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Nearly a century after it began, India’s Communist movement faces extinction

The year was 1996, when India lost the one and only chance it ever had to elect a Communist prime minister. When yet another coalition government was being put in place in that turbulent decade, West Bengal chief minister, the doyen of Indian Communist movement and the original bhadralok, Jyoti Basu, had an offer to lead that government, but it was not to be. His party CPM pulled the plug, prompting the veteran to comment wryly on the ‘historic blunder’ of not accepting the challenge and perhaps, tilting the course of modern Indian history a wee bit.

Roughly a decade later, the organised Left in India – CPM, CPI, RSP and other affiliates – reached the apogee of their power when they elected a block of 59 MPs in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, enough to become a power broker in New Delhi and dictate policy, which they did.

What has changed so dramatically that by 2014, the Left is all but over, bar the shouting?

The facts of the recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections are lamentable. Out of the 98 Lok Sabha seats the Left parties contested, CPM won only nine, securing a meagre 3.2 per cent of the national vote share – lowest since the party was formed in 1964. With one single seat won by CPI and two more by Left-backed independents in Kerala, the total strength of the Left contingent in Parliament is 12 — which is the lowest since the first general election of Independent India in 1951-52.

The Left Front won both the Lok Sabha seats in Tripura, eight out of 20 in Kerala and two in its long-held pocket borough West Bengal. Their decimation in a state that they ran for 34 years in continuum was a body blow. In Bengal, the Left Front vote share has been declining steadily — 43.3 per cent in 2009, 39.68 per cent in 2011 and 29.5 per cent in 2014.

The Left Front’s big brother CPM, which could once shake the foundations of the Delhi sultanate, has fallen on bad days; 33.1 per cent vote share in 2009, 30.08 per cent in 2011 and 22.7 per cent in 2014. So, is the Left in India, like so many places in the world, in its death throes?

CPM general secretary Prakash Karat admitted that unequivocally. In Kolkata to review the poll debacle, Karat said, “The political setup of the country has undergone a sea change post this election. Unfortunately, a political force backed by the RSS and large capital has come to power. It’s true that CPM, in particular, and the Left parties as a whole suffered a major jolt in the polls. Our vote share has come down significantly across the country, except in Tripura. Even West Bengal has become a fertile land for the communal forces. It’s a great cause for concern and a great challenge for us. We will have to fight it politically.”

Party chieftains are wont to discuss it as ‘a temporary setback’, but even insiders concede that the malaise runs deeper. Even while Communism was in decline the world over, particularly in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, the Indian reds managed to hold their own in a few pockets — West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Bengal, the largest of the three states, elected and re-elected the Communists — a popular pun against Bengal’s urbanised Communist rulers in the heydays was: “Dial CPM for Communism’s polished murder.”

For one, the Left base has shrunken. Only a handful, like former Left Front cabinet minister in West Bengal Abdur Rezzak Mollah, now an outcast rebel, saw the writing on the wall. His cries for taking along the have-nots, women, dalits, tribals and minorities was met with rank indifference in a party that had got used to taking power for granted.

The impact of globalisation on the Left’s decline has been equally devastating. Since the 1990s, the party fell in line with the World Bank model and began to welcome private and foreign capital. When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took up the reins in Bengal from his one-time mentor and predecessor Jyoti Basu, the effort to woo private capital became more aggressive. Ironically, this apparent aggression to lure private capital coincided sometimes with violent resistance by the Left-controlled trade unions. This half-way house sent a confusing signal. The Left had moved away gradually from its core strength — proletariat, working class and the peasants — yet they were not close enough to big capital.

Indian Leftists have paid a heavy price for this double standards. The bloodbath of farmers and peasants at Singur and Nandigram over land acquisition for industry turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of the Left government in West Bengal. Since its historic rout at the hands of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in 2011, the Left has been on a steady decline.

