Saturday, June 25, 2016
Friday, June 17, 2016
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
The Nuffield studies of each British general election since 1945 are valued to two reasons. First, they assess an election campaign from all possible angles, from the perspective of politicians to the media coverage of the exercise. However, far more important, these studies approach the elections, not from how it appeared in hindsight but how they seemed “in flight.” This is particularly valuable as it prevents sweeping generalisations of how an election campaign seemed before the final counting of votes and declaration of results.
It is important to inject this chronological perspective into the recent West Bengal elections, a fortnight after the Electronic Voting Machines revealed an unequivocal mandate for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. With the outcome revealing little or no scope for ambiguity, posterity will probably forget that even as late as the evening of May 18, after all the anecdotal evidence from the districts had been dissected by the pundits and analysts, there were a very large number of people who predicted that the next morning would see Mamata and her loyal followers scurrying for cover. On the final day of polling I had spoken at length to a Communist leader and a ‘dissident’ TMC parliamentarian at the Central Hall of Parliament. Both had assured me that the groundswell of anger against the Mamata administration was far beyond their wildest expectations and that the TMC was heading for a complete rout. One Left stalwart gleefully described Mamata’s apparently tense body language as she visited her offices for the “last time” before the declaration of results.
The wild optimism that had gripped the Congress-Left combine in the final days of the election campaign warrants mention. The idea is not to mock their horrible misreading of the situation: even the most experienced of political observers do get their sums wrong. It happened in May 2016, just as it has happened in the past and will happen in the future. Basically, all politicians live in an echo chamber and are inclined to talk up what they envisage is the reality. I recall the remarkable extent to which both non-Congress and media professionals failed to anticipate the phenomenal pro-Congress avalanche in 1984. Even a casual re-reading of the press coverage of that election demonstrates how the popular mood was insufficiently understood.
That the state unit of the CPI(M) miscalculated the verdict of May 2016 and ended up behind both the TMC and the Congress is apparent. In Left circles, this spectacular debacle is now the stuff of a fierce political battle involving the so-called ‘Bengal line’ and the orthodoxy. The Bengal CPI(M), it may be recalled, had basically told the Politburo to go and take a walk as it, inspired by Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, crafted a variant of a Left-Democratic alliance involving the existing Left Front and the Congress. It was a quiet rebellion and was quite unprecedented from the standpoint of the CPI(M) that, in its internal structures, still adhered to Lenin’s top-down command structure. The Bengal CPI(M) was more or less united in its resolve to include the Congress in a broad alliance against the TMC. Indeed, the local unit was so determined that many of its hotheads were even willing to contemplate a formal split in the party.
Now that the disastrous performance of the CPI(M) is a grim reality, there are some awkward choices that confront the party. First, a recalcitrant local party has informed the Politiburo that, far from admitting the error of its ways and shamefacedly falling in line, it proposes to continue the alliance with the Congress both inside and outside the Legislative Assembly, at least until the general election of 2019.
On its part, the Congress, which was the major (and unexpected) gainer from the alliance, has indicated it is willing to play ball with the CPI(M). Humbled in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and confronted with its own existential dilemmas vis a vis the rising regional parties, Congress Party spin doctors have lauded the Bengal experience as a way of blunting the BJP onslaught. Dejected promoters of the Congress-Left deal in West Bengal now say that the TMC prevailed only because a major chunk of the votes the BJP secured in the 2014 general election went totally in favour of the TMC. Earlier, during the campaign, it was presumed by the same people that the anticipated contraction of BJP votes would benefit the main anti-TMC combine. The presumption was a bit unreal since voters who lean towards the BJP are more than likely to favour other anti-Left forces as their second choice. But then, in hindsight, many of the political assumptions of the Congress-Left were based on the spurious belief that the battle to oust Mamata was essentially to restore civil liberties in the state.
Indeed, for the beleaguered CPI(M), the electoral battle in 2016 was essentially one of political survival. There was a time when the CPI(M) was driven by a desire to effect profound social change and use West Bengal as a springboard for expansion into the rest of the country. That dream was put to rest after more than three decades of uninterrupted power and the Left Front’s failure to introduce socialism in one province. By and large, those who joined the CPI(M) after Jyoti Basu’s victory in 1977 were driven by the desire to benefit from being on the right side of the political power structure. Once power slipped out of the Left hands in 2011 and the TMC mounted a campaign of ruthless expansion, the Left found itself struggling to just about stay afloat. It is interesting that, apart from a few mass rallies, the Left has been unable to intervene effectively at the constituency level since 2011. In short, the character of the Left and its political priorities has changed immeasurably. At its best, the Left has piggybacked on loose ‘progressive’ causes in a bid to roll back the advance of the BJP. To add insult to injury, as the swearing-in ceremony of Mamata last week demonstrated, it is being regarded as a bit player (if not a liability) by the regional parties that now dream of providing a ‘federal’ alternative to Narendra Modi in 2019.
The growing mismatch between Left hopelessness in West Bengal and the residual pretensions of revolutionary politics in the CPI(M) Politburo are now becoming increasingly visible. There is a growing contradiction between the CPI(M)’s larger political programme and the grim realities on the ground in West Bengal. At one time, revolutionary intransigence may have been a shield against the bad times but with international Communism now relegated to the history books, there is little hope for future optimism.
