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Fallout from the Indian State Elections

by Dr Kumar David

(June 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The immediate thought is that the Jayalalitha factor will have serious implications for Sri Lanka in the coming period, but true as this is, one should not overlook two other matters which though more gradual will also deeply impact social and political evolution in the Island. I refer to the debacle of the communist led left alliance in West Bengal and the good showing of leaders, of whatever party, with a reputation for moral and financial rectitude. This paper will pay greater attention to the latter two factors; the impact of Jayalalitha’s victory is too obvious to need extensive comment. It will also place developments in the context of a sudden upsurge of working class militancy in Lanka in recent weeks.

The rout of the CPI (M)-led Left Front in West Bengal

One must hope that the whipping the Left Front and especially the CPI (M) received at the hands of the voters of WB will teach it the lesson of a lifetime. Leftists all over Asia must heed the debacle of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s state government – BB could not even hold his own seat. I am glad the communists were at the receiving end of a bloody nose in an electoral defeat that will be a watershed in Indian left history and a salutary lesson for Sri Lanka. The left alliance scraped together just 63 (233) seats to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Party led alliance’s 225 (54) seats – (2006 results in parenthesis).

The longest serving elected communist government in the world turned arrogant in its twilight years, lost its economic and political direction, and mislaid its identity as the mass party of the rural poor and the worker. In cahoots with global and local capital, it thought nothing of driving thousands of peasants off the land to benefit big investors, and cared tuppence for the huge reservoir of poor and tribal humanity that is a goodly part of India. Here is how a perfectly conventional Indian newspaper described emotions in rural WB when the results became known: “Exuberant farmers said that during 34 years of Left rule, the party had forcefully acquired their land and sold it to capitalists. The farmers have now pinned hopes on TMC chief Mamata Banerjee to return their lands which were forcefully acquired during the CPI (M) tenure. The factory set up for the Nano project by Tata which evicted thousands of peasant farmers had to shut down after strong public opposition led by Mamata.”

Now the time has come for the two Indian CPs to withdraw to square one, lick their wounds and reflect. More important, it is an opportunity to start again with the a-b-c of the Marxist lexicon and to rediscover their purpose. Though decimated in the seat count in this first-past-the-post poll, the left secured tens of millions of votes and retains the potential to storm back in the future if it mends its ways; and mends big. It is this opportunity for reform and rebirth that makes this defeat so significant for folks on the political left.

The pity is that one can have no such hope on behalf of the Lanka Samasamaja Party, Communist Party and the Democratic Left Front (the left Trinity in government). Arrogance, loss of direction and neglect of the poor, these sins of the Indian left are one sort of offence. But complicity by silence in war and human rights violations, abetting in the cover up of war crimes by unconscionable defence of offenders, and more broadly, failure to take a stand against creeping authoritarianism, corruption and muzzling of the press, now that’s an immensely greater depth of betrayal. I believe that the Indian communists for all their obnoxious conduct did not compromise their obligations and identity to such a degree – perhaps Indian readers may disagree!

Once pushed out of office I see only ashes for Sri Lanka’s ex-leftist Trinity. This is why for these leaders the shock was not Jayalalitha but West Bengal. While the Trinity leadership is too far gone down Rajapakse’s drain to swim back, the cadres are into soul searching. There is a growing anti-leadership tendency in the LSSP (only) and it is gaining ground by the day. Still it is not the Indian state elections, despite their psychological impact, but a rising tide of working class militancy that is the central issue of the last two weeks. I have strung together below an assortment of sentences from the Lakbima News newspaper Editorial of 5 June to convey what may be called typical, widespread and neutral reaction (this paper does not back any political party) to the events.

