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 | Sukla (...)

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India’s Eighteenth Parliamentary Poll and the Left in Decline
 | Sukla Sen

Saturday 22 June 2024, by Sukla Sen


The Year 2024

2024 is the year that is witnessing not only the still continuing Russian aggression, started in February 2022, against much smaller and weaker neighbouring Ukraine, in Europe, but also, in ever-volatile West Asia, the way more egregiously genocidal attack by Israel, inaugurated in October 2023 on the native Palestinian population in the region — Gaza Strip, in particular. It, however, is also the year when crucial parliamentary polls are held or being held or going to be held in some 67 "democracies", including India and the US, apart from the UK, EU, Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan etc., covering nearly half of the global population. (See here [1], here [2] and here [3]) Some of them very much in the process of being transmuted into electoral autocracies, if not already so.

India’s Salience

It was in April 2023 India went to become the most populous country [4] in the world displacing China. This time more than 968 million are eligible to vote. This is more than double the number of people inhabiting the European Union [5]. But, the size of the population apart, despite fairly low per capita GDP, India has the fifth largest GDP [6] among all the nations with by far the highest GDP growth rate among the top ten (ref.:). India’s political heft on the global stage is well demonstrated by the fact that though India’s oil imports from Russian Federation just skyrocketed [7] in the teeth of American diktats, in the wake of invasion of Ukraine, as regards trade sanctions against fairly isolated Russia and thereby virtually mocked at the US pretention of being the Leader of the “Free World”, Indian Prime Minister was nonetheless, in June 2023 in the midst of all this, accorded the special privilege of making a “state visit” [8] – reserved for only a very selected few. In this context, it bears recalling that in 2005, the US Administration had cancelled the visa [9] of the same person, then the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, in response to an anti-Muslim pogrom conducted under his watch. 

The Poll Campaign

From the word go, the (seven-phase) poll (spread over 44 days and the longest [10] ever since the very first general election in ’52-’53) this time had the touch of bizarre in so many ways. First, an opposition Chief Minister (of Jharkhand) a little over two and half months before the start of polling was arrested on yet unproven corruption charges. Then, a month and three weeks thereafter, yet another opposition Chief Minister [11] was arrested [12] on yet unproven corruption charges. In stark contrast 25 leading opposition politicians got reprieve [13] from corruption charges after joining the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party. Many of them were rewarded also with plum ministerial posts. The real fun, however, started with the start of the poll campaign proper. When the main opposition party Congress released its poll manifesto [14] on April 5 — a fortnight before the commencement of polling, the BJP supremo, the Prime Minister, himself, the very next day, made the charge [15] that the "Congress manifesto completely bears the imprint of the (Muslim nationalist) Muslim League (who had demanded and secured Partition [16], that would trigger a humongous mayhem of bestial violence and mass migration, of British India to carve out an exclusive Muslim majority state of Pakistan)." Obviously, this abrupt reference to the Muslim League, now absent in India, was meant to stoke anti-Muslim paranoia among the "majority" Hindu voters in order to mobilise their support on his side. Soon he would further escalate and the dog whistle would graduate to foghorn. Just a fortnight thereafter, he would hurl the absurd allegation [17] that in pursuance of the announcements made in its manifesto, the Congress, if it comes to power, would snatch away the wealth and jewelleries of Hindus and their women in particular — including the sacred necklaces of the married women — to give away to Muslims. He, in the same breath branded Indian Muslims as "infiltrators" and proliferators of children. His claims pertaining to the "manifesto" etc. were just utterly false [18]. Though very much known for lying in public [19] — he, incidentally, claims to be having a postgraduate degree in "Entire Political Science"(!) [20] as perhaps no other on this planet is having — this was a sort of a record low even for him. As expected, though the rules in India explicitly prohibits such campaigns, the supposedly independent Election Commission of India [21] did nothing to restrain him. He, however, would soon scale even higher, rather unimaginable, peaks of bizarre absurdity. He would claim [22] by his way most favoured “crony capitalist”, that he has been sent by none other than God to execute His will, bypassing the biological route! That this man – a veritable amalgam of Putin, Rasputin and India’s very own legendary conman Natwarlal [23] – so nonchalantly mouths such obvious absurdities is understandably rooted in his twofold confidence that “people” are mostly dumb and given the extent of his stranglehold [24] over the legacy media, the electronic in particular, the contrarian views will just not be able to reach out to the general public beyond rather smallish circles. It is, however, quite another matter that the social and alternate media [25], this time, could very well make a tangible difference.

