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Thirty Years after the Emergency

The result of the 1977 parliamentary elections was seen as heralding a new democratic order, but on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Emergency we have the gloomy picture of the degeneration of the socialist movement into caste-based regional parties and the ambivalence of the left towards ethical governance and humane development. The right wing has thus expanded its appeal, aided by the Congress' soft Hindutva approach.


Thirty Years afterthe Emergency

The result of the 1977 parliamentary elections was seen as heralding a new democratic order, but on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Emergency we have the gloomy picture of the degeneration of the socialist movement into caste-based regional parties and the ambivalence of the left towards ethical governance and humane development. The right wing has thus expanded its appeal, aided by the Congress’ soft Hindutva approach.


nniversaries of past events are occasions for listening to their echoes in the present. June 26 is observed every year by human rights institutions and other groups as anti-Emergency day. This year too they held meetings, paying homage to the victims of the regime of terror that was inaugurated on that day 32 years ago by Indira Gandhi. They expressed concern over the increasing threat to civil liberties, the growing hold of monopoly capitalism, revival of feudal values, and the weakening of democratic institutions during the last three decades since the end of the Emergency.

But while June 26 every year should indeed be remembered as a black day, the current year needs to be celebrated for a special reason – the 30th anniversary of the end of the Emergency. On January 18, 1977, Indira Gandhi announced her decision to hold fresh elections – partly under domestic and international pressures, and partly misled by her intelligence department which predicted electoral victory for her party. This date virtually sounded the farewell note to the days of the Emergency, and the elections held in 1977 announced the end of the monopoly rule of the Congress at the centre and the arrival of a coalition government of its opponents. The year 1977 was thus a watershed of sorts in the history of Indian politics. In particular, it opened up before the left the possibility of coming to power in West Bengal – which they have been ruling since then without a break for the last 30 years – an achievement they are celebrating this year with fanfare. West Bengal apart, in Kerala and Tripura also the left has succeeded in holding office for long and short spells in the electoral seesaw that the two states have witnessed since 1977. The left’s crowning achievement at the national level however is its winning the magic number of seats in the present Lok Sabha which has turned it into the proverbial tail that occasionally wags the dog, trying to steer it in a particular direction. This is however out of all proportion to the left’s actual strength – which still remains confined to West Bengal, Kerala and a few pockets in the rest of India.

Commemoration of these momentous events – the end of the Emergency, the installation of the first non-Congress government at the centre, and the beginning of Left Front rule in West Bengal in 1977 – can therefore be a fit occasion for reviewing how far the political process during the last three decades has conformed to the popular hopes of protection of democratic rights, provision of clean administration, and implementation of egalitarian reforms, which were roused by the ushering in of a new order at the end of the Emergency.

Post-Emergency Blues

The political developments immediately following the lifting of the Emergency however make for a rather dismal reading in general. First, there was a gradual marginalisation of the non-Congress socialist and centrist forces which initially spearheaded the anti-Indira Gandhi movement in 1974, suffered repression during the Emergency, and came to power in 1977 on the wave of popular support. The coalitions that they formed failed to retain power at the centre for long – starting from the collapse of the two-year old Janata experiment immediately following the 1977 general elections or the V P Singhled National Front coalition from 1989-90 or the United Front government (first led by H D Deve Gowda and then by I K Gujral) in 1996, which survived for a little over a year. Even worse, the socialist component of these coalitions, which was shaped by the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement on the eve of the Emergency, split and degenerated into crass opportunism, crime and corruption (with leaders like George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav hitching their wagon to the BJP cart, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav and others of their ilk mired in financial scams and underworld links). Ironically, it was the same corruption in government and politics which among other things sparked off public protests in places like Gujarat and Bihar in 1974, and which the abovementioned individuals swore to eradicate when they participated in the JP-led movement as young activists at that time.

The fragmentation of the socialist movement – which had a strong base in the Hindi-speaking areas – into mutually squabbling regional and caste-based parties in the wake of Mandalisation (e g, led by Mulayam Singh or the late Chandra Shekhar in Uttar Pradesh, Laloo Yadav, Nitish Kumar or Ram Bilas Paswan in Bihar), dealt a blow to the hopes of a united left wing secular challenge to the right wing communal forces that were gaining strength on a national scale during the same period. The leaders of such territorial and community-based parties (which have also proliferated in other parts of the country in the post-Emergency era) have emerged as hard bargainers for a better deal for their states and communities, by using their clout to influence the formation of coalition governments and policymaking at the national level. Yet, in ruling their respective states, they replicate the same model of corruption in governance that the national leaders at the centre had set. As they

Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007 watched those at the helm of power in New Delhi successively sailing smoothly over the troubled waters of Bofors, Harshad Mehta and Bangaru Laxman scandals, the regional satraps like Jayalalithaa, Shibu Soren, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh and others of their ilk, felt confident enough to get away with similar skulduggery in their own states.

