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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Congress, Left Must Get Together Again

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Arjun Sengupta

It is high time the Congress and the Left got back together in national politics, which has degenerated into a fissiparous mess. All kinds of obscurantist, communal, and casteist forces have risen to the surface, pushing to the background the debates on real national issues. Only the rejuvenation of the Congress-Left alliance can alter these trends.

Both the Congress and the Left must realise that they are natural allies in spite of the differences in their ideology and numerical strength. The Left has always suffered from sectarianism of a part of their leadership which often isolated them from the national mainstream. But they realise that with their limited numbers the only way they can influence the course of developments is to act as a pressure group upon the Congress, whose national objectives and support base are closest to them despite regional differences.

The last five years have seen many occasions when the Left had a far-reaching impact on policies that they would never have achieved on their own. The successes in the National Rural Employment Gurantee Act, Right to Information, tribal rights and affirmative action for the minorities, the debt waiver progremme and increased credit and other support to agriculture, helping the small and micro industries in addition to the introduction of a national programme of social security, the rural development schemes of Bharat Nirman, expansion of public distribution system and primary education are significant achievements of the Congress Government to which the Left has definitely contributed.

There is, of course, an unfinished agenda attached to all these programmes that would require the participatory involvement of the common man, a national system of social audit for all development programmes, and an alternative approach to planning, making social development its principal concern in collaboration with the State governments. The only way this unfinished agenda can be pursued effectively would be for the Left to mobilise public pressure to support the forces in the Congress party committed to such programmes.

It so happens that these programmes, which are essentially meant to empower the poor, had been championed by the mainstream Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and followed up by Sonia Gandhi in the recent period. All through history they were opposed by the vested interests—in Nehru’s day by the Swatantra Party and other conservative leaders, and in Indira Gandhi’s time by virulent Opposition groups objecting to all her programmes of social development and Garibi Hatao. Even in the last few years, a section of the government has either opposed or diluted all such programmes of empowerment. Nevertheless, the Congress leader-ship tried to stick to the mainstream policies through a massive increase in the social development expenditure in the last five years. This contrasts with the almost stagnant level of expenditure on such policies in the preceding 10 years.

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In retrospect, it was a serious mistake on the part of the Left to withdraw support from the government on the nuclear issue. The technical merits of the nuclear programmes are now clearly established, allowing India to have nuclear cooperation with not only the United States but also Russia, France and other European countries. The possibility of a paradigm shift in foreign policy should not have been exaggerated, as there is a strong national support for our Nehruvian policy. This, in turn, needs to be protected by constant public pressure and mobilisation where the Left should play a role.

The scope for this has only been weakened by its withdrawal. All other policies of national reconstruction and integration that uphold secu-larism, democracy and equitable development would benefit if the Congress and the Left work together. No Third Front, even if the Left is able to cobble one together without the support of the communal parties, can be a comparable success.

The Congress too must appreciate the help that the Left can provide to its policies of national development. The Left is an organised and disciplined group which follows an ideology that is implicitly recognised as championing the cause of the common man, the working poor, and the toiling farmers. Its influence goes much beyond its numerical strength, and would help to consolidate the support base of the mainstream Congress policy. This was appreciated by both Nehru and Indira Gandhi as they openly sought the support of the Left in their struggle with opposition from vested interests. There were times when Nehru’s foreign policy of non-alignment, and planning for industrialisation and self-reliance withstood the attacks of powerful opponents mainly because of the support from the Left, both within and outside the Congress. Similarly, Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao and anti-monopoly and big business policies, together with anti-imperialist international policies, drew upon mass mobilisation by the Left. In spite of occasional warnings by the Left, Nehru or Indira Gandhi never abandoned them. More recently, Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s approach to use economic growth for the empowerment of the poor, backing their rights and entitlements with finance, technology and appropriate institutions, would also require the mobilisation of the masses for which the support of the Left is an imperative.

Now that the elections are in full swing, both the Left and the Congress are at loggerheads. But it is necessary that both must enter into dialogue and public discussion on reviving the alliance and working out another basic Common Minimum Programme to complete the unfinished agenda of the last government. The Left should shed its ideological prejudices and come out with concrete and realisable programmes.

The Congress, in turn, should reach out to the Left, signalling that it is prepared to make mid-course corrections of the policies to uplift the common man—targeting them directly to the poor and the vulnerable, and ensuring their partici-pation in implementation. There are times in history when long-term national interests should overcome factional differences. A revival of the Congress-Left alliance is the only way to preserve what has been achieved, and to move forward to realise the promises that could not be kept in the last five years.

(Courtesy: The Asian Age)

Dr Arjun Sengupta is a Member of Parliament and former Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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