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Shifting Powers?

Left, Right, Left

B Sivaraman

Narendra Modi's five-year record in office shows that he has confused the wave of support to him in 2014 as mass support for authoritarianism. It is now time to pay dearly for that. There may not be a visible strong anti-Modi wave yet but an undercurrent of growing anti-incumbency is unmistakable and can be seen even beyond the 3 States where the recent poll outcome went against him.

The Opposition might still be scattered, its ideological-political plank still be incoherent and electorally too they might not be cohesive yet. But even many neutral observers acknowledge that the balance of overall poll arithmetic has clearly tilted against Modi and shifted in favour of the Opposition.

Poll bugle might sound soon and very little time is left. The priorities of current electoral manoeuvres might come to dominate. Still, it is also important that through this very process attention must be paid to larger issues like shaping up an inclusive social-democratic vision for a democratic restoration and a 21st century people's agenda of popular democracy. Lapsing into mere electoral pragmatism would rob the opposition unity of any durability. Moreover, if the gradual demise of centrism in international politics reaffirms anything, it is the need for broader left-right bipolarity in the polity in ideological-political terms.

In the light of this, it would be a mistake to look at the Congress entirely through the prism of its neo-liberal past of the UPA days. Congress, today is a pale shadow of its past. One thing good about a marginalised Congress is that it has made the talk of a third front superfluous as electorally today the Congress is just an also-ran entity. Naturally, there is no strong support for third force or third way in the popular mood.

That Modi was wide off the mark in calling for a Congress-Mukt Bharat has been demonstrated by his own brigade's bad-mouthing of Rahul day in and day out. Still, the foremost challenge for Rahul is to revive Congress from its nadir. However, any revival is possible only through the current political process of broad anti-authoritarian popular unity.

But then Congress is Congress and given its legacy and historically evolved composition, at this point, there are bound to be contradictory pulls within it. Whether it will go back to its centre-right plank or can Rahul steer it to centre-left direction still remains an unsettled issue. The imperatives of winning back a popular support base and its plutocratic class character would always be at loggerheads. Even assuming that Congress would in future go back to its centre-right self, today the politics of engagement with the Congress by the progressive camp should be governed by the current imperatives of vanquishing the forces of Hindu Right.

Trying to bring Congress, immediately back to power would not only be objectively unrealistic but even prove to be counterproductive tactically and Rahul seems to be aware of this. It would be unrealistic to expect Rahul to solve long-term problems of Congress like winning back dalits and tribals and regaining the confidence of minorities but there are early indications for that. No easy solutions appear in sight for staging a comeback in UP-Bihar and winning back the Western India and becoming relevant again in Odisha, West Bengal and North-East. Still, Congress is a party with ample expertise and experience as an all-India ruling party.

Rahul is sending some positive signals for a course correction. True, he might not have openly distanced himself from Manmohan's neoliberal legacy and might not do so in future too. Still, survival imperatives tend to push him towards a popular-left turn if his recent Chhattisgarh speech and Mint interview are any indication. He contrasts a handful of big corporate cronies of Modi with the need for a greater space for small, micro and medium businesses, talks of composite strategy of state assistance to solve the agrarian crisis and points to the earlier pro-big business thrust leading to NPAs. He has also intelligently adapted the slogan of unconditional universal basic income to Indian conditions as minimum income guarantee. He might not have moved more in a social-democratic direction of state commitment to social enterprises, sharing and solidarity economy of the self-organising and an eco- friendly path of development and so on. But then it is the job of the left to offer a powerful counter pull.

The Left might be marginal electorally but the Left has always enjoyed disproportionately greater influence on the terrain of ideas and this is all the more true under conditions of rightwing hegemony. Here one is not talking of 2 or 3 electoral left parties alone but referring to the broad-spectrum Left, including the left intelligentsia in the media, academia and civil society and so on. This Left should animate with its ideas the popular front realignment underway.

As some left leaders tend to do, reducing the need to work for a broader leftward shift in the polity to a simplistic binary of whether to get into an electoral coalition with the Congress or not is wrong. Having to break bread with a party like Congress is a rarest of rare occasions for the Left imposed by the fascist fat-right. Naturally, this is not the time to talk of a third way. A more constructive and creative engagement with the Congress is a precondition even to check a return of the Congress to a centre-right neoliberal plank as far as possible. The Congress might well go back to its true centre-right self in future. The Left too can go back to its anti-Congressism. Indian public is politically mature enough not to confuse tactical manoeuvres with opportunism.

The Left leaders should also take lead in clearing some misconceptions and confusions in the progressive camp. Opposition unity is also a political manoeuvre and the finer distinction between pre-election unity manoeuvres and the post-election understanding should be kept in mind. Fielding a common candidate against BJP as far as possible should not be confused with a full-fledged programmatic unity bind with the Congress or an all-in pan-opposition unity. The move for a broad liberal-left convergence might have only made a cold start but only through that the Left can take care of its future interests in the politics of the present. 

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Frontier
Vol. 51, No.35, Mar 3 - 9, 2019