One of the less noticeable facts about the 2019 elections: The communist parties are nearly irrelevant now. How did this happen?
As we come to the close of this election season, what cannot escape even the indiscriminate eye is the decline of the organized left parties in India. Between 2004, when the Left Front had 59 MPs in the Lok Sabha, to 2014, when it had 11 MPs, the decline has been rapid and palpable. Both its national space and regional presence are shrinking.
Red hues of the past
The left parties were a part of India’s political spectrum even before independence. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in 1925 by MN Roy. Its numerous offshoots later became the face of the left in India. In the initial years, the party worked to mobilise peasants and workers, but more importantly, it influenced the leaders of the Congress party towards a strong left-leaning ideology. The success of the Soviet Union then added to the appeal of the left ideology.
The challenge to the party came in 1942, when Gandhi launched the Quit India movement. At about the same time, the Soviet Union had joined the allied forces in World War II. It urged the CPI to support the British, in the fight against fascism. The communists withdrew from the nationalist movement and were alienated from it. They, however, continued to organise peasant struggles in many parts of the country.
The communists entered the electoral politics for the first time in 1957. In the general elections that year, the CPI emerged as the largest opposition party. It also won the assembly elections in Kerala – the first time an opposition party won an Indian state. EMS Namboodiripad became chief minister.
In the period of 1970-77 too, the CPI allied with the Congress party, and in Kerala they formed a government with CPI’s C Achutha Menon as chief minister.
The left remained an important presence, particularly in the states of West Bengal and Tripura where it was in power for over three decades and in Kerala. They also have some presence in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
The high point of the left ascendency was in 1996 when the Left Front with 52 seats was the second largest group in the parliament. Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal, was the front-runner for the post of prime minister and came close to being one, but the CPI-M Politburo vetoed the possibility – a decision Basu was to later describe as a “historical blunder”. Later, in 2004, the left supported the Congress-led UPA government, but withdrew support over the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The biggest setback for the Left Front came when the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by Mamata Banerjee defeated it in the 2011 assembly elections in West Bengal and then again in 2016. The left’s vote share declined from 41 percent to 26 percent and it occupied only 32 seats in the assembly in a state it had governed uninterruptedly between 1977 and 2011. In the 2014 parliamentary polls, the CPI(M) could win only two seats.
Today, Banerjee has edged the left out of West Bengal. Ideologically, as well as programmatically, the TMC has taken over from the left. In the current elections, the competition to the TMC comes not from the left, but from the BJP. Even the Congress in West Bengal has snubbed the largest left party, the CPI(M), and has refused to ally with it in the state.
In Tripura too, the party has faced rough weather. Early last year, the communist coalition was defeated in state after 25 years in power. Such was the scale of defeat that Manik Sarkar, Tripura’s chief minister and one of the longest serving CMs of India, lost to a BJP candidate.
Kerala now remains the only bastion of the left, where a bipolar contest between Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has kept the BJP at bay. However, the BJP is emerging as an important player, though it is yet to establish its electoral footprints. Opinion polls predict that the LDF will be reduced to single digit.
Exploring the decline
The decline of the left came not after the collapse of communism globally by 1991, but a quarter decade later. The reasons for its demise are also local. The decline of public sector enterprises, and with it the weakening of the trade unions, has weaned away the left’s urban support base. An aspirational, semi-urban middle class emerged in its place. The interest of this class was not similar to that of the rural poor. As the conflict between the different segments of the left’s support base intensified, mostly over land acquisition, the leadership failed to hold the class coalition together.
In the 1990s left-inspired parties, like the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Janata Dal (united), and the Dravidian parties combined class issues with that of caste with considerable success, shrinking the left’s support base further. Although the agricultural crisis, unemployment and inflation continue to be important in electoral politics, many of the issues were articulated more successfully by regional parties than by the left in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
In Kerala and elsewhere, it attempted to embrace market economy, inviting investments and allying with ‘capitalists’ to develop industry and infrastructure, reluctantly accepting the realities of market economy to remain relevant. Its strategy is now focused on defeating ‘fascist’ forces represented by the BJP rather than introspecting its own decline.
The left has failed to bring in a generational shift in leadership. There are no towering leaders in the left parties and the current crop of leaders fail to motivate workers on the ground or voters on the streets. Its leaders have failed to read the minds of people or develop a language they could relate to. The relationship between the top leadership of the Left Front and its cadres is in a state of disrepair.
It cannot be debated that there is enough space for an alternative political force in the political arena. The left, however, is not the answer – at least not now.
Dr Madhava is associate professor & head department of Political Science, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.