India: the perils of pro-Congress politics

June 23, 1999


India: the perils of pro-Congress politics

By Dipankar Bhattacharya

DELHI — Amidst deepening political instability and collapsing coalitions, India is awaiting yet another mid-term election, in September-October. This will be the fifth election in 10 years, and the previous four elections have produced seven prime ministers.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party have already begun to invoke, for the umpteenth time, the elusive vision of stability, and a hunt is on for scapegoats to blame for imposing yet another poll on a decent, unsuspecting electorate. There is also a growing conservative clamour for disciplining Indian democracy — aren't there too many parties and too frequent polls?

Yet, when stability becomes synonymous with stagnation and suspension of democracy, one can only be thankful for the forthcoming election.

The ouster of the BJP-led coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, by the narrowest possible margin of one vote has been widely attributed to the inherent instability and opportunism of the coalition. The withdrawal of support by the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazakham, one of the key partners of the defeated coalition, was not based on any serious opposition to the fascist nature of the saffron [Hindu fundamentalist] agenda.

The parliamentary ouster campaign was not backed by an adequate popular mobilisation on the ground. On key issues of economic and defence policy, most of the parliamentary opposition seemed to share common ground with the BJP.

The smooth passage of the BJP budget following the government's ouster was perhaps not an isolated and accidental instance of consensus. The task of defeating and reversing the communal, pro-imperialist and thoroughly anti-democratic saffron agenda therefore remains largely unfulfilled.

The question of a distinct and decisive role for the left has to be discussed primarily in this context of popular mobilisation around a comprehensive anti-saffron agenda of secular and democratic action. But over the years, the dominant left line in Indian politics has become overwhelmingly dependent on the vagaries of coalition politics. The left made unseemly compromises on many of its principled positions to promote the United Front government, a tactic which seemed to work for a while, but now the law of diminishing returns has set in.

The motley coalition called the United Front was defended in the name of secularism and federalism. But once the United Front government collapsed, the secular federal partners did not take much time to cross over to the security of the saffron side of the fence. Beginning with the Telugu Desam Party [a regional party from Andhra Pradesh], through the [Kashmir] National Conference, to the recent case of the Dravida Munnetra Kazakham [from Tamil Nadu], the cross-coalition traffic is quite dense.

And the failure of the non-BJP parties to provide an alternative formation after the defeat of Vajpayee clearly reveals the diminishing viability of the United Front experiment even in terms of its own pragmatic parameters.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s theory and practice of united front politics has evidently come a long way from the original concept of a left and democratic front: the CPI(M) now stands on the verge of a strategic partnership with the Congress. While the party's own base remains stagnant and is even declining, it gives greatest emphasis to motivating and activating bourgeois parties, particularly the Congress, to take on the BJP.

That there is a definite trade-off between this kind of united front politics and the projection of the left's own identity, and building and mobilisation of its own base, is not a new discovery. While reviewing the 1996 election results, the CPI(M) central committee observed: "How seriously the Party takes the task of projecting the independent political line of the Party, building up the all-sided independent activities, political, ideological and organisational, and guarding against the tendency to tail behind the bourgeois parties must be seriously looked into.

"This will entail further self-critical examination of our political-tactical line since the 10th Congress particularly our experience in allying with the bourgeois parties both electorally and in general political terms."

The 16th congress of the CPI(M), held in Calcutta last October, did not, however, embark on any such self-critical examination of the party's political-tactical line. Meanwhile, political developments are rapidly polarising the bourgeois parties into two camps led by the BJP and the Congress.

The implications of tailism in such a situation are obviously ominous. In the 1970s, the CPI forged an alliance with the Congress to thwart a perceived fascist threat from the right. As the Congress went on to impose its own variety of fascism through the infamous "emergency", the CPI paid dearly for its strategic miscalculation.

Now the two old communist parties seem stranded once again at a similar juncture. Will history have a sobering influence on the course of the dominant stream in the Indian left?

Let us also not ignore the loud corporate and middle-class clamour for a bi-party consolidation of the Indian polity. The die-hard, anticommunist opinion which loses no opportunity to denounce socialist countries for one-party rule wants to cage the world's largest democracy in a straitjacket of unipolarity.

The argument is, now that Indian democracy is being regularly subjected to bouts of intense political instability, that it is time democracy in India reflected its maturity by remoulding itself on bi-party lines a la the Labour-Conservative model of Britain or the Democrat-Republican arrangement in the United States.

A Congress-BJP polarisation, with the left identity subsumed in the "secular" shadow of the Congress, will be in tune with the requirements of efficient political management of a globalising Indian economy. But surrendering the anti-BJP anti-Congress third space and facilitating the consolidation of a bi-party or bi-coalition arrangement are inimical to the democratic interests and aspirations of India's toiling millions.

The alternative direction for the left in India lies in a forceful assertion of its independent identity and comprehensive democratic agenda. This cannot be achieved through mere finetuning of the existing approach; what is needed is a paradigm shift.

Tactical synchronisation of certain steps with bourgeois parties inside parliament and exploitation of contradictions and divisions within the bourgeois camp are not only permissible but also imperative. But if it is allowed to become the focal point of the left's role, it will paralyse the very vitality and rationale of left politics.

Whatever base the Indian left commands in contemporary politics between its various streams has been forged through independent mobilisation of the working people, especially the rural poor. There has always been more to left politics than choosing the lesser evil and managing the contradictions of bourgeois politics.

It is time the left reemphasised its roots and revitalised itself to take the fascist bull by its horns. A resurgent left is the best guarantee for Indian democracy struggling in the shadow of the growing saffron threat.

[Dipankar Bhattacharya is the general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Liberation).]

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