Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A rather prosaic analysis of Tamil Nadu after the polls...

When Ms. J.Jayalalitha became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991, it appeared to mark the end of the anti-Brahmin movement that had determined the course of electoral politics in the State since independence. C.Rajagopalachari, the only other Chief Minister of the State (it was the Madras State), after all, did not lead the Congress party in the run up to the election in 1951-52 was the only one from the Brahmin community to head the State Government until then. But then, during Jayalalitha’s regime between 1991 and 1996, most parts of Tamil Nadu witnessed caste wars in an unprecedented scale. Violent clashes between the predominant sections of the Backward Castes and the Scheduled Castes became an order of the day in both the Northern and Southern parts of Tamil Nadu.

The strife in the social realm also manifest in the political mosaic during that period. The AIADMK began consolidating itself as a platform dominated by the intermediate castes in the Southern districts while the Dalits in the region rallied behind the Puthiya Tamilagam. In the Northern districts as well as the Central region of Tamil Nadu, the PMK arrived on the scene to rally the Backward Castes against the Dalit consolidation behind the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal (that was how the Dalit Panthers re-christened itself). In 2011, we found the AIADMK in alliance with the Puthiya Tamilagam; and the PMK in alliance with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal. The DMK, that first emerged as the anti-Congress force in the Northern districts even when the party established itself as a major force in 1957 had an alliance with the PMK and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal this time.

To cut a long story short, the 2011 elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly seemed to reflect the end of a phase where the political discourse mirrored the social mosaic with all its schisms. The fact is that it was unthinkable, even in the recent past, to see the PMK and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal on the same front; and also that the AIADMK and the Puthiya Tamilagham as allies. And also the fact that actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth had managed to break the back of the PMK, perhaps the party that most overtly represented the aspirations of a caste group cannot be glossed over in this context. That the caste-based polarization in the political discourse is a thing of the past is one message that must dictate Jayalalitha’s priorities as Chief Minister this time.

If the scandalous allocation of 2G Spectrum licenses and reports of Ms. K.Kanimozhi’s involvement in that provided the backdrop to the elections this time, the anger against the DMK-led alliance was based on a variety of reasons. Long hours of load shedding due to shortage of power had become a way of life across the State. Chennai city was an exception. The new regime will have to find ways and means to tide over this. The fact is that Tamil Nadu has a huge deficit in terms of power generation and demand as it is and the erstwhile regime had resorted to purchase from private producers and others SEBs to bridge the gap. This it did notwithstanding the huge potential from wind energy that went without being harnessed.

Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s task in addressing the issue of power shortage assumes a sense of urgency. In just a couple of months from now the State will go for elections again. The panchayats and urban bodies will go to polls before October 2011 and hence there is very little time before the new government is forced to attend to the crisis in the power sector. While purchase of power from private producers and SEBs from other States may help tide over the crisis in the immediate wake the fact that this arrangement will also mean a drain on the State’s resources is a fact that the Chief Minister cannot afford to ignore.

In that context, there is also the likelihood of the rainbow alliance that the AIADMK chief achieved to win the assembly elections is disturbed. That the DMDK has decided to occupy the opposition space in Tamil Nadu – a decision that suits both Vijayakanth and Jayalalitha as for now – could end up causing a different situation when elections are held to the Panchayats. The DMDK, no doubt, is only a marginal player on its own. But then, there is indeed the scope for a realignment of forces in the State and the possibility of the Congress deciding to rally behind Vijayakanth’s party in the immediate context of the elections to the local bodies. Sonia Gandhi’s invitation to Jayalalitha for a cup of tea, if seen as a move that is thought of as driven by some hard calculations than mere courtesy is something that the AIADMK chief will have to take into consideration with all seriousness.

