India: Assembly elections in five states

’Communists’ defeated in Kerala as well as West Bengal

The months-long process of elections for five state assemblies has brought mixed results. The mega electoral exercise involved 115 million voters and saw some major upsets.

The rejection of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rule in Tamil Nadu was expected, but the sweep with which the corrupt rule of Chief Minister Karunanidhi and his coterie has been ended indicates the bottled up anger of the people in this southern state.

In the teeming and poverty-stricken state of West Bengal, the 34-year rule of the Stalinist Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – with its Left Front allies, has come to a grinding halt. This was anticipated but the size of the defeat was much greater than expected. The victor, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), though she had little to offer as an alternative, won the support of the state’s voters with a relentless battle against the Stalinist mafia-like leadership and their anti-poor policies.

The Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), the main bourgeois opposition party can only claim the status of an ’also-ran’! The only solace for the ruling Congress party in these crucial elections before the scheduled general election of 2014 was the third victory for its party in Assam. (This was mainly due to the large number of votes they got from Muslim refugees who continue to be threatened by the blatant communal politics of the Assam Gan Parishad (AGP) and its partner the BJP. A secondary reason is the engagement of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in peace talks, which is muting their struggle to an extent, and meaning Congress scores over the divided opposition.)

West Bengal – end of Stalinist rule

Spectacular reverses are not something new to India but the stunning defeat of the Left Front(LF) in West Bengal will go down in history as a defining moment, especially for the CPI(M). From a tally of 235 seats in 2006, the Front sank to 62. The CPI(M) with 40 seats got even less than the Congress, who got 42. It is pushed to third place in the current assembly. Former Left Front finance minister, Ashok Mitra, wrote: “The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has not merely lost the poll in West Bengal, it has been made mincemeat of”.

This is presented as the end of the “left” in India and in West Bengal in particular. On the other hand, it is welcome in terms of being part of a process of clearing out the dead weight of the opportunist policies of the Stalinist parties in the country – the CPI(M) and CPI.

A statement by the West Bengal committee of the CPI(M) said: “The CPI(M) and the Left Front have experienced an unexpectedly bad result in the elections”. But the way things were going was clearly indicated by the losses in the 2006 Assembly elections. In 2006, after the Left Front had embraced unabashedly neo-liberal capitalism in an aggressive manner, the left together got only about fifty percent of the votes. This was in a sense the beginning of the end.

In the 2009 general elections to the Indian parliament, the number of MPs belonging to the left came crashing down from thirty five to fifteen. The number of MPs belonging to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) went up to 19 when it had previously been just one – Mamata Banerjee. That trend of successive defeats to the CPI(M) and the rest of the left Front got reinforced in municipal elections in 2010. Even as late as in 2009, elections for the Lok Sabha (Central Parliament), as well as the state assembly results of 2006, saw the Left Front still getting a third of the seats.

In this year’s election, all the stalwarts of the CPI(M) suffered humiliating defeats, including Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of the state and friend of national and foreign capitalists. At the same time, the left candidates who withstood the rout and won in the elections, for example Abdul Razzak Mollah, who was the minister of land and land reform and known for his opposition to the manner in which fertile farmland was violently acquired for industry in Singur and Nandigram, were marginalised inside the party.

Biman Bose, known for his gaffes, said just before the results, when everyone in the party knew what was coming, that they would still gain a comfortable majority and those who were predicting their decline would have to “swallow their own spit”! Even after the elections, the leadership, including Prakash Karat in Delhi, were crowing that their votes had increased by 1.1million votes in absolute terms. But the TMC alliance had increased its votes much, much more. This time a significantly greater number of people came out to vote – as many as 4.8 million more than in 2009!

Tamil Nadu: a change of guard of the looters

The story of Tamil Nadu has always been of a choice between Tweedledum or Tweedledee – between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). On different occasions, Congress has formed coalitions with either one of these parties. What remains constant is the hood-winking behaviour of both these parties with their populist rhetoric, denying the poor their fundamental needs and rights.

The media wanted to give the result in Tamil Nadu a calculated spin, portraying it as just an ’anti-incumbency’ issue. One of the primary reasons for the defeat of the DMK was the fief-like regime of ’kith and clan’; this was its undoing. The high-sounding sermons of the out-going Chief Minister, Karunanidhi, on ’governance’ and ’development’ did not hold water, as his rule was conspicuously synonymous with corruption.

The corruption that haunted the DMK throughout the elections had two faces complementing each other – one home-grown and the other associated with its ministers in the UPA government. A. Raja and the daughter of M. Karunanidhi, are both accused of large scale bribery and graft to the tune of Rs.176,379 crore (US$ 39.16 billion) in the 2G Mobile Telephony Spectrum contracts scam.

Having made their ill-gotten billions, the DMK leaders created a media blitz to show that they are pro-poor. Most of media are owned by the extended family of Karunanidhi. They also doled out state funds to build a base for winning votes. Fulfilling an election promise of 2006, the DMK administration gave away 16 million colour TV sets free, at a cost of nearly Rs.40 bn. to the state’s budget. The party had a train-load of 36 promises to voters if they got to power, including free electricity, the waiver of co-operative loans given to farmers, free gas stoves to all women. This year, the DMK election manifesto included free lap-tops for school children and rice at a subsidised price of Rs.2 per kilo. It was an open secret that cash for votes was at a peak during the elections.

