Sunday, May 17, 2009

Left Out

By Roger Alexander

The results are out and the verdict is unambiguous. Contrary to predictions and analysis, including that of this writer, there is only one winner – the Congress, even though it has won just 205 seats. And every other party, including the Congress's own allies, are losers.

Till the night of May 15 it was believed the Congress would have to beg estranged friends, especially the Left, to return to the UPA fold to reach the halfway mark. Nothing of the sort was required for the Left has been decimated. Indeed, the Left is the biggest loser in this election.

While details of voting patterns and other details will be available only after a few days to enable an in-depth analysis, it is evident that in Kerala factionalism led to a rout of the Left. Indeed, a faction-ridden Communist party is an oxymoron. And that's what seems to have dismayed even die-hard supporters outside the party fold, not to speak of disgruntled allies and disenchanted workers who seemed to be working at cross-purposes during the campaign.

No amount of semantics over pre-poll hiccups over seat sharing, community preferences, or minor swings can explain the debacle especially since the Kerala state government was supposed to be doing a decent job.

But it is the storming of the Left citadel, West Bengal, that has everyone - party bosses, sympathisers and independent observers alike – flummoxed. Indeed, all exit polls predicted around 26 seats for the Left Front. The result is worse – a paltry 15 seats.

This performance is worse than its previous low of 16 in 1984 when the election was fought in the shadow of Indira Gandhi's assassination. And the argument that the Left was against a formidable Trinamool-Congress 'mahajot' does not explain the crushing defeat.

It will be remembered that a similar 'mahajot' existed in the 2001 state assembly elections. But the Left Front easily met that challenge. Even in the panchayat elections last year, the Left Front emerged victorious – though battered and bruised - with a 52 per cent vote share.

So it all boils down to the failure of the CPI(M)'s fabled party machinery to convince the Left's traditional supporters – the working class, farmers, sharecroppers, and other poor sections – to once again vote for the Left.

Remember, the Left citadel was built on the land reforms post 1977 when it won a decisive victory in the assembly elections after the Emergency. Though the Zamindari system was abolished by an enactment in the West Bengal State Assembly way back in 1957, the land holding pattern had undergone little change.

A vast majority of the cultivators had little or no land in their possession. In an effort to penetrate and widen its support base in the rural areas, the CPI(M), after coming to power, initiated steps to correct the existing imbalance in land relations.

For this adopted a two-prong strategy. On the one hand, it stressed the empowerment of the landless and marginal farmers – ‘Operation Barga’. Additionally, it tried to complete the unfinished task of distributing surplus land vested from the landlords.

On the other, the Left Front government introduced a three-tier panchayat system and in 1978 held its first election. The panchayat system was important for it was expected to give the people a participatory role in the process of rural development.

So along with its deep roots in the working class movement the CPI(M) also won the allegiance of the rural poor as Operation Barga empowered not only the tillers of the land but the rights of sharecroppers as well. And that's the way it remained for the next 30 years.

But when the CPI(M) decided to take economic development to the next higher plane through industrialisation as the gains of land reforms were petering out, it made a monumental tactical blunder: it failed to convince farmers and sharecroppers that land acquisition for industrialisation was in their interest.

For this the CPI(M) does not have anyone to blame but itself. First, the Left Front was divided over land acquisition with the Forward Bloc and RSP bitterly opposing the policy.

Second, even after the Doubting Thomases within the Left Front were arm-twisted into accepting the new reality, the party cadre were neither ideologically equipped nor trained to take the all-important message to the grassroots.

In fact, the whole exercise was entrusted to the government bureaucracy without the participation of the gram panchayats and zilla parishads, led by party members, that were supposed to be part of the decision-making process.

Ironically, the very forces led by the Congress that had determinedly fought for the 'rights' of the jotedars (landlords) when their holdings were expropriated in the Seventies have now emerged as the 'saviours' of the beneficiaries of the land reforms undertaken by the Left.

The farmers, of course, have no future as land fragmentation has made most holdings economically unviable. It will be remembered that compensation for the 1000 acres acquired for the Tata Nano plant in Singur was distributed amongst 10,000 title holders, meaning one family eking out a living on one-tenth of an acre.

Yet the party cadres at the village level failed to convince the farmers that they could become more prosperous if industry came up on their land. Politically that was a fatal error.

Of course there are other issues – arrogance of party cadres, complacency, revisionist tendencies, an unhealthy reliance on bourgeois democracy to achieve revolutionary goals, and revisionism - that contributed to the rout of the Left, but at the moment
the failure to address the concerns of farmers seems to be the biggest factor that led to the shock result.

Imagine, if in a politically conscious state like West Bengal where the choice is between a pro-poor and progressive Left Front and a mercurial and retrograde Mamata Banerjee, the electorate chooses the latter, there must be something really wrong with the politics of the CPI(M) and its allies.

(If there is one lesson to be learnt from this election, it is this: Electoral arithmetic does not always work. That is why the Left Front decisively lost an election this writer earlier felt was a no contest.)

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