The Left and Electoral Politics in India

In the recently concluded 2009 general elections to the lower house of the parliament, the Social Democratic Left (SDL henceforth) In India, composed of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), the Communist Party of India (CPI), and a bunch of smaller left-wing parties, has witnessed the severest electoral drubbing in a long time.  This year, the CPM won a total of 16 parliamentary seats; compared to its performance in the last general elections in 2004, this is a whopping decline of 27 seats.  The CPI, on the other hand, won 4 seats in 2009, suffering a net decline of 6 parliamentary seats from its position in 2004.  Does this mean that the Indian population has rejected even the mildly progressive and social democratic policies that the SDL tried to argue for at the Central level?  Is this a mandate for the Congress party and by extension a mandate for neoliberalism?  I think not. This is a mandate against the SDL but not against social democratic policies; this is a mandate against neoliberalism and for welfare-oriented policies.  To the extent that the Congress was pushed by the SDL to partially implement such pro-people policies, it can possibly be interpreted as an indirect endorsement of Congress’s late-in-the-day populism.  After making a few comments on the national mandate, in this article, I focus my attention on West Bengal, the bastion of the SDL in India.

Mandate versus Outcome

Let us begin by distinguishing between the mandate and the electoral outcomes.  The change in the number of seats won and lost (the electoral outcome) is only a partial, and imperfect, reflection of the change in the actual level of support parties enjoy among the people (the mandate); often the particular logic of electoral arithmetic draws a wedge between the mandate of the people and the electoral outcome in terms of seats won or lost.  For instance, it is possible for a party to increase its share of votes polled without this increase leading to any increase in the number of seats won; conversely, it is possible for a party to decrease its share of votes polled without losing in terms of seats.  An example of the former is BSP’s performance at the national level in 2009: it has emerged as the third largest national party, increasing its share of votes polled from 5.33 percent in 2004 to 6.17 percent in 2009, but this has not translated into any appreciable increase in terms of seats.  An example of the latter is CPM’s performance in Tripura: its share of the votes polled dropped from 68.8 percent in 2004 to 61.69 percent in 2009, but that did not affect its position in terms of seats.  Hence, to understand the structure of the “popular will,” it is necessary to go beyond the position in terms of seats won and lost; one needs to study the changes in the shares of votes polled.

Focusing on the share of votes polled is also enough, among other things, to dispel certain misinterpretations of the mandate of the 2009 general elections that seem to have wide currency.  The first misinterpretation that is gaining ground is the alleged existence of a “wave” in favor of the Congress party which swept it to power overcoming the ubiquitous current of anti-incumbency.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Despite having won 206 parliamentary seats, the Congress merely won 28.55 percent of the votes polled in 2009; this is a little less than a 2 percentage point increase from 2004.  29 percent can hardly be interpreted as a “massive wave”; besides, this overall increase also hides substantial decreases in several important states such as Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh.  The second misinterpretation that is doing the rounds is that this general election saw the definite demise of regional parties and all federalist tendencies of the Indian populace; the people voted overwhelmingly for national parties, the argument goes, because they want stability.  Whether people desire stability is a questions that cannot be entered into at the moment, but the fact that the populace did not reject regional parties in favor of national parties can be seen by looking at the share of votes going to the Congress and the BJP together: according to provisional figures released by the Election Commission of India, the combined vote share of the Congress and BJP in fact declined from 48.69 percent in 2004 to 47.35 percent in 2009.  Thus, the share of votes going to the two main national parties has declined; so much for the ascendancy — what historian Ramachandra Guha called the “course correction” — of the tendency for centralization in the Indian polity.

