Posted by: John Elliott | May 13, 2011

Communist defeat and land disputes dominate Indian politics

It’s been a great few days for hyper-activity in Indian politics, but whether it will lead to much improvement in the way that different parts of the country are ungoverned is hard to say.

The headline event of the week was supposed to have been today’s state election results, in which West Bengal’s communist-led Left Front has been decisively ousted from power after 34 continuous years of mostly undistinguished rule. Tamil Nadu’s regional DMK party, which has been using India’s telecom and other ministries as a multi-million dollar ATM machine for much of the past decade, was swept from power, and there were mixed results elsewhere.

However, the week’s unexpected scene-stealer was Rahul Gandhi, the 40-year old heir apparent to the leadership of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty and the Congress Party, and to the prime minister’s job. He jumped on a motorbike at 3.30am on Thursday morning and rode to Greater Noida, a satellite city on the edge of Delhi, where he joined villagers in a “sit in” protest against land acquisition until he was briefly arrested some 20 hours later.

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His jaunt switched public attention from the election results to next year’s assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where Noida is located.

Gandhi is staking his as-yet unproven political abilities – after personal setbacks in Bihar assembly elections last year and far from good results today - on restoring the Congress Party’s poor standing in UP. To do that he needs to rival Mayawati, the current Dalit (“untouchable” in the caste system) chief minister, as the champion of the poor and under-privileged.

Together these events have brought Mayawati and two other regional women leaders into the spotlight – all temperamental, controversial and determined.

In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee (above, today), leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that she broke away from the Gandhi’s’ Congress in 1997, achieved the overwhelming victory that was widely expected, winning 227 of the  assembly’s 294 seats and reducing the Left Front from 235 to just 62. Even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Left Front’s chief minister since 2000, lost his seat along with other key ministers.

In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha Jayaram (below), leader of the regional AIADMK, swept the DMK from power with her biggest ever victory, winning 202 assembly seats against the DMK’s 32. Jayalalitha has had an extravagantly self-indulgent and corrupt reputation when she has been chief minister twice in the past (1991-96 and 2001-06), but she has run effective administrations. She has also not indulged in such extensive nepotism and plundering of the central government coffers as the family and associates of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the outgoing chief minister, when they have been India’s ministers for telecommunications, environment, shipping and other departments.

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The events have also underlined the importance of India’s most urgent and inflammatory social and political issue – the use of agricultural land for industrial and other projects. Banerjee built her political platform in West Bengal opposing land being used for a Tata Motors factory at Singur and a chemical complex at Nandigram.

The villagers’ protest that Rahul Gandhi joined is over the price they and others are receiving for land that will be used for private sector townships to be built near new UP highways.

India’s coalition government, presided over by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, has been working on new legislation to set down basic land acquisition and compensation rules for projects that are in the national interest. Drafting of two parliamentary bills was however blocked last year by Banerjee, whose TMC is a coalition partner, because some clauses on compulsory land acquisition that ran counter to her stand at Singur and Nandigram. This meant that prime minister Manmohan Singh was not able to fulfil a promise he made earlier last year to Rahul Gandhi that legislation would be introduced in parliament.

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So while Gandhi was aiming his protest at Mayawati and her UP state government, he was in reality protesting against the failure of the government run by his mother and Manmohan Singh to move ahead with the new laws.

It is also questionable how successful such sudden public appearances are in boosting his political image.  He was shepherded around in Noida by Digvijay Singh, an experienced senior Congress politician (seen together, left).

He did not appear with government ministers the next day when they told the media in Delhi that the shelved land legalisation would be quickly revived. He  can of course take credit for triggering that statement, but a motor bike jaunt and courting arrest are curious ways for a party general secretary (the post he currently holds) to influence his own party’s ministers.

Overall, the Congress Party has not come out well from today’s election results. It is in alliance with Banerjee in West Bengal and she will offer its assembly members posts in her government, but she will demand a consequential greater representation in the national government’s cabinet and will not be an easy partner. In Tamil Nadu, Congress was in alliance with the crushed DMK. In two other states’ elections, an alliance of parties it leads in Kerala won by a far smaller margin than it should have achieved, and only in Assam did it do well. It also suffered a significant defeat in a parliamentary by-election in Andhra Pradesh where it faces a serious split.

The focus will now be on how Banerjee, a populist street fighter with no real administrative experience, runs West Bengal. It is an agriculturally rich state where there has been growth of software and other service industries, but infrastructure and other investment is urgently needed. The rural poor, who have been largely ignored for years by the Left Front,  need development of basic services and an end to violent clashes between the Left and TMC gangs.

“This is a new independence day for West Bengal….it is not for me – it is a mission of the people,” Mamata, as she is generally known, said tonight. Let’s see.

Related post: https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/west-bengal-hopes-for-a-communist-rout/

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Responses

  1. Dayanidhi Maran, the union minister for Textiles resigns.
    Information Exchange..: Dayanidhi Maran resigns from the union cabinet.

  2. http://arindamchaudhuri.blogspot.com/

    I know there was one key speculation that was happening around Mamata Banerjee before she threw the CPM out of power recently; that too after a 34 year CPM rule – out of which, barring a great first ten years, the rest can be easily termed as the greatest demonic and Stalinist rule in the history of independent India

  3. Rahul Gandhi’s jaunt is no surprising act, but youth may become a positive energy for India. Congress apparently did well in the election. But BJP has almost vanished from the scene..its good to have a strong competition..It seems the trend of hang government is moving away from the scene

  4. My only comment time will tell. Too early to comment. The moot point of corruption would not sell is proved, Manmohan must take note and stop chanting coalition dharma. as for Rahul, too much expectation and hype. I doubt he has the caliber to lead us. does it serve anyone when he says I am ashamed to be an Indian (Hindustani). is not he stating the obvious?

  5. Basically a good day for Indian politics. These upheavals could portend greater tumult to come.
    I too doubt that Rahul’s “jaunt” will have done him or the Congress Party much good in UP. Mayawati is imperious – her legions of supporters are not land-owners after all.

  6. This post is also on The Independent newspaper’s Foreign Desk blog page at http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/05/13/communist-defeat-and-land-disputes-dominate-indian-politics/ Comments there include the following:

    Justin P. George 27 minutes ago

    It’s not accurate to say that Mamata will be emboldened by this victory. If anything, the federal government may not have been strengthened, but it certainly will not be weakened by these results. For one Mamata needs the financial and political backing of the federal coalition given the kind of mess West Bengal is in. Far being demanding, Mamata may become more accomodative. Another factor in the Congress’s favour is that Tamil Nadu’s DMK party and its MPs will not whimper till the next national elections given the party’s hopeless performance.

    In effect, the federal government can breath easier with Mamata focusing on West Bengal and the DMK on surviving.

  7. Poster boy of congress is being led by DigvijaySingh who has objected to sea – burial of ” Osama Ji”. Infact, image of Rahul Gandhi is being eaten away by such scroundrels . Let us hope Rahul realises and makes his own , original and futuristic agenda instead of taking advice from ‘rejected’and ‘old idealogue’ politicians of congress.
    No doubt India have many hopes tagged on him as it was on Rajiv.


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