Traditionally, in India, Communists punched above their weight and made their impact through strategic interventions in the larger ‘progressive’ ecosystem. That might still happen if the Congress persists with its leftwards lurch but for the CPI(M) to remain relevant, it will have to undergo a doctrinal revision, incorporate the Congress into its definition of ‘democratic forces’ and, most important, reassess the relevance of being the ‘vanguard’ party of the proletariat.
Some of these shifts may have been forthcoming had the CPI(M) performed well in West Bengal. Unfortunately for it, the staggering setback has only hardened the resolve of those who see continuing merit in the historical legacy of the Red flag. If the CPI(M) is to maintain a relevance it can exercise two possible options. It can either make itself indistinguishable from the CPI of the mid-1970s by tailing the Congress. Alternatively, it can emulate the European examples and submerge itself into the largest ‘progressive’ party. The present incoherence can’t persist indefinitely.
The Telegraph, June 3, 2016
Monday, May 30, 2016
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sunday, May 8, 2016
By Swapan Dasgupta
Among the biggest pitfalls of political analysis is the belief—sometimes not altogether self-conscious—that what we believe is desirable will translate into reality. All of us have, at some time or another, been guilty of such a misreading of the situation, and not necessarily because of ideological convictions.
Last week, contrary to all the wisdom of punditry, the flamboyant billionaire businessman Donald Trump decimated all his remaining Republican opponents and emerged, for all practical purposes, as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election in November 2016. When he entered the race many months earlier, the pollsters gave Trump only a two per cent chance of negotiating the primaries successfully. He defied the collective wisdom of the punditry and the organised might of the Republican Establishment to prevail. The next few weeks before the Republican convention may witness another last minute attempt by the grandees to deprive him of the nomination. But with the party faithful rallying behind him, any last minute bid to foist a more ‘respectable’ candidate is doomed to failure. In democracies, manipulative politics is powerless in the face of popular fury.
The Trump nomination has also set in motion a parallel explosion of conventional wisdom: the firm belief that November will witness the easy victory of Hilary Clinton. This confidence stems not so much from a larger international confidence in the wife of the former charismatic US President. The Democratic Party primaries have revealed the extent of Hilary’s vulnerability in the face of a popular onslaught. If a poorly funded, slightly maverick, self-professed socialist such as Senator Bernie Sanders could the well-oiled Clinton many nervous moments, imagine what Trump can do?
Hilary may well end up as the first woman President of the US. But her victory against Trump isn’t by any means assured, as yet.
It is tempting to portray Trump as a loose cannon blessed with a foul tongue and a repertoire of crazy conspiracy theories. The belief that such a man could only go so far and no further has been unendingly disproved over the past few months. Obviously, Trump’s wild politics strikes a chord among many Americans. While debunking those beliefs is easy, it is far more instructive to identify the basis of his undoubted appeal. Just as Indian politics isn’t determined by the Left-Liberal consensus of the newsrooms in Delhi or even the preferences of the insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi, the mood of America isn’t always gleamed from the self-comforting echo chambers of the campuses and financial wheeler-dealers. While their inputs should always be factored, they don’t constitute the whole story.
To my mind, what makes the Trump campaign very potent is the fact that it has been able to tap the vast reservoirs of accumulated anger. When combined with fear, the cocktail is both hateful and explosive.
At the top of the anger-filled agenda is the belief that the US has slipped from its divinely-ordained position as the world’s top dog. The Trump supporters believe that the once-mighty US of A is being kicked around by Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and an unscrupulous China on the other. American workers, they feel, are losing jobs and being reduced to impoverishment because they are hostages to transnational capitalism. Moreover, the demographic shift that has accompanied a permissive immigration policy has resulted in a huge mass of people who are no longer attached to the fundamental Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of the US.
Most of these beliefs aren’t unique. Over the past two decades, the facets of American ‘declinology’ have been articulated by well-heeled think tanks. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan articulated the resentment against multilateral trading systems and the Harvard academic Samuel Huntington (better known for his Clash of Civilisations) wrote tellingly of immigration destroying the American ethos.
Trump’s achievement has been in tying all these different strands of resentment into a single, angry narrative and a single slogan. For a man whose campaign has so far been largely self-funded and without the benefit of a large army of pollsters, speech writers and researchers, the achievement has been colossal. As a canny businessman Trump instinctively detected political openings and rushed to fill the void. Whereas his Republican opponents in the primaries focussed on their Christian credentials, Trump’s appeal was more wide ranging. Trump appealed to angry New Yorkers as well as those who felt short-changed by the ‘system.’
It is the fierce anti-Establishment thrust of the Trump campaign that should not be underestimated, and more so since Hilary is seen as the personification of everything that is rotten about a cosy consensus. But more than that, Trump scores by not accepting the neo-Conservative beliefs on the economy at face values. Indeed, at times the differences between Trump and Hilary’s Democratic rival Sanders is notional. It is this positioning that provides him the opening to appeal to traditional Democratic voters who are not driven by ethnicity. To put it starkly, against Hilary’s grand alliance of the educated, the Blacks and the Hispanics, Trump offers a grand alliance of angry white America. His only shortcoming is that he alienated women with a few incredibly stupid comments but he still has time to repair that damage.
I believe that unless Trump scores a series of self-goals or unless Hilary somehow reinvents herself after securing the nomination, we are likely to see a riveting election whose outcome is not pre-determined. Decision makers in India should keep an open mind on developments in the US.
Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2016