“Law Enforcement acted in the manner of the traditional Sri Lankan police - obtuse, brutal and utterly cynical . . . downright crass police behaviour on the streets of Katunayake, was probably the culture of roughshod suppression and impunity that has for sometime been the stamp of the security establishment of the State . . . cracking down on labour dissent was the last thing the government wanted when the workers were being to some extent made putty in the hands of the political opposition to further its own political ends . . . That the government has more or less implicitly led the police to unleash this kind of force on demonstrators which led to one death due to the use of live rounds, would normally beggar belief in times in which most world leaders are attuned to the power of street protests that can suddenly be unleashed by amassing people from almost nowhere -- refer Libya, Syria and Egypt and the list that goes on and on . . . But that global reality is often lost on the Sri Lankan establishment is a fact made well-known not simply by this current tone-deafness to the effectiveness of people power . . . The simple conclusion that can be drawn is that last week’s was a potentially explosive confrontation, and the government can either make or break itself proceeding from here”.

This is not different from the kind of remarks that were being made about the CPI(M) led government in WB before it hurtled into the abyss. The writing on the wall for the supposedly left of centre Rajapakse government could be equally serious in the coming months; as for the Trinity of left parties in government this is probably a death sentence. Though not widely appreciated yet, the WB precedent is a grimmer lesson for Sri Lanka’s politicians than perceptions of Jayalalitha’s hostility.

Assam and Kerala

The left was defeated but not pulverised in Kerala thanks only to the last minute restitution to the helm of a leader who was perceived to be decent. In Assam the winning Congress chief is a man who was believed to be of integrity. Tarun Gogoi’s resounding hat-trick victory for Congress in Assam, winning 76 of 126 seats, is an endorsement of this personal reputation and the relative efficiency of his administration during two previous terms of office. And in Kerala, it was by reinstating the crusading chief minister V S Achuthanandan at the last minute under popular pressure, that the left avoided a humiliating WB style massacre. Achuthanandan, 87-years, an old-school Marxist and a tireless and much respected political warrior, became Kerala’s first Chief Minister from a working class background in 2006. In this capacity he dismantled illegal constructions, fought the lottery mafia, exposed corruption and struggled to limit the nationwide use of toxic pesicides. As an outsider all I can say is that this was his reputation. He fought many inner-party battles and was demoted to the ranks in the 1960s due to faction fights. He was twice dropped from CPI(M)’s politbureau after becoming Chief Minister for refusing to toe the line and ignore corrruption cases. CPI(M) apartchicks tried to sideline him before the elections but were prevented by an outcry. Had they succeeded, the Kerala left may have got only half the seats that it did; the left lost marginally by 68 seats to the Congress led alliance’s 72.

All this is not known in such detail in Sri Lanka, but the generality is not lost there is a perception that the Indian electorate acted with maturity. All things considered the outcome is seen as a felicitous episode in the annals of democracy. The important thing is that people from all corners of Lanka’s political spectrum with an interest in good governance are pleased, irrespective of whether the left lost here or the right won there. I believe that the benefits for political responsibility and the rule of law will seep into public discourse. In Sri Lanka, the DMK debacle in Tamil Nadu is perceived entirely as a rejection of brazen abuse of power and widespread corruption.

Tsunami in Tamil Nadu, tremors in Lanka

It was quite well known that the Lankan Tamil question was of marginal interest in the TN election, so Colombo was startled when Jayalalitha gave it such prominence in her first TV appearance as Chief Minister. Her declarations were combative and political analysts in Lanka, trying to understand the reason for her aggressive stance, have attributed it to fallout from the Darusman Report. This is important, since in this case it comes across as moral outrage (like the reaction of the rest of the international community) rather than some brand of opportunist politicking.

If this reading is correct, the significance is that TN is likely to keep up pressure on the Centre (Delhi) on both the need for an international investigation and a political settlement of the Tamil question in Lanka, and not barter all away as politicians are wont to do. The cold shoulder that Foreign Minister GL Peries and the president’s brother Basil received in recent weeks in Delhi is explained in Colombo circles in this light. To but it simply, it is being said that Delhi does not want to infuriate the TN state government – quite apart from the fact that it may, on its own, be hugely embarrassed by war crimes and human rights abuse allegations against its erstwhile protégé.

In summary then, the fallout from the Indian state elections of April-May 2011 on Sri Lanka has been unexceptionally beneficial, though adding to the discomfiture of the government in Colombo.

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