Mamata Banerjee's and Jayalalitha's victories in the West Bengal and Tamil Nadu assembly elections reflect two crucial aspects of Indian politics. One is that Marxism has lost much of its lure and the other is that allegations of sleaze can be hugely damaging to politicians. The second assertion can seem obvious but, surprisingly enough, it does not seem to be appreciated by the political class.
For instance, Rajiv Gandhi did not realize how the Bofors howitzer scam will erode his popularity in 1989. Similarly, Tamil Nadu's outgoing ruling family led by the octogenarian M. Karunandhi defended the scam-tainted former communications minister Andimuthu Raja without realising that he was digging his party, the DMK's political grave.
But to start with West Bengal, having built their bases in the heady days of the Vietnam war with anti-American slogans, the ruling Communists were oblivious of the fact that, four decades later, the old tirades against US 'imperialism', as during the nuclear deal in 2008, were virtually meaningless to the present generation. The same is also true of the routine Leftist castigation of market-oriented policies, which were said to have been undertaken by the Manmohan Singh government at the prodding of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The setback suffered by the Left in West Bengal, evident in the loss of votes to the extent of nine percent, was due to its conviction that as long as it propagated its supposedly pro-poor ideology, its inadequacies in the matter of governance would not matter. Moreover, not only was the Left unapologetic about ruining the state's industrial potential through militant trade union tactics, there was no moderation of the 'arrogance' of the cadres, as the communists themselves occasionally admitted.
The absence of ideological appeal, compounded by administrative deficiencies and lack of development, meant that the situation was ripe for an aggressive opponent to sweep the Left out of power, as Mamata Banerjee has done. But even she might have failed if the Marxists did not follow two contradictory policies. One was to make up for the earlier hounding out of industrialists by inviting the corporate sector to invest in the state. This decision to sup with the so-called 'class enemies' meant that the Left was letting down its 'ideological guard', as the Leftist economist, Prabhat Patnaik, has said.
But while compromising on the dogmatic front (which suggests that even the Left is not unaware that their doctrines have lost their sheen), the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government banked on the familiar 'arrogance' of the party's rank and file to browbeat farmers into giving up their lands. When the cadres violently confronted the resisting farmers in Nandigram, Bhattacharjee proudly said the latter, who had established a base there by driving out Marxist supporters, have been paid back in their own coin.
Although he later apologised for his remark, the damage had been done. As his personal defeat in his constituency, and of several other ministers, has shown, the voters' rejection of the party has been total. While the Left's loss of Kerala is in keeping with the tradition of victories and losses by the two rivals - the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) - every five years, the setback in West Bengal means that the comrades will have to reinvent themselves if they hope to return to power. Since Marxism is no longer a paying proposition, the cadres and their mentors will at least have to shed their Stalinist ways for any chance of success.
But while the Left's decline has been a continuing process since their reverses in the 2009 parliamentary polls, the success of Jayalalitha's AIADMK in Tamil Nadu means that she has bounced back after five years in a Kerala-style alternating stints in power by the DMK and the AIADMK. However, she might not have but for the DMK's follies.
It wasn't only the allegations of corruption which cast a shadow on the DMK's and its partner, the Congress' prospects, the affairs of the ruling family in which the aging patriarch was unable to control his two power-hungry sons did not endear him to the voters. Given Karunanidhi's advanced age and the antics of the two uncharismatic sons, the DMK's future looks bleak. If it fades away, the much younger Jayalalitha - she is 63 - can look forward to happy days if she does not allow her own imperious ways to alienate the electorate.
For the Congress, the setback in Tamil Nadu will be compensated by the return to power in West Bengal, though as Mamata's junior partner, and the successes in Kerala, Puduchery and Assam though it barely scraped through in Kerala. Four out of five is not a bad score.
All the parties will have to take into account, yet again, the acute judgmental qualities of the Indian voter. Although the unknown person, who presses the button on the voting machine, has shown time and again that no one can fool him - neither Indira Gandhi with her socialistic promises during the Emergency, nor Lalu Prasad with his championing of the backward castes in 2005 - the politicians do not seem to realize this. In the latest electoral exercise too, the voter has displayed his maturity by evicting the palpably corrupt and the pretentious ideologue.