A Primer for the Indian Elections
In March, 788 million Indians will be eligible to cast their ballots in the general election. For the 15h Lok Sabha (Parliament) elections in 2009, about half the eligible voters went to the polls, which means that almost four hundred million people might vote for the 543 parliamentary seats this year. They will be able to vote for one of two major alliances or the regional and Left parties who form the third pole in the Indian polity.
India’s Three Blocs.
The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is led by the Congress Party, founded in 1885. The UPA has been in power since 2004. It is a center-right alliance, oscillating between a firm commitment to neo-liberal economic policy and a mild form of social welfare. Neo-liberalism’s agenda includes privatization, which means that the government has been the auctioneer of important state assets – it was in this role that the UPA mired itself in a quicksand of corruption scandals. Garroted by the Gandhi family (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), the Congress as the leading force in the UPA has tried to emphasize its social welfare schemes to no avail. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, is personable but vacuous.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), founded in 1980, leads the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It is a right-wing alliance that is driven entirely by the politics of the BJP, itself the political arm of India’s fascist sector. Aware that its genuine politics of hatred for anyone who is not an upper caste Hindu will not work in India’s diverse soil, the BJP has attempted to put itself forward as incorruptible and the better party to preach the gospel of the free market. Its standard-bearer, Narendra Modi, carries with him a bilious record as chief minister of Gujarat. He says that Gujarat is a model for development, which is of course correct if “Gujarat” simply refers to its capitalist class; others have not fared well at all. Modi is also aware that his own background – as the cheerleader for the 1999 anti-Christian pogrom in Dangs and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom across the state – is a liability; he would prefer to talk about higher education and jobs, although every once in a while the smile drops and the viciousness is evident. An explosive article in Caravan by Leena Gita Reghunath implicates Modi in the career of Swami Aseemananda, the mastermind of the 2006-08 bomb blasts in India. Modi’s supporters are deaf to this record, to their own peril.
The third bloc comprises the regional parties and the Left Front. To win a majority in the parliament one of the blocs must win 272 seats. In the last election, the Congress alone got 203 seats and the BJP won 117 seats. It is very unlikely for either of these parties to get the 272 seats by themselves. They must draw in the regional parties into their alliances. Each season the regional parties play hard to get, jockeying for the greatest spoils before they commit to one or the other bloc. These regional parties typically have little problem with neo-liberal policy but they are not as keen on the BJP’s fascism. It is what has saved the lackadaisical Congress. This year, a group of regional parties will once more try to form a Third Front, which will be backed by the Left Front. Three parties from northern India have formed an alliance, as the Left Front ties up with one party from southern India. Everything is in flux. A new regional party – the Aam Aadmi Party – made a spectacular electoral gain in Delhi. It is an anti-corruption populist force that wishes to enter the parliamentary elections in other states. It is not clear how they will do.
The Left Front.
If there is to be a Third Front, its backbone will be the Left Front. The Left in India can be found in struggles across the country – from the fight against Khap Panchayats in Haryana to the anti-caste fight for temple entry in Tamil Nadu (for a good introduction, see Elisabeth Armstrong’s Gender and Neoliberalism: The All India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics, 2013). But electorally, the Left Front makes an impact in only three states – Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. In the last election, in 2009, the Left Front suffered a decisive defeat, winning only 25 seats (down from 58). The reasons for this defeat are complex. In West Bengal, they were clearest. The Left had governed here since 1977, and had over the thirty-four years picked up the habits of power despite periodic attempts at “rectification.” Two major setbacks occurred for the Left over its industrial and land acquisition policy. An attempt to set up an auto factory in Singur backfired when the Left failed to build the consent of all those whose land needed to be procured. The disaster of Singur was built upon by the entire opposition in rural Nandigram. Claiming that there was a land acquisition notice, an alliance of the armed Maoists and the current ruling Trinamul Congress Party (TMC) seized the area and barricaded it against state officials. The police entered Nandigram, killing 14 people in the bargain. At that time, the Left Front was blamed for the police firing. A Central Bureau of Investigation report now shows that the government was not implicated in the shooting. Nonetheless, Singur and Nandigram sunk the Left in the elections.
Once in power in West Bengal from 2011, the TMC ruled with an iron hand. Between May 2011 and mid-January 2014, its people killed 139 cadres of the Left Front’s main constituent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Most recently, on February 6, eight TMC men in Howrah kidnapped and raped two women (ages 27 and 43) for being members of the CPI-M. “You have to join the Trinamul,” they apparently told the women. “We have been telling you to do so for some time, but you have been ignoring us.” One of the women recalled that they were told not to go to the February 9 mass rally called by the Left Front in Kolkata. The TMC’s leader, Mamata Banerjee, has been tone deaf to this incident, and to the epidemic of violence against women in the state. There has been a 60 per cent increase in rape in the state since 2011, when the TMC took power (according to the National Crime Records Bureau). This is twice the jump in national statistics.
Despite the intimidation of the TMC, over a million women and men gathered in Kolkata’s Brigade Ground on February 9 for an enormous show of strength of the Left Front. This has been the largest rally of the election season. Former Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, said that this has been the biggest rally he has ever seen. Party members of the four constituent parties of the Left Front joined sympathizers – they stood side by side with those who were simply fed up with the TMC. Reports of violent attacks against those who came to the rally began to come in as soon as the rally ended.
A Policy Alternative.
The Left expects to do better in West Bengal than it did in the parliamentary elections of 2009 and the state elections in 2011. If the Left Front is able to win more than the 15 (out of 42) parliamentary seats that it won in 2009, it will be able to leverage those numbers toward a progressive Third Front. Or at least hold the balance in a fractured parliament.
The Left has indicated that it is not interested simply in an alternative front in Parliament. The point is to push for a shift in the policy trajectory. In an editorial for People’s Democracy, the CPI-M leadership elaborated on this distinction,
“The Indian people, if they want to change the situation for the better, will have to use this opportunity provided by the general elections to bring about a political alternative that is capable of implementing alternative policies. An alternative policy trajectory that ensures universal rights and not entitlements to food security; free health care; universal free education; right to employment or adequate unemployment allowance; and universal schemes for the care of the elderly and differently abled, at least, must form the core of such an alternative. This trajectory is preferable not only in humanitarian terms but makes eminent economic sense as well. By thus empowering the people, their purchasing power will substantially increase generating the much-needed additional aggregate domestic demand which, in turn, will provide the impetus for manufacturing growth and, hence, employment. This would set in chain a motion of sustainable and more equitable growth trajectory. That there are resources to sustain such a strategy is obvious if the humongous corruption scams are prevented and the massive tax concessions to the rich are instead used for public investments to build our much-needed infrastructure generating substantial new employment. What the country needs is a political alternative that can put in place such an alternative policy trajectory.”
There is little expectation that the current political calculus can produce such a clear policy shift, but if the Left were able to increase its electoral strength it would be able to push as hard as possible in this direction. Anything less than this would be ruinous for the Indian people.
Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).