Thursday, April 30, 2009

Getting The Left Right

By Roger Alexander

For the Left the Day of Judgement has arrived. Starting today, April 30, polling starts in West Bengal over three phases. With Nandigram and Singur (and also Lalgarh and Darjeeling) staring them in the face, the comrades will get their just deserts. And rightly so, sing the choirboys of the corporate media.

The refrain over the past month has been that, thankfully, the Left will be unable to “call the shots”, or enjoy “power without responsibility” anymore. This will be the last charge of the Red Brigade. And Prakash Karat, we are told, will be lucky to put even 40 MPs in the next Lok Sabha.

With the Left “projected” to win as few as 5 seats from Kerala and 2 from Tripura, Karat has his task cut out. Unless it wins 33 seats from West Bengal, it's curtains for the Left Front. “Good riddance,” is the unanimous verdict.

Representatives of the Left parties invited as punching bags at prime time debates have literally been at the receiving end over the past month. And with programme anchors jumping into the debates as inquisitors, the Left seemingly doesn't stand a chance. No wonder stockbrokers are cheering.

Time now, therefore, to examine the facts. Is the Left Front in Bengal in for a hiding? We know that in 2001, when the Trinamool and Congress forged a Mahajot against the Left, the alliance came a cropper, winning only 88 seats in a 294-member house. The Left Front won 199 seats.

In the 2006 assembly elections, the Trinamool won just 30 seats and the Congress 24. The Left Front won 233 seats. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee was the sole Trinamool MP from West Bengal. That she hardly participated in parliamentary proceedings is another matter.

But those were the halcyon days of the Left's supremacy, we are told. Let's talk about now. Let's talk about Bengal and the Left post-Nandigram and Singur. These two villages will determine who is the winner in 2009, it is claimed.

If you look at the picture of last year's Panchayat polls, the Left has certainly lost considerable ground. Here's what happened: The Left lost considerable ground. Its vote percentage at the Gram Panchayat level came down from 65.7 per cent in 2003 to 52.3 per cent in 2008. But the point to be noted is that it still won more than 50 per cent of the vote.

In the interregnum, i.e. since June last year till now, the Left has been in firefighting mode.

To begin with, the Left was quick to accept that the results were not what had been expected even though “the level of victory was politically significant and important” (meaning they could have done worse).

But in the final analysis the Left Front came through generally triumphant even in places where the chips were down, and things weighed heavily especially against the CPI(M).

Still, the bottom line is that the CPI(M) especially did rather badly in some districts. The reasons are obvious. First, the Left failed to effectively counter the Trinamool campaign against land acquisition for industry and development. Indeed, it failed miserably to convince even its own supporters with hard data.

This happened because the politically important issue of involving the participation of the aam admi in the running of the Panchayat institutions was neglected, more so because of the disunity within the Left Front which had a “baneful effect” on the poll outcome, as the CPI(M) State Committee's analysis quaintly put it..

However, Karat & Co came to the conclusion that “the adverse results would not constitute a permanent political process, or event. The CPI(M) can and shall forge ahead in an organised way with a mass participation of the entire Bengal Party unit along with, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to the Party’s sympathisers and supporters.”

Then Mamata delivered a Puja gift. Tata Motors was hounded out of Singur. The industrialise-or-perish debate was revived and now forms the crux of the debate in the present election campaign.

So now we have the CPI(M)'s fabled party machine pitted against a Mahajot backed by the anti-Communist media, creating a level playing field, as it were.

In this high-stakes contest, who will triumph? My own take is that an opportunistic Mahajot has its own internal contradictions. There are reports of Congress workers refusing to campaign for party turncoats who have been given the Trinamool ticket. And of Trinamool rebels contesting against Congress candidates.

Suitably chastened by the debacle in the Panchayat elections last year, the Left parties seem to be more united and working resolutely to recover lost ground.

Ironically, Ratan Tata's decision to drive out of Singur in search of profits elsewhere has given a fillip to the Left's industrialisation campaign against Mamata's save-farmlands rhetoric, enabling the former to aim for a win in at least 30 constituencies.

Game on!

Roger And Out

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who's Afraid Of The Third Front?

