In search of an alliance
As it faces another poll in West Bengal, five years after the All India Trinamool Congress ended its 34-year rule, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has brainstormed on ways to revive its sagging political fortunes at its party Plenum in Kolkata, the first after 1978. The last few years have been forgettable for the party that once enjoyed considerable clout at the national level. At no point of time did it hold power in States other than West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, but the CPI(M) was seen as a party of intellectuals and made substantive interventions on policy matters, right from influencing India’s academic discourse on history to mounting a powerful challenge to the India-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008. However, with the electoral loss in West Bengal, this stature has taken a beating. While the party insists that this Plenum is not about its Bengal poll tactics but about making its organisation fighting fit, the fact remains Bengal will have to be the starting point for the CPI(M) becoming fighting fit. The party will have to reconsider its tactics on the ground in contending with the Trinamool Congress. Even some of the CPI(M)’s staunch supporters believe that the party might suffer another defeat at the hands of Mamata Banerjee if it does not swallow pride and enter into an alliance with the Congress. The dilemma is not just ideological: whatever the nature of its relations with the Congress in Bengal, the CPI(M) will have to necessarily fight the grand old party in Kerala. The political rhetoric in Bengal will have to be very different from that in Kerala. Incidentally, both States go to elections at the same time in 2016.
Even if the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front wins in Kerala, where it appears to be ahead of a dispirited Congress right now, another loss in Bengal could put a question mark on the party’s long-term future, and seriously erode its national-level presence. The issue of alliance is not the only existential dilemma of the party in a rapidly changing political landscape. The CPI(M) seems to have lost its grip even on Bengal’s villages and its urban poor. And as the success of the AamAadmi Party in Delhi shows, there is space for an urban politics focussed on issues of equity and welfare. The CPI(M), which has lost the support among all its traditional support bases, appears unable to break free from the old mindset of engaging with the geopolitics of the Cold War era. The promise of an egalitarian society, unaccompanied by any radical programme for change, no longer holds the same appeal. Its jargon — terms like ‘neoliberalism’, ‘imperialism’ and ‘scientific socialism’ — may also not have any resonance beyond a few campuses in India. The party will need to reinvent itself, directly speaking to the livelihood concerns and social insecurities of the working classes, the weaker sections and women. Without finding a way of intervening on issues of immediate concern to the people, the CPI(M) cannot hope to win back its core supporters — or recover its historical role of framing larger concerns about liberty and constitutionalism, a role no other party has quite the same aptitude for.
Caution on Free Basics
‘Free’ and ‘altruism’ are words that generally have a positive ring to them. But it’s clear that social media behemoth Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which it pitches as an altruistic endeavour to provide the have-nots a bridge to the Internet for free, fails to evoke such a feel. Not without reason, though. For starters, as critics have repeatedly pointed out, there is a huge difference between being a gateway to the Internet and being a gatekeeper to the Internet, and Free Basics worryingly has all the makings of the latter. So, it does have the potential to trap subscribers in the metaphorical “walled garden”, what with the immensely popular Facebook thrown into the free mix of offerings. That the whole package is offered free hardly surprises anyone with even a little knowledge of how business models in the digital world work. Free, by the way, is a business model that delivers returns in an unconventional way. There might be many variations of it but basically it is about accumulating millions and millions of new users by offering products free, in the hope that the build-up could be milked for revenue in the years to come. That’s the same tactic many start-ups use to show “traction” while pitching to big moneyed venture capitalists.
And where do you find an unrestricted Internet economy with millions yet untapped? Yes, India. There can be very little doubt that the haves-have-nots digital divide in India is stark, and needs to be bridged as soon as possible. Credit is due to Facebook for identifying this need and bringing a sense of urgency to addressing it. Credit is also due for the way its young founder Mark Zuckerberg has fought doggedly for the idea’s acceptance. It is close to a year now since he launched Internet.org, the earlier avatar of Free Basics, in India. And during this period, there has never been a dull moment in the exchanges between the critics of Free Basics and Facebook. As it stands, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the regulator, has asked Facebook’s Free Basics partner in India, Reliance Communications, to put the service on hold. The social media giant, showing little sign of backing off, has done all that it can (tweaked its dimensions, launched a comprehensive advertising campaign, and got its charismatic founder to pen articles) to get political and social acceptance to the idea. It’s both impressive and unsettling at the same time when one thinks about how a corporate, valued at over $300 billion, can spend so much money and effort on a controversial project that is not even avowedly a pure business venture. The problem has reached the doorsteps of policymakers. They have to not only decide the fate of services such as Free Basics but also find ways to deliver digital equality fast. For, Free Basics can’t be an excuse for the failures of the state in delivering universal access.