When the word Left is uttered, another word, ideology, lurks behind. For the Left parties, their ideology is about setting things right. The wrongs can range from policies that hurt the poor, keeping communalism at bay and a host of other problems. Ideology is a set of coherent ideas about politics and economics.
There is, however, another way of looking at ideology. Citizens vote for one party or another based on their perception of gain from their party winning and forming a government. This is a sort of “utility maximization” process that economists have in mind when they look at how consumers make consumption decisions (such as what food to buy, clothes to wear, mode of transport to choose, etc.). The unsaid assumption here is that citizens have complete information about their choices and what is available to them.
But it’s very difficult for an individual to read, analyse and digest the programme and policies of a political party. Enter ideology. Ideology, as understood as a set of ideas and beliefs about politics and economics, serves the purpose of informing the citizen without the trouble of reading and understanding each and everything that parties say or do. Ideology serves to reduce the cost of acquiring information. In the Left case, for example, their stand on “imperialism”, “sovereignty”, “neo-liberal economics”, etc., imparts a certain meaning to what they say. It has worked very well in states such as West Bengal and Kerala.
Yet, this does not work all the time. The Left suffers from a credibility problem due to a process game theorists call “cheap talk”. Two examples of such claims include: India’s sovereignty and the independence of its foreign policy being compromised, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government doing little to tame inflation. On the face of it, these assertions lose credibility because the Left continued to support the government (it was a UPA supporter for four years) and did not walk out of the arrangement. The Left’s repeated assertions on this count are difficult to believe because by now people think they say one thing and mean something else. As a result, what they say is taken with a pinch of salt (or their statements are appropriately discounted).
The fascinating thing in the present context is the interplay between ideology and “cheap talk”. Unfortunately for the Left, both processes have gained momentum together, as the general election is approaching. To keep its flock together, ideology has to be voiced by making statements on the nuclear deal, inflation, etc. But once this is done, cheap talk also kicks in. There is no way to calibrate the two.
This interplay, while not “explaining” why the Left is doing what it is, goes some way in illuminating the behaviour of Left parties. It shines a different light on the timing of their withdrawal of support, the grounds for taking the step and other variables. The Left claim that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left them no option after he made the announcement of going ahead with the nuclear safeguards agreement may well be true. But when seen against the need to repeat the ideological message to voters in Kerala and West Bengal, it acquires a different meaning. As elections near, the process of attracting voters by an ideological process gains importance. The role of ideology in assessing the merits of the nuclear deal is very different from the role of same ideological statements in attracting voters. The latter has more to do with the corporate identity and interests of the Left as a group of parties. As other parties in a democracy, this comes much before national interest, though politicians are loath to admit that.
Siddharth Singh is assistant editor (editorial pages) at Mint. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org