While all attention will be focused on the possible developments in that regard, the state of the finances in Tamil Nadu warrant a lot of attention. After having committed to supply rice free to the poor and thus incur an additional expenditure running up to Rs. 500 Crores, the new regime has a stupendous task of bridging the gap on the fiscal front. The Chief Minister’s contention that the regime has inherited empty coffers is by no stretch an exaggeration. Finance Minister, O.Paneerselvam, in any case, will have to innovate means to contain the gap between revenue and expenditure and the promises, in the AIADMK manifesto, of consumer durables such as mixer grinders will have to be delivered soon and certainly ahead of the Panchayat elections.

Chief Minister J.Jayalalitha has sought to convey to her cabinet colleagues that the thrust shall be on governance. A day after swearing in, the Chief Minister briefed her ministers and the officers on this. A separate ministry for mission implementation suggests this. The task, however, is easier said than done. The AIADMK supremo will certainly have to strain that extra bit to keep her cadre across the State under control. In a political culture where self preservation and gathering wealth leads men and women to join political parties, an agenda for governance and selfless service passes more as rhetoric than action. It is, however, possible if Nitish Kumar’s term as Chief Minister of Bihar is anything to go by.

The AIADMK regime, meanwhile, has the breathing space before it sets out on the course of punitive actions against those who ran the previous regime. The fact that the investigations and the trial in the 2G Spectrum allocation scandal will continue to cause grief to the DMK could mean that Jayalalitha may opt to wait and watch. Even then, she could initiate some probe into the short life of the Arasu Cable TV Corporation, into which the previous regime had sunk a lot of public funds before deciding to wind it up. The fact that the Chief Minister decided to shift the secretariat back to Fort St. George is only an indication that she will not let bygones pass.

The DMK, as a party, is in for trouble. Apart from having to deal with the exit of the Congress from its fold and consequently having to chose between staying on in the union cabinet and walking out of it to preserve its self respect, the party patriarch will now be burdened with the job or\f arbitrating between his two sons. An unenviable task indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The CPI(M) will be sent packing...But the Communist Legacy will stay alive...

It is most certain that the CPI(M)-led left, also identified as the mainstream left for some reason, is on its way out of power in both Kerala and West Bengal. Tripura will remain the last bastion for the party. And if any reason is to be culled out for this it will be the CPI(M) having abandoned its legacy. The CPI(M) had shied away, in the past decade, from claiming its legacy as the platform that brought the aspirations of the peasantry into the political discourse.

Nothing will be more illustrative of this legacy than story of one of Hindi cinema’s classics: Dho Bhigha Zameen, that Bimal Roy made adapting from Rikshawallah, Salil Choudhury’s short story. The Indian People’s Theatre Asociation (IPTA), the vehicle for communist propaganda for at least three decades since the 1930s, contributed immensely to building a movement that set the peasant’s rights over the land and against the zamindari system in a manner that the leadership of the Indian National Congress could not ignore. The roots of Tebhaga and Operation Barga in Bengal as well as the strong movement in Uttar Pradesh (the United Provinces then) and Northern Bihar lay in that context.

Dho Bigha Zameen was a symbolic narrative of the travails and the struggle to retain the land against the avarice of the landlord and his machinations to transfer it to an industrialist. The communist movement in Bengal, then led by Hari Krishna Konar, represented the political face of that era and this indeed was the base on which the CPI(M)-led Left Front entrenched itself as the natural choice of the rural poor in West Bengal since 1977. The party had wrested power a decade before that and set out on the land reforms course even then. A similar trajectory was witnessed in parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Northern Bihar too; and also in the Malabar region in Kerala, in the Tanjore delta in Tamil Nadu and the Telengana part of Andhra Pradesh.