The Poll Outcome 

Exit polls in India are notoriously unreliable. But what happened this time is nothing less than stunning. While this writer, in social media posts, had — on June 1, the day the polling would conclude – predicted [26]: “Between 200 and 250 should be the most likely envelope for the BJP and between 100 and 150 for the Congress,” a few hours thereafter, the exit polls [27] predicted a massive victory for the BJP and decimation of the Congress and its allies. The highest prediction for the BJP-led NDA alliance was 400 and the lowest: 346. For the Congress-led INDIA bloc, it was 167 and 107. When the final results were declared, BJP won 240 seats, 63 down from 303 and 32 short of the 272-mark that indicates a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, which has 543 elected members in total. With its allies, the BJP, however, secured 293 seats. The opposition INDIA alliance, spearheaded by Rahul Gandh-led Congress, won 234 seats, with the Congress itself winning 99 of those, increasing sharply from 2019, when the Congress won only 52 seats, and with its allies, in 91 constituencies. The mismatch between the exit poll results and the actual outcome, maybe together with some behind-the-scene string-pulling, caused huge ups and downs in the national stock market leading to vociferous accusations [28] of malafide market manipulations to engineer windfall gains for some unidentified foreign players. This is yet another “new” under the Modi regime.

The most striking aspect [29] of the outcome is, however, that the “victors” are (virtually) in mourning and the “defeated” are jubilant. There are three major keys to this apparent paradox. One, the number 240, eventually, notched up by the BJP looks pretty puny when juxtaposed with its supremo’s repeated shrill call for “Over 400!” [30] Two, the exit poll outcomes, choreographed or not, hugely added to the respectability of this otherwise absurd claim. Three, most importantly, only near the fag end of Modi 2.0, the thick fog of despondency among those Indians who were very much uneasy and even outright fearful of the creeping death of “democracy”, engineered by the Modi regime, started lifting, a bit unsurely though, via the unprecedented and almost magical – a 4,000 kms. long foot march tagged as — Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) – launched in as late as September 2022 – with the youthful and strikingly affable Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at its very head. So, the fall of the BJP from the preceding 303 to 240 – well short of the bare majority mark of 272 – and the rise of Congress from 52 to 99 did trigger this apparent paradox. 
While whether the compulsions of a true-blue coalition government push Prime Minister Modi towards some moderation or make him even more outrageously adventurous remains to be seen, the general mood has unmistakably changed. And that may eventually turn out to be hugely significant.

The State of the Indian Left

Left-wing politics in India has a fairly long history. The Communist Party Of India (CPI) was established in 1925 [31] would be established in 1934. The Left Consolidation Committee [32] was formed in 1939 comprised of the Forward Bloc (led by charismatic Congress rebel Subhas Chandra Bose), CPI, CSP, Kisan Sabha (Peasants Assembly), League of Radical Congressmen (followers of M N Roy), [Bengal] Labour Party (a dissident breakaway group of the CPI) and Anushilan Marxists (ref.:).

In the post-Independence India, in the first parliamentary poll [33] in 1952, the Socialist Party (SP) – the successor of the CSP – was the second largest party in terms of vote share, 10.6%, and the CPI with 16 seats (and 3.3% vote share) – the second largest in terms of seats. The other most major party, both in terms of vote share, 5.8%, and seats, 9, was the KMPP – yet another successor group of the CSP. As compared to this, the largest right-wing (Hindu nationalist) Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of the BJP, had notched up 3.1% votes and 3 seats. The largest Congress had 45% vote share and 364 sets. Even in the following election, in 1957 [34], the Congress would get 47.8% of votes and 371 seats. The Praja Socialist Party (PSP), formed out of the merger of SP and KMPP: 10.4% and 19 seats. The CPI did phenomenally better: 8.9% and 27 seats. The BJS marginally improved to 6% and 4 seats. Apparently, while the CPI, by that time, had pretty much overcome the stigma of collaborating with the colonial rulers to throttle the legendary 1942 Quit India Movement, aka August Revolution – a massive anti-colonial popular upsurge very much breaching the bounds of Gandhian norms – as a consequence of its somewhat clumsy switch over to the Peoples War line rejecting the earlier opposition to Imperialist War (see here [35], here [36] and here [37]) – in the wake of Nazi Germany’s attack on its erstwhile half-ally Soviet Union [38] — and, subsequently, (somewhat intriguing) zealous support [39] for the (Muslim nationalist) Muslim League’s demand for partition of India on religious lines, it would still be quite some way for the BJS to meaningfully shake off the huge popular revulsion triggered by the assassination [40] of elderly, unarmed and unprotected “Mahatma” (Great Soul) Gandhi by a gang of Hindu nationalists. In fact, in 1957 [41], the CPI also won the assembly poll of the newly formed Kerala, a constituent state, and formed a rather short-lived government with the help of a few independents. This was the first time [42] globally for a Communist Party outside of the Communist world.

