Vis-a-vis the Presidential elections, is it the case that the CPI(M) is using the divisions within the bourgeoisie for short term benefits to its politics or is it the other way around - Is the representative of the bourgeois-landlord class using the bellwether of the Left for its own purposes and interests?
For a month or so, three estates of Indian democracy - the political executive, the legislators (and their parties) and the media - have been worked up over the presidential elections. They are all gripped with the “oh so important question” - who is going to be the next nominal head of the Indian state? Should one, as a leftist, be dismissive about the process? Or should one contextualise what is afoot and come up with a normative perspective?
The answer to that question has to be one that comes after understanding this process. While the outcome of the presidential elections is indeed to select only a ceremonial head of the Indian state with powers that are constrained by the fact that they are exercised at the advice of the council of ministers in the executive, the process of selection for the post is intensely political and competitive. (There are other important roles for the President, exercised in periods of relative anomie, for example, when there is a hung parliament after elections - this has been quite often in the past few years and which have seen periods of “presidential assertion”).
The calculus for most parties in India’s predominantly “bourgeois” polity is not how to ensure that a candidate who has thorough knowledge of constitutional affairs or has the stature that provides her/him with respect and acceptance of a large cross section of the Indian people or some such attributes is elected. But it is based on what short or medium term gains political parties can receive in this process when their votes for this election are solicited.
In the case of the “bourgeois” polity, these gains are mostly tuned to the interests of power groups - chieftains of this or that political outfit, so and so corporate body, or some particular regional grouping. Therefore when the Congress fielded the name of (soon to be ex-) finance minister Pranab Mukherjee for the post of president - ostensibly as a sinecure for long rendered services - the support accrued to this person from various parties featured calculi of various kinds. Most of the allies of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance have no intention to upset the applecart of the government and have come on board to support Mukherjee’s candidacy. Some have been truant, but we shall come to that in a bit. The National Democratic Alliance, in the meantime, has been presented with a fait accompli in former speaker P A Sangma, after its presumptive nominee, former president Abdul Kalam refused to contest.
Interestingly, some allies in the opposition NDA have also rendered support to Mukherjee’s candidature. Parties like the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (United) who are directly opposed to the Congress in their respective states have pledged support to Mukherjee. The most thorough explanation for this would be the role of special interests in securing support from these parties for Mukherjee. Mukherjee in his earlier tenures as finance minister has been seen as someone who has been responsible for the prosperity of certain large corporate groups (as Hamish McDonald in his book The Polyester Prince would aver). These corporate groups have only benefitted from the munificence bestowed by the finance minister in his recent tenure as well - in the way the corporates have enjoyed continually tax writeoffs. It doesn’t need too much imagination to know why a certain former bureaucrat and now a parliamentarian- named in the infamous Radia Tapes for wilfully representing a certain corporate’s interests in Parliament -and a member of the JD(U), is conjectured to have been involved as a go-between between his party and the Congress.
A similar story should explain the regional chauvinist Shiv Sena’s support for Mukherjee as well. There is no “Maratha pride” rationale in play - this was the reason offered for support for Pratibha Patil by the Shiv Sena during the previous presidential elections- in this case, but the party, with its deep rooted origins in union-busting in favour of Mumbai based big corporates, has cordial ties with the aforementioned corporate groups as well.
What explains the sudden volte face by Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Yadav in offering support to Mukherjee’s candidacy, barely a day after a press conference with UPA member Trinamul Congress’ leader Mamata Banerjee offering an alternate set of nominees? As Aditi Phadnis argues, the Samajwadi Party leader faces cases related to disproportionate income pursued by the Central Bureau of Investigation and that at key moments whenever there is an opportunity for any new re-definition of relationships between the SP and the Congress, this issue comes into play. And let us not rule out the role of corporate groups in solving the equation for support as well. As this Hindu Business Line report points out, one corporate group with a history of ties with the Samajwadi Party in its earlier tenures has also attempted to mediate interests in the presidential elections.
But why would the corporates be so interested in the presidential elections? The conjecture is that providing such a prestigious sinecure to the current finance minister could be a “big thank you” from certain corporate sections, but substantively a replacement to the current minister by a more “reforms” friendly “fin-min” would be a double delight for the very sections.
Let us turn our attention to the Congress’ post 2009 ally - the Trinamul Congress. Enjoying the “honeymoon period” in West Bengal, the party attempted to address the debt situation in the state by wringing a hefty financial package from the centre as a quid pro quo for support for the UPA presidential nominee. Thus far thwarted in its efforts, its mercurial chief set out to show the Congress as to who controlled the shots in West Bengal, and engaged in a game of oneupmanship by suggesting three names for the presidential nominee, including bizarrely the Prime Minister himself. It is clear that the Trinamul Congress has indulged in this game of “with the UPA, but distinct from it” since 2009, attempting to delineate itself from the anti-people policies of the UPA (even as partaking in implementing those) by posturing as opposition from within. It makes political sense in West Bengal to do so. The UPA is unpopular even as the Trinamul led government in Kolkata retains a degree of popularity because of early years in incumbency.
It is in this situation that the left had to take a call on whom to vote for, in the presidential elections. Prima facie, the left’s strength was minimal - inconsequential even - to alter the prospects of either of the candidates in the fray. This was quite unlike earlier elections, where the imperative was to defeat the NDA nominee - important in the larger project of isolating the communal forces in national polity. This time around, by sheer numbers there existed no possibility for a NDA nominee to win and therefore the decision by the left bellwether, the CPI(M) to vote for the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee recently is brought into question.
One ostensible reason for the support to the Congress nominee was to isolate the Trinamul Congress as this official view of the CPI(M) avers. Politically from a leftist standpoint, such an engagement in this “bourgeois politics” was necessary as it was required to divide the forces of the bourgeoisie - the Congress and the Trinamul and to pit them against each other or atleast to attempt to do so. Yet, if it were only as simple as that.
The Trinamul Congress is a peculiar creature in Indian politics. It has postured as a force from the left - in order to defeat the left - and to gain power. Its policies in power notwithstanding, it thrives on a politics of populism and symbolism that relies on left-like sloganeering. It is in the interests of the Trinamul if the Left is seen to be cohabiting a political space together with the Congress, what the lady from that party likes to term as “being a B team”. It only helps the Trinamul, if the Left is seen to endorse the Congress’ presidential candidate, and someone who is very easily identified with neoliberal policies, a pathetic financial ministry tenure and for whom there are various special interests fighting out a backroom battle. And such a position which strengthens the Trinamul’s claims to be a populist hegemon, certainly does not help the leftists and left supporting people in West Bengal who have been physically under threat from the Trinamul Congress’ minions.
So, is it the case that the CPI(M) is using the divisions within the bourgeoisie for short term benefits to its politics or is it the other way around? Is the representative of the bourgeois-landlord class using the bellwether of the Left for its own purposes and interests?
The answer surely is the latter in this case. Considering the idea of driving a wedge between the Congress and the Trinamul has never played itself out in favour of the left - it has only painted the left in a corner that is far removed from its moorings; it makes no sense at all for the forces of the left to adopt such a strategy as the CPI(M) has, in this presidential elections.
The decision by the CPI and the RSP to abstain is not just a moral one, but a deeply practical one. It is consistent with the aims of the respective organisations and coherent with its support base. One would have expected a similar enlightened decision from the main party in the Left Front, but it is not to be. There was no possibility of their ideal “man” being in the set of nominees for the post of President but they could have avoided being among all the presidential nominee’s “men”. Alas, it was not to be.