Left seats set to go up but what's in store for future?

In complete disarray after 2011 assembly poll drubbing, the Left Front in Bengal tried to regroup before the general elections. A few more seats in this Lok Sabha won’t matter much. The question is, are they in it for the long haul?

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Puja Bhattacharjee | May 10, 2014


A Left procession in Kolkata ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
A Left procession in Kolkata ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

It is a hot April afternoon in Chapa Dalir More, a partly commercial residential area in Barasat on the outskirts of Kolkata, and it is business as usual: the roads are more or less empty, yielding to the pressure of afternoon siesta. A few metres off the main road, though, the tension is palpable.

It is the local CPI(M) office. The corridors reek of cigarettes and stress as party workers prepare for the Lok Sabha polls. As the clock strikes 4 pm, the auditorium in the party office is nearly filled up – with teachers from various institutions.

Veteran leader Gautam Deb addresses the meeting as life-size black and white portraits of the communist pantheon – Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Friedrich Engels and Mao Tse Tung – stare down at the gathering.

He begins by addressing the reasons why CPI(M) lost power after ruling West Bengal for over three decades. “To be victorious again we have to understand why we lost. The reasons of our defeat are three fold: political, administrative and organisational.”

Deb, who was one of 26 ministers from the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee cabinet to lose in the 2011 assembly election, stresses that before getting down to analysing the reason for the defeat, it is imperative to understand why CPI(M) won for 30 years. “Mamata (Banerjee) did not win in 2009 (Lok Sabha) or in 2011. The Left lost,” he emphasises.  

That, in short, is the state of the Left Front, more specifically the CPI(M) in West Bengal today. Shocked by the rout, they are yet to gather their wits and reassemble – notwithstanding the brave words of its leaders.

Also read: CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat’s interview

As the election heat keeps pace with the mercury in the state, the Left Front is holding many such meetings across West Bengal in an effort to reconsolidate. After the historic defeat in the 2011 assembly elections, the Left has been pushed to the margins in the state, and one would have to use a microscope, so to speak, to hunt for its perceptible presence in the state capital. The walls that were once dominated by red graffiti are now owned by the Trinamool Congress’s green.

Outside the metropolis, the BJP’s saffron is also sprouting up.

So, does Left have a future?

Political analysts say no – not at least in the immediate future, despite the expected rise in number of Lok Sabha seats. The CPI(M), which was seen as carrying the Front over the last couple of decades, has seen its grassroots organisational structure – its biggest strength in the halcyon days – has weakened considerably. The second line of leadership, political observers say, is either nonexistent or not under media – and thereby public – glare.

With the vote set to be divided between the Congress, TMC, Left and the BJP, there is a big possibility that the urban educated Bengali middle class (or what in Bangla is called the ‘bhadralok’), who was earlier a staunch Left supporter, might shift to the BJP.

Dipankar Sinha, head of political science department at Calcutta University, says the CPI(M) in Bengal is a regimented party that has not yet recovered from the massive defeat of 2011. “The reconsolidation efforts, which began after they went out of power, are not yet complete. The party might gain marginally in the Lok Sabha elections but that can be attributed more to the failings of the TMC government than to their (CPI-M’s) reconsolidation,” he says.

But senior TMC leader and state minister for information technology Partha Chatterjee is confident that the Left will remain in ignominy for another 30 years. “The labour, farmers and teachers’ fronts are the three pillars of CPI(M). And they destroyed all three. They have been marginalised in the state. Where are the new leaders of the Left? I don’t see any new faces,” he tells Governance Now.

Also read: In Bengal, BJP might be left with lone seat again

Sinha attributes the weakness to the hegemonic tendencies that comes with being in power for too long.

“There was always some factional struggle among party workers. (But earlier) instead of deserting the party they stayed and tried to negotiate with the central command. Post-2011, majority of the cadre has shifted allegiance to other parties lock, stock and barrel,” he says. “The situation is thought to be akin to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which was rapid – almost overnight.”

Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University and is a psephologist, explains that people got frustrated with too much politicisation and “dadagiri” (strong-arms tactics) of the Left Front. “Political affiliations of an individual had become the yardstick for everything, along with too much interference in social life in villages,” he says.

