A Bridge Too Far

tsi_05april2016_46It won’t be an exaggeration at all to say that one historical mistake by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has put the future of the entire Left alliance in jeopardy. The 2004 Lok Sabha elections can be termed as the golden era for the Left parties in India when they went on to win as many as 69 seats from across the country and helped UPA form the government at the Centre. However, for the next four years, the Left tried, at times unreasonably, to control the government and put hindrances in its path. Then, after an agonizing four years, it decided to withdraw its support for good. Political pundits believe that it was because of this historic blunder that the Left was later reduced to an ineffective opposition in Bengal and lost the power in Kerala as well. It is in Tripura, a political non-entity, that it has held on to power. Consequently, it is the upcoming elections in Bengal that will decide the fate of the Left Parties in India. Not only that, this will pretty much also seal its fate for the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

The impact of the Left in India has been pretty limited at the best. Although in its hey days, it had formed governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, it was pretty much absent from the other states, apart from winning a couple of seats here and there. That is not to say that it has no presence. Its cadres are present everywhere in the country. It does have influence among both industrial and agriculture labourers, along with small farmers, but it has singularly failed to convert that influence into popular vote.

The 2004 incident was not the only historic blunder that the Left committed. In fact, ironically, it also committed a historic blunder in 1996 that proved to be detrimental for the party. In 1996, CPM was offered the premiership of the country. Comrade Jyoti Basu was ready to take the plunge. However, the party split down the middle on the decision and lost the chance. The later General Secretary, Prakash Karat, admitted as much and in fact termed it a historic blunder. This, combined with its actions in the first UPA government, has reduced the entire Left to a total of 10 seats in the Parliament.

tsi_05april2016_47The 1996 elections was a major defeat for the Congress Party. But BJP could not muster enough numbers to form the government. The Third Front thus came into existence. The Front’s leader V. P. Singh invited CPM to appoint Jyoti Basu as the next Prime Minister. The then General Secretary of the party, Harkishan Singh Surjit, called the meeting of the Party’s Central Committee and put the proposal. Among those who opposed the move was Prakash Karat, who was of the opinion that CPM will only form the government when it will have a majority of its own. He added in good measure that CPM’s economic policies were in stark contrast with other alliance partners and if it failed to implement its economic policies even after forming the government, it will have to live with that infamy forever.

The Left’s moves in the 2004 UPA government were seen as hindrances towards the implementation of the neo-liberal economic policies. The Left opposed the disinvestment drive and even Foreign Direct Investment. These actions were seen as being detrimental to India’s economic growth. Congress played on for a while but started to rein in the Left in 2008 during the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal. The Left coalition withdrew its support. The next election saw a massive decline in its fortunes, a decline that continued further in the subsequent elections.

There are other issues as well. The Left has remained dogmatic about its ideas and has not evolved with changing times. Mamata, on the other hand, has shown remarkable malleability in her ideological positions and has changed accordingly (read our other Special Story on the West Bengal elections). The situation has hardly changed in the present elections. It is expected that Mamata Banerjee will form the government again.

There are several reasons behind the Left’s shrinking base. Its continued unrelenting stance of opposing liberalization and an open economy is redundant in the globalised world. However, its biggest problem is the caste-based vote bank in the country. While caste and religion play a large role in political mobilization in India, the Left’s insistence of ignoring caste as an issue has started to cost it dearly. It is pretty much evident in polarized states such as Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab where the party has been reduced to a measly few seats. The caste-recognising political parties in these states have undermined the Left’s strength slowly.

Talking to TSI, CPM leader Mohammad Salim said, “The Left parties need to join forces with Congress and other secular parties to defeat Modi in 2019. It is true that Left does not possess the strength to form the government at the Centre. But Congress does. Congress therefore needs to join hands with parties with similar ideologies and mindset. And it needs to start sooner than later. We have performed badly in the last two elections, but I am sure the secular minded electorate of this nation will vote for us again in order to defeat the communal forces.”

But there too, the Left has pretty much nothing to show. Its rule in Bengal did bring land distribution, but there was nothing else after that. In Kerala, it performed better, but that too is an old story. Unless it leaves it dogmatic idea and rebrands itself for the next election, there is not much hope that the party or the coalition has.