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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 12 New Delhi March 10, 2018

Lessons from the Tripura Election

Monday 12 March 2018, by M K Bhadrakumar

Ten years ago, in 2008, I was invited to speak at a colloquium in Rome regarding the war in Afghanistan; this was organised by the think-tank affiliated with the Party of European Socialists, the platform that brings together national level social-democratic political parties in the member-countries of the European Union. The hosts were Italy’s Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the successor to the former Italian Communist Party.

I carried back two precious memories from that trip to Italy and carefully stored them in the attic of my mind. One, of course, was the visit to the Sistine Chapel and the magnificent frescos of Michelangelo and the ensuing meditation over the Revelation. A long-cherished dream was fulfilled. And the second was a brilliant conversation over the dinner in my honour by the Italian hosts. Upon hearing that despite my father having been a Communist, I could be inducted into the Indian Foreign Service—and eventually to head the most sensitive division affecting Indian foreign and security policies in the Foreign Ministry dealing with Pakistan—my host remarked that Italian Communists always envied the comrades in India for the level playing field that was available in India’s democratic system, which genuinely allowed a hundred flowers to bloom.

Thereupon, my host went into an analysis of the trauma that the Communist Parties the world over faced in the immediate aftermath of the end of Cold War and the ‘death of communism’ that the disbandment of the former Soviet Union symbolised. My host said that the Italian Communist Party, although the strongest Communist Party on the European continent, with a 70-year history behind it, decided in 1991 to address the predicament by disbanding itself and taking the journey from doctrinaire communism to democratic socialism, reinven-ting itself as the Democratic Party of the Left (which eventually joined the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists).

It was an audacious decision because in just the previous election in Italy in 1987, the Italian Communist Party had secured close to 27 per cent of the popular vote. Yet, the leadership felt the need to adjust to the spirit of the times that heralded the end of the era of Eurocommunism by re-branding or transforming themselves as a progressive Left-wing and democratic socialist party. One-third of the party faithful showed reluctance but eventually the decision proved historic. To cut the exciting story short, the newly-formed Democratic Party of the Left went on to capture power in Italy in the parlia-mentary election in 1996 polling 21 per cent of votes as part of a winning coalition known as The Olive Tree.

My host regretted that the Communist Parties in India too could have taken a similar trajectory to upgrade and be contemporaneous with the new era. He warned that it is perilous to try to remain in frozen time when the society and politics all around are evolving phenomenally.

This friendly conversation, unsurprisingly, kept surging in my troubled mind during the past two days following the fall of the Communist Government in Tripura. Indeed, electoral defeat is not new for Communists. There have been such defeats in the past in Tripura. I can vaguely recall the pervasive gloom in my student days when the Communist Government in Kerala was dismissed in 1959 and lost the ensuing election—but then, only to rise like a Phoenix eventually from the ashes of defeat, years later.

Clearly, Narendra Modi’s swagger that this was an ‘ideological victory’ for the BJP in Tripura is pure baloney. The plain truth is that Modi and BJP President Amit Shah control a war-chest overflowing with money that the Communists cannot possibly ever match. Nor can the Communists match the opportunistic electoral alliance of the BJP with local allies with sub-national identity, which is only possible for an ideologically bankrupt national party.

Having said that, the Tripura debacle still needs to be evaluated in existential terms, given the steady trend in the recent years that the Communist Parties in India are losing ground to other bourgeois parties. The fact of the matter is that the country is in the cusp of change and is transforming rapidly, and in a society in transition, the political parties—especially the Communist Parties—need to adjust themselves to the emergent realities. Relatively, the BJP’s stunning success is due to its capacity to attune itself to the rising social aspirations.

On the contrary, it is precisely their inability or lack of willingness—depending on one’s point of view—to adapt to emergent shifts in the Indian society that must be counted as a major factor behind the Communist Parties’ steady erosion in the past decade. Put differently, although ideologically committed and relatively “clean” and above board in their functioning and ethos, and, most importantly, disciplined and cadre-based, the Communist Parties are losing their appeal. A disconnect is somehow developing. Principally, the finger must be pointed at the dogmas they adhere to, which, although highly principled and rooted in the profound thesis of class struggle and dialectical materialism, are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the needs and aspirations of the society.

One thing that emerges indisputably in the Tripura election results is that these needs and aspirations more or less narrow down to one little word—jobs. The Communist rule in Tripura was exceptional while it lasted for a quarter century in giving good governance. The Chief Minister himself was the paragon of virtues in his dedication in public life, his austere life-style, and his transparency, integrity and quiet dignity at a personal level. But all that still didn’t add up when the BJP’s dream merchants came up with their famous ‘development agenda’. The sad reality is that Tripura is at the top of the table as a State with an acute unemployment situation.

By the way, the lesson from Tripura is hugely relevant for Kerala, which today is the last bastion of the Communist Parties. The point is, in Kerala too, successive Communist govern-ments have largely acquitted themselves well in governance. But they have been found wanting in coming up with projects that create jobs in large numbers. The tendency is to take the easy road of egalitarian policies, which is possible only thanks to the money that is pouring in through remittances by expatriate Malayalis. This is not sustainable. Economic programme cannot narrow down to evenly distributing the income and ensuring social justice and support for the poorer sections of society.

A compassionate government can never become the target of public wrath and the Communist Parties got re-elected in Tripura. But the risk arose when the dream merchants appeared with their seductive product—the alluring promise of job creation. The Communist Parties can overlook only at their peril that communal polarisation is not the only card in the BJP’s inventory. In the North-Eastern States with large Christian population, Hindu fundamentalism has limited appeal, but the BJP still made inroads.

Suffice to say, the lessons from Tripura are two-fold for the Communist Parties in India. First, the Communist Parties put together are hopelessly incapable of stopping the BJP juggernaut on their own steam at the national level. They desperately need allies. Given the Left ideology, the allies must also be secular, social democratic parties. Make no mistake, the Congress Party becomes their natural partner in the current situation.

The Communist Parties need to create coalition with the Congress Party. Don’t quibble over it and create confusion. Time and tide wait for no man. This is one thing. The second lesson from Tripura, which is not unrelated to the above, but is from a longer perspective of the future of the Left in India, can be pithily summed up like this: India’s Communists must unabashedly borrow from Deng Xiaoping’s far-sighted advice to his comrades in the Chinese Communist Party, and give it the Indian characteristics—“It doesn’t matter if the economic policy is neo-liberal or liberal; as long as it creates jobs, it’s a good policy.”

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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