That apart, devoid of any clear ideological vision of an alternative model of economic growth to help the poor among their communities, these regional leaders had periodically shifted their ties, depending on the rapport that they could build up either with the ruling party at the centre, or the national opposition party that they could depend on to further their interests. Such parties can neither be expected to provide a morally superior administration or a better deal for the poor in their own states, nor to resist the institutionalisation of religious fanaticism at the national level. Even though commentators are praising Mayawati’s social engineering in harnessing the support of the poor among the dalits and upper castes in the recent UP elections, her past scoreboard (blemished by opportunistic alliance with the BJP, tainted by charges of corruption, and marked by poor record of empowering the dalits when she ruled UP) does not promise much change in the pattern of governance in her state.

Stagnation of the Leftand Expansion of the Right

Compared to the political somersaults and transient electoral fortunes of these non-Congress parties during the last three decades, the left on the face of it seems to have been far more politically consistent and set a better record of continuity in retaining its base in electoral terms. The communist parties and their allies have managed till now to stand on their own and hold together in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. But, on the flip side, despite their attempts during this period to move beyond these traditional bases and spread out to the Hindi belt, they have remained ghettoised in these three states, where the stagnant jacuzzi of state power is soothingly massaging them into a state of ideological debility and moral degeneration – a sad story to which we shall come in a while.

On the other hand, there has been the spectacular rise of their right wing rival, the BJP, which succeeded in capturing power at the centre and retaining it for more than five years during which it did enough damage to the country’s secular polity by institutionalising Hindu religious fanaticism into a well-knit national framework. The leaders and cadres of the Jana Sangh (the predecessor of today’s BJP) who till 1977 did not have much influence beyond the “cow belt” of Hindu trading communities and Hindu refugees from Pakistan in north and central India, expanded their support base to include other professional classes and even sections of Muslims and the tribal poor, and extended their area of control to the non-Hindi speaking south India – including the leftist bastion in Kerala, where the RSS has succeeded in recruiting the local people to fight the CPI(M), which was unheard of in the pre-1977 days.

The progress of the right wing Hindu communal forces was made possible by a number of favourable circumstances. One, riding piggyback on the anti-Emergency movement, the RSS leaders succeeded in occupying berths in the Janata cabinet at the centre in 1977 which helped them not only to become acceptable to the liberalminded Indian middle classes (which felt that they might be shedding their communal past), but more importantly for their organisation, to gain a foothold in the administration. Two, even after they lost power, by a peculiar ironical twist, their majoritarian ideology of Hindutva received a boost from the three Congress prime ministers who ran the country for fairly long spells during the 1980-90 period. On returning to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi moved towards a policy of appealing to the Hindu hegemonistic sentiments in an effort to outbid the BJP which was her main rival in the cow belt.

Her son Rajiv Gandhi went a step further by allowing ‘shilanyas’ (consecration) of the Ram temple at the disputed site of the Babri masjid in November 1989 – even though just a month ago the Ram shila pujan procession had been turned by its Sangh parivar leaders into an anti-Muslim mayhem in Bhagalpur. Rajiv Gandhi’s acquiescence gave a shot in the arm to the Sangh parivar’s murderous Ramjanmabhoomi campaign all over India – the uninterrupted progress of which was allowed to reach its climax by the next Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao on December 6, 1992 at Ayodhya. The


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Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

scandal-ridden record of the Rao-led Congress government, led to its defeat in the 1996 elections and paved the way for the return to power again of another coalition of non-Congress and non-BJP centrist and regional parties (although supported by the Congress) in the form of the United Front government at the centre that year. Incidentally, the home minister of this government was the CPI veteran, the late Indrajit Gupta, who turned out to be a total misfit – unable to take strong decisions and resist pressures from bureaucrats in suppressing the Sangh parivar’s open violation of the law. Its leaders and cadres had a hey-day, dispersing the seeds of communal hatred among the people and displaying their muscle power against the minorities – while the left remained passive spectators.

The Left: From Stagnationto Putrefaction?

The astonishing inertia of the left in the face of the rise of right reaction in those days, presaged the political torpidity that was to corrode the left in the years that followed. Lazy brains that allow themselves to drift along the current indeed become the devil’s workshop – as apparent from the performance of the left in the states it rules, as well as in its role of the opposition at the national level.