Social Democratic Performance: National Level

How did the social democratic parties perform in terms of the share of votes polled?  At the national level, the CPM lost only marginally in terms of its share of votes polled, which declined from 5.66 percent in 2004 to 5.33 percent this year; the CPI, on the other hand, gained marginally at the national level, increasing its share of votes from 1.41 to 1.43 percent.  Thus, going by these national figures, there is no evidence of any nationwide “wave” against the social democrats’ opposition, however feeble, to the neoliberal policies of the Central government.  Those who want to interpret the current debacle of the social democrats as a national mandate against progressive economic and social policies need to rethink their arguments; the evidence does not support such an argument.  In fact, as I will argue below, if there can be discerned any “wave” in favor of the Congress in the mandate, it is largely a “wave” against neoliberal economic policies and not the other way round as many pro-establishment analysts are making it out to be.

But the national level figures hide many interesting state-level variations, so we must look at state-level data.  There is another reason why we need to supplement national level with state-level analysis: since the SDL is prominent only in the three states of Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal, the national figures are not very relevant to assessing the electoral prospects of the social democrats.  Hence, we must look at state-level data for Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal to understand the sharp change in the electoral performance of the social democratic Left in India and draw conclusions about its continued relevance in the Indian polity.

Social Democratic Performance: State Level

How did the social democrats perform in the different states?  First, the SDL managed to increase its vote share in a few states: Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal, and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.  Apart from Manipur, of course, the total vote share of the SDL in these states remains insignificant; hence, the increase in the vote share did not even remotely translate into changes in seats.  Second, the SDL lost its share of votes polled in a large number of states: Assam, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, West Bengal, and Jharkhand.  The percentage declines in Punjab and Jharkhand were very large, though that did not affect the reckoning in terms of seats because the SDL did not have seats to start with, i.e., in 2004.  Third, the states where the loss of vote share wreaked havoc for the SDL’s reckoning in terms of seats were Kerala and West Bengal: in Kerala, the share of votes going to the SDL declined from 39.41 percent in 2004 to 37.92 percent in 2009; in West Bengal, the share of votes garnered by the SDL declined from 50.72 percent in 2004 to  43.3 percent in 2009.

Let me summarize the evidence presented so far: the SDL’s marginal decrease in vote share at the national level was made possible by the offsetting of the decrease in vote share in several states by the increase in others.  The fact that this marginal decrease led to such a debacle in terms of seats is driven by the fact that the bulk of the decrease in vote share was concentrated in the electorally important states of Kerala and West Bengal whereas the increase in vote share was spread out electorally across states where the SDL is marginal.  Thus the state-level distribution of the increase and decrease of vote shares for the SDL turns out to have profound implications in terms of electoral outcomes at the national level.

Social Democrats Help the Congress

This, of course, brings us to this important question: why was the bulk of the decrease in vote share for the SDL concentrated in Kerala and West Bengal?  The clue to an answer is provided by the fact that both states, Kerala and West Bengal, currently have social democratic governments, led by the largest social democratic left party in the country, CPM.  In both states, the social democratic governments have, over the past few years, increasingly accepted, adopted, and pushed neoliberal economic policies, often in the name of development and industrialization.  Thus, we saw the emergence of a paradoxical situation: the SDL opposed, however feebly, the continued adoption of neoliberal polices at the level of the Central government, while the same set of policies was aggressively pursued in the states where they were in power.  The debacle of the SDL in the two most electorally important states of Kerala and West Bengal can, therefore, be understood as a strong rejection of this doublespeak and hypocrisy of the SDL.  The rejection of the SDL at the level of these two states, moreover, dovetails into the overall mandate in favor of progressive and social democratic policies, and against the neoliberal turn, at the national level.  Of course there were other local factors, both in West Bengal and in Kerala, that overlaid this broad rejection of the neoliberal turn and turned the mandate decisively against the SDL in both these states.  Before we look at some of these factors, especially for West Bengal where the debacle of the SDL was the most stunning, a comment about the so-called national “wave” in favor of the Congress is in order.

