Failure to adapt to new socio-political dynamics, lack of introspection, inability to retain old bases have meant Left is now relegated to periphery of Indian politics.
New Delhi: From 60 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2004 to just about 10 a decade later, from playing kingmaker at the Centre to near-political irrelevance now, from enjoying some presence in different regions to being almost decimated in its own bastions — the story of the Left in India is one that tells us how little there is left of it.
After major internal differences — between factions led by general secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat — over whether there should be any truck with the Congress at all, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), the dominant Left party, once again spent some precious time debating the issue in its Central Committee meeting last weekend.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Left parties together won as many as 60 seats, of which the CPI(M) alone won around 44, and they extended crucial support to the Congress-led UPA government. In 2014, however, the CPI(M) managed to get only nine seats, while the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) won one.
Besides Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura — the latter two the CPI(M) held for almost three decades at a stretch — the Left also had some presence in other states such as Rajasthan, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, among others. In fact, in a state such as Rajasthan which is socially distinct from other Left bastions, the CPI(M) managed to win as many as three seats in the 2008 assembly elections in the Shekhawati region, a farm belt.
Just five year later, however, the CPI(M) was down to just one seat in Rajasthan.
In the 2015 Bihar assembly polls, as the Left parties contested together, CPI — that earlier had one seat — and CPI(M) drew a blank, while the less mainstream CPI-(Marxist-Leninist) overtook them to win three.
However, the greater concern for the Left — rather mainly for the CPI(M) given it has been the dominant Left party — has been its erosion in earlier fortresses.
In West Bengal, the CPI(M)-led Left front faced its worst defeat in the 2016 polls, with chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress winning 211 of the 294 seats.
The Left-Congress alliance got just 76 seats and embarrassingly for the CPI(M), the Congress performed better than its Left allies.
In Tripura, the CPI(M)-led government — an incumbent of 25 years — was routed by the BJP which previously had less than 2 per cent vote share. The party was reduced to an embarrassing 16 of the 59 seats that polled. Its only glimmer of hope seems to be Kerala.
It isn’t just about reduced numbers in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, but also waning political influence and voice. Losing power in states and being marginalised in terms of numbers have an equal bearing on the party’s strength in the Rajya Sabha, and thus its voice and presence in national politics.
Failure to adapt to new socio-political dynamics, an absolute lack of any introspection, petty intra-party tussles, misplaced priorities and inability to either retain old base or capture a new one has meant the Left has now been relegated to the periphery of Indian politics.
Failing to remain relevant & reinvent
Perhaps the single biggest failure of the Left has been its inability to change according to the times and remain relevant to a fast-changing electorate, say political analysts.
“The basic reason is they have lost a connect with masses, reflected in their declining vote share in both the Lok Sabha as well as states,” said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
“They are unable to see issues that concern the common man, revolving their politics only around the workers and downtrodden, while ignoring a growing and electorally important middle class, which roughly now constitutes 35-50 per cent of the population,” he added.
With rapid urbanisation, the middle class has grown, Kumar said.
He claimed the Left has failed to realise “how identities of a different type have now emerged, while they keep looking at identities of only class”.
“The working class also sees itself from the lens of the primary identity of caste, and not class,” Kumar argued.
The CPI(M)’s politics, much like the rest of the Left, has been marked by a complete disconnect from ground reality, said critics. The party continues to talk about the perils of neo-capitalism and globalisation in all forums, failing to see how these issues find near-zero resonance with the electorate.
“During the Vajpayee regime, the Left played an important role to build an opposition. In 2004, it was rewarded by the people, winning the highest number of Lok Sabha seats in its history,” said Prasenjit Bose, economist and a former member of the CPI(M).
“From then to now, much has changed. The Left is reconciled to the fact that it will not witness that kind of performance in 2019,” Bose added.
He claimed the crisis of the Left originated in West Bengal and there has been a complete failure to recognise and confront this truth.
Losing youth connect, dwindling membership
The insistence on acknowledging only class as an identity and not other factors such as caste has cost the Left dear. This has also meant the parties have failed to appeal to the youth constituency, unable to speak in their language. This inability to remain relevant has also resulted in a fast dwindling membership and difficulty in preventing its own people from joining rival parties.
The CPI(M) acknowledged this in its organisational report in the 2015 Party Congress.
“The high percentage of droppage shows organisation weaknesses such as loose membership recruitment, inactivity of the party members and branches, low political-ideological level, weaknesses in educating party member etc, (sic)” the report said.
It also acknowledged that “young people are not coming forward to join the party”.
More than three years since, however, the party seems to have done precious little to address these glaring gaps.
“Members of the communist parties in West Bengal are joining the BJP, what can be more telling than that. And yet, the parties refuse to acknowledge this fact,” Bose said.
The leadership question
Perhaps the biggest hole in the Left’s political journey is the leadership question. While smaller parties such as the CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc have absolutely no national leaders to speak of, the CPI(M) boasts of an arrogant, fractured leadership that is busy trying to win petty internal battles instead of focusing on the enemy outside.
Unlike its former tall leaders, most recently Harkishan Singh Surjeet who preceded Prakash Karat and was the pragmatic brain behind the CPI(M)’s national growth and rising relevance, the party has nobody who can connect with either the masses or with the complex dynamics of realpolitik.
Besides, the CPI(M) often hits headlines not for winning elections or for making important political points, but for the difference of opinion between Yechury and Karat.
The main bone of contention has been their respective lines, with Yechury wanting to leave doors open for an “understanding” with the Congress and Karat determined to rule out any electoral alliance or understanding with the Congress whatsoever.
In the last Party Congress earlier this year, it was Yechury’s line that prevailed but the argument continues to rage.
While the CPI(M) tries to portray this as internal democracy, there is little doubt how this reflects a completely factionalism-driven party, which spends most of its time trying to win internal battles.
“This debate about an alliance with the Congress is nothing but a sideshow. This is, however, deflecting attention from the real issue, the atrophy of the CPI(M) in Bengal and the BJP gaining at the cost of the Left,” Bose said.
What has further not helped the Left is its jaded, old leadership with no real young, second rung emerging.
“Newness in every field is welcome and in the Left, the leadership seems to have remained the same for decades. There is now a desire among Indians to see a young, dynamic leader who takes strong decisions, which is why Modi is so popular,” Kumar of CSDS said.
“The voter also believes collective decision-making is not ideal and a decisive leader is important. The CPI(M)’s style of collective decision making through its politburo puts off voters,” Kumar added.
Bose points to how the Congress made its old guard, including former PM Manmohan Singh and former party president Sonia Gandhi, take a backseat after its 2014 debacle, allowing a young face, Rahul Gandhi, to take charge.
“A change in leadership may not be a sufficient condition for the Left’s revival in Bengal but it is definitely a necessary condition,” Bose argued.
“There are no fresh faces or ideas. The same leaders who have earned people’s distrust and irritation continue to remain at the forefront,” he said.
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