CPI(M) treads fine line

Passions are running high in India. Last week saw the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party and its allies defeat the governing hindu chauvinist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) - to the surprise of most of the world. Then there was pandemonium when Sonia Gandhi declined the post of prime minister, thus turning down the opportunity to become the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty to run India. Yes, a week is a very long time in Indian politics.

As the results from India's first all-electronic elections quickly tumbled in - with its 600-million-strong electorate - we saw consternation, mourning and rejoicing in equal measure. We read dramatic newspaper headlines like "Gandhi's communist allies send shares plunging", "Fear of Gandhi government prompts record market fall", "Hindu party to boycott Gandhi ceremony", "Sonia Gandhi promises secular rule", etc. Writing in The Guardian, the Indian-born author and 'anti-globalisation' political activist, Arundhati Roy, declared: "It cannot but be seen as a decisive vote against communalism and neoliberalism's economic 'reforms'" (May 14).

It is hard to disagree - either with Roy's assessment or the headlines. Upon hearing that the BJP had lost the general elections, the markets were seized with a "blind fear", as one Indian financial analyst put it. This "fear" was magnified tenfold, of course, by the prospect that a Congress-led coalition government would include the four main leftwing parties: the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All-India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Collectively this 'Left Front' bloc hold 62 seats, representing 15% of the new parliament. The CPI(M) alone has 33 seats, making it the third largest single party in the house and a potential king-maker. Worried, the Financial Times speculated about the "risk that the coalition tail will wag the Congress party dog" (May 18). Unsurprisingly, the turmoil and uncertainty provoked by the election had its effect on the markets - on May 17 there was an 11% plunge in the benchmark 30-share Mumbai (formerly the Bombay Stock Exchange index) to 4,505.16 points, costing investors more than two trillion rupees (£25 billion). Naturally, this was immediately dubbed 'black Monday'.

Defence of India's secularist constitutional and political traditions from the ravages of BJP-sponsored hindu chauvinism - and communalism in general - has played a very important part in uniting the new disparate coalition government, which is to be formally known as the United Progressive Alliance. The 57-year-old, Italian-born, catholic-raised Sonia Gandhi had repeatedly emphasised that her coalition would be "inclusive, secular and united" - in stark contrast to the ultra-reactionary BJP, which during its eight years in power launched successive assaults on the idea and practice of secularism and religious pluralism. Indeed, the BJP and its even more crackpot allies have been responsible for promoting a hindu nationalism of the most deranged kind - and have not been shy to encourage, if not actively sponsor, communalist violence and murder. Given the grim and savage communalist record of the BJP, the election of an avowedly secularist government undoubtedly represents a positive development.

However, we should not overestimate the degree of Congress's success, nor underestimate the extent to which the BJP still wields power. In strictly electoral-psephological terms, although Congress has increased its parliamentary tally from 112 to 145 seats, its share of the national vote actually declined - from 28.3% to 26.7%. With its 138 seats, the BJP, whose share of the popular vote dropped from almost 24% to 22%, is only marginally smaller than Congress in parliament. For sure, the new UPA coalition government will not have an easy time of it.

Clearly, the BJP has not gone away - nor will its nationalism and chauvinism. Arguably, the very fact that Sonia Gandhi felt compelled to turn down the position of prime minister bears testimony to its continued, baleful influence. From the moment it became evident that Congress had won the election, the BJP mounted a xenophobic propaganda offensive pushing the poisonous message that Gandhi was "not fit" to be prime minister of India because she was a "foreigner". In this vein Tarun Vijay, editor of the main pro-BJP newspaper, Panchjanya, fulminated: "We are a hindu nation with a muslim president and about to get a christian prime minister. No other democracy would allow this to happen." Subsequently, the BJP began agitating for a change in the constitution, so that only people born in India can become prime minister - just like in the United States, where only those born in the country are eligible for the post of president. Naturally as internationalists and democrats, communists call for the scrapping of all such nationalist eligibility rules.

Such xenophobic pressure may well have been too much to bear for Gandhi - that and perhaps haunting memories of her husband, Rajiv, and her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, both assassinated as a result of communalist/sectarian antagonisms and state oppression. Whatever the case, it now seems almost certain that the new prime minister will be the 71-year-old colourless technocrat, and sikh, Manmohan Singh - a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher and one of the pioneers of neoliberalism in the early 1990s, which was taken up with such a vengeance by the BJP. Singh reassured the BBC - and the jittery markets - that the new government would continue to be "very investment-friendly", adding: "I wish to assure the investing community our policies will be pro-growth and pro-savings. We are not going to reverse the good work that was done in the past 10-12 years. Congress was committed to pursuing policies that would ensure that our financial markets perform their allotted tasks with efficiency, with utmost transparency".