The so-called nationwide “wave” in favor of Congress, if there was one, resulted to a large extent from the slew of populist policies that it adopted, paradoxically pushed towards this by the SDL, over the last few years.  These include the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the step-up in public investment in agriculture, the debt relief program for farmers, the Right to Information Act 2005, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006, the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Bill 2008, and the setting up of the Sacchar Committee to inquire into the continued marginalization of Muslims in the country.  The Congress cashed the benefits of this populist swing electorally claiming it to be its own policies whereas, in truth, the SDL was largely instrumental in pushing for these policies at the central level.  Other such social democratic policies pushed for by the SDL include: opposition to financial sector reforms (pensions, insurance), opposition to outright privatization of the public sector, opposition to privatization of health care and education.  These defensive actions by the SDL have partially limited the unbridled power of capital to exploit labor and have provided some relief to the mass of the working people in India.  It is, therefore, no surprise that corporate India is exultant at the social democrats’ drubbing at the hustings in 2009.  The stock market in Bombay went into a tizzy immediately after the results were out and trading had to be stopped for a while to deal with the unprecedented euphoria!  As many media reports show, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and other business groups have already started preparing their “wish-list” of reforms, by which they mean another round of neoliberal policy assault; quite unsurprisingly, land reforms does not figure in this wish-list of “reforms.”

The SDL’s ability to counter the Congress claim that the populist thrust was a result of a progressive shift in the party, in reality fiercely opposed by entrenched interests within the Congress, was severely limited by the SDL’s de facto record in the states where it was in power: Kerala and West Bengal.  Thus, paradoxically, while the SDL was largely responsible for creating the populist shift in the Congress party and thereby creating a “wave” in its favor, it could not transform this effort into any substantial electoral advantage for itself; and this was largely because of its doublespeak and hypocrisy, saying one thing at the Central level and doing exactly the opposite at the State level.

Probably nothing brings out this doublespeak and hypocrisy of the SDL better than the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).  The NREGA, which provides a guarantee of a minimum of 100 days of work to the rural poor, came into effect on February 2, 2006 in 200 of India’s poorest districts.  This provision was originally brought by grassroots-level mass movements in Rajasthan and other states in India, and was later adopted and forcefully pushed by the SDL at the central level.  While the NREGA has been constantly attacked in the mainstream press as a waste of resources and a useless policy initiative, it has in fact created substantial benefits for the rural proletariat and poor peasants; even though there is still a lot of room for improvement, the NREGA has managed to improve the lives of the rural poor by putting a floor on agricultural wages and assuring some days of employment, both of which resulted in increased rural incomes.

West Bengal: A Closer Look

How did the NREGA fare in West Bengal and Kerala compared to other states?  In 2006-07, the person-days of NREGA employment generated per rural household was 6 in West Bengal and 3 in Kerala, with both states figuring in the list of the 3 worst performers.  Compared to this, the all-India average was 17 person-days, and Chhattisgarh generated 34, Madhya Pradesh 56, Assam 70, and Rajasthan 77 person-days.  A similar picture emerges for the next year, too: in 2007-08, West Bengal generated 8 person-days and Kerala 6 person-days, much below the all-India average of 16 person-days.  The dismal performance of the state government led the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), a non-party, registered trade union of agricultural workers, to file a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court on non-implementation of the 100-days work guarantee scheme in West Bengal.

Coming back to the factors specific to West Bengal that led to this stunning electoral defeat of the SDL, we must complement the story of the state government’s surrender to neoliberalism with its misguided arrogance.  The utter failure in the implementation of the NREGA went hand in hand with other overt neoliberal policy moves: privatization of health care, privatization of education, the full-scale assault on the public distribution system, and an aggressive State-sponsored attack on farmers to “acquire” their agricultural land for a neoliberal industrialization drive.  Singur and Nandigram stand as symbols, at the same time, of both this attack by the State on behalf of corporate capital and also of the fierce resistance to this brutality by the poor peasants and landless laborers.  The arrogance of the SDL-led state government was on gruesome display during the “re-capture” of Nandigram in March 2007, a violent attack on the people opposing forcible land acquisition, and also in the manner it dealt with the case of Rizwanur Rahman.  Coming as it does in the background of the dismal conditions of the Muslims in the state, the total insensitivity displayed in the Rizwanur Rahman case increased the ire of the common Muslim population against the SDL-led state government.  Taken together, all these factors created a massive wave of anger and resentment against the state government and resulted in the unprecedented electoral debacle of the SDL in West Bengal.

