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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

Parties on Trial

Sunday 1 March 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

By the time these lines reach the reader, the final picture of electoral contests and poll alliances will be clear. After six weeks of hectic parleys and secret confabulations, political parties have at last taken their positions for the most crucial electoral battle in the history of Indian democracy.

The contours of political alignment have never been in doubt. On the one side could be seen the forces of reaction making desperate attempts to come to an understanding among themselves; and on the other, the forces which, with all their differences and differing outlook and perspective, are interested in taking the country forward. In between, there is the SSP leadership playing the unenviable but historic role of the camp-follower of Reaction, providing for it the fig-leaf of respectability, dragging its own ranks into a situation where there is bound to be revolt after the gamble is over. Apart from this, there is the CPM refusing to take its rightful place in the company of the progressive forces, miscalculating the present stage of the revolution in this country, thinking that they can afford to be in splendid isolation, alienating their natural and potential allies.

This is the picture in broad outline of the electoral choice before the Indian voter when he goes to the poll next month.

However, it will be an over-simplification to think that Reaction and its agents are confined to one side, and there is no possibility of honest elements breaking away from its grip and joining the camp of its opponents.

In forging the much trumpeted Four-Party Alliance, the forces of the Right had to face an arduous task. It has not been easy for them to reconcile the conflicting and competing interests. And even when they decided in principle to come together to save their own skin against the onslaught of mass radicalisation, their inter-party rivalries came to the fore. By and large, it is the Jana Sangh which has tried to steamroller the other parties of the Alliance and has been able to secure many of the vantage points.

The Syndicate, which in the last Lok Sabha was the leading party of the Right, has had to make concessions, particularly in the Hindi-speaking areas, to the Jana Sangh, and thereby discrediting itself before the eyes of its own followers in some of the States. It will therefore be no surprise if after the elections or even in course of the election campaign itself, the ranks of the disgruntled and disillusioned in the Syndicate camp grow in larger numbers. Not only in Gujarat and Mysore its house of cards is threatened with collapse, its claim to the allegiance of the Centrist forces has been badly eroded.

The myth of the Swatantra strength has been smashed up and it is reduced to a party of virtual irrelevance with pockets of influence in different States and that too mostly at the mercy of its allies; it is no accident that Rajaji realising the status of non-entity that his party has come to earn in Tamil Nadu, has not only embraced Sri Kamaraj but has even allowed him to choose the Swatantra candidates, an unheard-of surrender of one party to another in a political alliance.

Another party which by all available indications is going to face havoc is the SSP. Cashing in on the wave of anti-Congress sentiments during the 1967 General Election, the SSP could win seats larger than its strength would warrant; but this time its leaders have grievously miscalculated in joining hands with the parties of the Right.

It is a cardinal principle of any political organisation of the Left that by ganging up with the Right it goes down in the eyes of the common people, particularly in a period of mass radica-lisation. It is not arithmetic alone that decides the fortunes of a political party; more important is the question of credibility of its professions before the electorate. By giving almost a blank cheque to the Rajnarain line of abject servility to the reactionary forces, the dominant leadership of the SSP has done the biggest harm not only to the cause of socialism but to their own self-interst in terms of political stature.

There is little doubt that during the election campaign and in the period of critical re-examination after it, the SSP ranks in many areas would have a feeling of revulsion against the disgusting policy pursued by some of its top leaders; the process of radicalisation is bound to come in the socialist ranks. Perhaps Sri Rajnarain’s role at Rae Bareilly as the scavenger of all the filthy smear, in place of principled politics, will shock the socialist ranks most and help to open the eyes of many about the degenerate servility to the Right to which his policy can lead the SSP.

While it is too early to forcecast the results, there is little doubt that the Right as a whole will not be able to improve its position; rather, it is quite on the cards that its strength would be depleted. The prevailing impression that the Syndicate will more or less retain its present strength and that the Jana Sangh will improve its position at the expense of the Swatantra and the SSP, does not seem to be valid if one carefully analyses the position of each of the components of the Right and weighs it against the mass mood as indicated by recent developments.

