Withering of The Alternative Front

We are more or less 12 hours away from the results of the Indian election. The exit polls are out now, and there is a huge swirl of speculation around at this time. I am trying to follow NDTV, though they are now mostly showing footage of 2004 because there is actually nothing to be shown. This wait is most agonising, especially because this is a watershed election and the results will have a long standing impact on our country.

This is also the perfect time to indulge in a little speculation. In a private blog like this, there is no fear of being off the mark - in fact, that indeed is the point about this freedom. So far, the exit poll data and all the commentators are pointing to one obvious thing, which we indeed knew much before all this had started - that the Third Front, a so called opportunistic amalgamation of self-important parties led by the communists will wither away even before the results are announced.

So far, various parties, who allied with the communists, have already held several rounds of discussion with centrist Congress and right-wing BJP. From the noises they are making, it obviously seems clear that they do not see any chances of their pre-poll dream, of creating a non-Congress, non-BJP government. Add to that the possibility that the communist parties themselves will see a severe erosion of their seats, and one gets to see the end of the road for left influence on Indian politics [leaving out, indeed, the role played by various revolutionary parties, which is actually growing in influence].

This is indeed worth discussing, because the communists did much better than expected in 2004 elections, sweeping the elections in West Bengal and Kerala, and also picking up odd seats in other states. Indeed, 2004 marked the pinnacle of achievement of left parliamentary politics in India, and the left parties became kingmakers and their support were crucial to the formation of the government. The fact that they did not join the government itself was a matter of their choice; they could have easily joined and picked up important ministries. Such was their influence that they got the speaker's seat in the parliament, traditionally a preserve for the ruling party. They played their hand to the fullest extent, manipulating the government policy in every step and 'blackmailing' the cabinet.

It almost seems that they overplayed their hand and vastly overestimated the patience of their core voters in West Bengal and Kerala. The government in Kerala was plagued by infighting between the Chief Minister and the Party Leader from before the election and the central committee failed to discipline either of them effectively. The West Bengal administration, in power for 30 odd years, suffered from lack of leadership and ideas, and though the squabbling was not as obvious as in Kerala, one could sense the administration trying to pursue several paths at once. Beside that, the hypocrisy, the hallmark of parliamentary left politics in India, have become clear in West Bengal, the government started on an industrialization drive and acquired land from peasants whereas the same party was agitating against the same practise elsewhere in India. The state of West Bengal, a politically conscious state suffering from lack of development for many years, needed new direction and leadership; what they got is some stale packaging of Stalinist industrialization and showtime politicking.

However, the waning of real left influence started when Prakash Karat, the doctrinaire General Secretary of CPIM, staked his party against the Indo-US nuclear deal which the Congress government was pursuing for many years. In what eventually became a test of character and leadership, and transformed the image of the usually docile Manmohan Singh, the administration called his bluff and stood their ground. The speaker, a veteran left politician, defied the party command and refused to step down and vote against the government. And, to make matters worse, despite some parliamentary theatrics from a clueless BJP, the government won the trust vote handily and reduced the left leadership to a laughing stock.

Almost as a matter of revenge, then, Mr. Karat tried to put a third front together. The idea of non-Congress, non-BJP coalition is not new. In fact, such a formation is full of possibility in the context of current, fractured politics of India. The idea was originally floated by left leadership and some of the leading regional politicians like N T Rama Rao in the late 80s, and under the stewardship of Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjit, two CPIM leaders and Mr. Karat's supposed mentors, the Third Front did become a potent force by the middle 90s. This seemed a good year to bring the Third Front back from the dead indeed; this is a bad year in the middle of a global recession, terrorist attacks and weak and divisive BJP leadership. But then, as it is becoming evident now, the execution was botched from the word go, and I would expect this whole experiment to completely unravel by the time I shall wake up tomorrow.

So, I feel tempted to write a premature obituary to the idea of the Prakash Karat Front. It is worth thinking why people moved away from them, and I can think of several reasons:

1. The Third Front looked churlish from the word go. It was an opportunistic amalgamation of candidates with Prime Ministerial ambitions. It had H D Deve Gowda, whose astrologer told him that he would be the PM again; Bahin Mayawati, who tried to position herself as the Dalit voice despite her splendid records of corruption and vast wealth; Chandrababu Naidu, who deserves his place in the political Madam Tussuad's but no longer at the ballots; and Jayalalitha, who kept talking to all parties to find the biggest bargains. It displayed the political bankruptcy of left politics in India and the cluelessness of its leadership.

2. In the middle of a difficult time, people look for strong, decisive leadership. Manmohan Singh displayed his character by not giving in to left blackmail during the US deal debate. Besides, he obviously have the CV to prove competence and political experience. Despite a bumbling Advani and a terrible ideology, BJP leaders could demonstrate a singular identity and decisiveness regarding the problems of terrorism. The left had no answers to either terrorism or the economic problem; so they were not even counted in the debate.

3. The left had earned a reputation of pointless politicking. They shied away from taking the Prime Minister's office when an offer was made to them in mid-90s. This was indeed the 'Himalayan blunder', as the possible candidate that time, Jyoti Basu, called it later. The theoreticians like Mr. Karat argued that time the constitution of the communist party does not allow it to participate in the government. He somehow held onto that line of thinking in 2004 and desisted from participating in the government, proving that they actually have no idea about governance and uncomfortable about responsibility. Obviously, they did not deserve to be voted for when the country is looking for a responsible, accountable government.

4. By not being able to understand the views of its electorate in the middle of the nuclear debate, and by suspending the high profile speaker from the party, Mr. Karat reaffirmed the Stalinist credential of the left leadership - unresponsive and without any ideas of its own. It worked against itself in West Bengal, where it talked about industrialization but failed to offer any ideas about resolving the recurrent shortage of power; and, at the same time, advocated voting against the government for a deal designed to solve India's nuclear pariah status primarily to expand the capacity of nuclear power generation.

Despite my disillusionment with the left politics in India, as evident in this post, I write this with great distress. I did think that Third Front has a role to play in India. India, essentially a diverse country, needed a sensible political alternative which stood for greater federalism and power for constituent states. That was the founding idea of the third front anyway. The two big national parties, Congress, traditionally dominated by a monarchical first family and BJP, a Hindu-chauvinist formation at odds with the idea of modern India, offer only fairly limited ideological alternatives for the future. Without a federalist third front, the future seems divided between parochial state parties and the god-worshipping monoliths far removed from people - not a healthy predisposition for the Union of India! In that sense, this election may prove watershed, barring the unlikely possibility that this will shake up the left parties, lead to an ouster of Mr. Karat and his cronies, change the autocratic functioning and bring back some accountability and principle back again and lead to a new set ideas and leadership. Going by the history, however, that remains a very distant possibility indeed.


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