A Spurious Argument

At this point, we need to closely scrutinize an alternative argument that is doing the social democratic rounds.  This argument, which purports to provide an explanation of the electoral defeat of the SDL in West Bengal, runs something like this: the Left Front made a great tactical mistake in severing ties with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Center on the issue of the 123 treaty (nuclear deal) with the USA; this severing of ties with the Congress allowed the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress (INC) to forge an alliance in West Bengal; this alliance managed to consolidate the anti-Left votes and directly resulted in the electoral drubbing of the SDL in West Bengal.

This argument, if true, would provide some solace to the SDL leadership in India.  By shifting the responsibility of the electoral debacle onto the logic of alliance arithmetic, the SDL would manage to skirt some difficult issues of policy and politics.  But, alas, the argument does not hold water when confronted with evidence.  There is a simple way to determine the validity or otherwise of this, to my mind, spurious argument.  If it were true that the SDL debacle was fueled mainly by the consolidation of anti-Left votes (because of the Congress-TMC alliance), it would mean the following: the SDL’s share of votes polled would remain relatively unchanged between 2004 and 2009.  This is a straightforward testable implication of the above argument.  What does the evidence say on this?

In Table 1 we have summarized data about the change in the vote share of the Left Front (CPM, CPI, AIFB, and RSP) at the level of the parliamentary constituencies between the general elections in 2004 and 2009; a negative number implies an increase in the vote share from 2004 to 2009, and a positive number implies a decline.  As can be seen from Table 1, out of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal, the SDL’s vote share went down in 39, ranging from 0.49 percent in Balurghat to a whopping 34.8 percent in Hooghly!  The only 3 constituency where the SDL managed to increase their vote share is: Malda North, Murshidabad, and Ghatal; in all the other constituencies its vote share fell between 2004 and 2009.  There were 25 constituencies where the share of votes garnered by the SDL fell by more than 5 percentage points, there were 11 constituencies where the vote share fell by more than 10 percentage points, and there were 5 constituencies where the vote share declined by more than 15 percentage points.  Can we, in the face of this overwhelming evidence of a massive anti-SDL wave, still stick to the story of the supposed consolidation of anti-Left votes as the primary reason behind the SDL debacle?

Table 1: Constituency-Wise Decrease in Vote Share of the Left Front from General Election 2004 to 2009

Constituency Change Constituency Change
Malda North -5.71 Kanthi 7.67
Murshidabad -1.09 Malda South 7.68
Ghatal -0.66 Arambagh 7.74
Balurghat 0.49 Darjeeling 7.99
Uluberia 1.58 Mathurapur 8.06
Medinipur 1.70 Bishnupur 8.28
Jalpaiguri 2.11 Tamluk 8.50
Asansol 2.51 Bongaon 8.89
Kolkata South 2.80 Basirhat 9.05
Diamaond Harbor 2.98 Birbhum 9.65
Raigunj 3.13 Krishnanagar 12.53
Dum Dum 3.62 Barasat 12.54
Bardhaman Purba 3.69 Joynagar 12.91
Jangipur 3.80 Barrackpur 12.97
Ranaghat 3.88 Kolkata North 13.64
Bahrampur 3.99 Sreerampur 13.72
Alipurduars 4.48 Bolpur 15.65
Jadavpur 5.35 Purulia 15.94
Howrah 5.61 Bankura 16.62
Cooch Behar 6.88 Bardhaman-Durgapur 16.99
Jhargram 7.12 Hooghly 34.80

