The Indian Left, if it is to regain relevance, must engage in brutally critical introspection over its flaws and weaknesses, radically rethink its strategies and tactics, and return to mass struggles

Praful Bidwai Delhi 

Among the greatest losers from the tectonic political shift wrought by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lok Sabha victory are the parties that comprise the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and including the Communist Party of India (CPI), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and All-India Forward Bloc. Their combined Lok Sabha tally has plummetted from 61 in 2004 to 24 in 2009 to its lowest-ever total: 12 seats. Their national vote-share has shrunk to five per cent from the traditional seven-to-10 per cent. 

This setback comes on top of long-term erosion in the Left’s social base and political influence, its ideological ossification, its failure to evolve programmatic perspectives and political-mobilization strategies appropriate to Indian conditions, its outmoded “vanguardist” notions of leadership, and its less-than-democratic organizational practices.

The Indian Left, one of the few powerful currents in the world belonging to the Communist International tradition, with more than 1.6 million members, now faces a grim existential crisis. It has been in relentless decline since the West Bengal panchayat elections of 2008, followed by its disastrous performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala and West Bengal. In 2011, it faced a rout in the West Bengal Assembly elections, and narrowly lost the Kerala Assembly. It has since fared poorly in local-body elections in West Bengal, too.

It is only in the tiny North-eastern state of Tripura that the Left has maintained its presence as the ruling coalition since 1978 (barring 1983-88). It won both its Lok Sabha seats in the latest election, with a huge 64 per cent of the vote.

Particularly grave is the crisis confronting the CPI(M), the Front’s undisputed leader and the world’s second largest Communist party in membership after the Chinese party. The CPI(M)’s Lok Sabha tally has fallen from 16 in 2009 to nine (11 if the two Left-backed independents who won from Kerala are included).

The CPI(M) won only two of 42 Lok Sabha seats in its former bastion, West Bengal: a province more populous than any Western European country, which it ruled for an uninterrupted 34 years—a record unparalleled in any democracy. The party’s latest West Bengal tally is the same as that of the BJP, and even lower than the CPI(M)’s score of five seats in 1967, the very first election after its 1964 split from the much larger CPI.

The CPI could only win one seat in the latest election, from Kerala. This compares poorly with its four-seat tally in 2009, including two from West Bengal, and one each from Tamil Nadu and Odisha. The Forward Bloc drew a blank and the RSP won one seat, from Kerala—where it walked out of the Left Democratic Front in March on being denied a nomination to a constituency long regarded as its stronghold. The RSP joined Kerala’s currently ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front.

In West Bengal, the Left’s vote has plummetted to 29.6 per cent from 43.3 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, and 41.1 per cent in the 2011 Assembly election—its poorest showing since 1977. If elections are held to the 294-strong State Assembly now, and votes are cast in the same way as they were for the Lok Sabha, the Left’s strength would fall from 62 seats to just 29, and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress would win a crushing 217 seats compared to the 185 it holds now.

Of Kerala’s total of 20 Lok Sabha seats, the LDF won only eight against the UDF’s 12, thus breaking a long-established pattern in which the two fronts alternated power. The CPI is a shrinking force in Kerala, and the CPI(M) is riven with factional strife between its state secretary Pinarayee Vijayan, a conservative, and former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, the party’s most popular leader. Some of its leaders also stand charged with plotting the 2012 assassination of dissenting leader TP Chandrasekharan, who formed a
rival party.

The Left’s latest electoral debacle is both huge and undeniable. Yet, no major Left leader has resigned in acknowledgment of it. West Bengal Left Front chairman Biman Bose scornfully dismissed the suggestion, citing the Left’s adherence to “collective responsibility”, unlike “individual responsibility” in the “bourgeois” parties.

The current trajectory of the Left parties has major implications for the health of Indian democracy. They are among the few currents in mainstream politics—and arguably, the most important one—which bases itself on an analysis of the relations of exploitation and oppression that underlie India’s iniquitous social system, and professes a serious commitment to the uplift and empowerment of the poor, exploited and underprivileged classes, based on a project of radical social transformation, with the avowed goal of establishing a socialist society.

The Left parties have made a significant, often vibrant and even unique, contribution to Indian society, politics, intellectual life and culture for more than three-quarters of a century. The contribution is disproportionate to their size or legislative strength. They are among the few parties in India that are not mired in corruption and venal, cynical politics. They strongly oppose neo-liberal economic policies and remain committed to secular and pluralist values, peace, demilitarization and humane notions of social development. Although the Left failed to relate adequately to India-specific issues like caste and gender discrimination, its overall social-political contribution has been emphatically positive.

Logically, in a society such as India’s, marked by persistent poverty, multiple forms of deprivation, lack of social opportunity, and massive yet spiralling inequalities, the Left ought to occupy an important space that corresponds to the “natural” political centre of gravity. This should be especially so when India is witnessing an eruption of mass movements of resistance to predatory industrial, mining and dam projects, which plunder natural resources and threaten livelihoods.  

The Left has shrunk precisely because it does not fully participate in or relate to such movements, and concentrates instead on “politics from above”, by giving priority to electoral politics without connecting it to grassroots struggles. It demonstrates a growing lack of imaginative programmes based on people’s rights and aspirations, which empower plebeian strata and deepen democracy.

In the past, thanks to its work among peasants, landless labourers and factory workers, the Left used to command a wide geographical spread encompassing Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and numerous industrial centres in the West and the South. But it has become increasingly “regionalized” in a handful of states, where the pursuit of power became its primary goal, often causing it to compromise on principles, eroding its core social base.

This became particularly evident in West Bengal, where the Left Front government initially pursued progressive programmes like land reforms and panchayati raj, but later adopted conservative economic policies, severely neglected social agendas like healthcare, education, food security and employment, and became obsessed with corporate-driven industrialization, as evidenced by the Tata Motors’ project at Singur and a chemical complex in Nandigram. This drew it into a bloody confrontation with its own supporters and eventually paved its exit from power.

The Left parties’ programmes, derived from political-strategic conceptions of the 1930s, have not been updated for years. The CPI(M) follows the organizational principle of “democratic centralism”, which discourages free and frank debate, and hence, course correction.  

The Indian Left stands at a crossroads. If it is to reinvent itself and regain its relevance, it must engage in brutally critical introspection over its flaws and weaknesses, radically rethink its strategies and tactics, and return to mass struggles. If the Left chooses soft options and persists with status quo practices, it will suffer erosion at an accelerating pace, drift into irrelevance and fade into history—like most Communist parties the world over.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014