The Left Front government’s fall in West Bengal in 2011 was in many ways the death knell for Left politics in India. Kerala with 20 MPs and Tripura with two were mainly sideshows. Bengal with 42 Lok Sabha seats always dominated and now those are gone. In sheer scope and drama, it was a moment reminiscent of the fall of Communism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Political events in India have revealed how the Indian Communist factions have been unable to adjust to the emerging realities of the subcontinent. Their propensity to hold on to the past and be its prisoner has been seen as a clear indication of escapism, while Communism elsewhere, from China to Nepal, has changed unrecognisably.

A former national-level CPM student leader believes the party’s decline in West Bengal began with the untimely death of former politburo member Anil Biswas. Calm and composed, Biswas was an astute politician and organisation man, striking the much-needed balance between the party and the government. The fissures within CPM and the Left Front came out in the open following his death and an ageing Jyoti Basu was in no position to pull his weight.

Political observers believe it was a bright move on the part of the party leadership to replace Basu with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Bhattacharjee’s ‘bhadralok’ image and his hobnobbing with the intelligentsia helped the party get over the ‘brand fatigue’ and assisted the Marxists win another round at the hustings. But that turned out to be its swan song.

In his quest to win over new friends and influence people, Buddhadeb antagonised the Left’s traditional support base. While his intentions may have been good, he certainly overlooked the fact that the hardliners were still strong and were calling the shots in the party. There was none to coordinate and strike a balance between the party and the government.

When as the head of the state administration, Bhattacharjee gave a call and announced moves to ban strikes and bandhs, he faced stiff resistance and criticism from the party. He had to apologise publicly.

The same thing happened when ‘Operation Sunshine’, a move to free Kolkata pavements of hawkers, was announced. Precisely at the same moment, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee stood beside the hawkers, drivers, daily wage earners, working class and eventually farmers and projected herself as the true messiah of this group. In the process, the lowliest tiers of the Left parties switched camps and moved towards Mamata. With little by way of ideological support and cadres shifting allegiance, it became the prelude to an election rout.

The rout was so extensive and the decline so deep that CPM, earlier known for its proverbial well-oiled poll machinery, failed to assign polling agents in a majority of booths across the state in the recent Lok Sabha elections. The party has been unable to cash in on Mamata Banerjee’s failures: sharp rise in crime, corruption, state repression of civil liberties and financial scandals like the Saradha ponzi scheme .

Points out Piyali Bhattacharya, a sociologist, “Interestingly, every time the present rulers make a mistake or get entangled in a fresh controversy, it invariably reminds an urban middle-class voter of a bigger mistake by the previous Left Front government. The possibility of bouncing back, riding on the present government’s wrongdoings, therefore seems minimum, at least at this point of time.”

The road travelled has been a long one for the Indian Left. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in 1920. Even then, a generation of highly sophisticated Indians, completely upper crust in values, taste and style, had hobnobbed with the best of international revolutionaries. The likes of MN Roy had met and interacted with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, much influenced as he and other Indians were by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Even before the Communists had formally set up shop in India, the Ghadar Party proclaimed through its campaign against the British Raj that “the time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.”

Historians like Rajni Palme Dutta had blazed a socio-economic critique of India, which was read at the highest level of global academia and a slightly later generation of Indian Communists like Jyoti Basu had the privilege of attending lectures of socialist icons like Harold Laski in England.

But such has been the Left rout this time that nearly 50 years after they split, there are discreet voices in favour of a re-merger of CPM and CPI to regain some ground. Publicly, the leadership of both parties play down such possibilities, but who knows tomorrow? CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta said the two parties should review their poll performances separately (and then as a front) and chart out corrective measures and a course of action separately, maintaining Left unity.

In this melee and decline, if any state looks better in comparison to West Bengal, it is Kerala. The Lok Sabha results there are being projected as an improvement, simply because the CPM-led LDF could increase its tally from four to eight. What is less recognised is that it is the only major state where the Congress and its allies have won a majority of seats, 12 out of 20.

