A caring State

Congress must embrace an inclusive agenda based on the recognition that market-driven economic processes cannot deliver social opportunity or minimum needs to the poor. Imperative is public action and initiatives like NREGA, loan-waiver for farmers, and other pro-people social programmes

PRAFUL BIDWAI DELHI

THE 15TH LOK Sabha election, widely forecast as a contest without major ideological-political issues, has turned out to be a potential watershed. Five stories are intertwined within the emerging big narrative, which signifies positive change, with some setbacks: the Congress's rejuvenation on a Left-of-Centre platform; defeat and isolation of the BJP; the crisis of caste-based identity politics in the north; a reorientation of Muslim voting preferences; and a big setback to the Left, now reduced to just 24 seats, its lowest-ever Lok Sabha tally.

These changes are tentative and reversible. If the Congress drifts into conservatism, it could forfeit many gains. The Left could again become a vibrant force if it reads the writing on the wall and rethinks its policies and strategies. But the overall trend favours inclusion, pluralist-secularism and redistributive justice.

The Congress has crossed the 200-seat mark for the first time since 1991, with a 28.55 per cent national vote, about 10 percentage-points higher than the BJP's score. With a 90-seat lead over the BJP, this is a hefty margin. The real story lies in the Congress's dramatic performance in UP - as the second largest party with 21 seats and a 18.3 per cent vote - its ability to maintain supremacy in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana, and make gains in Rajasthan and NDA strongholds like Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. No less important were its gains in West Bengal and Kerala. In Gujarat, where Narendra Modi had boasted the BJP would win 20-22 of 26 seats, the Congress held on to 11 of the 12 seats and the BJP gained only one. 

The Congress's ascendancy, then, was widely distributed. It's only in Bihar, Karnataka and Jharkhand that it didn't make an impact. The Congress overcame its long decline in 2002-04. Now it has recharged itself.

The key to this lies in the Congress's embrace of an inclusive agenda based on the recognition that market-driven economic processes cannot deliver social opportunity or minimum needs to the poor. Imperative is public action through a 'Caring State' and initiatives like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), loan-waiver for farmers, and other social programmes.
Opinion polls and ground-level reports suggest that NREGA pivotally changed the Congress's image. For instance, many poor Dalits and Brahmins in UP shifted from the BSP to the Congress because of NREGA and disillusionment with Mayawati. She has done little for the people, including Dalits, in public service provision, but spent Rs 6,000-10,000 crore on memorials and statues.

The Congress's decision to go solo in UP was a gamble which paid off because Rahul Gandhi invested considerable energy into party-building, candidate selection and canvassing. This doesn't speak less of Rahul's leadership or charisma than of his tenacity and stamina for unglamorous grassroots work - which most Congressmen haven't done for decades. The Congress's spurning of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) helped avert the stigma of association with that deeply criminalised and discredited party whose support-base is eroding. The Congress won back some lost Muslim support.

The Congress's general performance is partly explained by organisational revival and a new crop of young leaders. Also helpful was the perception of the absence of major scandals during the UPA's tenure (except telecom and highways) and Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh's image of having behaved with decorum -- barring on the India-US nuclear deal.

The Congress didn't win on a centrist platform of stability, but on a Left-leaning platform of positive social change. The 'aam aadmi' slogan is yet to be translated into programmes. But unless the Congress succumbs to industry and media lobbies and plumps for neo-liberal policies like privatisation and increased foreign investment in pension funds, insurance and retail, it should be able to sustain this momentum.

EVEN MORE DEFINITIVE than the Congress's victory is the BJP's defeat, the second since 2004, despite the absence of an obvious big mistake like 'India Shining'. With a 3.4 per cent drop in national vote-share since 2004 and seven per cent since its 1998 peak (26.5 percent), the BJP is in steady decline. It lost votes in most states and failed to attract first-time voters and many past sympathisers. It was rejected because of its communalism and because it ran a negative, strident and confrontationist campaign bereft of policy issues.