By Roger Alexander

Blessed are those who do not watch TV news channels or read newspapers, for they have missed nothing. Indeed, even as the month-long election process come to a close on May 13, newspaper readers and TV addicts alike remain clueless. This is not an election in which there will be winners and losers; this is a “game of numbers”, we are told.

The most important number – indeed the “magic number” - is 272. Any party that can can “cobble together” 272 MPs will form the next government. In other words, we are told the best cobbler will win.

So there's a catch, and it's called Catch 272.

No political party can claim it can win 272 seats on its own. Indeed, no pre-poll alliance can reach the magic number. So the media has gleefully job of the cobbler. And self-appointed pollsters/opinionators are busy dreaming up scenarios of post-poll tie-ups.

The easiest way to build castles in the air is to first knock the Third Front as a serious contender out of the picture. You see, if the Third Front is allowed to remain in the reckoning as a bloc, even if the Congress and BJP join hands they do not add up to 272 and therefore unable to form a national unity government, a concept that has fund favour with many commentators. You see, in this scenario the Left parties have no role to play; good riddance.

Rather than recognise the Third Front, our pollsters/opinionators are more comfortable with a category labelled “others”. In this discourse, it's easier to steer “flotsam and jetsam” towards one or the other “national party”.

The high falutin “analysis” from the likes of Prannoy Roy and Rajdeep Sardesai is that almost all regional parties will happily join either the Congress or the BJP and some, like Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP or the AIADMK can do business with both.

In this scenario, even the Congress and BJP would not be averse to ditching existing allies and align with their opponents to reach the magic number, we are told. This is not rank opportunism, for long the hallmark of the so-called national parties, but a legitimate democratic exercise to form a “viable and stable government”.

What we are not told is that these so-called national parties do not exist in large swathes of the country. The Congress has virtually disappeared from the Gangetic plains. Mulayam Singh Yadav was willing to give Sonia Gandhi just 17 seats of the 80 from UP. Lalu Prasad was willing to concede just three of the 40 in Bihar. And Mamata Banerjee has parted with 14 seats (most of them “unwinnable”) in West Bengal that elects 42 MPs.

In Tamil Nadu/Puducherry Karunanidhi has allotted just 16 seats to the Congress from the state's quota of 40 constituencies. In Maharashtra, once its bastion, the Congress is contesting just 25 of the 48 seats, the rest going to Sharad Pawar's NCP. Together, these states send 250 MPs, i.e. nearly half the Lok Sabha's strength. And this party and its cheerleaders in the media insist it is a national party.

Similarly, the BJP just does not exist in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. In Bihar it has to ride piggy-back on Nitish Kumar and in Maharashtra Bal Thackeray is its big brother. In Haryana its fate is decided via an alliance with Om Prakash Chautala and in Punjab, it has to be content with the crumbs that Prakash Singh Badal throws its way. Together, these states account for 256 seats, i.e. nearly half the Lok Sabha's strength. And given its emasculation in Uttar Pradesh, one wonders what kind of national stature is the media talking about.

If you look at vote share, the Congress and BJP respectively attract around 25 per cent of the votes nationally; and in this election both parties combined will win less than 50 per cent of the votes. Yet both fancy themselves as the natural party of governance. And the cheering media is determined to perpetuate the myth.

However, voters are not buying this argument. Voters, more than the media, are acutely aware that India is a complex and diverse country. They have different loyalties and identities that drive their aspirations and actions. They may not have enough to eat, but they know that they have a vote in a country where electoral democracy is deeply entrenched and difficult to dislodge.

Not surprisingly, regional parties have grown from strength to strength in the last two decades, making coalitions an indelible part of the national political discourse. Remember, since 1996, a motley bunch has ruled from New Delhi. The NDA was an amalgam of around two dozen parties and the UPA's survival was dependent on a similar number of allies. So why does the media scoff at a Third Front, which is also a potpourri in the same mould?

The most significant fact behind the rise of the Third Front as a serious challenger to the status quo the corporate media favours is that the bulk of people who have been adversely affected by neoliberal economic policies - workers and peasants, students and self-employed, those searching for jobs and those working at multiple jobs to make ends meet – are seriously looking for alternatives that can deliver.

The smaller regional parties have very different bases, perceptions, identities, ideals, political strategies and forms of organisation and mobilisation. Some of them have already been, or continue to be associated with fronts formed by one or the other of the two large parties. But the current evidence of the disintegration of these fronts is not without significance.

