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New Delhi Election: Where is the left?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: December 3, 2013, 1:06 PM IST
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New Delhi is going to the polls on December 4. I am writing this essay on November 30. The essay may or may not appear before the results are announced. But it does not matter. I am not trying to write about who is going to win the election, who will win how many seats, vote share etc. There are far more competent people to do that. Whatever may be the results, I will be extremely surprised if the left parties manage to win a single seat. The matter is not even discussed in the election related TV shows or in the various opinion polls. The left clearly does not exist in electoral terms in Delhi. But why? There is a paradox which deserves careful analysis.
New Delhi is in a way the ideal breeding ground for leftist politics. Here is a city where the inequality between the classes hits you straight on the face like no other city in India. The arrogant rich love to show off their wealth, flaunt their cars and their designer clothes while a large section of the working class lives in slums and squatters. Secondly, over the last two decades Delhi has become the favourite destination of the working poor from around India. Their numbers have swelled and they have experienced the raw deal that comes with joining the informal sector of the economy. Third, there are a large number of leftist intellectuals living in Delhi. Indeed JNU is their favourite destination in India. Apart from JNU also there are many other places where you will find leftist intellectuals of some variety or the other. Fourth, the party head quarters of various left parties are all located in New Delhi. They have their party headquarters located there for a very long time now, enough time to build a mass base. And, the 2013 election gave the left a unique opportunity that they simply did not have earlier - the electorate is to a large extent dissatisfied with the existing big parties. Perfect condition for the left to make its presence felt.
But what is the reality? The dissatisfaction with the two major big parties is being utilized by a new party that was formed less than two years ago. Whether AAP wins the election or not, that they have emerged as a force is beyond doubt. On the other hand the left is not even in the picture.
The paradox becomes even more glaring if you look at what the AAP is saying in its manifestos and vision document and the various well-made videos circulated in the social media. It is clearly combining a nationalist position with a soft left position - punish the corrupt officials, cheaper electricity and water, better health care, decentralisation of power, etc. Not very different from what CPI-M stands for. The only difference is perhaps the anti-US rhetoric and AAP puts more emphasis on government's corruption whereas the left would focus more on corruption of the corporate sector. AAP has also added to its position a transparent method of fund raising. How many seats AAP will finally win will be decided by the electorate but there is no doubt that they will win more than the left although many of the agenda that they are talking about are classic left agenda - decentralisation has been done best under the left in Kerala, corruption is integrally linked to crony capitalism, among all national parties the left has the best record in terms of financial honesty, and it has always tried to raise questions that affect the poor and the ordinary middle class. Both AAP and the left are secular parties and hence secularism is another issue that they have in common.
Why did the left fail to utilize this historic opportunity when there is so much frustration within the electorate with the existing major parties? This is a question that all leftist intellectuals of Delhi would have to think about. Let me try to point out what I think is the problem.
The left has become a victim of intellectual fetishism. What I mean by this is not intellectual activity or rigorous analysis of social realities or philosophical questions but a certain practice where the pursuit of such intellectual analysis has become an end in itself resulting is a disconnect from the classes they are supposed to represent. This is why the left is strong in JNU but weak in the slums and the squatters of Delhi. It should have been the other way round. The left of Delhi is a master of doing seminars and conferences, national and international, but totally incompetent when it comes to communicating with the classes it is supposed to represent.
This is where AAP has scored. They picked old leftist issues and concerns but then have managed to communicate them to the man in the street. The left, on the hand, are stuck in their lonely elite spaces. Will AAP genuinely take forward the issues of the toiling masses? Time will tell.
First Published: December 3, 2013, 1:06 PM IST