The May 13 Mandate: Lessons for the Left

Election outcomes in India continue to surprise poll analysts. Even though most exit polls and post-poll surveys had quite accurately predicted the landslide against the CPI(M) in West Bengal, nobody had predicted that Tamil Nadu would witness an even bigger landslide against the DMK-Congress alliance or that the UDF would come to power in Kerala with the slenderest of margins, or for that matter the Congress would have such a smooth sailing in a most fragmented and diverse polity like the one in Assam.
The Congress would like us to believe that the May 13 mandate is a big yes for the Congress and the UPA government at the Centre, and the opposition should now allow the UPA to complete the remaining three years of its present term without any hindrance. This is a most fanciful and distorted reading of the May 13 mandate. Tamil Nadu was the biggest theatre of the 2G scam and the Congress model of coalition politics, and there the DMK-Congress alliance has suffered a total rout. In neighbouring Kerala, the UDF has won power with the barest of margins and that too thanks to the good showing of Congress allies like the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress.
In Puducherry, the Congress-DMK alliance has been voted out by the NRC-AIADMK combine. And as if this was not enough, the Congress tasted humiliating defeats in the Andhra by-elections where the widow and son of YSR have posed a challenge to the Congress that could well assume the proportions of the NTR era when the TDP emerged victorious by pitting Telugu pride against the dictatorial domination of the Congress High Command. It is only in Assam where the Congress has really won a big victory and that too because instead of pursuing the typical Congress strategy of Operation Greenhunt or the AFSPA regime as witnessed in Manipur and Kashmir, the Congress in Assam is playing the Gogoi card of ‘politics of peace’.
Contrary to what the Congress claims, the May 13 mandate has served a serious warning to the Congress and exposed its utter vulnerability on the two most explosive issues of the day – price-rise and corruption in high places.
The BJP had little direct stake in these elections except perhaps in Assam. The outcome shows the BJP has lost out badly in Assam and its attempt to forge a stronger presence has also failed in the remaining states. Yet the BJP is quite jubilant primarily because the CPI(M) has been routed in West Bengal. According to BJP ideologues, the ouster of the CPI(M)-led government in West Bengal after 34 long years is a sure proof of the irrelevance of Left ideology! Moreover, the BJP believes that with the weakening of the CPI(M) the ‘third front’ phenomenon will fade away leaving the electoral arena increasingly bipolar where the BJP-led coalition will emerge as the exclusive or principal beneficiary of any decline in the electoral fortunes of the Congress and its allies!
Regardless of how the Congress and the BJP interpret the May 13 mandate, Left activists and well-wishers all over the country will surely have to make sense of the poll outcome in West Bengal. The writing on Bengal walls was clear to the entire country except perhaps the CPI(M) leadership in Alimuddin Street and AKG Bhawan. Since the 2009 Lok Sabha debacle, the CPI(M) has been talking of a vague ‘rectification’ leading to a sure ‘turnaround’, but the truth of both ‘rectification’ and ‘turnaround’ has been exposed mercilessly in West Bengal. In Kerala, if the CPI(M) managed to put up a creditable performance, it was clearly because of the credibility and goodwill enjoyed by VS Achuthanandan thanks to his image of a crusader both within and outside the CPI(M). In West Bengal, it is Mamata Banerjee who has developed this image while the CPI(M) leaders, in stark contrast, appear to be completely cut off from the reality of the state and the mood of the people, their anger and aspirations. The arrogance displayed by most CPI(M) leaders in the course of the election campaign and even after this huge defeat can only be attributed to their growing disconnect from everything that stands for the glorious legacy of the communist movement in this country.
After the Singur episode, there were two strands of critical opinion within the CPI(M) in West Bengal. One strand saw Singur as an administrative failure and pitted the success of the Rajarhat model against the failure of the Singur misadventure. Rajarhat is a new township developed on the outskirt of Kolkata where land acquisition took place gradually and surreptitiously, suppressing every opposition with brute force and taking most opposition parties on board, thereby manufacturing consent through complicity. The architect of this model was Gautam Dev, the arrogant propaganda bomb unleashed by the CPI(M) in the 2011 elections, whose aggressive propaganda blitzkrieg may have galvanized a few camp-followers but surely put off many more, driving more and more people towards the TMC camp. Dev has been a huge failure and the loudest liability of the CPI(M) in the 2011 elections.
The other critical voice which remained suppressed all through was that of the land reforms minister Abdur Razzak Molla who had been consistently critical of the Left Front government’s attempts to subvert the land ceiling legislation and push for mega industrialization through forcible land acquisition. It is interesting to note that while most CPI(M) ministers have been trounced in these elections, Abdur Razzak Molla has been a rare exception who has retained his seat. Indeed, for all the CPI(M)’s brave rhetoric of land reforms, land reforms ministers had remained the most marginalised and suppressed in the Left Front cabinets and provided some of the most authentic critical voices from within the CPI(M). The late Benoy Chowdhury, the former land reforms minister, was the first to publicly slam the growth of the contractor syndrome under Left rule, and now Abdur Razzak Molla has come out openly against the CPI(M)’s subservience to big capital at the cost of its rural support base.
Some people have begun to liken the ouster of the Left Front government in West Bengal with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mamata Banerjee and her colleagues are already talking about a second independence of West Bengal! By all indications, the parties of the ruling classes and the dominant media are gunning for a fierce all-out campaign against the Left. This campaign must be resisted and defeated. And the best way to do this is by reviving the Left movement both within West Bengal and beyond. In 1977 the CPI(M) had come to power on the plank of democracy and it had consolidated its rule with the help of a package of rural reforms. More than three decades later, the CPI(M) finds itself defeated and discredited precisely because of its renegacy on the question of democracy, progressive rural reforms and people’s struggles.

If the CPI(M) has suffered such a humiliating defeat in West Bengal, it is certainly not because of the CPI(M)’s adherence to any ‘outdated Left dogma’. The CPI(M) in West Bengal had embraced the  neo-liberal policies without any qualms, the Chief Minister telling the whole world that his brief was to build corporate capitalism in West Bengal. The CPI(M) has had to pay the electoral price for championing the neoliberal ‘development’ model and abandoning the agenda of land reforms halfway. However much anti-communist propagandists and communist detractors may try and paint the West Bengal verdict as a mass rejection of Left ideology, the fact remains that the people in West Bengal have just voted out an arrogant regime that had begun to trample upon the people’s basic democratic rights in the name of ‘rapid development’ and ‘mega industrialisation’. No matter how the CPI(M) reviews this defeat and what lessons it draws from this debacle, Left activists will surely draw on this experience and learn the right lessons to carry forward the Left movement with renewed strength and resolve.