Among other things it indicates that the smaller parties recognise that the role and power of the larger parties is likely to be further constrained in the near term. Otherwise, the likes of Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Naveen Patnaik and Mulayam Singh Yadav would not have cut themselves from loose from the apron strings of the big parties, especially at this juncture.

This is what the current election is all about. The electoral outcomes in the past decade reflect the political churning that is going on at a furious pace. It continues apace and it is likely that it will throw up newer and different combinations of parties in power (who would have thought that the Congress would dump its myopic Panchmarhi Resolution to always go it alone in the dustbin of history?).

Indeed, what we are witnessing is a work in progress. The Third Front is a sign of a national polity that is emerging out of an immensely complicated reality, in a process that has taken several other countries much longer - often as much as a century - to complete. But we Indians are an impatient lot. We want it here and now.

For the likes of Congress and BJP spokespersons and their drummer boys in the media, democracy is only a game of numbers. It’s not about real people and their real lives or real problems; it’s not about the future of India and her children. But alas, even the numbers do not stack up for either the Congress or the BJP.

By my reckoning, the Congress will be lucky to get more than 100 seats and the BJP will manage to win a few more since it can boast of a few strongholds like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat whereas the Congress has none (yes Zero, unless you count the Andaman& Nicobar Islands where the party has only lost once since Independence).

I'm not making this up. Just over a month ago before the election process got underway (and before Lalu Prasad threw the Fourth Front bombshell) the then UPA was supposed to be winning 257 seats, well within striking distance of the magic 272 mark, with the BJP a distant second with with 210 seats and “others” with 76 seats. Game, set and match Congress, was the verdict.

In the last week of April, the figures were revised drastically. A headline in DNA, a Mumbai daily, said it all: “The 'Others' Are Back”! The breakup was: Congress+ 188, BJP+ 183, Others 172. Obviously, parties like the MNF, NPP, SDP, MIM, PMK, KC, ADMK, PRP, LCP, BNF, FPM, IFDP, JSS, JMM, PWP, PMK, TRS, UDGP will all be “kingmakers”.

And therein lies the rub.

Roger And Out

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Congress Ki Jai Ho!

I'm back after a long lay off. Many thanx for the good wishes while I was convalescing after surgery.
Jai Ho!

Five years ago, the media hailed the victory of the BJP-led coalition even before the first vote was cast. The reason? India was shining and Atal Behari Vajpayee's popularity was unmatched, they proclaimed. Stunned silence was followed by convoluted arguments to explain how the supposedly unbeatable BJP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Jai Ho!

Now that another general election is upon us, the same self-styled pundits are back on the idiot box to hand a victory to the Congress. Price rise, unemployment, terrorism, urban angst, rural suicides, the exit of allies from the UPA, the absence of a party machine to fight elections, reliance on turncoats, the threat of rebels et are of no consequence as the Congress will manage to form the next government through a process of elimination of its opponents, our pundits insist. Jai Ho!

To begin with, the Congress will “sweep” the polls in Delhi and Haryana, the two states it rules on its own in north India. Sikh anger, though present, will not add up to much, so there's not much to worry about on this score. In the rest of the region – Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir – the Congress will reverse its losses in the Assembly polls, thanks to anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and BJP, to come up trumps. Jai Ho!

In the 'Cow Belt' comprising 134 constituencies, the Congress need not worry, we are advised. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Ramvilas Paswan (the Fourth Front) , despite their current stand-off which is only a normal ghar-ghar-ki-kahani, will deliver enough MPs, “post polls”, to make up the numbers for the next Congress-led government. Of course, both Mayawati and Nitish Kumar pose a “stiff challenge”. But even if they manage to best the Fourth Front, “post polls” they can be cajoled into supporting the Congress since in the Cow Belt they follow a herd mentality. It's a “win-win” situation for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi here. Jai Ho!

