Publication International / Transnational - Asia The Left in India’s Elections

The general elections in India in April/May 2009. By Prof. Subhoranjan Dasgupta, local coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Kolkata



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May 2009

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With more than 714 million eligible voters, the general election in India presents the world's largest exercise in democracy and takes place in five phases from 16th April to 13th May. The results will be officially declared on 16th May. Against the background of the dwindling economic growth due to the global economic crisis, the next government will have to develop new strategies for a sustained and inclusive path to development. The two main coalitions competing for power, namely the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are increasingly under pressure from an alliance of left-wing and regional parties who have formed a "Third Front". The local coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Kolkata, Prof. Subhoranjan Dasgupta, assesses the positions and prospects of the Third Front to present a decisive player in the upcoming government.

The real big political churning took place when the Left led by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) withdrew its support extended to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in July 2008.The reason for the withdrawal was of course the Indo-US nuclear deal and the Left’s uncompromising opposition to it. Thereafter, the Left declared its firm opposition both to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and tried to court several regional parties in its bid to offer an alternative both to the Congress-led UPA in power and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in opposition. It has to be admitted that the Left was to some extent successful in raising some sort of an alternative; that is going by the name ‘Third Front’. Hence the parliamentary election this time will be basically a triangular contest between the Congress-led UPA, the BJP-led NDA, and the secular alternative to both propped up by the Left and other parties. Parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu are with the Left.

What is interesting to note is that both the UPA and the NDA are not as strong as they were even some months ago. Some allies belonging to both the power blocs have either left the coalition or are fighting on their own. For example, the main opposition force in West Bengal, Trinamul Congress, which was a partner of NDA has changed camps and is now an ally of the Congress. Both together have challenged the CPI (M)-led Left Front in West Bengal. Again, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which is a constituent of the UPA, has not forged an electoral alliance with the Congress in Bihar, where it is strong. As a result, there will be ‘friendly fights’ between the Congress and the RJD in Bihar.

This erosion in support has considerably weakened both the big power blocs. As things stand now, the ruling Congress is only slightly better placed than the BJP. It might emerge as the single largest political party closely followed by the BJP. However, even if it wins, say 180 seats in the 543-member Parliament, it has to form a coalition government with the help of its allies. The same course will have to be followed by BJP if it wants to wrest power. In other words, India is going to experience coalition governance and coalition opposition for quite some time.

No substantive political or economic issue has been raised in the election campaigns. In the economic sphere, both the ruling Congress and the Opposition BJP are backers of neo-liberal policies. And as far as governance is concerned, the Congress has fared reasonably well during the last five years. The BJP has concentrated its fire power on Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, whom they describe as indecisive, powerless and obedient to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress, expectedly, has rejected this accusation by saying that Manmohan is steady and strong and decisive in his approach. His mild-mannered conduct should not be interpreted as weakness. While the BJP-led NDA is presenting its Prime Ministerial candidate, L K Advani, as a strong politician and man of action, Manmohan Singh himself has pointed out that Advani till now has been active in one sphere only – that is the demolition of the Babri mosque. It might be recalled in this context that the violent agitation launched in the early nineties to demolish this mosque was spearheaded by L K Advani.

Where does the Left stand in this scenario and what is its explicit aim? If one goes by what the General Secretary of the CPI (M), Prakash Karat, is saying, the Left with its allies is aiming to form the government at the Centre. It can be safely predicted even at this juncture that this dream will go unrealized because the Third Front will not be able to win as many seats as are required to form the government. The second best option will be to emerge as a strong political force which can make its voice heard in the post-election reality, that is, direct or guide to a certain extent the politics at the Centre.

No matter what the Left is thinking about the future, it has to be conceded that it will not be able to repeat the success which it had attained in the last parliamentary election. It had won 62 seats in that past battle but this time there could be a drastic reduction in number. Why? For the first time, in West Bengal, the Left is fighting both the Congress and the Trinamul together, and this combined opposition is posing a stiff challenge to the Left because a united opposition implies that there will be no division of the Opposition votes in favour of the Left. We should not be surprised if this combined Opposition wins roughly 20 seats in West Bengal out of 42. In Kerala too, where the situation of the Left is not at all happy because of severe internal dissension, there will be an erosion of support. Leaders of the CPI (M) are well aware of this predicament. Last week Prakash Karat conceded at a news conference that his party is facing a stiff fight in both West Bengal and Kerala. Experts are predicting that the Left’s tally in this election will not cross 40.

It is not possible to predict completely and exactly what the outcome of this election will be. One could perhaps predict that the BJP-led NDA will not be able to form the government. In that case the government will have to be formed by the Congress-led UPA or the so-called Third Front. If the Congress-led UPA wishes to form the government it might necessarily require the support of the Third Front. But will the latter extend this support – that is the million dollar question? Prakash Karat has already said that the Left will not support the Congress in its bid to form a government at the Centre. However, if the BJP tries to form the government in a confused set-up, will the Left rethink its position and support the Congress in order to thwart the BJP from coming to power? After all, according to the Left, the communal BJP is a greater menace than the secular Congress. In order to receive the reply to this very crucial query we need to wait till the results are declared and political moves begin in Delhi to form the government.

Prof. Subhoranjan Dasgupta, local coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Kolkata