Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Third Front .......... fantasy what else?

V.Krishna Ananth

As the Manmohan Singh Government is settling down and coming to terms with the harsh reality of running a coalition, the media seems preparing for the next elections. And this is reflected in all the debate in newspapers and TV channels about a Third Front taking shape. But then, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the reality that exists and the idea.

A brief recap of the conditions in which the idea of a third front began taking shape will be in order, at this stage, to place the debate in context. In 1989, soon after the elections to the Lok Sabha were over and the Congress party failed to gather a majority, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, then the general secretary of the CPI(M) issued a cryptic statement. That his party will provide outside support to a non-Congress formation to form the Government; EMS also added that such a Government shall not consist of the BJP.

The CPI(M), in other words, set the agenda for a new brand of anti-Congressism. The Lohiaite scheme that was given shape in 1967 (with the formation of united front Governments in many Northern Indian States) was altered drastically by the CPI(M). And in many ways, this new experiment was going to be a departure from the Janata experience too. It was no longer necessary for the non-Congress opposition to give up their distinct identities and merge into a political formation. Instead, the new arrangement would provide the space for parties to consolidate their own bases and yet work out an arrangement where they all came together against the Congress party.

This was indeed a far more pragmatic arrangement than the Janata Party. And the fact is that unlike whatever happened to the Samyukta Vidayak Dals (unity of legislators) in the Sixties – all of them cracked up sooner than they were formed because the leaders of this coalition could never trust each other – the National Front that was cobbled together in 1989 did not collapse in the same way.

This experiment was carried out with more cohesion in 1996 when H.D.Deve Gowda emerged its leader. The Janata Dal, it may be recalled was a motley small crowd of 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha then. And I.K.Gujral became Prime Minister after him.

The important fact that needs to be stressed here is that the Governments headed by V.P.Singh, Gowda and Gujral would have lasted their terms if the respective coalitions they headed had commanded a simple majority in Parliament. In other words, these Governments did not last their terms only because the ruling combine in all these instances were far short of a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. While V.P.Singh’s Government fell because the BJP, an outside supporter, played its own partisan game. Similarly, both Gowda and Gujral were brought down by the Congress party, once again an outside supporter.

The point is that the third front idea did not last long because this was inimical to the Congress party’s interests. In this sense, unlike the Janata experiment that collapsed under its own weight and because the leaders who constituted the party began fighting with each other, the National Front and the United Front lasted longer than the skeptics expected.

This indeed is a fact that the media and commentators must keep in mind. And hence stop bothering about the stability that such an idea can provide. The fact is that the National Front and the United Front were stable formations in their own way and distinct from the Janata experiment. This change was what EMS Namboodiripad could notice in 1989.

Well. Does this mean that a Third Front could be a reality in the coming couple of years? The answer is No! There is no way that the Congress party can be wished away. In a sense, a repeat of 1977 is not likely. The Congress party will continue to be relevant in about 150 Lok sabha seats across the country. And this could be the case with the BJP too despite the crisis that is haunting the party since the NDA lost power in May 2004. The left parties will remain relevant in about 50 Lok Sabha seats. And a variety of regional parties – the DMK, AIADMK, TDP, AGP, BSP, Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena, BJD, RJD, JD(U), Akali Dal and such others – as also such sub-regional outfits – the PMK, DPI, Kerala Congress, Muslim League, Apna , Lok Dal, etc., -- will manage to win elections in the remaining 200 Lok sabha constituencies.

This would mean that either the Congress or the BJP will emerge as coalition leaders – prepoll or postpoll – rather than agree to sustain a Government by the regional or sub-regional outfits. And these regional parties too will find it better to support either the Congress or the BJP as long as they are accommodate in the coalition with important ministerial berths; and the ``national’’ party agrees to support the regional party in their respective State.

In other words, a third front is nothing more than a pipe-dream. (EOM)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Another strange experience… or did I learn something from that?

I decided to spend some time with a Madurai based theatre group called Illavattom. Consisting of college students committed to the cause of dalit resurgence, they were traveling across Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts spreading the message that Torture in all forms have to be combated. This group was part of a number of such spirited youth who, in association with People’s Watch-Tamil Nadu, were moving from village after village in the State between June 2 and 23 to campaign against torture.

Now, we all reached a Dalit locality near Tuticorin. The local organizers were keen that I shall address the gathering too in between the cultural show. I had no hesitation and spoke about how the due process of law is followed in case of a Rahul Mahajan and wondered whether a poor man will be handled in the same way as Rahul was in the event he was caught snorting cocaine!!! The audience seemed to understand the point. But I made it clear that our demand was that every Indian should be dealt with in the same way as Rahul was and NOT that Rahul too should be dealt with in the same way as an ordinary citizen of this country. SAY NO TO TORTURE!!!!

