22, June 05, 2009. The draft and the final edit may have many differences.
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Among the big casualties of the recent general elections was the “Third Front” (TF) which had been the centre-piece of the Left’s political strategy to push the Congress into a corner and cut the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) down to size. Unfortunately for its promoters, who pitched it as the electoral and policy alternative to the Congress and BJP at the national level, it was largely rejected by the voters and has now been accepted, by its very advocates, as a non-starter.
The reasons for this crushing defeat are not difficult to spot and have already been identified by the principal players themselves. It was an ad-hoc arrangement cobbled together under the initiative of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] after its bitter parting with the United Progressive Alliance government over the nuclear deal in July last year. The primary binding factor of the constituents was opposition to the Congress. Yet this opposition to the Congress was of a contingent nature for most of them. Even though, ostensibly, they all were opposed to the BJP, they had, other than the Left parties, often shared power with this “communal” party. Crucially, there was no coherence in the policy and ideological positions of its constituents. If the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had construction of the Ram temple and protection of Ram’s bridge (Sethusamudram) in its manifesto, the Telugu Desam party had for long been the World Bank’s global poster boy for “economic reforms”. While the Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s (TRS) demand for a separate Telangana sat uneasy with its ally, CPI(M)’s insistence on a unified Andhra Pradesh, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s pitch for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s Prabhakaran was equally at odds with the positions of other parties. Further, it was clear that each of its non-Left constituents had kept their options of joining a BJP led government open. Lastly, all the main TF constituents, including the CPI(M), faced significant erosion of popular support due to their policies in government and were basing their chances of victory on the unpopularity or division of their opposition, rather than on any positive agenda of change.
Given this context, one is sorely tempted to repeat Marx’s oft-abused line that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. The present, happily deceased, attempt at a TF government at the Centre has a genealogy which stretches back to the post-Janata Party period when parties which represented regional economic and social interests came together against the dominance of the Congress. Their strength came from two social strata: one was the peasantry led by the dominant castes of each region and the other was the non-metropolitan urban populations of professional middle classes, businessmen and industrialists. These social classes were in a struggle with the big industrialists and metropolitan middle classes for political power and economic resources. This struggle expressed itself in a political agenda of federalism, democratic reforms and redistributive economic policies. It provided coherence and strength to their unity, gave them a radical edge and they, in turn, helped democratise Indian politics by breaking the dominance of the Congress. Their decade long struggle for political power culminated in the defeat of the Congress in 1989 and the formation of a true TF government which was anti-Congress yet distant from the BJP.
This TF was repeated in the form of the United Front government of the mid 1990s, which, in hindsight, can be labelled a “tragedy”. Not only did it give a big push to neo-liberal economic reforms, it paved the way, politically, for the emergence and consolidation of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The TF provided the personnel, training in running national coalitions of regional powers and political space for the expansion of the NDA. If that was a tragedy, the present attempt has surely been a “farce”.
It is not enough to merely dismiss the TF in such terms but is necessary to understand why it has come to such a pass. Today all the parties which potentially make up the TF, whether it be the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, Deve Gowda in Karnataka, Telugu Desam and TRS in Andhra Pradesh, Nationalist Congress in Maharashtra, Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand, Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and Bahujan Samaj Party or Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, have a distinguished track record of opening their States to the most rapacious exploitation of humans and nature by capital while peddling various forms of cultural and regional chauvinism to mobilise the masses. In this they are led by the rich peasants who are clamouring to commercialise agriculture and thus transform themselves into rural capitalists, and by industrialists in the States who have seen their capital grow exponentially under the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation and are now among the biggest champions of such economic “reforms”. In pursing this agenda, these social classes and their parties are natural allies of the Congress and BJP and, therefore, do not show any interest in bonding together like they did two decades ago. Where is the space, in this transformed agenda of the regional parties, for any form of radical or democratic politics?
The CPI(M), which has been the main proponent of the TF, should have very little in common with these policies of the TF parties. Unfortunately, in the recent past, its Bengal unit has shown a similar inclination, allowing Special Economic Zones, dispossessing poor peasants for big industrialists and encouraging Bengali chauvinism to counter the Gorkhaland demand. It is crucial for the health of Indian democracy that the CPI(M) in particular and the Left in general, dump this poisoned chalice and re-affirm their commitment to their own legacy of building mass movements on a radical transformative agenda.
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