Beyond Elections

There is no denying the fact that the SDL played an important role in halting the juggernaut of neoliberalism in India through its intervention in the formation of the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA; and this was largely possible, given the political situation five years ago, because of the sizeable parliamentary presence of the SDL at the Central level.  If nothing else, the reaction of corporate India to the electoral debacle of the SDL is proof of the partial efficacy of the SDL’s past interventions.  But there are, I would submit, at least two serious problems of a strategy that focuses primarily on electoral politics as the SDL does.

First, most of its interventions, even though salutary, are at best defensive actions.  The ruling classes set the agenda and move forward with a concrete program of neoliberal reforms and the SDL reacts to that agenda: it tries to halt the speed of the reforms, tries to win a battle here or there, without in any real sense questioning the logic of the whole move.  The logic of the whole move can only be questioned when there is a positive agenda guiding political intervention.  In the absence of such a positive political program, it boils down to the following: the ruling class ushers in the policy triumvirate of liberalization, privatization, and globalization, and the SDL merely reacts to these.  In such a scenario, the best outcome can only be a return to the status quo, not a move forward towards a socialist future.

This brings me to the second, and related, problem of the SDL strategy.  The fact that the Communist parties, now part of what I have called the SDL, have lost the political offensive in the context of the class struggle in India also finds reflection in their over-emphasis on electoral politics, to the virtual exclusion of all non-electoral struggles.  Over the last two decades, there is not one significant non-electoral struggle that the SDL initiated or led; all its attention and energy has been fixed towards how to maintain its electoral position.  More often than not, the SDL has been willing to enter into opportunistic and unprincipled alliances to attain short-term electoral goals, little realizing that this opportunism leads to long-term political setbacks.  At times it has even gone with the BJP to keep Congress out of power, quickly reversing the logic at the next moment and aligning with the Congress to defend secularism.  Caught in these endless electoral antics and working within a framework whose rules have been set by the ruling classes, the SDL has gradually distanced itself from its programmatic concerns of a people’s democratic revolution.  To recover its potency and relevance, the SDL must refashion itself by forging links with the rising tide of mass movements in India against the neoliberal offensive and overcome its obsession with electoral politics.  If post-poll statements of the SDL bigwigs are anything to go by, however, they have decided to do exactly the opposite: blame the electoral debacle on external factors, avoid any serious rethinking, and continue with elections as the primary focus of SDL politics.

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While computing the numbers for Table 1, I had not fully taken account of the delimitation of parliamentary constituencies that took place in 2008.  Hence, some of the numbers in Table 1 are inaccurate because the parliamentary constituencies themselves have changed.  Thus, while it is difficult to accurately see how the 7 percent statewide decline in vote share of the Left Front is distributed across all the parliamentary constituencies (which is what Table 1 inaccurately reported) because of the 2008 delimitation of constituencies, we can nonetheless figure out the changes in vote shares in those that remained relatively unchanged by the delimitation process: Balurghat saw a marginal decline of 0.49 percent, Raigunj a decline of 3.13 percent, Alipurduars a decline of 4.48 percent, Cooch Behar a decline of 6.88 percent, Darjeeling a decline of 7.99 percent, Birbhum a decline of 9.65 percent and Bolpur witnessed a massive decline of 15.65 percent.  But the statewide decline in the vote share of the Left Front remains unchanged and thus my main argument remains unaffected; only the distribution of the change in vote share across parliamentary constituencies has changed.  Once the Election Commission of India comes out with data at the assembly segment level, one can recompute the numbers that make Table 1 to get a more accurate picture; the trend of declining vote share for the Left Front, though, will remain unchanged.

Deepankar Basu is Assistant Professor of Economics at the Colorado State University.  This article also appears in Radical Notes and Sanhati.