It is not as if that such struggles have come to an end. The spread of anti-acquisition agitations across Western Uttar Pradesh in the past week, in a sense, is not different from the protests and the consolidation against land alienation in Singur and Nandigram. Those familiar with the history of peasant movements in India will recall the legendary Baba Ramchandra, a sadhu who mobilized the peasantry against the landlords in Western Uttar Pradesh as well as Swami Sahajanand Saraswati who successfully converted the Kisan Sabha, then controlled by the Indian National Congress, into a radical platform that mobilized the small and the middle peasants against the zamindars. These movements, it may be stressed, were the force that made the Indian National Congress’s provincial leaders in Bihar and United Provinces to champion zamindari abolition legislations at the dawn of independence.

To cut a long story short, the roots of radical politics in India lay, primarily, in the mobilization of the peasantry against evictions by landlords. The culture, so to say, began from Champaran and Kheda by Mahatma Gandhi; was fore-grounded by the communists in the thirties; represented by the left-leaning IPTA as well as other such cultural platforms in the three decades since then; and effectively implemented by the CPI(M)-led Left Front after 1967. There were the Socialists too who were committed to this idea in the early stages. But then, the Socialist Party did precious little in this regard even while their contribution to the political empowerment of the peasant social group was immense. In a sense the ascendancy of the legatees of Ram Manohar Lohia to positions of power in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could be seen as an expression of the peasantry’s attachment to the land and the long history of struggle against evictions.

The point is that this attachment to one’s land may be dismissed as mere emotional or sentimental by those whose view is blinkered by shades of capitalism. The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which was sanctified by Section 299 of the Government of India Act, 1935, is indeed rooted in this way of looking the world. This premise then leads to treat cultivable land as mere commodity and thus provides for acquisition as long as the owner of the property, thus alienated, is compensated adequately. It fails to concede that agricultural land is not the same as a run-down factory and that it constitutes the heart and the soul of the farmer. The communist movement in India, in its early days, looked things differently and hence established itself in West Bengal, Malabar and many other parts. The communists, then, were not exposed as much to the Soviet Union; it may be because Marxist texts as well as texts by Lenin and Stalin were banned in India!

This changed after independence. The CPI, as did the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru, accepted the Soviet model of development and viewed large industries, long and wide roads and rail lines, indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and centralized planning as the panacea for free India. The small farmer, the protagonist in Dho Bhigha Zameen began to be ignored or even condemned. Benoy Choudhury, as Land and Revenue Minister ever since Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister in 1977, turned irrelevant for the party in the past decade; and his work as part of Operation Barga was sought to be reversed. The story in Singur and Nandigram are not very different from the narrative in Bimal Roy’s Dho Bigha Zameen. The difference being that the conspirator in the present times happened to be someone like Nirupam Sen, the CPI(M)’s Industry Minister who conspired to grab land and pass it on to the Salem group; and not Thakur Harnam Singh, the landlord in Dho Bigha Zameen.

It may be a bit too much to place Mamata Banerjee in the role of the communist party of the 1930s or even the 1970s. The most charitable comment would be that Mamata is innocent of such ideological positions to which the communists or Baba Ramchandra or Swami Sahajanand Saraswati were committed. But then, the forces that have now rallied behind Mamata Banerjee are representative of the struggle that the protagonist wages in Bimal Roy’s classic. It is indeed the legacy that is now playing out in West Bengal and also in Kerala. It is, hence, not very surprising that an Ajit Singh manages to draw strength, in the same way as Mamata could, from the expressions of collective anger of the small and middle peasantry against alienation of land in Western Uttar Pradesh.

The argument then could be that even if the bastions of the communist party are poised to fall when the votes are counted on May 13, 2011, the legacy that the communists built is very much alive and is manifesting in full bloom and even in violent forms, in places that are far away from West Bengal and Kerala. In other words, here is a scope for the CPI(M) to re-invent itself. And even if they refuse to see the writing on the wall, there is no way that the legacy can be erased. The idea that Salil Choudhry gave expression to in Rickshawallah and that which Bimal Roy adapted to make Dho Bigha Zameen are indeed a reflection of the reality in our villages. And Shambhu Mahato, the protagonist, too will continue to remain as real time characters in blood and flesh.