The post-Emergency history of Left Front rule in both West Bengal and Kerala, suggests a mixed record. The early years saw extensive land reforms, increasing agricultural productivity and empowerment of the rural poor through the panchayati system – but accompanied at the same time by closure of factories and suicides of workers (in West Bengal), and growing unemployment among the youth (in Kerala). In the infrastructure of human development, the Left Front in Kerala showed a far better record in education, health, housing and other indices than its counterpart in West Bengal which earned notoriety for appalling disregard of medical facilities in public hospitals and a shocking decline – both in terms of number of students (the rate of dropout at the primary and secondary stage being exceptionally high in the state) and the standard of teaching – in the field of education. Unionisation which helped white collar employees in the educational and health sectors and public services to gain higher wages and perks after the left came to power, soon degenerated into absenteeism in their workplaces, unaccountability in their actions, and irresponsibility in their functioning, to the detriment of the life of the common citizen.

Even the party leadership at the top in the left-ruled states could not remain long untainted by the rot that had begun at the bottom. Although not as bad as the allegations around Laloo Yadav’s fodder scam or Mayawati’s Taj corridor scandal, the latest exposure about the Rs 1 crore bribery mess involving a top manager of the CPI(M) mouthpiece Deshabhimani and about the newspaper taking Rs 2 crore from a wanted lottery businessman, is not likely to cover the so-called “Kerala model” with much glory. In West Bengal, the use of gangs of musclemen by the CPI(M) to intimidate its opponents in Singur and Nandigram is by now an open secret – unravelled by disclosures by victims on Bengali television channels, as well as by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which has led to the arrest of a CPI(M) leader and his cohorts who have been charged with raping and murdering a woman protestor in Singur. Instead of being chastened by such exposures, the state CPI(M) ministers and leaders display a shameless indifference to humanitarian concerns on the same television channels, by insouciantly dismissing the allegations of monstrous atrocities committed by their cadres and arrogantly defending them in the face of all evidence

– yet another symptom of the delirium from which a sick party is suffering.

Thirty years ago, the Left Front was welcomed as a political force pregnant with the possibility of delivering an alternative model of governance. The signs of pregnancy seem to have turned out to be symptoms of dropsy – a medical term used to describe the accumulation of excessive watery fluid in the human body. The CPI(M)-led Left Front needs to purge itself of the putrid fluid of corrupt leaders and criminal musclemen that has clogged up its arteries, if it wants to once again assume the mantle of the leftist challenge that it took on in 1977.

Rusty Ethics ofLeft Intellectualism

This brings us to the moot point in today’s debate. The left – whether in power or in opposition – cannot divorce the issue of the model of development from the ethics of governance. From this viewpoint, the present discussions by the left intellectuals over the models followed by West Bengal and Kerala (in the aftermath of the Singur and Nandigram disasters), although surely welcome, seem to be bogged down in the economic technicalities of adjusting to the neoliberal growth model, and advising the left governments how to juggle between the compulsions of following that model and the need to minimise the extent of its adverse impact on the common people. Surprisingly enough, one misses in their arguments adequate attention to the equally important – and more basic – prerequisites for judging leftist performance. There is the need to assess first how far the left is following a consistent and principled approach to economic planning, and secondly how far it is carrying out the moral responsibility of putting an end to crime and corruption in the states that it rules. On both the counts, the left intellectuals prefer to remain ambivalent. They display an astounding lack of discernment when faced with the left’s duplicity in opposing special economic zones and monopoly of big business in other states, and sponsoring the same institutions in states run by the Left Front. Similarly, issues like wellrecorded cases of criminalisation and nepotism of communist leaders and cadres in the left-ruled states, do not feature in the leftist academic critique of the performances of the West Bengal and Kerala governments.

By choosing to ignore the political consequences of moral corruption of the Left Front regimes, India’s leftist intellectuals run the risk of being accused of the same type of acquiescence that the western Marxist intellectuals betrayed by their silence during the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union in the 1930-40 period. As then, when they justified their silence by the paramount need to protect the island of socialism against bourgeoise conspiracy, today also the Indian Marxist academics tend to gloss over their prevarication on the plea of defending the Left Front governments – however criminal or corrupt they may be – to resist the rising tide of right reaction. As in the past, today too such uncritical support is likely to do more harm to the cause of socialism in the long run. They may do well to remember the words of Romain Rolland, who cautioned the left intellectuals of those days “The greatest service that you can render to the communist cause is not to make an apology for it, but to criticise it frankly and truly”.



Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

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