“Freebies or films couldn’t save the DMK!” (’’)

Karunanidhi wanted to cover up his regime’s misdeeds by giving away these ’freebies’ – which actually cost a fraction of the wealth accumulated by his family during DMK rule. But he was upstaged by Jayalalitha, leader of the AIADMK, who also promised lavish goodies to the electorate! The Election Commission brought in stringent rules to try and thwart the misuse of state machinery, but in spite of this, malpractices and breach of election laws were widespread.

One aspect of politics in Tamil Nadu that has dominated in other years – the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka – did not feature this time, following the defeat of the rebellion led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the past the plight of the Tamils in the island was an election issue on which all Tamil parties would raise their decibel levels to the maximum.

The war crimes issue of Sri Lanka did come up, but found a very muted response from the people, given that all the Tamil Nadu parties stand exposed on this issue. None of them did anything concrete to stop the slaughter of Tamils in Sri Lanka. However, the spectacular defeat of the DMK could well reflect pent up anger of voters in relation to this issue. Apart from the wringing of hands, the writing of poetry and playing to the gallery with rhetorical speeches against the Sri Lankan regime, Karunanidhi and his party did nothing practical. Their alliance with Congress could also be seen as treachery to the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Its pernicious role during the war, when thousands of innocent civilians were getting killed, will be remembered by the youth of Tamil Nadu for a long time to come. Nothing could save the DMK and Congress alliance this time – not even the glamorous television sets, the promise of cheap rice, old age pensions and other legal and illegal ’goodies’.

Jayalalitha and the “Left”

The role of the Indian state and its connivance with the Sri Lankan government in the last stages of the war against the LTTE is becoming increasingly clear. A movement to bring the war criminals in Sri Lanka to book is gaining ground with enormous speed in all the southern states of India where Tamils are a significant population. This was shown in the victory speech of Jayalalitha, when she spoke of the need to “declare Rajapakse a war criminal”.

It is less than a decade since jayalalitha faced serious corruption charges and had to step down as Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu. After the Supreme Court ruling of 2001, she was dubbed the Imelda Marcos of India – a woman who had amassed an enormous amount of unaccounted for wealth and property. She also has an autocratic and feudal style of operating. Her most notorious abuse of power was when, in 2003, she dismissed 170,000 Tamilnadu state employees and jailed 2,000 leaders of the union who struck work for their legitimate demands. This had been the chief reason for her losing the subsequent elections. All this makes it even more surprising that her party romped home in these elections

The majority of those who voted for the AIADMK to come back may have short memories, but the so-called “left” parties such as the CPI(M) and the CPI coat-tailed the AIADMK. During her last stint in office, they called Jayalalitha’s party ’Hindu communal’ and ’anti-worker’ (for jailing the state employees) etc. They got nineteen seats between them in the assembly, but given the enormous discontent and the struggles against price rises and attacks on living standards that are growing by the day, their honeymoon with the AIADMK will be very short-lived. Given the loss of their rule in West Bengal and Kerala, they will want to be seen as the champions of the poor.

Kerala – a surprise CPI(M) defeat

In a contest of unprecedented intensity, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won the elections for the Kerala Legislative Assembly by the most slender margin ever. It got 72 seats to 68 for the previously ruling CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), even though the CPI(M) got one of its best results.

The Congress had not dreamt of a victory this time, but it fell into their lap. Everyone predicted that the Left and Democratic Front (LDF), led by the CPI(M) would win hands down.

Unlike the Left Front in West Bengal, the LDF was still popular in Kerala, especially since its last stint in power under the chief ministership of V S Achuthanandan. He was at loggerheads with his own party chiefs on the issue of the state’s party secretary, Pinarayi when he took an uncompromising stand on all corruption issues.

What next?

Given the absence of any democratic radical choice, voters are forced by default to choose from the same corrupt bourgeois political parties. However, these elections have given the opportunity to people across India to vote out corrupt and autocratic regimes yet again. The forces of big business and reaction will trumpet and rejoice at the decimation of the CPI(M) and its Left Front allies, saying it is the end of any left, radical and Marxist politics in the country.

But the real left and radical forces were, anyway, increasingly emptying out of these so-called “Communist” and “Marxist” parties. The CPI(M) and the CPI were happy talking on television talk shows about the feasibility and possibility of building “third fronts” and “left and democratic” fronts. Meanwhile, pitched battles were being waged by the dispossessed against the multinational corporations – POSCO, Vedanta, Tata, Jindal, Sterlite and others – who are looting the natural resources and denying the ordinary peasants, Adivasis and Daliths any livelihood opportunities.

A genuine and new left is bound to emerge out of these mass struggles in the country, both in urban as well as rural areas. Given the Stalinist left loosing its over-importance, an authentic, utterly democratic, socialist alternative must be built. It needs to confront the whole gang of capitalists who are getting more and more jingoistic and militaristic in their attempts to prevent the masses from taking their destiny into their own hands.

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June 2011