Message from the Assembly Polls

Manmohan Singh has described the outcome of the recent Assembly elections as a victory for the UPA and its policies. Considering that the NDA had no real stake in these elections, Manmohan Singh's claim regarding a UPA victory may sound like an obvious truism. But the claim is actually made not in relation to the NDA. The Prime Minister also cannot be unaware of the fact that his own Congress party which heads the UPA coalition had little to show for itself in these elections except for retaining power in Assam and Pondicherry and securing an improved tally of 34 seats in Tamil Nadu after a long time. The real thrust of his claim can therefore only be understood in the context of West Bengal and Kerala where the CPI(M)-led Left Front secured quite massive victories.

To understand the riddle, we should perhaps turn to West Bengal , the celebrated fortress of the CPI(M), where the Left Front won its seventh straight victory by winning four out of every five seats in the state Assembly. How does one analyse the massive scale of this victory? The overwhelming refrain in the national as well as West Bengal media is that the victory only confirms the immense consumer appeal of 'Brand Buddha', the CPI(M) version of pro-market pro-globalisation economic reforms. The CPI(M) too largely endorses this argument except that it emphasises the party's ability to carry the poor along! One must thank the CPI(M) for its new-found candour about the party's actual relationship with its traditional base among the rural poor in West Bengal .

The 'Brand Buddha' campaign in West Bengal elections repeatedly appealed to the West Bengal electorate to give the Left Front government more support and more 'courage'. The word 'courage' which occupies such a key place in the 'Brand Buddha' vocabulary obviously means the courage to defy all opposition in implementing the entire package of economic reforms from more FDI and greater privatisation to massive land acquisition and contract farming. The CPI(M) in Delhi may haggle with the Congress over the UPA's common minimum programme, in West Bengal the Left Front government runs on the basis of its common maximum partnership with the UPA government's central economic agenda of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Now that the LF has secured such a massive majority, West Bengal is all set to witness a more 'courageous' implementation of this common maximum partnership programme.

A closer look at the Assembly election results, including the West Bengal outcome, will however reveal signs that would rebut all Manmohan Singh's self-congratulatory claims. The DMK coalition's emphatic victory in Tamil Nadu, for example, has not been won on the basis of the UPA government's commitment to 'free trade' or strategic partnership with the US . It has been scripted by Karunanidhi on the basis of his promise to waive farm loans and deliver rice at Rs. 2 a kg. Such is indeed the level of mass poverty and hunger in a supposedly developed state like Tamil Nadu. Agrarian crisis and unemployment have been equally pressing concerns in elections in neighbouring Kerala as well.

Even in West Bengal , the limits to the CPI(M)'s ability to carry the poor along while catering increasingly to the rich have started becoming visible. Among the Left Front ministers who lost, two prominent losers have been the ones who held the portfolios of 'labour' and 'relief', perhaps to highlight the redundancy of these two subjects in today's Left model of governance. Some flamboyant high-tech ministers fighting on a plank of harmony between IT investment and self-employment schemes, flyovers and 'improved slums' barely managed to scrape through. Indeed, the CSDS post-poll survey talks about a 10 per cent decline in the Left Front's electoral support among agricultural labourers and other rural workers that has been compensated by a pronounced pro-Left shift among the rural rich.

Another significant feature in these elections has been the changing voting preference of large sections of Muslim voters. In Kerala, sizeable sections of Muslim voters seem to have voted for LDF candidates in many traditional Muslim League constituencies, enabling the LDF to record its biggest ever seat tally. In Assam , the Assam United Democratic Front, launched on the eve of the election by an enterprising Muslim businessman-turned-politician, walked away with as many as 10 seats. Apart from specific local factors (e.g., Muslims being branded 'foreigners' and harassed in Assam , and Muslim leaders being slighted by the Congress government), there is clearly a growing resentment within the community against the UPA government's pro-US policies.

Far from being a vindication of the UPA and its policies, the Assembly election results have thus highlighted the growing disillusionment of the people with the UPA's economic and foreign policies. More particularly, there is a simmering anger against the continuing suicides in the countryside and the UPA government's sheer callousness in tackling the serious issue of agrarian crisis. The incidence of suicides is the highest in Maharashtra , the home state of the Union Agriculture Minister who seems more preoccupied with his new role as President of the Board of Cricket Control of India! The Union Cabinet, meanwhile, is busy procuring American wheat to meet Indian hunger, a revealing new dimension of India 's strategic partnership with the US ! Indeed, can there be a more telling commentary on the UPA's commitment to the aam aadmi !