Was the Indian Election a Debacle for the Left? If So, Why?

In the recently concluded 2009 general elections to the lower house of the parliament (Lok Sabha), the social democratic, parliamentary left in India, composed of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and a bunch of smaller left-wing parties, suffered  the severest electoral thrashing in a long time. This year, the CPM won a total of only 16 parliamentary seats. As compared to its performance in the last general elections in 2004 this is a decline of 27 seats. The CPI, on the other hand, won 4 seats in this time around, suffering a net decline of 6 parliamentary seats from its position in 2004. Does this mean that the Indian population has rejected even the mildly progressive policies that the social democratic left tried to defend at the central level? Is this a mandate for the ruling Congress party and by extension for neoliberalism, its pet project since the early 1990s?

The facts don’t sustain such a claim.

A careful analysis of the results show that this was an electoral rebuke to the social democratic left but not to social democratic policies; on the other hand, just as in 2004 when the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party’s “shinning India” slogan was decisively rejected by the populace, this is a mandate against neoliberalism and for welfare-oriented policies. To the extent that the Congress was pushed by the social democratic left to implement such policies, it can possibly be interpreted as an indirect endorsement of Congress’s late-in-the day populism.

The first misinterpretation that is gaining ground is the alleged existence of a “wave” in favor of the centrist Congress party which swept it to power, overcoming the ubiquitous current of anti-incumbency observed in Indian politics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Despite having won 206 parliamentary seats, the Congress merely won 28.55 per cent of the votes polled in 2009, increasing it by just about 2 per centage points from 2004. An overall share of 29 per cent of the total votes polled at the national level can hardly be interpreted as a “massive wave”; besides, this overall increase also hides substantial decreases in vote share (and seats) in several important states like Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

The second misinterpretation going the rounds assumes that this general election saw the definite demise of regional parties and all federalist tendencies of the Indian populace; the people voted overwhelmingly for national parties, the argument goes, because they want stability. Whether people desire stability or not, the fact is that the populace did not reject regional parties in favor of national parties. This can be seen by looking at the share of votes going to the Congress and the BJP taken together: according to provisional figures released by the Election Commission of India, the combined vote share of the Congress and BJP in fact declined from 48.69 per cent in 2004 to 47.35 per cent in 2009.

Social Democratic Performance

How did the social democratic left parties perform in terms of the share of votes polled? At the national level, the CPM lost only marginally in terms of the share of votes polled. The decline was from 5.66 per cent in 2004 to 5.33 per cent this year; the CPI, on the other hand, gained marginally at the national level, increasing its share of votes from 1.41 to 1.43 per cent. Thus, going by these national figures, there is no evidence of any trend against their opposition, however feeble, to the neoliberal policies of the UPA-led Central government.

But the national level figures hide many interesting state-level variations; hence we must also look at state-level data to get a more complete picture. There is another reason why we need to supplement national level with state-level analysis: since the social democratic left is prominent only in the three states of Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, the national figures are not very relevant to assessing their electoral prospects.

How did the social democrats perform in the different states? Three tendencies can be observed in the data. First, the social democratic left managed to increase its vote share in a few states: Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Apart from Manipur, of course, the total vote share of the SDL in these states remains insignificant; hence, the increase in the vote share did not even remotely translate into changes in seats. Second, the social democratic left lost its share of votes polled in a large number of states: Assam, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, West Bengal, and Jharkhand. The percentage declines in Punjab and Jharkhand were very large, though that did not affect the reckoning in terms of seats because the SDL did not have seats to start with, i.e., in 2004. On the other hand, the sharp decline in the vote share in Tripura did not translate, fortunately for the social democratic left, into any decline in seats. Third, the states where the loss of vote share wreaked havoc for the reckoning in terms of seats were Kerala and West Bengal: in Kerala, the share of votes going to the social democrats declined from 39.41 per cent in 2004 to 37.92 per cent in 2009; in West Bengal, the corresponding share declined from 50.72 per cent in 2004 to 43.3 per cent in 2009. The bulk of the decrease in  national vote share was concentrated in the electorally important states of Kerala and West Bengal, the prime left bastions, whereas the increase in vote share was spread out across states where the SDL is electorally marginal.

