India’s Choice: What’s Left?

By N. Gunasekaran

About 60% of India’s 714 million-strong electorate—some 400 million voters—cast votes in the world’s largest electoral exercise, which spread over a month. They delivered a decisive victory to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In the 545-member parliament, the UPA secured 262 seats. The Congress Party secured 206 seats, less than the required majority of 272 members. With the support of its partners in the UPA and other smaller parties, the Congress Party had a support of 314 members in the new parliament.

The main rivals of the UPA in the elections were the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Left-engineered Third Front, comprising major regional parties. Both the NDA and the Third Front had a severe electoral drubbing. The seats for BJP dropped down to 116 seats from 138 it had in 2004. The Left, particularly the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI), suffered the severest electoral reverses. The CPI got only 16 parliamentary seats, a whopping decline of 27 seats from its position in 2004.

Thanking the people for reposing faith in the Congress Party, the party president Sonia Gandhi said: “Eventually the people of India know what is good for them and they always make the right choice.” In the last five years, the government headed by the Congress Party actually followed the neoliberal policies which were against the interests of India’s poor. Did the people favor the neo-liberalism of the Congress?

The UPA government, headed by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by and large, acted in the interests of the global corporate capital. In the agrarian sector, the global market oriented policies had created a serious crisis leading to the tragedy of farmers committing suicide. In the name of economic reforms, the corporates were awarded huge tax concessions, while the expenditure on development, as a proportion to GDP, had actually declined from 7.09% in 2003-04 to 6.17% in 2006-07 and then marginally increased to 6.76% in 2007-08. This declining expenditure on development prevented the poor to access education and health facilities.

Paradoxically, the same neo-liberal elites in the UPA government have to implement certain pro-people measures, thanks to the pressure of the Left with whose support the UPA government survived. For instance, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act provided 100 days employment in a year for the rural families. The Congress Party benefited electorally in the states where this scheme was implemented extensively.

The Left stalled the government’s attempt to allow 74% foreign equity in the private banks and restricted their proposal of 49% Foreign Direct Investment in the insurance sector to 26%. If the Left allowed the UPA to privatize India’s insurance sector, India’s insurance firms would have met AIG’s fate. If the Left allowed the government’s move to invest pension funds in the stock market, the savings of millions of employees would have gone up in smoke. The Left was vigilant in preventing all attempts to subject the Indian economy to the control of international finance capital. Because of the Left’s insistence on pro-people policies the government had to slow down its neo-liberal journey. Ironically, Congress got the credit for the Left endeavors.

Why did the Left have the electoral setback in the elections, in spite of its steadfastness in protecting the lives of common people against the onslaught of neo-liberalism? Having a strong presence in only a few states, the Left tried its best to mobilize the non-Congress and non-BJP parties and projected a “third front” before the electorate. The people did not approve it as a credible and viable alternative since it was comprised of some unreliable regional parties along with the Left. In their quest for secular combination, the voters gave a beating to the religion-based politics of BJP. And, to avoid a badly fractured Parliament and thereby to ensure stability to the Indian polity, they preferred the UPA, instead of the third front.

Moreover the Left has to do serious introspection in identifying the state-specific local factors that caused the worst debacle in their bastions like West Bengal and Kerala. The Left has decided to examine the reasons for its defeat in West Bengal, where it had enjoyed the support of the people and governed the state for more than 30 years uninterruptedly. Among various reasons, the opposition to its controversial state industrialization policy had also negative impact on the electoral outcome. Both seats in the Left-ruled state of Tripura were retained by the Left.

Opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Left withdrew its support to the Congress government. Although its rationale for opposing the deal was very important in terms of defending the sovereignty and independent foreign policy of the country, the issue was not directly related to more pressing needs of the common voters. Hence it had the least impact on the electoral results.

In sum, the outright rejection of neoliberalism of the Congress and endorsement of its welfare measures reflected in the verdict. The Left’s failure was its inability to project a viable and credible alternative. So what could be the future course of Indian politics? If the Congress Party pursues its neoliberal paradigm, the alienated masses would expect the Left to ride the mantle of power and, to rise to that occasion, the Left has to strive to strengthen and expand its mass bases. Otherwise, the right-wing religious nationalism will again raise its ugly head.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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