Within seven years of the rout in West Bengal after a continuous reign of 34 years, the CPI(M) has suffered a similar fate in Tripura, which it had held for an unbroken 25 years. The country’s largest Left party is now left with a stake in power only in Kerala, where a front headed by it has been taking turns with a Congress-led combine to form the government since 1980. The CPI(M)’s fall considerably shrinks the space of the Left in the Indian polity. In terms of known popular base, the CPI is not even one-fourth its size. In the last Lok Sabha election, the CPI(M) fielded 93 candidates—nine won, 50 forfeited their deposits, and the party garnered a 3.28 per cent voteshare. The CPI put up 67 candidates—one won, 57 lost their deposits, and the party got a paltry voteshare of 0.79 per cent.
The Left’s decline comes as the BJP-led right-wing forces are rising across the country, while the Congress and other centrist parties are losing ground. This raises questions about the future of plurality in the Indian polity, and also about how Left is what is left of the Indian Left. The Left’s founding fathers were mainly from the class of landlords and social elites, which naturally led to some contradictions. It is said the membership card then party secretary P. Krishna Pillai issued to E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a future ideologue, general secretary and Kerala CM, mentioned that he belonged to the bourgeoisie. When Bihar’s then Congress government moved the Zamindari Abolition Bill, for limited land reforms, Communist legislators, mostly big landlords, opposed it saying it did not go far enough. And the Bengal leadership came from the hallowed Bhadralok ranks.
In 1952, as the largest Opposition party in the first Lok Sabha, the undivided CPI seemed to be the potential alternative to the Congress, which rode to power at the Centre and in the states on the wave of triumphant nationalism. Its seizure of power through the ballot box in Kerala in 1957 reimbursed that impression. The party retained its primacy on the Opposition benches of Parliament in 1962 too, but lost it after the split in 1964—a result of the schism in the international Communist movement, as well as differences on the attitude towards the Congress government. The impact was felt immediately. While the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, increased its voteshare from 6.44 per cent in 1962 to 9.31 per cent in 1967, the Communist votes, which stood at 9.94 per cent in 1962 registered a marginal drop: CPI 5.11 per cent, CPI(M) 4.28 per cent (Total 9.39 per cent).
Later, the CPI(M) emerged as the main Left party, outstripping the parent organisation in the Left strongholds of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. As fronts under its leadership gained power in Bengal in 1977 and Tripura in 1993, retaining it in election after election, while alternating in power with the Congress-led outfit in Kerala, it commanded attention nationally as a player in the power game, although its popular base shrank geographically. In the 1950s, it had been able to grab a few seats from the big industrial cities. When the influence of trade unions declined, its urban pockets vanished.
When the Emergency generated a backlash and an alternative to the Congress became an urgent necessity in 1977, it was an amalgam of non-Congress, non-Communist parties, which Jayaprakash Narayan helped create, that occupied the spot. That entity did not last long. In 1989, with the elections throwing up a hung Lok Sabha, the question of an alternative came to the fore again. A centrist combination led by V.P. Singh seemed the best bet, and the BJP and the CPI(M), forgetting their differences over secularism, jointly sustained his government by supporting it from outside. BJP president L.K. Advani and CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet met informally with V.P. Singh every week to ensure coordination. Advani’s Rath Yatra on the Ayodhya issue and V.P. Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal report, which had been gathering dust in the PMO for more than a decade, brought the Left-Right tango behind the scenes to an end.
The issue of an alternative government came up again in 1996, when Atal Behari Vajapayee had to bow out barely a fortnight after being sworn in as PM as he could not muster majority support in the Lok Sabha. The quest now was for a non-Congress, non-BJP government. Since the BJP had 161 seats and the Congress 140, the support of one of them was necessary for the government to survive. Surjeet was the prime mover behind the consensus-making effort. What equipped him for the task was not his party’s strength—it had 32 Lok Sabha members, 23 of them from West Bengal—but the Left’s image as a progressive force. He found that the leader most acceptable to the motley gathering of parties was his own colleague, Jyoti Basu, who had been the Bengal CM for nearly two decades.
Basu’s Left Front government had put through land reforms, which successive Congress governments had failed to do, and devoted special attention to rural development. The militant trade union activity, which had helped the CPI(M) establish itself as a revolutionary party in the eyes of the working class, had caused long-established industries to flee the state. He offered incentives to attract domestic industrialists, but that did not meet much success. His clean image was what appealed most to the small national and regional parties looking for a PM under whom they can unite.
The consensus in Basu’s favour posed a dilemma for the CPI(M). The party invariably had a dominant position in the coalitions it formed in the states, but its strength in Parliament did not permit such a luxury at the Centre. The politburo decided that the party should not participate in a government in which it did not have a lead role. The opportunity of a CPI(M) prime minister was lost. Years later, Basu described the party’s decision as a Himalayan blunder. It is, of course, possible to find material in Marxist literature to justify that decision. But, then, how much in accordance with the principles of Marxism has Communist practice been in India (or, for that matter, anywhere else)? The overnight reassessment of the “imperial war” between Britain and Germany as “people’s war” after the Soviet Union’s entry and the participation of the CPI in recruitment to the army and other war efforts had certainly not been based on Marx’s teachings.
The Marxist belief that Communists can come to power only through a violent revolution had been disproved when the Centre allowed the CPI to form the Kerala government in 1957. That government’s dismissal two years later could have been interpreted as belated proof, but neither did the CPI take that position, nor the CPI(M), when it came into being. Had they taken such a position, they would have been obliged to abandon the parliamentary path and return to the disastrous Calcutta thesis.
In Bengal and Tripura, the CPI(M) entered into alliances only with other Left parties. But in Kerala, as early as 1967, Namboodiripad, arguably the smartest Indian exponent of Marxism in his time, opened the way for tie-ups with even those who, enraged by the land and educational reform measures, had engineered the mass agitation leading to his first government’s dismissal. The new party line set the stage for dilution of land reform and abandonment of educational reform. A watered-down land reform law, acceptable to all, was eventually enacted by another coalition government. No government dared to implement the educational reform measure, even though the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutionally valid. The new line also led to the party aligning itself with powerful regressive elements for short-term electoral gains and working against the interests of the state’s small, dispossessed adivasi population. Half a century later, the state party still pursues that line.
The Bengal debacle was a direct consequence of the attempt by Jyoti Basu’s successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, to push neoliberalism down the throats of the people. The violence at Nandigram and Singur alienated not only the masses, but also the intelligentsia. There were no comparable incidents in Tripura, but the electoral verdict points to the possibility that there was discontent, which the party failed to notice.
In Kerala, which has seen a steady erosion in the CPI(M)’s traditional support base among adivasis, Dalits and backward classes, the party has been adopting tactics designed to cover the losses by attracting other sections. Success in this effort will, in all probability, entail further loss of the party’s Left character.
In a book published posthumously in 2015, journalist Praful Bidwai took a critical view of the history of the Indian Left to find out why left-wing politics has not flourished to the extent that might be expected in a society “with a million injustices and growing inequalities, recently worsened by Hindutva and neoliberal capitalism”. Noting that Left politics has shrunk in range and variety, he argued that the Left was facing its phoenix moment and the ability of its national leadership to overcome the grave crisis it confronted was on test. Sadly, there is no sign of a young phoenix rising from the ashes.
(The writer is a political commentator)