The BJP probably erred in regarding the Lok Sabha election as an aggregate of state-level contests to be fought on local issues. But it also projected LK Advani as a "decisive", strong national leader. It even appealed to crass Hindutva through Varun Gandhi's hate-speeches and fielded Narendra Milosevic Modi as its star campaigner.

This strategy boomeranged. Advani's rhetoric about terrorism, "weakest-ever-Prime-Minister" (Manmohan Singh) and Swiss bank money didn't work. The ugly Arun Jaitley-Rajnath Singh spat dented the Advani-as -"decisive"-leader myth. Varun Gandhi probably cost the BJP a dozen seats in UP. 

The BJP's offered no imaginative ideas/agendas. Its canvassing was contrived. Advani's claims about the NDA's superior counter-terrorism record didn't gel with the Kandahar hijack or incidence of terrorism during NDA rule. When Singh retaliated against Advani, he sounded more dignified and convincing.

Yet, none of this explains the BJP's performance as tellingly as its failure to consolidate the "Hindu vote" through communal polarisation.

The conditions which allowed the BJP to do so in the 1980s and 1990s no longer exist - the Shah Bano case, which made the "pseudo-secularism" charge stick; the Ramjanambhoomi movement; the Congress's steep decline, which made the BJP an attractive ally; the rise of a small insecure middle class ready to buy its narrative of "Hindu grievance" against "history's wrongs" and of recreating India's past glory desecrated by "invaders".

Social conditions have considerably changed. The burgeoning middle class has come into its own and lost some of its inferiority complex. It isn't swayed by the "getting-even-with-history" narrative or the idea of demolishing mosques to recover Hindu "self-respect". Most Indians look to the future, not the past. Even the marginalised are aware of their rights and believe their lives will improve through struggles for participatory democracy.

A good hypothesis is that the BJP was a product of a very special conjuncture, which has probably passed. It cannot simultaneously continue to be both a social movement and a political party, combine Mandal and Kamandal, and espouse Hindutva and good governance.

The BJP must choose. It can be a hardcore Hindutva party. But that means retreating into a ghetto, and morphing into a version of the Jana Sangh, which had a modest place in India's social life and politics. The Sangh's vote fluctuated between four and eight per cent and its Lok Sabha strength never exceeded 35 -far lower than the Left's.

If the BJP wants to be a normal Rightwing party free of the burden of religious fundamentalism, it must accept India's essentially multi-cultural, multi-religious identity. This can give it a place in politics, much like the long-defunct Swatantra Party. 

The election highlights the crisis of caste - or "self-respect" - based identity politics without a progressive agenda of governance and service delivery. The biggest example is Laloo Prasad's RJD, which only had empty rhetoric to offer to the Bihari people - coupled with a law-and-order breakdown, public services collapse and end of culture and community life. Laloo has been humiliated. So has Ram Vilas Paswan, who has carried opportunism to new heights in the name of defending social justice.

Only slightly less severe is the dressing-down of Mayawati, with a six percentage-point vote loss. Many Dalits loyal to her have moved away. The BSP won only two of the 17 reserved SC seats. Mayawati's spectacularly successful Dalit-Brahmin coalition now looks like an artificial contraption, which does little for its constituents, except giving ministerial positions at the apex. Unless Mayawati addresses people's gut-level needs through land reforms and access to food, healthcare and education, she's unlikely to retain her hold on UP.

The ground seems to be slipping from under Mulayam Singh Yadav's feet too. He was so unsure of his base that he begged the Congress for an alliance, and then joined hands with Kalyan Singh. The result was a loss of 13 seats and erosion of cadre support.
All these narrowly caste-based parties are likely to decline, making space for substantive social, economic and political agendas.
In contrast, Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) did remarkably well because he practised inclusion, reached out to backward-caste Muslims, the Extremely Backward Classes among OBCs and the Maha-Dalits. Kumar did much to control crime, renovate roads, and empower gram panchayats to recruit primary school teachers, obviating dependence on town-dwellers and reducing teacher absenteeism.

