The latest cover of the Economist, the weekly news magazine that likes to call itself a newspaper, featured inequality, which it believes is the new big problem facing the world at large. Belatedly, the world is finally beginning to acknowledge an endemic problem, which is so anecdotally visible in the new India defined by glitzy malls and ostentatious consumption and yet rarely debated. The unbridled rise of corruption, its ceaseless expose and the inability of the system to expedite prosecution of the accused only reinforces the perception divide between the haves and have-nots.
A political situation tailor-made for the Left, both organized and the Naxal movement, which has consistently campaigned on the cause of inequality. Surprisingly, they are missing in action; they are certainly not the ones dominating the headlines or firing the imagination of the people. Instead, we have the audacious actions of an activist-turned-politician, Arvind Kejriwal; whether this will translate into a full-fledged movement and deliver on its promise of redefining Indian politics is still unclear.
But the agitation has, among other things, no doubt put the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons, on the Left. Almost everything that it stood and worked for in the six decades since Independence is all of a sudden in the news. Enigmatically, it has been unable to seize the moment. Worse, in the absence of credible action on its part, each of these issues is now being successfully hijacked or cannibalized by opportunistic political parties, including some by its bitter rivals.
First it was the activism of Anna Hazare and now of his protégé, Kejriwal, that has inspired the battle against corruption among the public. Like most members of the Left, both these individuals have a relatively clean public image (it is also easier when you are yet to wield political power that comes with its trappings of endless compromises).
Over the last two years, the Hazare-Kejriwal team has not only led but dominated the political struggle against corruption against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for a host of alleged transgressions. Inspired by the initial success, Kejriwal has chosen to launch himself politically and once again through some audacious actions, like restoring electricity supply at a Delhi home where the power had been snapped for not paying bills. In one swift moment, he had given public notice of his arrival on the political stage and at the same time tapped into growing urban anger of sustained inflation; electricity tariffs were raised sharply only recently.
Next he took on the high profile Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, alleging sweetheart deals for what is still an unproven quid pro quo with a real estate builder. In politics, it is rarely what you do, but what you are perceived to do that is important. And here, Kejriwal has undoubtedly hit pay dirt, especially by positioning the argument as a David vs Goliath battle—the haves versus the have-nots—and seeking a rethink in polity.
Precisely what the Economist argues. Pointing out that more than two-thirds of the world lives in countries, including India, where income disparities have risen since 1980, it said modern politics needs to re-invent itself to tackle this menace. “In much of the emerging world, leaders would rather sweep the issue of inequality under the carpet: witness China’s nervous embarrassment about the excesses of Ferrari-driving princelings, or India’s refusal to tackle corruption,” it added.
Similarly, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has appropriated the mantle of the champion of the oppressed from the Left. Not only did she use this positioning to knock the Left out of office, but has since gone on to consolidate. Her high profile campaign on the issue of easing of foreign investment limits for foreign firms in domestic retail and the increase in prices of diesel together with the cap on subsidized liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) has completely overwhelmed the Left on its own turf; prompting comments that now Mamata is the “new Left”.
Similarly, it has ceded its space as the chief opponent of nuclear power in the country—after it withdrew outside support to the UPA-1 on the issue of US civil nuclear deal—to a group of villagers and fishermen inspired by local non-governmental organizations in the latest face-off over nuclear power at the Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu.
So is it on the issue of secularism. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief of the Samajwadi Party, by his well-choreographed political actions has emerged as the new high priest of secularism in the country, while the Left which has consistently stood for this value is perceived to be an also-ran. And the just concluded agitation, which extracted a promise of intent from the UPA, by the Ekta Parishad, also ensured that the Left is no longer the main leader of the movement for the landless.
In the final analysis, it is obvious that the values that defined the Left in the past are no longer owned by it, though they are most relevant today than ever. An immediate consequence is that it has left a void in Indian politics. In some instances lumpens have rushed in to take over, while some have been appropriated by organized political parties. The obvious question is where does that leave the organized Left. It is already a pale shadow of itself in Parliament. If the slide is unchecked, it runs the risk of becoming irrelevant; a loss to the country as much as to the Left.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org