What does the Congress party victory in India's recent elections mean for the struggle against neoliberalism?
The results of the Indian parliamentary elections can be described as a string of surprises, not only for well entrenched parties and seasoned politicians, but also for a host of commonsensical notions about Indian political reality.
Of late it became rather customary to look at elections in India through the prism of coalition politics, caste equations and regional diversities. The 2009 elections have given a serious jolt to this facile view. The fact that the Congress managed to notch up as many as 206 seats from across the country clearly reveals a national verdict which cannot be reduced to a mere sum total of the poll outcomes in different states and regions.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu right wing BJP, had long been expecting the elections to go its way. However, its overtly communal campaign clearly failed to deliver, and the results only reveal how miserably the NDA lost the plot in its own strongholds, with the BJP's own seat tally dipping from 138 in 2004 to 116 this time.
Meanwhile, the "Third Front", a coalition including the CPI(M) - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - was humbled in its own strongholds. In West Bengal the CPI(M) got its worst drubbing in three decades. Mayawati, projected as possible prime minister by the Third Front, failed to sustain her newly discovered upper caste base, while cracks have also started surfacing in her core support base among dalits (people of "low caste").
Forged hurriedly in agenda-less opportunism, the Third Front had neither cohesion nor credibility, and the CPI(M) has only discredited itself by glorifying and peddling this opportunism in the name of "Third Front" politics.
The Congress on the other hand benefited by default from an overarching mood that looked for order and stability in a situation of crisis and uncertainty. In the absence of any reliable cohesive pan-Indian alternative, the most trusted party of the Indian ruling class, now led by the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family, seems to have filled the vacuum.
The Congress revival is being portrayed by various neoliberal commentators as well as the Congress establishment as a popular endorsement of its pro-corporate economic agenda and pro-US foreign policy framework. In the same breath the Congress is also attributing its victory to its "pro-poor" policies.
There is a fundamental paradox in such self-serving explanations. The verdict cannot be an endorsement of policies claiming to address the crisis of unemployment, farmers' suicides, as well as an endorsement of the neoliberal policies causing the very same crisis!
The country is reeling under a massive economic disaster sponsored by the neoliberal economic offensive. The election result cannot be interpreted as people's endorsement of the policies that led to such disasters.
It is also equally clear that the country is not enamoured of the much touted strategic spin-offs of a pro-US foreign policy. The entire region is trapped in tremendous social upheaval and political turbulence and India's growing identification with the US only renders it more vulnerable on every count.
By all accounts, a more confident Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will now tend to continue with pro-corporate, pro-imperialist policies. It will also pursue the repressive policies of draconian laws and human rights violations in the name of countering terror.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh has announced a "100-day" economic recovery plan to overcome recession, and on 18 May the stock exchange soared 2,111 points, the highest single-day increase in any share index in the world, to celebrate the UPA's victory. But such exuberance and tall claims are unlikely to lead to any economic miracle.
Against the backdrop of a deepening recession, livelihood issues are bound to assume explosive proportions in many sectors. Instead of getting taken in by the deceptive discourse of the emerging "new generation" Congress, the forces and friends of people's struggles must now intensify public debate over the real state of affairs on different fronts. We must raise the level of popular mobilisation and resistance to press for a real change in the policies and priorities of the government.
The whole ruling class and their array of appendages - from the liquor barons like Vijay Mallya to corporate media mandarins - have jumped to use this opportunity to discredit the entire left. Contrary to such dominant media explanations, the rout suffered by the CPI(M) cannot be attributed to its belated oppositional stance vis-a-vis the UPA's pro-US policies.
The epicentre of the anti-CPI(M) political earthquake lies squarely in the Singur-Nandigram seismic zone, where the CPI(M) has been punished for its arrogant and repressive attitude to the peasantry and the intelligentsia and for its ruthless attempt to implement the same economic policies that it claims to have been opposing all along.
By rejecting the communal BJP-NDA and rebuffing the cobweb of opportunist alliances and narrow identity politics, the 2009 verdict has opened up new possibilities for the entire left and democratic camp to assert themselves as a fighting opposition in the national political arena. Revolutionary communists must take adequate note of the prospects and challenges unleashed by the verdict and rise wholeheartedly to the occasion.
Dipankar Bhattacharya is the general secretray, CPI(ML) Liberation