Can the Left Become Politically Relevant in Modi’s India?

In 2014, when the number of Members of Parliament belonging to the Left shrunk to ten from 24 in 2009, some of us (including this writer) believed the Parliamentary Communists and their allies could not become weaker still. We were wrong. Congress has not gained significantly. But the presence of the Left has further diminished with only six seats in the current Lok Sabha. Why did this happen? And what is the way forward for those who still believe there are alternatives to right-wing populism (that has swept many parts of the world) and majoritarian Hindu nationalism (that has overwhelmed politics in this country in the last five years)?


In introspecting, the Left has to first acknowledge that it lost its pan-Indian character many years ago. The undivided Communist Party of India had won 16 seats in the first general elections in 1951-52. If one adds the seats won by the Progressive Democratic Front in Hyderabad where the CPI had been banned, this number was higher by seven. This number rose to 29 in 1962 and further to 42 in 1967, by the end of which year there were three political formations: the CPI, the CPI-Marxist and the CPI-Marxist-Leninist which rejected Parliamentary politics.


(As an aside, it is worth recalling why the CPI first split in 1964 in the wake of the India-China war and whether so many Left parties are required today to satisfy personal egos and access to real estate.)


Even at its peak in 2004 when the Left had the support of 61 MPs in the Lok Sabha, its presence was almost completely confined to the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.


Why has the Left not withered away in Kerala as it has in Bengal and Tripura? One major reason is that the Left Democratic Front could never take electoral victory for granted in the state. The Congress-led United Democratic Front was always snapping at its heels. Unlike in Kerala, Left rule in Bengal was not interrupted for 34 years – it won seven elections in a row. In Tripura, the Left lost the assembly elections in the state only once between 1997 and 2018, that is, in 1988. Complacency eroded the support base of the Left in Bengal because it falsely believed it could rest on the laurels it had earned during its first few terms in office with Operation Barga, land reforms and effectively establishing Panchayati raj.


The Congress too had once thought it could continue to remain popular for the role it played during the freedom movement, that is, till 1967 when India’s “grand old party” lost power in large swathes of territory in northern India. The fall of the Left in Bengal was as precipitous as the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in the early-1990s after the Berlin Wall was broken down in 1989.


In Bengal, the Left failed to develop a second-rung of leadership and became disconnected from an entire generation of young people, including the children of bargadars who got land-tilling rights under the Left Front government and those who had been empowered by the effective implementation of the panchayati raj institutions. The Communists clearly failed to adequately appreciate the aspirations of the youth, some of whom left them for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections. Some of them had earlier joined the Trinamool Congress.


Besides the arrogance, complacency and corruption that came to characterise Left rule in Bengal in the decade preceding 2011 when the TMC swept to power, political violence in Bengal has been fundamentally different from that in Kerala where it has been sporadic and concentrated in certain areas in the northern part of the state. In Bengal, the history of political violence predates the rise of the Left but it has been largely linked to gaining electoral power and controlling the instruments of governance. The communal tensions that marked Bengal in the 1940s have returned with a vengeance today and are continuing.


Much has been discussed about why a substantial section of the traditional supporters of the Left switched allegiance to the BJP. For many, especially those in rural areas, it was a question of physical survival, of ensuring the safety of women – an entirely existential issue. That the TMC’s vote share rose by around four per cent even as the BJP gained hugely (from two to 18 Lok Sabha seats in the state) can be explained by the fact that a section of the Muslims earlier affiliated to the Left and the Congress realised that Bengal’s polity had become bipolar and that unlike the TMC, the Left could never hope to match the BJP in competitive religious politics.


As trade union movements weakened across the world and also in India, so did the political clout of the Left. Worse for the Communists, they belatedly acknowledged that they had severely underestimated the influence of caste in Indian politics in general and the Hindi heartland in particular. As former Union Home Minister and CPI leader Indrajit Gupta told my co-author Shankar Raghuraman and me in an interview a few months before he passed away in February 2001: “The same worker who was carrying a red flag on his shoulders…would look towards his own caste (when voting).”


The Left was out of the loop when identity politics started peaking in Uttar Pradesh with the rise of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party from the 1990s onwards. And the Left remains out of the reckoning today as well when caste blocs are no longer as monolithic as they were and the BJP led by Amit Shah has successfully fractured and fragmented the identities of the Other Backward Classes and the Dalits with the help of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Sawyamsevak Sangh.


What is way forward for the Left? It must continue to aggressively emphasise economic and social issues, such as unemployment, agrarian distress, inequality and caste divisions. It must learn to relegate niggling differences and work with those willing to oppose the BJP juggernaut even if some “compromise” is needed to confront the bigger opponent. For those writing the political epitaph of the Left in India, it must be mentioned that the Left still has members in 12 legislative assemblies across India–the only two other parties with MLAs in 12 states are the BJP and the Congress.


Still, the Left is yet to reinvent itself. It has not come to terms with certain aspects of the country’s contemporary history and the weakening of coalition politics at a national level. Here are three questions, the first two of which are purely academic in nature. Should it have committed a “historic blunder” by not allowing Jyoti Basu to become Prime Minister of India in May 1996? Should it have withdrawn support to the Manmohan Singh government in July 2008 because of differences over the India-US nuclear deal?


Finally, despite its long and chequered love-hate relationship with the Congress, can the Left ignore the efforts of the Congress and other depleted and demoralised forces arraigned against the Narendra Modi regime over the next few years and still hope to gain a semblance of political relevance?

Even if one is ambivalent about answering the first two questions and willing to forget the past, the answer to the third question should be apparent.


The writer is a journalist, author, publisher, documentary film-maker and teacher.

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