The Syndicate is fighting its battle for survival as a political entity: the justification of its very existence is questioned except in Sri Kamaraj’s Tamil branch and in the caste-ridden politics of Bihar. It will improve its position in Tamil Nadu and may hold it in Bihar; everywhere else it cannot but face substantial loss.

The Jana Sangh’s strength is over-rated. Like the SSP, it could exploit anti-Congress discontent in 1967; barring Madhya Pradesh, and that too on the strength of princely patronage, it lacks solid mass base. It will be fighting a grim battle for its survival in Bihar and Punjab and cannot hope to retain its present strength in UP.

The point that has to be noted is that a large mass of Congress votes that had gone away from the Congress in 1967, having lost all hope of any forward-looking perspective from its leadership after twenty years of Independence, has started coming back into the Congress fold after Smt Indira Gandhi forced the Syndicate to quit. In other words, it is the split in the Congress that has helped her to recapture, to a large measure, the confidence of a substantial section of traditional Congress supporters.

Throughout its career, from the days of freedom struggle, the Congress could retain its mass base on the strength of promises, first of bringing freedom, and then of social advance. After Independence, this latter promise of social advance was more and more losing appeal as the grip of reactionary vested interests became more and more pronounced in the different tiers of the organisation.

The 1967 General Election—the first since the death of Nehru—showed that the Syndicate, which had virtually taken over the reins of power, could not even hoodwink the masses, not to speak of earning renewed popular confidence for the Congress. Rather, the Syndicate became, in the eyes of the common people, the guarantee against any social advance; and that ensured the mass exodus of the traditional Congress votes from the Congress itself. Whichever party with whatever label could reach the voter with attractive slogans—whether it was Rajaji’s promise to end the control-permit raj or the SSP’s pledge to enthrone the backward communities—could wean him away temporarily.

In fact, every party, whether of the Right or of the Left, which saw its numbers in the legislatures go up in 1967, was really put on probation by the voter. And by their record of the last four years, most of them have been found wanting. Whether the SVD experiments in UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or Punjab, or the Left-led United Fronts in West Bengal and Kerala, the performance fell far short of the promises; and to the measure that it has been so, many of these parties, particularly of the Right, will suffer setback at the polls next month.

Viewed in this background, Smt Gandhi’s initiative in overthrowing the Syndicate, coupled with the promise to carry through the programme left unimplemented by the Syndicate, has brought her phenomenal mass popularity reminiscent of the best days of Nehru. Her decision to nationalise the banks and to abolish the princely privileges and privy purses—in contrast to the filibuster of the Right from Parliament to the Supreme Court—has helped to strengthen the credibility of her promises in the eyes of the masses. That was why even in a Left-dominated State like Kerala, her party could do so well in the mid-term poll last September.

It is not a question of the Congress overnight becoming an instrument of social change ushering in socialism by the next General Election; what has happened is that the massive support which the Congress in the past could command by virture of being the party that had led the country to freedom and had largely lost in the two decades since Independence, is to a substnatial measure being mobilised by Smt Gandhi. Whether it is Kerala or Maniram, the signs are unmistakable.

It is therefore all the more a dangerous game that some of the conservative bosses in Smt Gandhi’s party have been playing in taking mass support for granted. In the matter of choice of candidates or in working out equations with parties of the Left ready to cooperate, not only have many of the State-level satraps but the Congress President himself has behaved in a manner which is reminiscent of the Syndicate Raj and which actually was responsible for the downfall of the Syndicate itself. A majority for the Congress in Lok Sabha under such conditions may not by itself help Smt Gandhi to push through radical measures; instead, the battle against the Right may have to be carried on within the inner precincts of the Congress Parliamentary Party.

It is obvious that they have misread the signs of the times; the Congress has not been given a fresh lease of life to go on in the same old way; it is on trial when the masses will judge whether its promise of radical advance is seriously meant to be implemented. With the fast-growing mass consciousness, this time the lease will not be of long duration.

The traditional Congress voter can no longer be taken for granted if he finds that the same old vested interests are holding the party to ramsom. He will drift away in search of new leaders, not necessarily bound down to conventional politics.

(N.C.’s ‘Political Notebook’,Mainstream, February 13, 1971)