When Manoj Manzil defeated his nearest Janata Dal (U) rival to win the Agiaon seat by 48,550 votes in the 2020 Bihar assembly polls, all he owned was a goat, a mud hut on a small piece of land -- around three dismil (0.01 hectare) -- and zero money in his account.
Manzil, now 39, was one of the 12 Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) candidates who made it to the state assembly that year. The cake and the cherry in the 2020 polls were cornered by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (U) combine, but the elections also marked the resurgence of Left ideology in the caste politics-ridden state.
In the rest of the country, recent assembly election results have once again shown how Left politics in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Punjab and Goa, have failed to cut ice with voters. The Left edifice has also crumbled in its traditional bastions of West Bengal and Tripura. On the saffron-dominated national canvas, apart from pockets dominated by regional parties and the Congress, the only traceable red footprint lies in the southern state of Kerala.
Amid this narrative of the Left’s near evaporation from the national polity, it is critical to examine the CPI-ML hot streak – the party fielded 19 candidates out of which 12 won – in the Bihar polls, just two years back. The party registered the best ‘strike rate’ among all components of the RJD-led mahagathbandhan, which also comprised two other Left parties.
In the Bihar polls, even those CPI-ML candidates who did not win, cornered a sizable number of votes, some losing by tiny margins. Apart from its young lawmakers, party veteran 64-year-old Mahboob Alam, also managed to win by a record margin to earn a fourth stint in the state assembly.
On the surface of it, the party’s candidates appeared to be a rag-tag bunch, much like Aamir Khan’s subaltern cricket team taking on British soldiers in ‘Lagaan’, the 2001 blockbuster film. Many of the CPI-ML’s candidates have made it to mainstream politics through the tough grind of student politics.
36-year-old Ajit Kushwaha claimed he had just Rs. 20,000 in his bank account when he contested elections from the Dumraon assembly seat. That’s less than half the money that his closest rival, Anjum Ara of the Janata Dal (U), has invested in one LIC policy, according to her poll affidavit.
But the young ‘David’ who emerged from the rough and tumble of student agitations, took the money-muscle powered ‘Goliaths’ head-on and managed to win Dumraon. “I had just Rs. 20,000 in my account before contesting the elections. But people also took note of it... This is not the first time that CPI-ML has taken on money and muscle. We have always been active in this struggle,” Kushwaha said.
Left parties in India appear to have largely failed to adapt to the new beast that is electoral politics, which is increasingly being defined by big spending and conjuring bigger spectacles. But the CPI-ML has bucked that trend in the 2020 Bihar polls. While the party may not have won the elections, its performance may well have given a new lease of hope to Left politics in the state and in the rest of India.
According to Kunal, the party’s state secretary, the party made up for the lack of cash, with dollops of cadre.
“No organisation can grow without a strong cadre. In the state-level convention held in Gaya recently, the party has decided to increase membership from the current 1 lakh to 2 lakh. This might appear a small target, but we are not a party that makes members through missed calls. The underlying objective of our party is to serve the people. People’s interests are party interests,” Kunal said. The party, the official also said, has continued to see a steady stream of “new members, activists and full-timers”.
The Indian caste context also has a place in the Left’s class doctrine, Kunal explained, adding that these are times when even Indian freedom struggle legends like Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel have begun to be identified with their caste.
“Our struggle has been against the savarna-feudal or Brahminical sections. During the independence struggle, everyone had come together in the tussle with the British. In contrast, now even Gandhi is dubbed a Teli (caste) and Sardar Patel a Kurmi(caste). Attempts to sharpen religious identities have also been underway, as evident in the recent slogan of 80 (per cent) vs 20. We are fighting against it,” Kunal said.
“The BJP has tried to encash caste aspirations and even been successful in many places. It is not a coincidence that the Prime Minister is dubbed as a leader of the extremely backward castes. The BJP has been actively pursuing Mandal-kamandal politics, while real issues, such as inflation and unemployment, remain unresolved,” he added.
Another key potential learning for Left parties elsewhere could be the manner in which the CPI-ML has managed to carve out an election strategy with its ear to the ground, keeping its classic doctrines of class struggle and land reform on the relative quiet. Voters in Bihar in 2020 had other things on their minds in the midst of the Covid pandemic and the economic slowdown, according to Kushwaha.
“It is not as if we have given up the demand. Our manifesto included the issue as always, but the last assembly elections were slightly different. Issues like education, employment and jobs, which confronted the youth took centre stage. When the opposition took these questions to the people, they were met with a positive response. The media attention was also focused on this agenda. When we raise several slogans in a program, only some become popular among the people,” he said.
Kushwaha also said that the party’s slogan of ‘education-medicine-irrigation-income and action’ also got more traction.
“So, we focused on it. Moreover, the land reform question is a complicated one. It is difficult to go to the people with it just before the election and convince them. However, it is not as if we have compromised on our original issue,” Kushwaha also said.
So, is the success of the CPI-ML in the 2020 Bihar polls, a sign of good things ahead for Left politics in the country or is it just too early to tell?
Additional inputs from Chinki Sinha
Edited by: Mayabhushan Nagvenkar