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What Left parties’ decision to not join Bihar alliance means for India’s Dalits, women, MBCs

Top leaders of the Left are English-speaking 'upper' caste elites. And they won't let MLAs become ministers lest they should threaten their elite power.

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The announcement of Bihar’s new council of ministers has sparked widespread discussion on its caste composition and party-wise allotment of departments. However, amid this discussion, one pertinent piece of news could not get enough public attention. That is the decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) to not participate in the government despite being a pre-poll coalition partner of the grand alliance. This party currently has 12 MLAs in the Bihar Assembly and has announced to support the government from the outside. Similarly, the CPI and the CPI(M) also have two MLAs each who are not part of the government.

This decision is in sync with the stand of other main Left parties in India — the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that have announced from time to time that they will not participate in the coalition government but extend outside support, with the exception of 1996 when they had joined the United Front government at the national level. Although Left parties have occasionally given numerous justifications for their decision, their decision has hardly been scrutinised with the principles of democracy and party politics.

With the present case of the CPI(ML) in Bihar, I analyse this issue by raising two interrelated questions: What could be the implications of the Left parties’ decision to stay out of the coalition government for the Indian democracy? What could be the possible reason behind it?

The decision of the Left parties has three negative implications for democratic politics in India in particular, but also in general.

Failure to ensure redistribution, welfare policies 

The classical political economy literature on parties postulates that the Left and socialist parties advocate for the redistribution of resources, tax the wealthy, and fight for labour rights. Right-wing parties stand in opposition to them. Based on this theory, it is argued that the Left and socialist parties are more welfarist and redistributive. However, for the last decade, they have been declining worldwide, pushing the politics of redistribution and welfarism to the backseat. But recent research on rising inequalities shows that the countries that have a coalition government show greater tendencies toward adopting pro-redistribution and pro-welfare policies.

The question arises as to why that would happen. One straight answer is that such governments have a higher possibility of partnering with Left and socialist parties that support similar policies.

In the context of India, the argument can be further substantiated with the example of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I government. While the Left parties did not participate directly, they controlled the government through the Common Minimum Programme, resulting in the enactment of many pro-poor and pro-people policies such as the Right to Information Act (RTI), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), and Right to Education (RTE). Their absence from the UPA-II government had a different story.

The decision of the CPI(ML) to stay out of the Bihar cabinet is, therefore, erroneous and goes against the politics of redistribution and welfare.

Also read: Operation Lantern fails to light up in Bihar. And BJP in search of a Brahmin face in UP

Failure to represent adequately

Modern democratic politics has been designed on the principles of representation that brings voters’ interests and needs to the table. The representatives do this by raising questions related to these issues, but the process doesn’t just end there. It translates into policy making through a ministerial position. So, when the Left parties say that they would not participate in the government or join ministries, they are actually telling voters that they are not going to solve their problems even if they get the opportunity to hold ministerial positions. Instead, they will raise their concerns, and others have to resolve that.

Suppressing Dalit, minority, women’s representation

In India, Left parties primarily get votes from Dalits, Scheduled Tribes, Most Backward Classes (MBCs), minorities, and women. The CPI(ML) in Bihar receives votes from these communities mainly living in Siwan, Bhojpur, and Arrah. The social profile of CPI(ML) MLAs is further indicative of the same. But these communities always have inadequate representation in the government, particularly in the powerful decision-making positions like the ministerial berth. Joining the government gives Left parties the opportunity to increase the representation of these communities in the government. But now, their decision to not be a part of the government is not only blocking representation but also suppressing it, which is a dangerous trend for Indian democracy.

Balancing of shifted ideological-political ground

The return of the Bharatiya Janata Party with a massive majority in 2014 is argued to have shifted the ideological ground towards the Right-wing direction in India, which now needs to be readjusted. To push it towards the Centre, the Left parties have to become more active participants in the government. Only then the Left-oriented bureaucracy can have a moral boost.

Also read: Nitish keeps home & vigilance, but here’s why Bihar cabinet expansion shows CM’s weakening heft

What explains not joining the govt

The Left parties have given no convincing argument in favour of their decision to join the Bihar government. The answer to this question can be found in the party’s functioning and control rather than its ideology. One look at the leadership profiles of these party leaders at the top level shows that they are largely well-educated, English-speaking upper caste elites. However, the MLAs of these parties are generally from those communities that are moderately educated. Therefore, there exists a clear-cut mismatch.

In such a situation, if MLAs become ministers, there is a higher possibility of them becoming more popular among the masses and party cadres. That would ultimately result in a greater demand for increasing their rank in the party organisation, which could be a serious threat to the party’s existing elites. The literature on political parties suggests that to avoid such development, party elites try to invent multiple mechanisms, and prime among those is the denial of renomination. However, in the case of Left parties in India, it appears that their elites have found a way of reducing the popularity of lower-level leaders by denying them ministerial berths.

Indian Left parties have set up a wrong precedent in Bihar. It is not guided by any sound ideological principle but sheer power politics of the elites, which is dangerous for Indian democracy and the communities voting for them.

Arvind Kumar (@arvind_kumar), PhD Scholar, Department of Politics, International Relations, & Philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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