Well. The learning process began later. Our dinner was arranged in the Dalit colony. And I was indeed waiting for food to be served because I had learnt, in the meanwhile, that they had cooked pork for us. A special occasion for them!

And as I found a place for myself in the dining hall, I found the local organizers discussing something in a hush-hush manner and was easy to realise that I was the subject matter. After repeated prodding, one of them came u to me and was apologetic that they had only pork and since I was not expected to be there, they did not care to cook some chicken too.

I had to tell them and much to their surprise that I had decided to eat there only after learning about the menu. I realise that there are many, who may stand up for the cause. But every one of those may not have internalized that way of life into theirs. This is what I learnt that evening.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

30 years of Left in West Bengal... Changing Track

When the CPI(M) won a majority in West Bengal in June 1977, it was indeed a surprise to many including those in the party. Well. 1977 was not the first time when the party won power in a State. The undivided CPI had won the first ever assembly elections in Kerala as early as in 1957 and EMS Namboodiripad assumed charge as Chief Minister. This was the first election to the Kerala assembly after the State was formed out of parts of the Madras State along with Travancore and Cochin. In West Bengal too, the CPI(M) had won elections along with the Bangla Congress in 1967 and once again in 1970.

In 1977, however, the CPI(M) leaders were not too sure of their strength. The Janata Party had swept the polls in the March 1977 Lok Sabha elections and the nation was still under the grip of the Janata wave. And the CPI(M)’s demand for 80 assembly seats in alliance with the Janata Party in the 294 member state assembly was rejected by the Janata patriarchs. Pramod Das Gupta, the grand old man of the CPI(M) then and political tutor of the present CPI(M) State secretary, Biman Bose, decided to take the plunge. The party contested alone and won a simple majority on its own.

The victory was indeed a sweet revenge for the CPI(M) whose cadre had suffered the violent and murderous onslaughts by the Congress party cadre as well as the police during the infamous Sidhartha Sankar Ray regime from 1971 to 1977 and the undemocratic ways of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. Old timers recall the period as the semi-fascist phase in the political history of West Bengal. And the 1977 victory was indeed a popular response to all that.

While Jyoti Basu became the Chief Minister, the party inducted Benoy Choudhary, who was brought up in the movement by the legendary Hari Krishna Konar and a frontline fighter in the peasant front of the party, to hold the land revenue department. And Benoy Choudhary went about implementing the communist movement’s agenda on the land front in real earnest.

Operation Barga, as it was called, involved collation of data on surplus land, studying that systematically and implementing the demands placed by the Tebhaga struggle. The Government, under Benoy Choudhary, consolidated the surplus land, drew up the road map and ensured that the tenants were made owners of the land they tilled. The landed gentry, who found it infra-dig to work on the soil and their apologists in the bureaucracy and the political stable were shown their place. And Operation Barga turned out to be a huge success and even a model for land reforms.

Well, the intention behind recalling this past is simple. The land reforms agenda ensured the CPI(M) its political base across the State of West Bengal and reduced the Congress party into a rump. So much so, the Congress party could not do what it did in the 1971 elections; the 1971 assembly polls in West Bengal, when Indira’s Congress wrested power, was perhaps, the most undemocratic one in independent India’s history. The violence was unprecedented (and remains that way till today) and that was how Sidhartha sankar Ray managed to become the Chief Minister.
All that changed after the first phase of the CPI(M) government in West Bengal. There was no way the Congress party could win polls in rural Bengal because rigging was no longer possible. It is another matter that the CPI(M) failed to establish itself as a force in urban West Bengal. The middle classes in Calcutta (now Kolkotta) continued to vote against the Left for several years.

Thirty years later, the scene has changed. The CPI(M) is now the darling of urban West Bengal too thanks to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. And this is only going to get more pronounced with the way Bhattacharya is dealing with working class action and popular protests. His call for banning strike actions in the service sector and the enthusiasm with which he is bending rules to invite investments into West Bengal will draw the middle classes closer to the party. And what more is needed than having Mukesh Ambani to be part of the inauguration of the 30th anniversary of the party’s accent to power in the State?

Well. There is nothing wrong with the middle classes supporting the party. In other words, it is infantile to treat the middle classes as political untouchables. But then, it is imperative for a party that owed its growth to the farmers and whose ideology is rooted in principles of egalitarianism and people’s democracy to internalize that the Ambani model of economic development and growth can prove detrimental to the poor and the marginal farmers and also curb the rights of the working class.

