16 MARCH 2016
Mutual benefit in an unnatural alliance
After a series of electoral reversals for both in the last five years at all levels — Parliament, Assembly, local bodies — the Left Front and the Congress have decided on a seat-sharing “understanding” in West Bengal in order to take on the Trinamool Congress. Viewed historically, this is nothing short of proving politics to be the art of the impossible. For the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the largest stakeholder in the Left Front, an alliance with the Congress is especially problematic, both politically and ideologically. The Congress is its major opponent in its remaining strongholds of Kerala and Tripura. Indeed, Kerala goes to the polls at the same time, and the CPI(M)-led alliance would be keen to wrest power back from the Congress-led UDF government there. The CPI(M) had announced at its party congress in 2015 that it would not align with the Congress given the serious ideological differences. It therefore had to nuance its engagement with the Congress so as not to be perceived to be compromising on its political and ideological positions. For years, the CPI(M) has worked out an elaborate set of “fronts” to suit various political circumstances. The Left Front in West Bengal has existed for decades as a cogent ideological block of parties. The Left Democratic Front in Kerala is slightly less ideologically coherent. In West Bengal, the “united front” mechanism — with the Bangla Congress in 1967 — was adopted to build electoral alliances with disparate political forces based on common programmes. The CPI(M)’s recourse to a seat-sharing arrangement without a common minimum programme is more common in States where it is weak.
The Congress had to overcome a political dilemma on the question of an alliance, as traditionally the party has found it difficult to recover electoral ground ceded to coalition partners. The “understanding”, without an official alliance, has helped these parties break out of a zero-sum game. It is another matter whether the Congress and the Left Front, which have been traditional rivals in the State for decades, will manage to translate this “understanding” into transferring their vote to each other. Certainly, their support bases are not as distinct as they used to be. The CPI(M) is now less of a class-based organisation after holding power for nearly three and a half decades in the State before its loss in 2011. Both parties have positioned themselves as “responsible” alternatives to the patronage-based governance of the Trinamool. The Congress has pockets of strong support in a few rural districts, and the Left expects to capitalise on this through the “understanding”. On the other hand, there has been little sign of the rural electorate, a large majority of which shifted its support to the Trinamool following the land acquisition-related controversies during Left Front rule, moving away from it. A sting in the tail for the Trinamool could be the corruption scams involving its leaders. If anything, the Congress-Left “understanding” will force the Trinamool to defend its record against a united opposition, rendering the 2016 Assembly election a referendum on its own tenure.
An opportunity for peace in Syria
Vladimir Putin has once again surprised world leaders by ordering the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. As in the case of Mr. Putin’s other major foreign policy moves in his current term as Russian President, such as the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria, not many had seen this coming. While announcing the decision he said the “principal tasks set for the armed forces of Russia in Syria have been accomplished”, without detailing the achievements. Though Mr. Putin’s claims may sound rhetorical, it is not difficult to understand the rationale behind the move. The five and a half months of Russian intervention has irrevocably changed the course of the Syrian civil war. As Russia started the bombing campaign on September 30, the regime looked fragile after continuous military setbacks. President Bashar al-Assad had publicly acknowledged that his army was struggling with manpower shortages. But since the Russian involvement started, the regime has regained some territory, weakened rebel positions and disrupted rebel supply lines. It even expanded its reach to the outskirts of Aleppo, once considered completely lost to militant groups. The timing of the Russian move is also important. The Geneva peace talks between the regime and the opposition are set to start. For the first time in the five years of the conflict, the prospects of peace look less doomed, if not actually bright. A ceasefire between the rebels and the regime that came into force two weeks ago is still holding, however fragile it might be. By announcing the troop withdrawal, Moscow is putting enormous pressure on the Assad regime to make real compromises in the peace talks. Moreover, Mr. Putin does not want Russia to be dragged into a protracted war, the way the Soviet Union got trapped in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
However, this does not mean Russia is deserting Syria. Mr. Putin has made it clear that Russia would continue to operate the Latakia airbase. Needless to say, the Russian presence at the Tartus naval facility on the Mediterranean Sea will continue. This will allow Russia to quickly deploy troops in Syria in the future if the need arises. So Mr. Putin’s actual plan appears to be to use the momentum created in favour of the regime by the Russian intervention to find a political settlement to the Syrian crisis. This is consistent with Russia’s position towards Syria. From the advent of the crisis, Moscow has been insisting on a political solution. Russia’s concern is less about protecting Mr. Assad than about retaining the core of the Baathist state, which, Moscow believes, is vital for the survival of Syria in the long fight ahead against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Now it is time for the rebels and their backers, including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to respond to Russia’s gestures. They should make use of the opportunity at the Geneva talks to push for reconciliation with the regime. Because the only alternative to talks is pushing Syria into war again.