The BJP's neoliberalism is dead, long live neoliberalism! Singh's pledge to continue the same economic policies is rather ironic. If Congress had not been able to reach out to the 300 million poor, both rural and urban, who have benefited hardly one jot from the information technology/call-centre 'boom' which has got bourgeois economists so excited, then it is unlikely that they would have won the election.

"India shining" - the BJP's disastrously misjudged campaign slogan - was a cruel slap in the face for the real, illiterate, desperate India that is not urbanite, online, hi-tech and happily surfing the web 24-7 in between its video-conferencing sessions and sojourns to Starbucks. Statistics tell a very different - chilling - story. Two-thirds of the Indian population live in the villages. More than half of the dirt poor - urban and rural - have no electricity or running water. They live in thatched houses and perhaps have to walk miles to fetch clean water. Farmers are steeped in debt, and 40% of the rural population have the same grain absorption level as sub-Saharan Africa - 47% of children under three suffer from malnutrition.

Growth in India's agriculture sector accounts for less than a quarter of GDP - even though two-thirds of its people live in the countryside. With annual population growth of 1.7%, this means that the incomes of India's rural masses have barely shifted since 1988.

More than 40% of the world's poorest people live in India - which according to World Bank criteria means living on less than $1 a day. Of course, the BJP liked to boast of the 8% annual growth since 1998 in India's services sector - led by the computer software industry, most notably the ubiquitous Microsoft. However, India's IT sector amounts to fewer than one million employees in a total labour force of some 430 million people. Over the past five years we have seen India's labour force grow at an annual rate of 2% - thanks to the steady proletarianisation of the peasantry. But at the same time employment growth has averaged just half that. In practical terms this means that India is adding five million youths every year to its unemployment total. Depending on seasonal fluctuations, it is estimated that India has between 100 million to 200 million unemployed or underemployed people.

For the downtrodden Indian masses - crushed by poverty, ignorance and state power - the BJP's 'promise' of more of the same was less than inviting. No wonder Congress performed well. But Congress - whether eventually led by Singh or not - just offers up economic BJPism 'with a human face', for all its nice-sounding words about secularism, democracy and pluralism. After all, is this not the same Congress party that campaigned in the 1970s around the laudable slogans, "Remove poverty" and "Food, clothes and roofs over their heads"?

Regrettably - tragically even - the Left Front parties do not have the politics or programme to liberate the masses. Indeed, in some respects, they have constituted themselves as part of the problem rather than the answer. Thanks to their grounding in 'official communist' history and general world outlook, the CPI, CPI(M), etc, still proffer up various reformist and centrist recipes - all of which, ultimately, derive from the JV Stalin national socialist cook book. Whatever the exact ideological, historical, schismatic origins of the two main left parties, they both believe that socialism is something that can be obtained within India itself.

Nevertheless there is a militant and sometimes heroic side to the history of communism in India. The CPI played an outstanding role in the struggle against British colonialism - only to be told by Moscow to align itself with the British during World War II. Despite that the CPI emerged as the second biggest party in elections after Indian independence. Certainly communism has deep roots amongst the organised section of the working class and poor peasantry. However, the main fault of the CPI has been its habitual tailism of Congress - which in the 1950s and 60s claimed to be pursuing a non-capitalist path of development at home and an non-aligned policy abroad. The CPI(M) began as a rebellion against this class collaboration, splitting when the CPI supported India against 'socialist' China in the 1962 border war.

The CPI(M) nowadays claims to "independently apply Marxism-Leninism to Indian conditions". This reflects its historic distance both from Moscow and Beijing. The CPI(M) has been prepared to run state governments - off and on in Kerala in the deep south, and almost uninterruptedly in West Bengal, where it has been in government since 1977. It has delivered some real and meaningful reforms. There was a radical land redistribution which saw the appropriation of the estates of big landlords and there is an inventive programme of food subsidies throughout the state which helps prevent starvation. But, though the organisations of the working class are relatively strong, the state remains desperately poor and millions are jobless.

The CPI(M) has tried to overcome this through encouraging the development of capitalism and, more to the point, by creating conditions conductive to big business. As The Guardian put it, "The party has been pragmatic in power" (May 15). And around half a dozen multinational companies have indeed set up operations in West Bengal. In other words the programmatic limitations of the CPI(M) have led it to adopt policies not substantially different to Ken Livingstone and left Labour in Britain.

The CPI(M) therefore treads a fine line between promoting the interests of its working class and poor peasant base and operating as a party of reform. Quite rightly it welcomes the defeat of the BJP and the return of secular government. It is also quite right to keep its distance from the Congress-led alliance which will presumably form the next government. However it is wrong to seek "a stable and viable government" by extending "support" to Congress "from outside" (http://cpim.org/). Any support should be purely episodic and in the general context of trying to build a viable left alternative to Congress. That is the best way to marginal the BJP and the ultra-chauvinist right.