To be relevant, the Left needs dynamic leadership and pragmatism. Sitaram Yechury is pragmatic, but he is blocked at every level.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is (falsely) attributed to have said: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain.”
Regardless of who said it, people in the US and the UK seem to have recognised this. Now, maybe India has done so too. What else explains the way the BJP came to power (alone or as part of a coalition) in three north-eastern states in the recent elections? It’s now ruling 22 of the 29 states, thereby giving liberals a heart attack.
After Tripura, the debate is about the diminishing relevance of the Left parties, especially because they had been in power in the state since 1993. The Left lost West Bengal — its other bastion — in 2011 after the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee stormed into Writer’s Building. Now, it rules only Kerala.
The Communist Party of India, formed in December 1925, played a glorious part in the freedom movement. After independence, the CPI witnessed constant growth in Bengal, Kerala (where it formed India’s first communist government in 1957) and Tripura. This growth did not stop even after the party split in 1964 and the CPI(M) was born.
The Left went on to not only form governments in these three states, but also increased its numbers in other state assemblies like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.
In the eighties and nineties, the Left played a key role in forming the National Front governments of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, and the United Front governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. The peak came in 2004 when the Left won 59 seats in the Lok Sabha polls and became kingmaker for the first United Progressive Alliance government led by Congress’s Manmohan Singh.
Perhaps the withdrawal of support to the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal was the beginning of the Left slide in Indian politics. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it got 23 seats. In 2014, the CPI(M)’s vote share declined to 3.2 per cent from from 5.33 per cent in 2009, and the CPI’s to 0.8 per cent from 1.43 per cent. The Revolutionary Socialist Party and the All India Forward Bloc got 0.3 and 0.2 per cent respectively in these elections.
So, why are the Left parties losing relevance? First of all, they are not in step with the changing world. When communism has become almost irrelevant even in China and Russia, the Indian communists are still living in the past. They have not understood the new aspirational class of the youth in India while clinging to a century-old failed ideology.
Second, the Left has not come up with any new narrative to attract the voters. Class warfare is not relevant any more. Even in Parliament, it has not played any constructive role because of its dwindling numbers. Left Front governments have a poor record in attracting private investments, limiting the states’ ability to create employment.
Third, the leadership is not as dynamic as Jyoti Basu or E.M.S. Namboodiripad or Harkishan Singh Surjeet who could steer the party.
Fourth, the Left parties are not united. Even as the BJP surges forward, there is a debate on whether the CPI(M) should go for a broad alliance with like-minded parties including the Congress; the CPI has already passed a resolution to this effect. Interestingly, the CPI(M) Central Committee on 21 January voted against the draft political resolution sponsored by its general secretary Sitaram Yechury, proposing alliance with the Congress. His predecessor Prakash Karat is opposed to the idea. While the Bengal unit wants an alliance with the Congress, Kerala is opposed to it.
The recent jolt to the party in the Tripura polls might make the comrades rethink about their alliance with the Congress. A final decision would be taken at the Party Congress in Hyderabad in April 2018.
Comrade A.B. Bardhan of the CPI used to say that there can be no ‘third front’ without the Left. Now that the Congress too has lost its primacy, the Opposition should be inclusive of the Congress. The options for the Left are limited.
As a BJP leader pointed out, the Left still has some of its cadres. All that needs to be done is to activate them, stop the internal bickering, and find a way to unite all the secular and democratic forces.
Yechury is pragmatic but he is blocked at every level. CPI general secretary Sudhakar Reddy is not Bardhan.
It is time for the Left Front to introspect and reinvent, or else it would disappear from the Indian political scene altogether. Gradually, the Left voters are shifting to the BJP. While it has conquered Tripura, the BJP is picking up in West Bengal and Kerala too.
The CPI(M) and the CPI could also think of a merger as suggested by Bardhan and others. Above all, they should first think of Left unity, and then move on to opposition unity. For this, they need dynamic leadership and pragmatism.