THE ELECTION HAS revealed a shift in the voting pattern among Muslims. In UP and Bihar, they rejected community-centric agendas, including appeals by the conservative ulema. Rather than encourage particularist politics, they looked at broader issues of democracy and governance. A good chunk voted for the Congress and other secular forces in many states. This, despite the alienation and anger against the branding of the entire community as 'terrorists' after the blasts, and the Batla House encounter, widely perceived to be fake.

Muslims have moved away significantly from the Left Front in West Bengal. Acutely aware of its deficit in Muslim education and employment, and pained by its conduct in the Rizwanur case (and Nandigram killings), they punished it in 22 of the 42 constituencies where their number matters. The absence of bloc or herd voting and exercise of discriminating judgment signifies a new maturity among Muslims. This means fear and insecurity caused by Hindutva will play a lesser role in the future.

The Left has been badly mauled. The CPM has lost the most number of seats (27) of all parties. The blow was especially grievous in West Bengal. The Left plummeted from 35 to 16 seats even in the absence of factors prevalent in Kerala like the leadership tussle between VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayee Vijayan, vitiated relations between the CPM and smaller partners, and a history of pendulum-like swings between the Left and its Congress-led rival.

Two main reasons explain the Left's debacle. First, it disastrously promoted the Third Front, a rag-tag band of non-Congress-non-BJP opportunists, each of them (barring the Left) sullied by past association with the BJP. This negatively defined combine couldn't have won enough seats to make a convincing bid for power. It lacked the barest minimum of a common programme. Even if it had, optimistically, won 100-120 seats, it couldn't have come to power without Congress support.

Apart from irresponsibly overestimating the Front's integrity and prospects, the Left damaged itself by joining the league of these thoroughly opportunist, venal and corrupt parties with a shameful history of running odious governments with Rightwing policies, such as the Telugu Desam, AIADMK, Janata Dal (S) and BSP.

The Left undermined its moral stature - its greatest political asset - by propping up leaders like Mayawati and HD Deve Gowda, who have ended up supporting Singh's coalition. The Third Front's strong rejection by many Muslims and other secular citizens also affected the Left in many states.

The second reason for the Left's poor showing is related to its industrialisation and land acquisition policies in Kerala and especially in West Bengal, and its many social sector failures. Nandigram and Singur have become synonymous with the shameful pursuit of crony-capitalist policies, coercive land-grabbing and cussedness towards the dispossessed, including violence.

Nandigram and Singur were part of a plan to acquire 1.35 lakh acres and transfer it to industrial projects, including a chemical hub to be built by the Salim group, a front for Indonesia's kleptocratic Suharto family. The Left Front (LF) crafted that plan in line with its view that industrialisation is a historic necessity in West Bengal, and it must take place through the predatory private capital route involving huge subsidies. Thus, it offered Tata Motors a Rs 850-crore subsidy for the Rs 1,500-crore investment Nano plant.

The LF's embrace of Rightwing policies in West Bengal is of a piece with the state's poor performance in education - it has more school dropouts than Bihar -, health, and discrimination against and exclusion of Muslims. Three decades in power has transformed the CPM into an ossified, hierarchical and corrupt party whose cadres take a cut for all contracts and recruitments and run an extortion machine. The CPM's violence against those resisting forced land acquisitions remains a black mark on the Left's record.

It's tempting to argue that the Left deserved to be punished - so that it corrects course-but not so severely. But it's doubtful if anything less than shock therapy would have delivered the right message: namely, the Left will be sent packing unless it sincerely revises its policies, puts people before capital, and cleanses its organisation of criminals, goons and racketeers.

It's not clear if the Left parties can summon the courage to undertake radical self-introspection through a robust, no-holds-barred debate. Their organisational culture isn't conducive to frank debate. Many of their intellectuals, particularly the CPM's, tend to close ranks when criticised even from a sympathetic Left-wing standpoint.

This must change. The Left should encourage open debate and public airing of views. A small beginning has been made with CPI leaders  criticising the CPM's "arrogance". The space for debate must expand.

This can only happen if the Left parties rebuild their links with progressive intellectuals and civil society activists, and involve them as well as their own members in systematically and candidly analysing the causes of the defeat. Unless they acknowledge their blunders and change course, they will face marginalisation and a historic decline.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2009