Tata-Birla Ki Sarkar to Ambani Ki Sarkar


Where is the left in the crucial Indian elections, and what role is it hoping to play when the hurly-burly is done? People say the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has gingerly stepped into the vacuum the left’s palpable absence has created. And it is a fact that the AAP has picked up many of the motifs that were or still are identified with communists and old socialists.

For instance, high-octane corruption was hitherto seen as a facet of a politician’s compromised morality, his proclivity to become rich overnight. The AAP has brought the politician’s corporate ally into the frame, starkly, irrevocably.

To begin with, belling the corporate cat has not been an easy enterprise for most Indian parties, notably including the communists. Other than the legendary Feroz Gandhi and a little less stridently, though still relatively earnestly, communist deputy Gurudas Dasgupta, politicians have been coy in going for the jugular of big business, the fountainhead of corruption in India.

To name names authoritatively of big tycoons or to spell out their precise nexus with the political class has been a rare occurrence. Some years ago a Bahujan Samaj Party MP had dared to publicly unveil a dossier on Reliance Group, but he later switched his party.

Journalist Hamish MacDonald wrote a researched exposé of the house of the Ambanis in 1998. The book was not even allowed to be circulated in India though how or why this could happen remains a mystery. I am not aware of any communist intervention in parliament or outside, much less from a bourgeois party, to probe how an important exposé could just disappear from the country’s bookstores.

On the contrary, there is an oft-quoted comment, which riles. Tycoon Mukesh Ambani apparently assured Hillary Clinton, that she need not worry excessively about Indian communists since they were potentially better at free market business than their Chinese counterparts. Eyebrows were raised again when the Left Front, while in power in West Bengal, reportedly helped Ambani favourite Pranab Mukherjee pluck an unlikely Lok Sabha victory. Mukherjee showed up in MacDonald’s insightful book on Reliance. He figured in the AAP’s anti-corruption campaigns.

When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 after a stint in the post-emergency wilderness, Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani was said to have escorted her on the victory lap. There is little irony that the AAP sees a reversal of roles whereby Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, is the new favourite of big business. The AAP stresses though that Mukesh Ambani is running both Congress and BJP politics.

The left’s slogans in 1977 have waned. yeh tata-birla ki sarkar nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi (damned if we let this Tate-Birla government work). The roles switched when the communists invested a bulk of their political capital in shoring up Tata’s Nano car project on land they took from the poor. Defeat in the next elections became inevitable.

Unless there is a profoundly sound reason for their stand, people do feel a degree of embarrassment at the communist stand on political probity. The left had opposed, uncharacteristically it would seem, a proposal to bring sources of donations to political parties under public scrutiny. By contrast, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, with whatever little political clarity he may have, insists on accepting only transparent donations.

That still doesn’t answer the question though. Where is the left today?

The last we heard, the communists were seeking a tie-up with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. The former movie star is expecting to sweep the polls in her state.

Not only did Jayalalitha dissolve the short-lived bonding with the left in Tamil Nadu, she heaped humiliation on them by dialling up their bête noire in West Bengal, the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji.

Someone asked Arvind Kejriwal whether he would try to forge an alliance with Jayalalitha. “Were there no corruption charges against her?” he asked, in the process subtly underscoring his own watchword of probity. That’s how the left used to speak of bourgeois politics; not any more though. They have generally had a very good assessment of the pervasive opportunism their regional allies from previous experiments have gone on to embrace.

Perhaps that’s why the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the principal vanguard of the Left Front, is chary of holding forth about a third alternative this time around. Yet they have the closest of ties with the Samajwadi Party, which had replaced the left in the UPA II after supporting a civilian nuclear deal with the US. The Samajwadis stirred the communal pot in Muzaffarnagar.

Two or three things matter to India’s mainstream left without generating enthusiasm among its supporters. They include issues on which it is seen as coming close to the right-wing state. The left is perceived as according primacy to the decimation of the Maoists in Chhattisgarh even ahead of their fight against the BJP’s communal fascism. Maoism is an existential issue for the left and there can be arguments on both sides about how to move forward.

The other issue is the left’s perceived alienation from the Muslim masses. Apparently this is being corrected by seeking out Saifuddin Chodhury, a former comrade who has credit with secular Muslims of West Bengal.

That still doesn’t explain why the left has fallen off the radar, nor why it let the AAP step into its enormous if faded shoes.

-the writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi 

-by arrangement with dawn.com