Saturday, April 25, 2009

Left in the lurch

Left in the lurch

Karats can seek succour in Venezuela to repent for their chamcha-ing Antonia.


Left could go down to 22 seats in Bengal

Kanchan Gupta | Kolkata (Pioneer, Sunday, April 26, 2009 )

Muslims, one in 3 voters, desert CPM

As people in West Bengal prepare to vote on April 30 in the first of three rounds of polling for the 15th Lok Sabha, the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front faces what could turn out to be its worst-ever electoral performance.

According to conservative estimates cutting across party lines, the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance could notch up an impressive tally of 14 to 17 of the 42 seats in the State. If the popular mood prevailing from north to south Bengal is any indication, the Opposition could end up winning anything between 18 and 20 seats.

Whatever the final tally, there is mounting apprehension at Alimuddin Street, where the CPI(M)’s headquarters is located, that the Marxists will suffer a setback worse than that of 1984 when the Congress won 16 seats in the election that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

In that election, the Left suffered reverses in urban areas. This time, the losses are stacking up in rural constituencies. The projected losses are largely concentrated in south Bengal where the Trinamool Congress is running an aggressive campaign.

Little over a fortnight ago, the CPI(M)’s election strategists were horrified to find that the Left Front’s 2004 tally of 35 seats was at risk of being whittled down to 20 to 22 seats.

All hands were called to deck and a massive effort was launched to paper over differences within the CPI(M) and between the party and its allies in the Left Front. Simultaneously, zonal and local committees were asked to reach out to disgruntled party supporters who were toying with the idea of voting against the Left. Third, the counter-attack on the Trinamool Congress was sharpened, focusing on Mamata Banerjee's inability to come up with a positive agenda.

These steps appear to have had some impact in preventing the Left’s electoral fortunes from declining further. What has helped the CPI(M) recover some lost ground is the Trinamool’s over-emphasis on running a vitriolic campaign which includes large posters and banners that are graphically illustrated with gory visuals of charred bodies, allegedly victims of Marxist violence.

Two visuals that have been used repeatedly are those of Tapashi Mullick, who was raped and killed in Singur. The first visual shows an innocent faced teenaged girl. The second shows her half-burnt body. In a variation of this theme, some posters show four men pinning down Tapashi Mullick while a fifth man rapes her.

Such graphic depiction of violence has begun to put off people. Sensing the disquiet over the Opposition’s campaign, the CPI(M) has used all available space to publicise its ‘development agenda’ and how Mamata Banerjee is preventing the State from moving ahead. “We have a positive agenda. She is running a negative campaign,” says CPI(M) State secretary Biman Bose.

But nothing that the CPI(M) does or says at this stage will stop this poll from turning out to be the tipping point that has eluded the Opposition in West Bengal for three decades.

The push that will enable Banerjee to cross the hump which stands between victory and defeat will be provided by Bengal’s Muslims who are said to comprise 26% of the electorate but in reality could account for one in every three voters. Banerjee claims (since it suits her to do so) and most people believe (since they are

influenced by TV news) that Muslim alienation from the Marxists is on account of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s farmland-for-industry policy, which has been kept in limbo ever since the Singur disaster. But the real reason why Muslims have decided to disown the Marxists lies elsewhere.

Ironically, that reason is the revelation by the Sachar Committee, which was supported by the Left to spite the BJP, about how Muslims in West Bengal are far worse off than in any other State, including Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Confronted with this reality, Bengal’s Muslims have begun to question the wisdom of supporting the Left.

The man who took the Sachar Committee’s revelation to the Muslim masses is Siddiqullah Chowdhury of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. He has put up a dozen candidates in Muslim-dominated constituencies. But that could be a red herring, meant to divert attention as the community quietly consolidates behind Banerjee. And gives her the cutting edge she needs to defeat the CPI(M) in West Bengal.

How the table has turned
• CPM will take rural hit
• Mamata-Cong eye windfall of up to 17 seats
• Overkill of graphic imagery of Singur rape case may hit Cong

Array and disarray in the Left

MJ Akbar (Pioneer, Sunday, April 26, 2009 )

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 West Bengal there have been only two Chief Ministers, Mr Jyoti Basu and Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Mr Basu left because of age; he was not pushed out. No one is pushed out. More remarkably, there have been only two Finance Ministers, Mr Ashok Mitra and Mr Ashim Dasgupta. Mr Mitra resigned on an issue of principle, otherwise he might have retired only along with his friend, Mr 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. Mr Bhattacharjee could lead the Left in West Bengal to its first major setback in three decades.

The buzz in Kolkata has already moved towards post-modern: Mr Bhattacharjee 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 per cent, has switched away in large numbers. And there is no split in the anti-Left vote after the Congress accepted the slightly humiliating terms that Ms Mamata Banerjee offered during seat-sharing talks. The Marxists tried, with Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s help, to sabotage this, but final orders came from Ms 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. Ms 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 Mr Shibu Soren, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan and Mr 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 the Congress to lead another Government because they are convinced that it 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 the Congress precisely what the Congress did unto them: Use power, with the Congress support in Parliament, to target policies which the Congress has made part of its core personality, economic reform and the India-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 Mr 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 West Bengal and Kerala will know.

The Left will not do well. It will be mowed down in both Kerala and West Bengal, but it will still have around 40 seats in the next Parliament. Both Mr Sharad Pawar and Mr 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 Mr Prakash Karat were being sworn in as Foreign Minister in Delhi and Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee 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.

-- MJ Akbar is chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert.

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