So,  why was the bulk of the decrease in vote share for the social democratic left concentrated in Kerala and West Bengal? The clue to an answer is provided by the fact that both states, Kerala and West Bengal, currently have social democratic governments, led by the CPM. In both states, the state governments have, over the past few years, increasingly accepted, adopted and pushed neoliberal economic policies, often in the name of development and industrialization.
This led to the emergence of a seemingly paradoxical situation: the social democratic left opposed, however feebly, the continued adoption of neoliberal polices at the level of the central government, while the same set of policies were aggressively pursued in the states where they were in power. The debacle of the social democrats in the two most electorally important states of Kerala and West Bengal can, therefore, be read as a forceful rejection of this doublespeak and hypocrisy. The rejection of the social democrats at the level of these two states, moreover, dovetails into the overall mandate in favor of progressive and social democratic policies, and against the neoliberal turn, at the national level. Of course there were other local factors, both in West Bengal and in Kerala, that overlaid this broad rejection of the neoliberal turn and turned the mandate decisively against them in both these states. Before we look at some of these factors, especially for West Bengal where the crash of the social democratic left was the most stunning, a comment about the so-called national “wave” in favour of the Congress is in order.

Social Democrats help the Congress

The so-called nationwide “wave” in favor of Congress, if there was one, resulted to a large extent from the slew of populist policies that it adopted over its last few years in office, pushed towards this by the social democrats. These include the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the step-up in public investment in agriculture, the debt relief program for farmers, the Right to Information Act 2005, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006, the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Bill 2008, the setting up of the Sacchar Committee to inquire into the continued marginalization of Muslims in the country. The Congress cashed the benefits of this populist swing electorally, claiming it to be its own policies whereas, in truth, the social democratic left was largely instrumental in pushing for these policies at the central level.

Other similar policies pushed for by the social democrats include: opposition to financial sector reforms (pensions, insurance), opposition to outright privatization of the public sector, privatization of health care and education. These defensive actions by the social democratic left have partially limited the unbridled power of capital to exploit labor and have provided some relief to the mass of the working people in India. It is, therefore, no surprise that corporate India is exultant at the social democrats’ electoral disaster this month. The stock market in Bombay erupted immediately after the results were out. Trading had to be stopped for a while to deal with the unprecedented euphoria. As many media reports in India show, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and other business groups have already started preparing their “wish-list” of reforms, by which they mean another round of neoliberal policy onslaughts on the common people. Naturally enough, land reforms does not figure in this wish-list of reforms.

The social democratic left’s ability to counter the Congress’ claim that the populist thrust was a result of a progressive shift in the party, in reality fiercely opposed by entrenched interests within the Congress, was severely limited by its actuakl, de facto record in the states where it was in power: Kerala and West Bengal. Thus, paradoxically, while it was largely responsible for creating the populist shift in the Congress party and thereby creating support in its favor, it could not transform this effort into any substantial electoral advantage for itself; and this was largely because of its doublespeak and hypocrisy, saying one thing at the central level and doing exactly the opposite at the state level.
Probably nothing brings out this better than the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The NREGA, which provides a guarantee of a minimum of 100 days of work to the rural poor, came into effect on February 02, 2006 in 200 of India’s poorest districts. This provision was originally brought to the fore by grassroots-level mass movements in Rajasthan and other states in India, and was later adopted and forcefully pushed by the social democrats at the central level. While the NREGA has been constantly attacked in the mainstream press as a waste of resources and a useless policy initiative, in reality it has managed to create substantial benefits for the rural proletariat and poor peasants; even though there is still a lot of room for improvement, the limited pro-people initiative represented by the NREGA has managed to improve the lives of the rural poor by putting a floor on agricultural wages and assuring some days of employment, both of which resulted in increased rural incomes.

West Bengal: A Closer Look

How did the NREGA fare in West Bengal and Kerala compared to other states? In 2006-07, the person-days of NREGA employment generated per rural household amounted  6 in West Bengal and and even more wretched 3 in Kerala, with both states figuring in the list of the 3 worst performers. Compared to this, the all-India average was 17 person-days. Chhattisgarh generated 34, Madhya Pradesh 56, Assam 70 and Rajasthan 77 person-days. A similar picture emerges for the next year too: in 2007-08, West Bengal generated 8 person-days and Kerala 6 person-days, much below the all-India average of 16 person-days. The dismal performance of the state government led the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), a non-party, registered trade union of agricultural workers, to file a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court on non implementation of the 100 days work guarantee scheme in West Bengal. In sum, therefore, the two states where the social democrats were in power saw the worst implementation of the NREGA!

