What does the Left Front’s recent defeat spell for the wider political process in India?
The February defeat of a communist coalition after 25 years in power in Tripura, a tiny state in northeastern India, is widely seen as the demise of left-wing politics in the country. The coalition, also known as the Left Front or Left Alliance, comprises the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation) (CPI(ML)(L)), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). However, a setback in a smaller state in a close contest cannot decide the fate of the coalition that still holds 42.7% of the vote share in Tripura, only 0.3% below to the winning Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 43%. Besides West Bengal and Kerala, Tripura is one of three states where the Left Front, under the CPI(M), has ruled for over 30 years.
Losing Tripura to the BJP, a party that saw a 41.1% growth of the vote share and has gained 35 seats compared to its 2013 performance, has certainly created an existential crisis for leftist ideology. Communists were also wiped out from West Bengal in 2011 by a regional party, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). However, West Bengal is bigger in terms of electorate size, and ideologically there was not much difference between the two sides. The left in India subscribes to social and economic equality for all people and supports a secular state. The BJP, on the other hand, espouses a capitalist approach of profit maximization and tries to impose the supremacy of a particular faith in government affairs. The fall of left-coalition governments across India would ultimately weaken the voices of social equality and secularism.
During the early days of democracy after India’s independence in 1947, CPI was the main opposition to the unchallenged single-party rule by the Indian National Congress (INC), which formed consecutive governments between 1951 and 1971. During this time, the right and left were chiefly divided between the INC and CPI. But the mushrooming of regional parties during the 1970s changed the bipolar equations of the two camps. Congress was defeated for the first time by the amalgam of political parties with different ideologies under the umbrella of the Janata Party, which found common ground against the imposition of emergency rule. The Janata government did not last as the alternative to Congress and was dissolved due to internal divisions within three years. After the fall of Janata, the BJP emerged as the INC’s main opponent at the national level by outpacing the CPI.
Left-wing parties enjoyed a golden age during the 1990s and early 2000s when they held governments in three states and their parliamentary strength was around 55 to 60 seats. Communist parties held kingmaker roles for the Third Front governments during 1996-98, when the Left Front joined the 13-party coalition, and for the government of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) between 2004 and 2008.
The left’s political downfall started during the 2009 general election, when the AITC booted out the Left Front in 18 parliamentary constituencies, storming communist strongholds in nine seats where the left was undefeated in the past 10 elections. The demise of the government in the West Bengal state election in 2011 was another major setback. During the 2014 parliamentary election, the Left Alliance scored a historic low, winning only 11 seats and restricted to only three states, having previously had a presence in 10 states during the 1971 election and winning 59 seats in 2004. The Left Front’s ranking among political parties has slipped to eighth in terms of the number of seats won. However, the regaining of Kerala in the 2016 state election against the INC was an achievement amidst other failures.
Numerous historical blunders can account for this decline, such as CPI(M)’s Jyoti Basu’s refusal to become prime minister in the Third Front government in 1996, withdrawing support from UPA on the Indo-US nuclear deal and the land acquisition dispute in Singur. However, the most significant setback for the communists was the failure to deliver development, social equality and better infrastructure in the states where they held long-term power, followed by their inability to prepare the next generation of leaders.
After the end of single-party dominance in 1989, an era of political alliances emerged to consolidate the scattered votes of different castes, groups and ideologies to counter joint rivals. Alliances were forged among ideological rivals to push the common enemy out of office, like the BJP-PDP coalition in Kashmir, where the parties with different views on the issue of Kashmir united to keep out the National Conference (NC) and Congress government. The left failed to form a coalition with other like-minded groups, resulting in the loss of 19 CPI(M) seats to the BJP due to the trivial difference of some 6,500 (0.3%) votes in Tripura.
The Indian left needs to be flexible in ideas to achieve bigger goals, instead of sticking to its old-fashioned politics and waiting for a revolution along the lines of 1917 to sweep the land. They can learn from China and Russia, the historical flag bearers of communism, both of which have transitioned to free-market economies.
Along with their own blunders, the communists were held back by the failure to compete with other parties by bringing in proper funding for their cause. If CPI(M) won the Tripura election under the leadership of “probably the poorest of all the chief ministers in the country,” Manik Sarkar (who is homeless), against the wealthiest BJP candidate, it would come as a huge surprise. Speaking on the reasons of the Tripura debacle, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury blamed the role of money in politics: “This has happened because the BJP has unscrupulously utilized huge amounts of money power and muscle power and managed to successfully bring together all anti-Left elements and parties including, the erstwhile opposition parties together into one anti-Left platform. BJP brought together all kinds of forces using money power without attaching any morality to it.”
Whatever the reasons, the demise of the socialist approach is an ominous sign for the pluralist society and a cause of concern for the Left Front and for the people who believe in inclusive democracy. In spite of the electoral fallout, the left is known for its support of the downtrodden and economically deprived sections of society and is perhaps the only bloc confronting plutocracy. INC leader and former union minister Jairam Ramesh has referred the demise of the left as a disaster for the country, saying that “The Left has to be stronger in India. We are going to fight the Left and we are political rivals but, I would say that India cannot afford the demise of the Left.”
Petering out of the communist parties from two stronghold states and their trivial number in parliament definitively reflects that voters have discarded leftist politics. But the fate of a political party cannot be evaluated through its performance in one or two elections. The Left Front still holds a considerable size of the electorate, forms a ruling coalition in Kerala, and is in opposition in West Bengal and Tripura. Two of its affiliates, the CPI and CPI(M), have national party status.
Multilateral reforms and grooming the next generation of leaders to fill the vacuum created over the last 10 years would certainly gear up the bloc to better strategize in upcoming elections. Without reaching out to the electorate, revolutionary messages against the widespread injustice and inequality are meaningless, and rhetoric alone can never bring voters to the ballot box.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.