Archive | May, 2009

Issue XXVIII: Farmers, Communists, and World’s Cheapest Car

19 May

The Indian National Congress and their United Progressive Alliance swept the Indian elections last week coming within 11 seats of forming the first majority government in decades.  Their main rival, the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Democratic Alliance, lost seats all over the country.  Regional parties like Laloo Prasad’s RJD also received a beatdown.  But perhaps the most interesting story of the elections is the thrashing the electorate gave to the Communists who recently controlled over 10% of the seats in Parliament.

The Left Front is a grouping of leftist parties, but mostly consists of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). The 2004 elections were the biggest elections ever for the Communists, and their votes were crucial to the UPA government’s formation. But the Left withdrew from the Congress government after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pushed for a nuclear treaty with the United States. Then they attacked their own voters.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist is the third biggest party in India. It runs two states, West Bengal (which includes Calcutta) and Kerala. The Communists have never lost an election in West Bengal since they came to power in 1977 on a program of land reform for the rural majority. The landless were given title to the small plots of land they worked in a very fertile and densely populated state (population 80 million). The farmers loved the Communists ever since and have been loyal to them for generations. Then the Communists found a new best friend: big business.

Ratan Tata invented the Nano, the “1 lakh car” ($2500 equivalent), to bring Tata Motors international fame. Tata wanted to build the Nano in Bengal, and Communists wanted to industrialize their backwards and poor state. Since the state is so crowded, there is no empty land to build factories. The state promised Tata more land than they actually had free, and then moved to confiscate it from thousands of farmers. The police and Communist Party members acted as goons for the state, beating up protesters. When the peasants, celeberities, and intellectuals fought back, the police killed 14 farmers. With leading opposition leader Mamata Bannerjee’s (some say opportunistic) support for the farmers of Singur, Tata gave up on building his factory in West Bengal and moved it to Gujurat.

The Communists had now pissed off their rural supporters and failed to industrialize their poor state. The people’s party had become anti-people. Singur voted strongly against the CPI(M) in local elections recently. But the real shocker was when the CPI(M) lost the state, only winning 15 of 42 seats to Delhi. Rural discontent spread even to the cafés of Calcutta. Bengalis love their intellectuals and writers, and even these Left supporters turned against the Communists for their thuggery against villagers.

Pity the Left Front. The party has lost its grassroots, squandered its decades in power, and

self-seekers” have ruined a party that can’t re-imagine its role in post-Cold War India. But the questions the Left asks (“Development for whom?” “Justice for whom? and Freedom for whom?”) are the very questions modern India most needs answered.

Links

Asia Times – “A right path for India’s left

Issue XXVII: The World’s Biggest Election and Cow Herders

12 May

As you might know, I’m a sucker for election news.  It’s only logical that I comment on this month’s massive Indian federal elections.  Unlike in America, most people live in villages in India and the poor disproportionately vote more on election day (a holiday) than the rich.  No one can accurately predict how they will vote and there are no accurate polls to ruin the surprise on Election Day.

India holds elections every five years, and since there are dozens of parties, no one party can form a majority in Parliament.   Instead alliances or coalitions of parties gang up to beat up the other side with very confusing twists and turns.

This year the United Progressive Alliance Government of economist Manmohan Singh is aiming for re-election while the former National Democratic Alliance (upset in the 2004 election shocker) tries to grab the throne again.  On the sidelines are the Communists and their Left Front group (Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist) stitching together a “Third Front” of Communists and regional/linguistic and caste parties like the Untouchable-led BSP party of Mayawati.  The Third Front in the mid-90s was able to make regional politicians like H.D. Deve Gowda into prime ministers but their heyday may be yet to come.

Today, I want to point out a particular character both loved and hated in Indian politics, Laloo Prasad Yadav.  Laloo Prasad or “Laloo” as he is joked about by Indians everywhere was the notoriously corrupt chief minister of the state of Bihar, the poorest and worst-run state in India.  The state is completely lawless.  But Laloo functions as entertainment for the poor masses of Bihar with his one-liners and election rallies  and as a clan leader for his “backwards” caste of Yadav cowherders.   His hairstyle is copied by the masses and there are even toy dolls made of him.  Even Bollywood stars adore him.

His RJD party dominated Bihar for fifteen years with he or his wife running the state.  Allying with the Congress Party in the United Progressive Alliance, he currently serves the Minister of Railways for the federal government.  Laloo turned around the state-owned Indian Railways (the biggest corporation in the world by number of employees) without raising fares or privatizating the company.  This turnaround is so famous and dramatic that this rowdy village politician now lectures Ivy League business students as model case study of how to run government-owned corporations.

But Laloo’s been in a bit of trouble.  His wife law lost Bihar’s elections a few years ago, and people are wondering if his party will pull through enough seats to support the Congress government in Delhi.  Not even Harvard Business School can help him for misrunning Bihar for so long.

Links

BBC – “Ice Cream with Laloo Yadav

BBC – India Election blog

Guardian – “Challenge of narrowing shaming gulf between wealth and want