To cut a long story short, through some ups and downs and a major split in 1964 [43], the CPI, together with its – now much larger — offshoot CPI(M), reached the electoral peak in 2004. The CPI(M) alone notched up 43 seats with 5.7% vote share. The CPI: 10 and 1.4%. Two CPI(M)-led Left Front partners, viz. RSP and Forward Bloc added 3 seats each and 0.8% votes, both taken together. Thereafter, in 2009 [44], the Left would suffer a steep fall. The CPI(M) was down to 16 seats with 5.3% vote share. The CPI was reduced to 4 and 1.43%. The other two Left partners picked up two seats each. So, the Front was down from 59 to 24 – significantly less than half. But, that was just the beginning. On the face of it, the 2009 setback was the outcome of an acrimonious split-up between the Congress-led ruling UPA and the LF. Seemingly, personal egos were involved. But, subsequent scorecards would indicate that the underlying malaise is far more fundamental. To make it crisper, in the next three polls, the LF leader, CPI(M), has won 9 (3.25%) [45], 3 (1.75%) and finally, this time [46], 4 (1.76%). To sum up, the (main) Communist Party from the second position, in terms of seats, in the very first general election has now [47] sunk to the 14th position (ref.:). In stark contrast, the (main) Hindu nationalist party has risen from the fifth to the very top, pushing the Congress — dominating the scene for a long while — to the position of a distant second. However, the Congress this time has shown indications of stirring to a new life — by, at least partly, reinventing itself. It now heads a coalition of parties tagged as INDIA. 3 of the 4 seats of the CPI(M) are because of its membership of this coalition. The remaining one is from Kerala, where it has won a single seat out of 20 – leading a coalition opposing the Congress-led coalition and, yet not-too-significant, the BJP. Its erstwhile forts in West Bengal and the small state of Tripura lie in ruins. It is necessary to note that since ’52, two things happened to it. Its all-India electoral footprints, instead of expanding, kept continually shrinking and got confined to only three states. Then, over the last fifteen years or so, it lost two out of this three. On the face of it, the decline of the Left has run broadly in parallel with rise and rise of the Hindu/Hindutva Right [48]. Hence, it stands to reason that the prospect of any electoral – and even otherwise — revival of the Left is intimately linked to the fate of the broader fight against the creeping authoritarian rule [49] of the Hindu nationalist BJP and its führer Narendra Modi. The pushback [50], right at this moment, is unmistakably being spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi-led Congress with some new-found gusto. For the Left, the challenge is to meaningfully add to this overall endeavour – in terms of ideational inputs and organised mobilisations, in particular — while maintaining its distinctive identity. The fifth and the newest (half) member of the Left Front – the CPI(ML) (Liberation) – that has notched up two seats this time out of the total nine appears to be the most keenly [51] aware one. In this context, it bears mentioning that by late seventies, the Socialist parties had all dissipated and their leaders, mostly, became regional satraps heading particular (middle) caste-specific outfits and in due course ceased to be deemed any part of the Left.

Before we finally wrap up, apart from the parliamentary Left, there are two other sorts. The non-parliamentary one engaged, since late sixties, in armed struggles – in certain patches of the hinterland. And the non-party Left – in the shape of civil society organisations. The former one has of late suffered severe decline [52], as is the case with similar forces in Peru [53], Philippines [54] and next-door Nepal [55], after reaching its peak. The non-party Left, generally, has come to play a very useful role as force multipliers. At times even crucial.

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