At the same time, many political observers say it would be foolhardy to write the Left’s obituary going by the poll outcome. The regrouping, they say, would continue, and going by the resurgence of the left-of-centre movement globally you cannot count out a re-emergence – albeit possibly without the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin hovering over your shoulder.

Road to recovery

According to experts, the Left in Bengal can now borrow from the strategy TMC adopted in the few years preceding 2011 to chip away at the Left base – take advantage of and play on TMC’s weaknesses. Being an authoritarian, and somewhat undemocratic, leader, Mamata Banerjee is bound to make mistakes that would get etched in people’s mind, those observing her over the years contend.

The middle class, says Sinha of Calcutta University, has a “kind of fixation” with law and order and education, and Banerjee would sooner or later face flak on that front. “The perception of people is more important than the actual situation,” he says. “The middle class does not care about the actual situation. There was an apparent calm in spite of incidents of violence during the Left Front tenure. (But) a series of much-discussed rape cases have really affected the TMC government. There is no justice for the families,” he says.

But one problem here would be the desertion of the intelligentsia – to the TMC camp. According to Sinha, the civil society movement in West Bengal is elitist – “a top-down and event-specific movement” that is not a sustaining force. The roots of the movement are not deep, and all parties, including the Left, have an implicit distrust of the intelligentsia and the civil society. The CPI(M), he says, should work hard to rebuild its grassroots support. “It will not be an easy task, with so many party workers having defected to opposition camps, but the TMC is faction-ridden and the CPI(M) with its zonal command can benefit from this.

According to Left watchers, the Front can mobilise the anti-incumbency factor through its different organisations and project an alternative policy. But for that to happen, they say, there’s a need to induct new blood – something most political parties here are wary of, barring the Congress.

“The leadership needs to change. The old leadership is not dedicated, which shows in the fact that the Left has failed to play its role in the opposition,” Chakraborty says. “They (Left leaders) have to persevere at everyday politics, just like Mamata did – she used to sit and protest wherever there was slightest injustice.”

Veteran Marxist and member of CPI(M) state committee and state secretariat Rabin Deb, however, says during her days as the leader of opposition, Banerjee had disturbed the government’s functioning. The Left, he stresses, has a different policy as an opposition. “If her government takes a positive step we will support it,” he says. “Mamata’s goal was to take charge of the Writers’ Building, so she opposed everything we did. But we will take a decision based on the merit of a case or the issue at hand.”

Emphasising that the Left is attempting to play a “responsible opposition”, he says, “We will leave all issues to be judged by the people.”

Asked about infusion of new blood, Deb says unlike parties run as a dynasty, the Left parties induct new leaders through a “scientific” process. “We do not induct leaders directly. They have to rise from the student movements,” he explains. “The party has amended its constitution and we have taken a decision that a person cannot remain in the same position for more than three years.”

To illustrate his point, Deb mentions that “Biman Bose is the party secretary since 2006, “whereas Mamata is her party’s secretary since 1998”.

Gautam Deb, too, says the CPI(M) is in no hurry: “We will give the TMC government time. We have been in rule for three decades and we will allow her to enjoy an extended honeymoon period. This is the reason we have not held any big meetings or rallies for the past one and half years.”

To the audience at the gathering in Barasat’s Chapa Dalir More, he says, “The Left will wholeheartedly support Mamata Banerjee if she promotes industry in the state, even if that means she will be in power for a decade.”

Threat of BJP

For now, the Left is more concerned with the growing clout of BJP in the state. “Our main objective is to stop Modi in Bengal,” says Gautam Deb. “The threat for Muslims comes much later. They (BJP) stress on a woman’s role only as daughter, wife and mother.  They build temples at sites where sati have been performed. The BJP is disastrous for this country. The rise of Modi will change politics of the entire subcontinent.”

TMC’s Partha Chatterjee says the Left Front is in no shape to take on any party at present. “They can in no way compare to a leader of Mamata’s calibre,” he adds.

In response, Rabin Deb narrates a poem by Birendra Krishna Chattopadhyay: “Osthir hoyo na, prostut hao (Don’t get restless, prepare yourself).”

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