Join Left Manifesto:
Charter of Marginalisation
For the first time in Indias parliamentary history, four Left parties - CPI(M), CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc - have issued a joint manifesto. The "Left Platform", as the joint manifesto designates itself, calls upon the people to defeat the BJP and the Congress, elect the United Front to power, and increase Left representation in Parliament. As a political statement, the manifesto however says very little by way of analysis of the current political situation. Especially eloquent is its reticence on the role of the UF government, the much-acclaimed Common Minimum Programme finding just a single mention in the 20-page document! And by way of the Lefts own role it has just one small paragraph on the Left Front governments!
No wonder, the general impression among political commentators and Left watchers is that the only thing new about the Left manifesto is its debut as a joint declaration!
Since 1980, these four Left parties have an unbroken record of near-perfect seat adjustments among themselves in Lok Sabha elections. Is the joint manifesto intended to help significantly elevate that understanding, or at least public perception of it, to the level of a major alliance in national politics? Such a calculation would seem rather wishful. This is because except the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, where these parties have a strong and well-defined identity as the ruling front or alternately as the main opposition, they lack a clear and consistent identity in other states or in national politics.
If the idea was a stronger projection of the Left within the United Front, especially from the point of view of driving a better bargain in terms of allotment of seats, this also does not seem to have been fulfilled. As we go to press, the CPI and CPI(M) are nowhere near reaching a satisfactory deal over allocation of seats in states like Tamil Nadu and even Uttar Pradesh. The federal friends in the UF do not obviously share the Lefts enthusiasm for increased Left representation in Parliament!
These are however not the only questions that serious Left activists will be asking themselves about the joint manifesto. Whatever happened to the differences that have been haunting these Left parties, the CPI and CPI(M) in particular, till the other day? Have these differences been settled? And how?
There are three major questions that have often generated heated debates within the communist movement. These are questions concerning the communist parties relation with the Congress, the nature of the Lefts ties with the centrist opposition and communist participation in the central government.
Anti-Congressism: Tenuous Past and Doubtful Future
Considering that the Congress has been the ruling party at the Centre for all but five years during the first fifty years of independence and still remains the largest all-India party of the ruling classes, a line of consistent and firm opposition to the Congress, something which popularly goes by the name of "anti-Congressism", should never have been a matter of debate for the Left. Yet the two older communist parties have often been taken in by a whole range of Congress policies and positions. The eye-opening experience of the Emergency when the CPI found itself bracketed with the Congress while the CPI(M) lay effectively immobilised was an object lesson in the pitfalls of pursuing a soft line towards the Congress. Yet the 80s and 90s saw illusions about the Congress get reinforced within the "Left platform" around the myth of the Congress tradition of secularism. And the eventual coming to power of the UF with Congress backing and Left participation added a new institutional dimension to the dilemma.
The backing of the Congress was of course not free, it was secured at the cost of accommodating the entire thrust of Congress policies on the economic front. But appeasement of the Congress in terms of policies could not buy the UF a full-term insurance. And as the Congress pressure mounted, the Left could hardly counter it. It meekly surrendered before the Congress gameplan when Kesri first dethroned Deve Gowda from prime ministership. And the next time too, HKS Surjeet and Jyoti Basu had quite begun the campaign for "saving" the UF by dumping the DMK and placating the Congress. It is another thing that the regional parties still stood united and refused to buy the Congress bait.
The Left manifesto does maintain the formality of calling for a Congress defeat. But it by no means rules out another possible phase of Congress-UF collaboration at the Centre. And the Left parties cannot but be aware that with the balance tilting increasingly in favour of the Congress, any non-BJP coalition at the Centre is likely to have the Congress in the drivers seat. Behind the call for defeating the Congress, the opportunist Left leadership has indeed begun to prepare for such an eventuality.
In the Northern and Western parts of the country where the UF partners do not have more than a nominal presence, supporters of CPI and CPI(M) have been advised to support the Congress as the only "viable" option against BJP. On the eve of Sonia Gandhis eventual plunge into electioneering when Congress leaders were making a beeline to leave the party and book their place in the BJP sun, it was a disturbed HKS Surjeet who felt compelled to call the press in Delhi on December 27 to correct the media projection that the Congress was collapsing! And now that Sonia Gandhi has "challenged" the UF government to table the Bofors papers and reveal the names of the persons who had actually earned the kickback, Indrajit Gupta has rushed to the press with the clarification that the Left had only accused Rajiv Gandhi and his government of attempting to cover up the shady deal and not of making any money out of it!
Left Platform within UF: Spineless Submergence
The nature of the Lefts ties with the centrist camp is another important question of communist tactics. During the Morarji Desai and V.P. Singh governments, the Left Front was not party to any formal alliance with the Janata Party or Dal. But now the Left is an integral component of the United Front. In fact, it is the biggest bloc within the UF; the non-Left forces comprising several regional parties and a pair of quasi-national parties are politically not as cohesive as the Left. Yet for all its relative numerical strength and political cohesion, Left influence over the UF has always been rather minimal. If anything, the common minimum programme of the UF and its selective implementation was an incontrovertible testimony to the marginalisation of the Left.
The Left manifesto certifies the UF as an "alternative to the discredited Congress and a firm secular response to the communal platform of the BJP." Now if anti-poor economic policies and megabuck corruption were the two key factors responsible for discrediting the Congress, how did the UF with its Chidambarams and Laloo Yadavs fare any better on these two counts? The Left platform however does not utter a single word of criticism in this connection. Even after the CPI and CPI(M) belatedly distanced themselves from the scam-tainted Laloo Prasad government in Bihar, they could not get the UF to adopt any firm stand against the corrupt Laloo regime which could have even remotely justified their advocacy of the UF for "corruption-free governance and accountability." In fact, Laloo Yadavs camp followers continued in the UF cabinet even as he floated a new party and was jailed in the wake of the fodder scam.
