The decline and fall of the Left

The decline and fall of the Left

Five decades ago, in the general election held in 1962, the Communist Party of India (CPI) emerged as the second largest party (29 seats) in the Lok Sabha.

Not for the first time. In first two general elections too, the Communists were the largest after the Congress. In those days of absolute dominance of the Congress in Indian polity, the gap in the tally between the Congress and the Communists was huge. But the Left was far ahead of the others like Jan Sangh or the Socialists.

The political observers saw in Left a huge potential, for it was a pan-India force, winning seats from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar and Bengal.

Now when BJP, the later avatar of Jan Sangh, has secured an absolute majority for itself in the Lok Sabha, the Left tally stands at 10. Out of this odd figure, 6 came from Kerala, 2 from Tripura and 2 from West Bengal, the state that the Left has ruled continuously from 1977 to 2011.

How the Left lost its way?

The Left got diminished in two phases. The first happened during and after its first split in 1964. The years that followed saw it gradually being wiped out from all states except Bengal , Kerala and the tiny Tripura. The single largest factor for the decline in those days was the failure of the leadership. Just after the split, the two factions that later became two parties—CPI and CPI(M)—fought in a way as though they were long-term enemies.

Along with it, the decline was also caused by the infantile vacillations on the ‘line’ of the party (the pendulum swayed from following ‘revolutionary anarchist’ BT Randive to switching over to ‘sort-of-social-democrat’ PC Joshi), the failure to understand caste-based reality of India, and consequential refusal to accept Ram Manohar Lohia and the Lohiaites of the ‘60s as natural ally. During the Emergency days, the CPI supported Indira Gandhi and that was the end of it. With that all states except Bengal, Kerala and Tripura were lost.

And even after all this, the CPI(M) emerged as the main challenger to the Congress in those three states. And in 2004, it led the Left Front to scale the highest peak of success at the national level with 60 seats.

And then, the party saw an all-out infighting that encompassed it from top to bottom. The genesis of the fight was in its proximity to the Manmohan Singh government. While party general secretary Prakash Karat made relentless efforts to have its independent socialistic and anti-US stand intact, Sitaram Yechuri and the Bengal party opted for surrendering to Congress wishes. The Kerala party was eager to end the tie-up with the Congress, as it had to fight the Congress in the state.

So, Kerala and most of the state parties rallied behind Karat. The Bengal party led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, on the other hand, tried to throttle Karat’s effort for its survival in Bengal.

Bhattacharya knew, after opening fire on the peasants of Nandigram, the only hope of survival in Bengal lay in ending the tie-up between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. And the majority of the partymen in Bengal till date have not been able to pardon Karat for allowing Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee to join hands.

Significantly, the fight within is not even remotely ideological. Karat staved off the threat of Yechuri-Bengal combination by joining hands with Kerala state secretary Pinnarayi Vijayan. While Karat is a hardliner (anti-Congress and firm believer in socialism), Vijayan is a sort of neo-liberal. Vijayan had cornered hardliner but popular V S Achuthanandan.

Lack of direction

It all could have been different, if the last stalwarts of the party— ‘centrists’ EMS Namboodiripad, Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet—could give the party a definite direction in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Indian polity made a major drift from the past.

As for the national scenario, though for long years the Left was enjoying a larger-than-life image and influence, the leaders failed miserably to gauge their importance in the coalition era. The pragmatist Jyoti Basu himself rejected the leadership of the ‘Third Front’ some months before 1996 elections when VP Singh proposed it informally. Few months down the line, when the party rejected the offer of Premiership, the same Basu dubbed it as ‘historical blunder’.

Again, these centrists in the party took decades to realise that its governments would not be disturbed any more like in the ‘50s or ‘60s, and failed to form a workable strategy to rule those states (like Kerala and Bengal) where people were voting for them repeatedly. They failed on the development plank too and in deciding on a more or less agreeable economic agenda for the party.

Karat and Yechuri picked up from the confusion the elders had left them with, and drifted away in the opposite directions. Unfortunately for them, they did it at a time when the profile of the communists were changing rapidly at every level.

People in general had respect for the communists for their selfless work and Gandhian-like lifestyle. That was why their mistakes were forgiven. Many of the present day leaders and workers, party insiders say, are just like those of any other party: after money, power and privileges. They often survive on the strength of their organisation.

The communist parties’ have undergone a change, their old support base is disenchanted, their new urban and rural elitist supporters have found in the Narendra Modi-led BJP a better alternative. In Bengal, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections have thrown up an interesting feature: A rapid erosion in Left votes almost matched by magical rise in BJP votes.

This was expected as a consequence of the effort by the leaders to ‘de-dogmatise’ the support base. In Bengal, the Left has walked into a shadow. Will the party survive in Kerala?

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