Array and disarray in the Left

Leaders come in two cultures. One sort of leader accepts the necessity of accountability in public life. This group is in a minority. The majority follows a law, which their followers know only too well: “If we win, I get the credit; if we lose, you get the blame”.

It is ironic that the best democrats in Indian democracy are the Marxists, whose ideology demands class war rather than the more genteel business of planting your finger on a symbol. They treat their party as an institution, not an individual’s or family’s private property. Decisions are made through a collective system, not sent to a single individual for a royal assent or dissent. Responsibility is assigned to individuals, and individuals are stripped [as far as is humanly possible] of their ego. This is perhaps why ex-Marxists become so egotistic; all those decades of suppressed ego is suddenly let loose upon the world. There are rewards for success, even when this leads to stagnation. During 33 years of Marxist rule in Bengal there have been only two Chief Ministers, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadev Bhattacharya. Basu left because of age; he was not pushed out. No one is pushed out. More remarkably, there have been only two finance ministers, Dr Ashok Mitra and Ashim Dasgupta. Dr Mitra resigned on an issue of principle, otherwise he might have retired only along with his friend, Jyoti Basu, once again because of age. If you win elections you can do no wrong.

And that is what the problem might be in 2009. Buddhadev Bhattacharya could lead the Left in Bengal to its first major setback in three decades.

The buzz in Kolkata has already moved towards post-modern: Bhattacharya has decided to resign if he cannot ensure 25 seats out of 42 for his side. How do the Kolkata addawallahs know? Political information is always porous. The man at the top of the pyramid has merely to make an observation to a confidant or two; the latter discuss the possibility with their close comrades, and word rolls down along the sides of the pyramid to reach the dabblers and journalists on the lower ledges.

There are at least three distinctive aspects of this story.

First, a Chief Minister is planning to take responsibility for failure. Politicians across the country will do badly; after all, someone has to lose for another to win. Every other politician is thinking deep thoughts on how to cling on despite defeat. This of course does not apply to dynasts, who will look for generals to hang.

Second, 25 seats out of 42 is still a clear majority. But the Left has set the bar high and will not lower it.

Third, by levelling the bar at 25, the Left has already psychologically conceded 17 seats to the Trinamool-Congress combine. Even at the height of the Congress wave following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Left had conceded fewer seats.

There are two reasons for this. The Muslim vote, estimated to be over 35%, has switched away in large numbers. And there is no split in the anti-Left vote after Congress accepted the slightly humiliating terms that Mamata Banerjee offered during seat-sharing talks. The Marxists tried, with Pranab Mukherjee’s help, to sabotage this, but final orders came from Mrs Sonia Gandhi in Delhi and it went ahead. The Congress, which had six MPs in the last Lok Sabha, accepted only 16 seats out of 42. Mamata, who had only one, catapulted to 28.

The Left read a clear message in this decision. The Congress was treating the Left, rather than the BJP, as its principal enemy in this general election. How? Because in the states where an alliance would have hurt the BJP, like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress rejected an alliance with leaders who could have helped defeat the BJP, like Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The distribution of seats in Jharkhand had even been announced, but the arrangement collapsed suddenly, and inexplicably, at the last minute. As a consequence, the BJP will pick up vital extra seats in a state where it was comprehensively defeated five years ago.

The Marxists do not consider this accidental. They believe this to be part of a careful Congress strategy to marginalise the Left. There is nothing personal or sentimental about their response. They will not permit Congress to lead another Government because they are convinced that the Congress will use every tactic, political and administrative, behind a screen of conciliatory words, to pursue the same objective if it returns to Government. They know it is a battle of survival and they intend to survive.

They can also sense an opportunity to do unto Congress precisely what Congress did unto them: use power, with Congress support in Parliament, to target policies which the Congress has made part of its core personality, economic reform and the Indo-US nuclear deal. That is the dilemma which the Congress faces. Can it support a Government with a Marxist Foreign Minister who announces an abrogation of the nuclear deal? Surely Dr Manmohan Singh would never find the flexibility to support a Government in Parliament that sabotaged his main achievement. What would the Congress do in such circumstances? It is not a question of swallowing one’s pride. It would be political suicide.

Nor should anyone believe that Marxists would compromise in order to save a non-Congress, non-BJP patchwork Government. They have an agenda, which is in the public domain. They will implement it. The CPI[M] is not going to enter the history books — this is the first time they will join a Government in Delhi, if the chance arises — as having betrayed its core commitment, anti-imperialism, in order to stick to office. This is high on its list of campaign themes, as anyone interested in Bengal and Kerala will know.

The Left will not do well. It will be mowed down in both Kerala and Bengal, but it will still have around 40 seats in the next Parliament. Both Sharad Pawar and Dr Manmohan Singh acknowledge, the first happily and the second reluctantly, that a non-BJP Government is impossible without the support of the Left. Curiously, the Left, with 60 MPs, may have been less relevant to a Government’s survival in 2004 than it could be with 35 or 40 in 2009.

It would be paradoxical, would it not, if Prakash Karat were being sworn in as Foreign Minister in Delhi and Buddhadev Bhattacharya were submitting his resignation in Kolkata? But stranger things have happened.

Let me suggest one of them. If the BJP becomes the single largest party, you would be surprised by the number of small parties which suddenly discover the virtues of stability at a moment of economic crisis. The Left will be actually relieved: it can be where it is happiest — in the Opposition.

About the author

M J Akbar

M.J. Akbar, Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert magazine, is a leading Indian journalist and author. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. After successfully launching and establishing a weekly news magazine, Sunday, and a daily newspaper, The Telegraph, in the '70s and '80s, he briefly interrupted his career in journalism to enter politics in November 1989 as an elected representative in Parliament. He returned to writing and editing in 1993. His last book 'Blood Brothers', in the words of Khuswant Singh, "could be a textbook on how to write, mix fact, fiction and history. It is beautifully written; it deserves to be in Category A1." Commercially speaking M.J. Akbar is that tangible asset without whom the balance sheet of Indian Journalism will never tally!

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