The invitation to Mukesh to be in Kolkotta and be the most important guest there at a function to mark the 30th anniversary is indeed a symbolic statement. And the message cannot be glossed over. It is loud and clear. That the Left has decided to take West Bengal in the same path as the successive governments had taken Haryana in the past decade leading to converting large tracts of agricultural land into building complexes, shopping malls and multiplexes; in the same way Chandrababu Naidu ``developed’’ Hyderabad and the surrounding regions and S.M.Krishna did in Karnataka.

The Ambanis, it may be recalled, have proposed to set up a tourist resort in the Jambudwip Islands even if that means displacing thousands of fishermen from there. This is indeed cruel. And not the right way to honour Benoy Choudhary, the man behind the CPI(M)’s consolidation in West Bengal.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Not sure if this will be an economically sound argument... but ....

V.Krishna Ananth

The month-long celebration of football that began on June 9, 2006 must have shut my mind to all other developments, including the political events. Football, to me is a passion larger than politics and the FIFA World cup season is a time when I realise the importance of TV sets. I have not missed a single match since 1986 and am determined to stay awake night after night until July 9, 2006 until I watch Cafu, the Brazilian captain lift the cup for the sixth time.

This FIFA tournament is important to me also because I do not expect Roberto Carlos play for Brazil in 2010. He will grow old by then. In the event Brazil manages to lose matches, I would like Argentina lift the cup. And the much hyped England is eliminated before the Quarter Finals begin Friday, June 30, 2006. France will get out of the tournament even before that and this was evident after watching them play so badly against Switzerland.

Well. Let me stay clear of my obsession with football for a while and steer my thoughts to more mundane things before us. The agitation by the Left parties against the hike in prices of petrol and diesel raises a set of important questions.

One: It is plain dishonesty for the Left parties to gather their cadre on the streets against the decision of a Government that survives on their support. And if the leaders of the CPI(M) and the CPI think that the people will be fooled into taking them seriously in the same way their cadres do, they are sadly mistaken. The people of this country know too well that Manmohan Singh will remain Prime Minister only until the moment the Left parties continue to support his Government. And Manmohan Singh too knows this well as well as the fact that the Left party leaders will only bark and refuse to bite.

In other words, the Prakash Karat-A.B.Bardan duo will continue to lend support to this Government and will do that unconditionally. The agitation against the fuel price hike, hence, is only a theatrical performance meant to convey to the Left cadre that they will continue to be engaged in the agitational mode!

There is then the larger issue. The fact is that India depends heavily on imports for its fuel requeirements. And the liberalization era has only increased this multi-fold. The number of cars and motor cycles in our towns have grown several fold in the decade after 1991. Apart from the new car and bike factories, the liberalization model pushed into the society a culture where owning swanky cars and expensive bikes were made into necessities for the urban middle classes. This, in a sense, saved the Indian state from being attacked for its failures in the public transport sector.

And this increase in the number of private cars and motor-cycles meant increase in the consumption of petrol and diesel. The consequence of this being an increase, by many times, in the import of crude oil. And where the prices of petrol and diesel are kept low by way of subsidies, the increase in the import of crude meant proportional increase in the subsidy bill too. In other words, the state began subsidizing the pleasure rides by our rich on the six lane highways and the rides by our fun loving youth whose parents had the money to keep their children happy by getting them bikes and small cars.

Now, this high subsidy bills meant cutting down on expenditure elsewhere. This could be public health, education or rural roads. Nationalized Banks today lend money to buy cars rather than on agriculture. And herein lies a moral problem that the Left must address. In other words, while it is true that fuel price hike will affect the poor more than the rich, there is no way that a regime where the rich are subsidized to enjoy pleasure rides can be allowed.

The Left will have to raise this issue in real earnest. In other words, those who own swanky cars and expnsive bikes should be asked to pay a monthly or annual cess that will be sent into the oil pool account and subsidise petrol and diesel. I remember this argument placed by the Left long ago when they were sustaining the UF Government under Deve Gowda.

And in doing so, the Left must place this as condition for their support to the Manmohan Singh Government. This will have the desired effect rather than such street shows of courting arrest and getting off the police vehicles soon after to address press meets and issue empty threats against the Government.

Meanwhile, let me continue with my obsession for football!


Friday, June 09, 2006

This one is rather a private experience but thought of putting it here.

Was in a train from Chennai to Madurai and a lower berth for me was indeed a luxury. Have been looking for it in recent times so that I could sleep with my baggage right under the berth. And I had it this time without having asked for it. My fellow travellers were an elderly couple and they were still discussing the pranks their grandchild was playing. Well, I heard the gentleman requesting the TTE for a lower berth somewhere; he said he had a problm with his shoulder joint and that getting on to the berth on top was a problem.

