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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 10, March 1, 2014

The Politics of Alliance of States

Monday 3 March 2014

by Arun Srivastava

The Eastern Bloc was the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. In 1922, the RSFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Byelorussian SSR and the Transcaucasian SFSR, approved the Treaty of Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, who viewed the Soviet Union as a “socialist island”, had observed that the Soviet Union must see that “the present capitalist encirclement is replaced by a socialist encirclement”. Members of the Eastern Bloc, besides the Soviet Union, were sometimes referred to as “satellite states” of the Soviet Union.

After 92 years of the creation of a geographical entity as the Eastern Bloc, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has taken the lead for floating an Eastern Bloc, a geo-political entity. Her Eastern Bloc will focus on five States, Assam, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, totaling 100 Lok Sabha seats. Incidentally, these are underdeveloped and backward States, and all of them are clamouring for special status for gaining more Central fiscal support. The political-economic conditions of these States are more or less uniform. The nature of the subaltern mobilisation in these States is also akin. The Communist Parties had a comparatively strong base in the region. Even today the the CPI (Maoist) is active in four adjoining States. Obviously keeping in view the common political contour of these States, Mamata has been trying to float her Eastern Bloc.

Though a Communist-hater, she intends to tactically use the new forum to position herself as the New Left: a liberal bourgeoise. She is also planning to project her Trinamul Congress as the pro-poor, anti-reforms political face that was so long the exclusive domain of the Left. This is part of her long-term political strategy. In her pursuit to present the Eastern Bloc, which is also being projected as the Federal Front, she has been maintaining a defined distance from the mainstream Left. In fact her Eastern Bloc is anti-Left, anti-Congress and anti-BJP. So far Indian politics has been split into two camps: the Congress and BJP. The Left, through its Third Front, has been trying to assert its stand by projecting it as anti-BJP and anti-Congress. But in reality the Third Front has been more or less closer to the Congress. In that sense the Eastern Bloc of Mamata plans to tread its own independent path, something on the lines being followed by the Aam Admi Party. Undeniably her move throws up the question of the larger federal reorganisation of India which the AAP cannot substitute. Mamata tactfully wants to amalgamate her political vision and approach with the activism of an NGO. She has a number of advantages over the other Opposition parties in creating an alternative Front.

On its part the mainstream Left does not intend to provide space to her. Besides, the compulsion of its survival is also there. Little doubt that the mainstream Left over the years has lost its relevance in the State politics of West Bengal. It is a paradox that the issues which the Left could have raised and based on them should have built a strong people’s movement, are being used and exploited by organisations like the AAP. The latest observation of the CPI-M General Secretary, Prakash Karat, about the AAP is testimony to the deviation of the Left from the Marxist path. It is unfortunate that the politicians and political parties who have no locus standi have been making a mockery of the Left and their efforts to revive the Third Front. The Left in 2004 floated the Third Front with Mulayam Singh Yadav as the mascot, it wooed Mayawati in 2009 and now it is banking on the charisma of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa.

Nevertheless they have been successful in outwitting Mamata in roping in the JD(U) of Nitish Kumar and the BJD of Naveen Patanaik. The JD(U) and BJD have preferred to remain with the Third Front. But Mamata scored by getting the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) of Babulal Marandi and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front. Her major gain has been winning over the Gandhian activist, Anna Hazare. In the early stage Patnaik had said that he was supportive of Mamata’s idea but it was too early to say how it would play out. K.C. Tyagi of the JD (U) also made the right noise about the idea but was not overly excited. Nevertheless the fact remains that the regional parties, whose strength she is counting on, are no longer non-aligned entities.

The Left-sponsored Third Front is truly speaking a conglomeration of political leaders who have strained relations with the leadership of the BJP and Congress. The formation has no strong alternative political base. It is not that the Eastern Bloc has a strong ideological and political base. It too is a combination of ambitious leaders. But the only thin dividing line is the pro-people political stance of the Bloc. The Third Front governments of the past have failed to inspire with a perennial question-mark over their longevity and lack of concrete policies. The coming together of non-Congress, non-BJP parties with a secular tag has been christened as the ‘Third Front’. It is about achieving personal ambitions and settling scores and not about serious progress.