In the eastern seaboard states it will be a “cakewalk” for the Congress, we are told. This region sends 146 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In West Bengal, the Left will face humiliating losses “post Singur and Nandigram”. Naveen Patnaik will rue his comeuppance in Orissa. Even though the Congress's “tallest leader”, JB Patnaik, has been denied a ticket by Sonia, the party will reap “handsome dividends” in a three-cornered contest. In Andhra Pradesh YSR Reddy will beat anti-incumbency and the Grand Alliance of the TDP-TRS-Left handily. Otherwise, Chiranjeevi can always come to the Congress's rescue as he does in the movies. And in Tamil Nadu plus Puducherry, Karunanidhi will prove history wrong by winning at least half of the 40 seats. Even if he fails, a “temperamental” Jayalalithaa can always switch sides and support a Congress government in New Delhi in return for keys to Fort St George. Jai Ho!

In the western seaboard states that send 127 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the Congress is “sitting pretty”, we are informed. The Congress will “decimate” the Left in Kerala. Our pundits claim there is a pro-Congress wave in the country's most literate state. The Congress will also create “upsets” in Karnataka. And in Maharashtra, the Congress, in an alliance with Sharad Pawar, will “steamroller” the opposition. You see, the relief packages for suicide-prone farmers and other “sops” have had a salutary effect. And India Inc's support in Mumbai will weave its own magic in urban pockets. Only Narendra Modi in Gujarat will put up some resistance, but his effort will not halt the Congress juggernaut. Jai Ho!

That leaves only 55 seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh for the Congress to take care of before a triumphant return to New Delhi. The Congress has already “proved” that the BJP can be beaten in its strongholds. And Ashok Gehlot's “victory” in Rajasthan has only demonstrated that the Congress can wrest more seats from the BJP than it did in 2004 in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh since the “momentum” is with it. Besides, the saffron party is in “disarray”. So regardless of how brave a fight the BJP puts up in central India, it would be futile. “Too little, too late,” we are instructed. Jai Ho!

The wins in the northeast, though few, will only be an icing on the cake. Jai Ho!

To be fair to the pundits, none of them gives the Congress a chance of winning more than 150 seats. nevertheless, these worthies feel that this less than stellar performance still makes the Congress the natural party of governance. This was underscored by Manmohan Singh when despite his recent heart surgery he undertook a “whirlwind campaign” to address members of Assocham, CII, FICCI and sundry Merchant Chambers in a string of meetings in five-star hotels. The captains of India Inc wholeheartedly agreed while beseeching Manmohan carry on with the good work and quickly wrap up the “reforms” in the banking, insurance, FDI in retail, labour, disinvestment and other sectors. Jai Ho!

Our pundits insist Manmohan Singh will remain prime minister, so what if he cannot win a Lok Sabha seat for himself. The fact that he is not even confident of contesting from a 'safe' Congress seat - there seems to be none besides Amethi and Rae Bareli – is conveniently forgotten. What is more important that India Inc has reposed its faith in him; that he is an economist of “international repute” without having written a a book or published papers; that his “integrity cannot be questioned” even though money changed hands to buy MPs to save his government last year; and that his love for George W. Bush stems from deep rooted conviction to “make India a superpower”. Jai Ho!

The “findings” of our pundits have given a new meaning to Benjamin Disraeli's famous observation about statistics. Their first round of polling in January and February gave the then UPA a shade less than 272 seats, enough to form the government, especially after Naveen Patnaik ditched the BJP. But then came the double whammy - Lalu Prasad, Ramvilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh ganged up against the Congress and the incipient Third Front actually took shape. In double quick time, the pundits changed the rules of the game. By the end of March it was not which alliance – UPA, NDA or Third Front – that mattered; the race to emerge as the largest single party that would form of the core of the next government became the leitmotif of all the projections. Naturally, with a nudge here and a wink there, statistics were trotted out to give the Congress that honour. Jai Ho!

To make up the deficit of around 175 seats; i.e. more than the number than the Congress is expected to win, our pundits have designed elaborate scenarios to install a Congress government. The first to fall in line will be, of course, the Lalu Prasad-Ramvilas Paswan-Mulayam Singh triumvirate. If they do not “have the numbers”, Mayawati can be roped in and so can Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik. KC Rao of the TRS is a “natural ally”. Jayalalithaa can fill in for Karunanidhi is need be. Deve Gowda can be enticed. Sundry regional outfits in the northeast can be bought. Independents will automatically gravitate to the largest party. And if after all this the numbers still do not add up – the worst case scenario – the Left would be forced to support a Congress-led government to “keep the communal forces at bay”. Jai Ho!