Grave challenges ahead for Indian left

November 10, 1999

By Eva Cheng

The Indian left scored very mixed results in the September-October general elections, but the challenge ahead is extraordinary. The Hindu neo-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to secure national power a second time by forming the 24-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The previous BJP-led ruling coalition toppled from power in April after a coalition partner withdrew.

Particularly noteworthy is the victory of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Liberation) — the CPI-ML — in the autonomous district of the north-eastern state of Assam.

The sitting member of parliament, Jayanta Rongpi, is widely known as a CPI-ML leader. He had previously won election on the ticket of the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), which unites various sections of the autonomy movement. The ASDC has been running the local government since soon after its formation a decade ago; the CPI-ML was a member party from the start.

This time, Rongpi contested the election under the CPI-ML banner, with the endorsement of the ASDC. He polled 208,789 votes, up from 184,432 in 1998.

Speaking shortly before the elections, Rongpi stated that an electoral victory would strengthen the party's political intervention in Assam. Apart from campaigning for autonomous status for Assam, the CPI-ML has also organised around various democratic issues.

The CPI-ML fielded 56 candidates in 12 of India's 32 states, polling nearly 1.5 million votes. It fielded the largest number of candidates (32) in the state of Bihar, where the party has won a mass base after three decades of work. It came second in the Siwan constituency there, with 255,226 votes (up from 112,223 in 1998). Picture

However, the party again failed to win any seats in Bihar. Ballot-rigging by right-wing forces and intimidation of the most downtrodden (who are among the CPI-ML's main supporters) was widespread. In a statement, the CPI-ML central committee revealed that in Bihar the party was facing "intense feudal violence and severe state repression".

The CPI-ML organises mainly among the rural labourers and other disadvantaged social layers. Despite India's independence five decades ago, the lower castes, and particularly the lowest caste of "dalits" or "untouchables", are brutalised by the big landlords and other remnant feudal forces, who are predominantly from the upper castes.

Using their private army, the landlords (many of whom are linked to the BJP) periodically massacre dalits so as to terrorise and force submission. Such violence is particularly common in Bihar, and resistance is often brutally answered. Despite such risks, the CPI-ML has been mobilising the masses in Bihar against such onslaughts; many of its cadres have been killed over the years, including at election time.

Indian election rules encourage such killings. The rules allow only the "recognised parties" to field a replacement candidate if the existing one is killed before the vote. Such "recognised" status, with numerous electioneering privileges attached to it, is given primarily to the bourgeois and other right-wing parties (such as the BJP and the Congress) and is beyond the reach of the revolutionary left.

Many extra hurdles are thus created for the "non-recognised" candidates. For example, denying the non-recognised parties a consistent election symbol, and issuing them a one-off symbol only about two weeks before election day, seriously restricts those parties' campaigning. Given high illiteracy, especially among the poor, election campaigning without a party symbol is often ineffective.

Winning elections is important but, according to the CPI-ML, it is only one component of the "people's struggle strategy"; extraparliamentary mobilisation forms the crucial part. Ramesh Singh Kushwaha, the CPI-ML's candidate for Siwan in 1998, said, "For us elections are a mass movement ... In these elections it will be our endeavour to mobilise the masses on a larger scale and give a decisive blow to the forces of communal fascism."

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) won 31 seats (down from 32 in 1998). It was weakened in its main base of West Bengal (from 24 seats in 1998 to 21) but gained in Kerala (from six to seven) and in Tamil Nadu (from none to one). It held two seats in Tripura.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) lost five seats and now holds only four seats in total. It won one seat in Punjab and held three in West Bengal. It lost two each in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, and one in Manipur.

The CPI and CPI-M are the two main "official left" parties. The Revolutionary Socialist Party won three seats, down from five in 1998 (losing one in Kerala and having its four seats in West Bengal reduced to three). In all, the parties belonging to the Left Front secured 42 seats, of which 40 came from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

Commenting on the further erosion of the ideological independence and political credibility of the two main "official left" parties, the CPI-ML central committee said, "Ignoring the opposition of their own party ranks and a virtual revolt in Bihar, they adopted a soft line towards the Congress, and in fact teamed up with the Congress in Punjab and also with other thoroughly discredited parties like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and RJD in Bihar.

"There can be no denying the fact that the politics of dependence on bourgeois parties has done a lot of harm to the cause and strength of the Left."

While the Indian left is in disarray, the BJP is waving its machetes for more blood. Having in his previous 13-month rule faithfully carried out the policies of "liberalisation", privatisation and "free trade" pushed by the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was quick to promise more attacks on the working people.

He has already announced a breathtaking 40% hike in diesel prices and even higher rises in bus fares and other transportation costs, all of which will hit the poor very hard.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha made it clear that the opening up of the insurance and telecommunications sectors to foreign capital would be of top priority. He hinted strongly to the Far Eastern Economic Review that more large-scale privatisation would come next, together with cuts in the subsidies for fertiliser. Sinha continued: "In the field of economic policy and implementation, one cannot afford to be soft".

Meanwhile, there is no room for any illusion that the BJP will be soft in pushing its agenda for Indian society. It has singled out education and women's rights as two priority targets.

Noting that the Congress party also backs the BJP's war on the basic rights and interests of the Indian people, the CPI-ML central committee strongly appealed to the other left forces in India for a united fight back. "The need of the hour is Left unity in the field of mass struggles ... The mandate of the Left is clear: go back to the people, go back to the basic issues and burning questions of the day, go back to the movement. Unity and strength lie in this direction."

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