Of course, the emerging Bloc is not just guided by the ideas of provincial rights and governance. It is a political gambit that presupposes a weakened role for the two national parties in 2014. Mamata is sure of the emerging political scenario and diminishing clout of the BJP and Congress. The interesting feature of the Bloc is it that is not hesitant of borrowing the political phrase from the AAP. This element is missing in the Left-led Third Front. The ground level situation in eastern India is not fertile for the AAP to grow notwithstanding the fact that it has succeeded in enrolling a large number of members. In Bengal its performance has been quite dismal. The AAP lacks the right space to expand. Mamata in fact has snatched the initiative: “The next Central Government should be one that provides stability and works for the common people. I am a simple person. I belong to the common people. I feel whatever government may come, democracy will continue forever. That is why we want a government which is of the common people, by the common people and for the common people.”

Mamata too has been heavily depending on populism and populist policies. Her promise of an Eastern Bloc may not appear to be quite attractive and effective. But it is her approach to the local issues that makes the difference between the Bloc and Front. The Bloc is for a change in the system and wants the States to be empowered, strengthen the federal structure. It is a bare fact that the Centre is behaving as master and the States are like its slaves. For changing this system it is imperative to have an alliance of the States. Interestingly, the Third Front has preferred not to speak on these issues.

It is an irony that the leaders of the mainstream Left and other political parties have not taken the changes taking place in the political institution of the country seriously. Traditional politics is changing. Earlier the main focus of the political parties had been on the rural voters. Now the urban middle class has replaced this vote-bank. The bourgeoning middle class has its own agenda and priorities. Politics no longer operates within the parameters of socialism, as spelt out in the Constitution. The contradiction between socialist intervention and capitalist-oriented politics has made a shift to the politics of welfare state capitalism. This is not a sudden transformation. The civil society, which has so far been a silent spectator to the political developments and was more interested in its own welfare, has started exploring the options of direct intervention. That change in the style of functioning of the political parties has become imperative was evident from the proceedings of the Jaipur Chintan Camp of the Congress. It was in Jaipur that the party started looking for a new political base in the urban middle class. The party made a number of promises to attract the middle class youth. But it could not implement the programmes and embrace in principle welfare state capitalism in the right perspective as it dithered in cutting its umbilical cord with the socialist policies and politics.

The Congress was never averse to embracing this phenomenon. The fact of the matter is its policies and programmes provided enough indications that it was pursuing this line during the phase of reforms and liberalisation. The only constraint was the façade of its rural people-oriented policy perspective, precisely the vote-bank approach. The UPA Government enacting the RTI, RTE and many such programmes underlined that the Congress was gradually but systematically shifting the ideological and programmatic goalpost. For its survival it has to identify with the aspirations of the civil society. For a country like India, whose political economy revolves around the rural society, having one NGO for every 600 people underlines the emergence of a strong civil society movement. Rahul’s appetite for following the AAP’s political line does not simply manifest his effort to outwit it. Instead he wanted to identify with the changing politics and adopt the line of participatory intervention in the process of governance. It is worth recalling his speech at the AICC session wherein he announced that he wanted to empower the elected representatives and in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in fifty constituencies the Congress workers will select their own candidates.

What did he mean when he said “empowering the elected representatives”? For him, the present electoral system only has elected representatives who are yet to be empowered. In fact they need to be politicised and educated on the need to adapt to the emerging new political system and formulation. Obviously he intended to point to the shift to the welfare state capitalist system. The emergence of the civil society as the most potent political force and their rush to enter into electoral politics does not go unnoticed. Earlier the civil society’s activities were confined to agitating and using the constitutional and government forums to fight for their cause. They preferred to confront. But of late they have been abandoning the path of confrontation and intending to follow the policy of tactical collaboration. The civil society realised that the politicisation of their support-base was imperative under the system.

The process of transformation to welfare state capitalism in fact started with the beginning of the phase of reforms and liberalisation. As economics defines the nature of politics, in the post-globalisation period politics has been transformed in a large measure. It has become purely a profession. Earlier it had the elements of sacrifice and social service. This phase also witnessed the emergence of the politics of alliances and coalitions; a step towards the evolution of alternative politics. Undoubtedly this trend underlines a shift in the strategy and also a change in the political-economic contours of the country.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com