Tripura remains CPM’s showpiece. The party won two seats with huge margins over a weak and fragmented opposition, securing over 64 per cent of the votes. However, the credit for this victory primarily goes to Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar and his colleagues, who have delivered substantively on pro-people governance and have also been able to largely insulate the party from the negative trends visible within CPM elsewhere.

There are many who believe had the Communists stayed with the UPA during its first stint and taken up cabinet positions, it would not only have strengthened the coalition but would have immensely helped those states from which their MPs had been elected. However, the Left parties have not been able to think or shoot straight when it comes to employing political tactics that are critical to keep them relevant in today’s context.

Experts say rather than offering lame-duck excuses, the CPM leadership should introspect on this cataclysmic decline in their fortunes – with a corresponding look at the significant spike in BJP’s vote share in West Bengal from 4 per cent in 2011 to nearly 17 per cent in 2014. It is clear that a large section of Left supporters have deserted in favour of BJP. TMC has held on to its vote share while BJP has gained considerable ground. In fact, the Left’s decline is a major contributor to the rise of the Right in India. Equally, it is true that the Left in India has always punched far above its weight and now the chickens are coming to roost.

Can the Left stage a comeback? Says Karat: “I think different class and mass organisations should prepare and build independent movements. No doubt, it’s a tough situation. We will have to take people along to face the situation. We will have to build movements around their problems.”

Politburo member and CPM’s West Bengal secretary Biman Bose, also chairman of the Left Front, lays equal stress on building mass movements and strengthening party wings. “The backdrop against which this election was fought was completely different. We had never experienced such a situation in the past. We will have to pay utmost attention to overcoming our weaknesses in electoral battle and revitalising organisational functioning. We will also have to take up a continuous campaign against the communal forces. We need to improve operational efficiency and effectiveness of our mass organisations by all means,” Bose said.

Incredibly, despite the poll rout, there are no signs of an immediate change in leadership, as demanded by a large section within the party in West Bengal. Except for politburo member and former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who volunteered to stay out of the party’s central leadership in the wake of the electoral reverses, none else is willing to introspect. Left mandarins would rather prefer longer debates and analysis.

Sadly for the Left, they are not willing to concede that there is something seriously wrong with their tools. Mohammed Salim, CPM central committee member and one of the few party MPs left, reiterated that the basic tools in the hands of the Left would remain the same. It will have to reconnect with the people and make them understand the utilities of these tools and the Left movement, as a whole. Easier said than done.

In West Bengal, it is not just the younger generation but also a large section of the committed Left intelligentsia that has switched camps. Trinamool Congress has eaten heavily into the Left intellectual base. The faces that once rallied behind the Left parties in Bengal are today Mamata’s showstoppers — all without batting an eyelid. Now even the BJP is in the race.

There are other reasons for this institutional decline. Well-known economist Suman Mukherjee offers an explanation. “Trade unions were instigated to agitate for higher wages and over time allowances. They never demanded safety and protection from occupational hazards as is expected in modern labour movements. Nor did they demand training, redeployment or modernisation. Profits were treated as synonyms for exploitation and meant to be redistributed among workers.”

Add to it, the classic Communist bugbear — hypocrisy. “Many Left leaders led lifestyles of the affluent and mouthed their belief in Communism. There was a gap between what they preached and what they practised. They did not live the lifestyles of their followers. Therefore, the schism between the leaders and followers increased. And this was exposed in the Communist movement of India,’’ Bannerjee said. (Read his column in this edition)

Down in the dumps, the party lacks charismatic leaders like Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya or Somnath Chatterjee. Neither does it have young crowd pullers and mass leaders who can connect with the people, particularly the younger lot. The party has failed to promote younger leaders, the only exception being the move to send young, articulate former SFI leader Ritobroto Banerjee to the Upper House at Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s instance.

The future is downright uncertain. For the time being though, the Leftists in India can only find solace in what Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and founder of existentialist thought and absurdist traditions, said: “Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of the majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion... while truth again reverts to a new minority. Amen.”


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