For the Left to defer a decision on participation in a government until after the electoral outcome would not help the prospects of the third alternative that they support

Drawing upon a cricket metaphor, Sitaram Yechury, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo described the October 2013 anti-communalism convention organised by the Left parties as a “doosra” that would send the country’s communal forces packing to the pavilion. The determination in the comrade’s observation in Kolkata was in sync with the mood at the October 30 convention, which took place barely months after the tragic communal riots in Muzaffarnagar. An inkling about a third front in the making might have been apparent on that autumn afternoon only to those observers who are generally more disposed to taking numbers at face value. There was of course an impressive line-up of fourteen parties on the podium. But striking was a strong sense of common purpose in the substantive message delivered by speaker after speaker.

Prominent among them were CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, Communist Party of India leader A.B. Bardhan, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, his party Janata Dal(United) chief Sharad Yadav, Biju Janata Dal member of the Lok Sabha Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda and others. A collective resolve to isolate communally divisive forces and bring together secular and democratic parties under a common platform replaced more familiar diatribes against the ruling dispensation, or digressions into the virtues of federalism, or for that matter the assertion of identity politics.

Characteristic was also the absence of any talk of a third front or any other combination. Thus, anybody who might have imagined that a single secular front was on the horizon to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general election could not be completely faulted.

But barely four months since, and just a few weeks before the general election, India’s mainstream communist parties were again busy in a bid to recreate the momentum towards a third alternative, attacking both the Congress and the BJP in the same breath. They were, quite evidently, back on more familiar terrain on this occasion. As on previous pre-poll conclaves, the leaders of the eleven parties who met in Delhi on February 25 made it plain that the sole objective of this political formation was to vote out the Congress and defeat the BJP.

The joint declaration issued thereafter was categorical that there was nothing to choose between these two parties in terms of economic policies or on the question of graft in public life. However, the declaration was emphatic that the BJP’s communal, divisive and anti-secular ideology had to be defeated in the coming elections.

A silver line

The distinction the declaration drew between the Congress and the BJP, many would argue, is probably more noteworthy than the supposed commonality between the two parties that it sought to underline. This is because the common ground that obtains on economic policies between the Congress and the BJP extends, more or less, to most other political parties in the country. The clearest evidence of this claim is provided by the policies of none other than the United Front government of 1996-1998, many constituents of which were part of this initiative too.

But the accent in the declaration last month to single out the BJP for its communal ideology implies that there has been a welcome move away by the communist parties of maintaining equidistance from the Congress and the BJP. To be fair, there has been growing recognition both within the CPI and the CPI(M) of this fundamental distinction between the BJP and the Congress ever since the communal polarisation of the polity and society in the 1990s.

In fact, the CPI(M) exercised a deliberate choice to exert its influence on the 1996-1998 United Front governments under the premiership of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral from the outside. The CPI, on the other hand, was a key constituent of that coalition in which Indrajit Gupta and Chaturanan Misra served with distinction in their respective home and agriculture portfolios.

A clear-sighted and nuanced reading of the positions of various political parties would be crucial for any endeavour by the Left parties to forge a common progressive and democratic coalition in the country. This would be imperative considering that many regional parties have cohabited with the BJP at one time or the other, even if they did not share any real ideological affinity with that party. The possibility of their return to the political outfit of the Sangh Parivar could not be foreclosed in view of the current-day compulsions of coalition politics.

That leaves out the communists and the Congress, besides notable exceptions such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal on the single issue of combating communalism. It may seem premature to suggest that these parties, including the Congress, arrive at a pre-electoral understanding on this common objective. But it does not seem unreasonable to expect the parties of the Left to make a clear commitment to the voters on their total participation in a government of the formation that they support. Such an assurance would enhance the credibility of the 11-party combine ahead of the upcoming elections. To defer a decision on participation in a government until after the electoral outcome would not (to put it mildly) help the prospects of the third alternative. The contribution of the Left parties in the enactment of pro-people legislation under UPA-1 was considerable. Equally telling was the impact on the outgoing dispensation from the decision of the Left not to extend support over the past five years. This chapter in history ought not to be repeated.

garimella.subramaniam @thehindu.co.in

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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