And as for the firmness of the UFs so-called secular response, let us only remember that in Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka, former JD forces are today among the staunchest allies of the saffron brigade while IK Gujral himself is seeking re-entry to Parliament with the blessings of the Akali-BJP combine. It is ironical that while a person like Mulayam Singh Yadav could afford to publicly question and criticise the Gujral decision, the Left platform should maintain a studied silence. In fact, some leaders of CPI and CPI(M) have sought to trivialise the whole issue by describing it as a measure of Gujrals widespread popularity!
Paradoxically, therefore, the publication of the joint Left manifesto does not herald any new chapter of Left assertion within the UF. If anything, it only signals the CPI(M)-led Left platforms growing submergence into the UF.
The Participation Predicament: To Be In Or Not To Be
Finally, there is this all important question of communist participation in a bourgeois government at the centre. Only the other day there was such a major debate in the CPI(M) Central Committee on this issue. And to Left activists and Left watchers this was the last dividing line between the CPI and CPI(M). To the conscious activist and perceptive observer, the line was, however, quite thin. The CPI(M) and two of its Left partners did not join the UF government, but they were no less integral parts of the UF and its institutional governing mechanisms than their participating partners. And much of the opposition within the CPI(M) to the question of Jyoti Basus becoming prime minister was centred on the perceived lack of the CPI(M)s and the Lefts strength to influence the government and not on the permissibility or otherwise of communist participation in a bourgeois government. Nevertheless, at the end of the day the CPI(M) had taken the hard decision not to join the UF government.
What has the Left manifesto got to say on this crucial question? For obvious reasons, it does not risk saying anything explicit, but the silence is quite eloquent. For example, while reiterating well-known Left positions concerning different policies and reforms, all through, it uses a very flexible word to describe the Lefts own role in relation to these positions. The Left, we are told, will "work" for them! It is for the reader to guess how and in which arena this "right to work" is to be exercised. Consider another hint. The brief introduction to the manifesto recommends the case of the UF government in the following words: "India will be governed by coalitions in the coming days. The question is what type of coalition? The United Front has proved its worth as a united and stable coalition which represents the rich diversity of the people of India." And the manifesto ends with the assurance that every vote for the Left parties "will be a mandate for ... ensuring a stable UF government which will work for growth with equity."
The CPI(M) seems to have indeed made a lot of progress on the question of participation in power at the Centre over the last one year. 1997 had begun with Jyoti Basus historic interview in which he had called his partys decision preventing him from becoming the prime minister of the UF government a "historic blunder." The polit bureau, we still remember, had rushed back to the press declaring the issue "a closed chapter". Basu was of course not censured, and towards the end of the year as the party was preparing for its now postponed Calcutta Congress, Basu was back reopening the closed chapter in every conference and public meeting. And the December meeting of the CPI(M) Central Committee effectively endorsed his stand by reopening the agenda and declaring that the issue would be decided after the elections!
Is it just another pragmatic compromise on the part of the anti-participation section of the leadership? Or, are we witnessing the beginning of the disappearance of the last thin line of demarcation between the "social-democratic, right opportunist" line of the CPI and the "correct revolutionary" line of the CPI(M)? We will soon know. Comrade Surjeet of course tell us categorically that the party has changed its position in the sense that it no longer rules out participation at the Centre the way it used to do earlier. And newspaper reports suggest that according to the new wisdom of the party, a collective Left strength of 60 in Parliament (increased Left representation?! The "Left platform" has almost always had fifty-odd seats) would provide the much-awaited "position of strength" on the basis of which the Left can participate in the government with a decisive voice. And never to miss an opportunity for claiming the upper hand, Comrade AB Bardhan has begun to assert that the participation of the CPI in the Gowda and Gujral cabinets has been a pathbreaking groundwork!
Towards the end, the manifesto briefly talks about the achievements of the Left-led governments of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and states that "The Left wants these pro-people, democratic policies to be on the agenda of the Centre." Discounting our consistent critique of the actual role and impact of these governments for a moment, are we to believe that the achievements of Left-led state governments can be transferred to the Centre without Left leadership? And if Left leadership is indeed crucial, can the Left ever establish that leadership over the United Front by pursuing its current approach? If the experience of the Gowda and Gujral governments is anything to go by, the Left can only claim a limited credit for temporarily stalling the bill providing for the opening up of the insurance sector and not for pushing through any progressive legislation. Is this what we are supposed to understand by Left leadership?
Theoretically, the Left platform seems to have fallen prey to the dangerous doctrine of division of labour preached by bourgeois politicians. According to the manifesto, "The Left is the guardian of the interests of the working people, it fights for economic policies which promote self-reliant growth, employment, equal opportunities and reduction of inequalities." This is precisely the slot allotted to the Left in any scheme of bourgeois politics. The only difference is that while bourgeois allies are prepared to glorify it as the hallowed role of the conscience-keeper, opponents and detractors describe the Left as a nuisance and noise-maker.
The Left Platform as presented in the joint manifesto has only managed to truncate and emasculate the Left agenda. It is a recipe for institutionalisation of the present state of marginalisation of the Left and not for breaking any new grounds. The Left must understand and make people aware of the full breadth and depth of the growing rightist offensive and use the elections and all other political means and avenues for enhancing the fighting capacity of its ranks. The Left Platform, on the contrary, seems to have fallen for a few quick loaves and crumbs of office. Far from asserting Left leadership, it is only trying to master the role of an ideal junior partner, exaggerating the strength and worth of the UF and glossing over all its lapses and betrayals. Unfortunately, making the marketing of the dubious brand called UF the main mission of the Left Platform can only mean buying a one-way ticket to a protracted recession.