Coming back to the factors specific to West Bengal that led to this electoral disaster for the social democratic left, we must complement the story of the state government’s surrender to neoliberalism with its fatal arrogance. Failure in the implementation of the NREGA went hand-in-hand with other overt neoliberal policy moves: privatization of health care, privatization of education,  full-scale assault on the public distribution system, and an aggressive state-sponsored attack on farmers in a bid to “acquire”  agricultural land for a neoliberal industrialization drive. Singur and Nandigram stand as symbols, at the same time, of both this attack by the state on behalf of corporate capital and also of the fierce resistance to this brutality by the poor peasants and landless laborers. The arrogance of the state government was in repellent display during the “re-capture” of Nandigram in March 2007, a violent attack on the people opposing forcible land acquisition, and also in the manner it dealt with the case of Rizwanur Rahman. Against a backdrop of endemically dismal conditions for the Muslims in the state, the insensitivity displayed in the Rizwanur Rahman case increased the fury of the common Muslim population against the social democratic state government. Is it so difficult to see, then, why some of the districts in West Bengal where the social democrats performed wretchedly, like North and South  Paraganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum, are also ones with a  relatively high proportion of Muslims?

At this point, we need to closely scrutinize an alternative argument that is going the social democratic rounds. This argument runs something like this: the Left Front made a great tactical mistake in severing ties with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Center on the issue of the nuclear deal with the USA; this allowed the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress (INC) to forge an alliance in West Bengal; this alliance was instrumental in consolidating the anti-Left votes and directly resulted in the electoral reverses of the social democrats in West Bengal.

Alas, the argument does not hold water If it were true that the social democratic debacle was fueled mainly by the consolidation of anti-Left votes (because of the Congress-TMC alliance), it would mean the following: the social democratic left’s share of votes polled would remain relatively unchanged between 2004 and 2009. This is a straightforward testable implication of the above argument. What does the evidence say on this?

There was a big decline in the share of votes that went to the social democratic Left Front: in 2004, the Left Front had garnered 50.72 per cent of the votes polled; in 2009, the corresponding vote share fell to 43.56 per cent. While it is difficult to accurately see how this 7 per cent statewide decline is distributed across all the parliamentary constituencies because of the 2008 delimitation of constituencies, we can nonetheless figure out the changes in vote shares in those that remained relatively unchanged by the delimitation process: Balurghat saw a marginal decline of 0.49 per cent, Raigunj a decline of 3.13 per cent, Alipurduars a decline of 4.48 per cent, Cooch Behar a decline of 6.88 per cent, Darjeeling a decline of 7.99 per cent, Birbhum a decline of 9.65 per cent and Bolpur witnessed a massive decline of 15.65 per cent. Can we, in the face of this overwhelming evidence of a massive rejection of the social democratic left, still stick to the story of the supposed consolidation of anti-Left votes as the primary reason behind the debacle?

The social democratic left played an important role in slowing down the juggernaut of neoliberalism in India through its intervention in the formation of the Common Minimum Program of the UPA; and this was largely possible, given the political situation five years ago, because of its sizable parliamentary presence at the central level. If nothing, the reaction of corporate India to the electoral debacle of the social democrats is proof of the partial efficacy of its past interventions. But there are at least two serious problems for a strategy that focuses on primarily on electoral politics, as the social democratic left does.

First, most of its interventions, even though salutary, are at best defensive actions and therefore extremely limited from any long-term left political perspective; the ruling classes set the agenda and move forward with a concrete program of neoliberal reforms and the social democrats reacts to that agenda. It tries to halt the speed of the reforms, tries to win a battle here or there. In such a scenario, the best outcome can only be a return to the status quo, not a move forward towards a socialist future. Is it difficult for the social democratic left to see the inherent and long-term limitations of its strategy?

This brings us to the second, and related, problem of social democratic strategy. The fact that the Communist parties, now part of what I have called the social democratic left, have lost the political offensive in the context of the class struggle in India also finds reflection in their over-emphasis on electoral politics, to the virtual exclusion of all non-electoral struggles. Over the last two decades, there is not one significant nationwide non-electoral struggle that it initiated or led; all its attention and energy has been fixed towards how to maintain its electoral position in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. More often than not, it has been willing to enter into opportunistic and unprincipled alliances to attain short-term electoral goals, little realizing that this opportunism leads to long-term political setbacks. At times it has even gone with the right-wing BJP to keep the centrist Congress out of power, quickly reversing the logic at the next moment and aligning with the Congress to defend secularism. Caught in these endless electoral antics and working within a framework whose rules have been set by the ruling classes, it has gradually distanced itself from its programmatic concerns of a people’s democratic revolution. To recover its potency and relevance, it must refashion itself by forging links with the rising tide of revolutionary mass movements in India against the neoliberal offensive and overcome its obsession with electoral politics. Of course if post-poll statements of the social democratic bigwigs in West Bengal, like Biman Bose, are anything to go by, they have decided to do exactly the opposite: justify the electoral debacle on external factors, avoid any serious rethinking and continue with elections as the primary focus of their politics.

DEEPANKAR BASU is Assistant Professor of Economics at the Colorado State University. He can be reached at Deepankar.Basu@colostate.edu