And then I offered him my berth and wondered why he did not ask me earlier. He said: ``I would have if you were a young man. I suppose you will have difficulties climbing up given your age.''

I thought of telling him that I am not that old and that my son is still in high school. But decided not to and simply smiled at him. And got to to the berth on top. Recalled Priti wanting to know about my role in the JP movement and someone else asking as to where I was held during the emergency!!!!!

Hmmm. I was just an infant during the glorious sixties, just in my teens during the emergency and could be part of whatever happened in Delhi during the Eighties.... agitating against Rajiv Gandhi's corruption, his New Education Policy and then pontificating against the BJP through the nineties.... Did I have a choice?

In any case, you don't agitate in ideal situations. You have to agitate in situations you land in. And I know I am just shying away and taking the easier way out. And ofcourse pontificating all the way.....

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Some rambling thoughts on the Rahul Mahajan episode

V.Krishna Ananth

There was a legendary leader of the Communist movement from Kerala called M.N.Govinda Menon. A leading figure in the party and an MP, Govinda Menon went through a lot of trauma after his son ended up a drug addict. The little one was in school then and was found dead one day. The tragic episode provoked A.K.Gopalan, the tallest of the communist leaders in India to reflect on the trappings of New Delhi.

AKG warned his comrades against falling victim to the rootless and the cruel world that political personalities had to confront in the event they landed in New Delhi. His notes turned out to be a lesson to otherwise idealist members of the party. The events leading Rahul Mahajan in a police lock-up in New Delhi this week seem to remind, oce again, that things have not changed.

Well. Pramod Mahajan was not another M.N.Govinda Menon. And Rahul Mahajan is old enough to know what it means to take to drugs. Rahul had grown up to set up friends among the operators and his father too must have known everything about that. In other words, Rahul had gone about doing whatever he did in a conscious manner. Govinda Menon’s son was too young when he died due to drug abuse and in that sense was another innocent victim of the drug mafia.

The developments involving Rahul Mahajan, in that sense, raise a set of issues that need to be addressed from the realm of our political culture rather than reducing the whole episode to one of drug abuse and another incident of drug abuse or over-use. And in that sense, there is no way that the matter can be seen as an occasion to settle partisan political scores. It will also be important in this context to recall the murder of Shivani Bhatnagar, a young lady journalist.

Let us take the bare facts in this regard. Rahul Mahajan landed in a private hospital and was found to have taken drugs. It is another matter that this private hospital will not have admitted a poor man brought under similar circumstances. The usual refrain that it would be a medico-legal case and hence be taken to a government hospital would have been resorted to and such a patient would not have lived long. Rahul Mahajan, however, is not an ordinary citizen of this country and hence the law of the land can be bent in his case!

Interestingly, Rahul Mahajan was taken to this private hospital located almost 20 kilo metres away from his father’s official residence. He was not taken to any one of the Government hospitals such as the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, the AIIMS or the Safdarjung Hospital. It transpires now that Harish Sharma, yet another private secretary of the late Pramod Mahajan had called up the Appolo Hospital late that night and even had got himself admitted in the same private hospital the following day.

Well. This is not a stray case of a political honcho opting for a private and expensive hospital. Almost all our leaders are used to doing this. V.P.Singh, for instance, refuses to have his dialysis done anywhere else. He goes to the same hospital thrice a week for his routine dialysis.

The worst was to follow. The doctors attending to him agreed to give false declarations. That they did not find incidence of drug traces in his body. This, however, turned out to be false and the CFSL report nailed the lie. It is indeed a blessing that the media unearthed the truth. It remains to be seen as to whether the truth will stand in the courts! In any case, Rahul was unable to get the truth covered up at his stage.

Then comes the fact about how close Rahul was with his father’s secretary, Bibek Moitra and that in less than a couple of months after his father died, he was partying with his father’s private secretary and some ``unknown’’ men. And the one who has admitted to carrying the drug is from Srinagar. Well. L.K.Advani would have gone to town with his concerns for national security if it were to be the son of a leader from another political party!

The point is that the nexus between drugs and terror are well known and so is the politician-criminal-businessman nexus. The Rahul Mahajan episode has all these essentials of a concoction that is inimical to the democratic political structure. Let it be stated here that the Rahul Mahajan story is one that came out in the open because they did not stop where they must have. This is a story that can happen inside any one of the premises in Lutyens Delhi. And where do we begin to put a stop to all this?