The waning Left

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 18 Mar 2018 11:53:01


 

By Jayant Muralidharan,

For the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the drubbing in Tripura was also a significant symbolic reversal, coming seven years after it lost its strongest fortress ever, West Bengal, where it was in power for an uninterrupted 34 years. With its control of governance now restricted to Kerala alone, a State where power typically rotates between the CPI (M)-led coalition currently on top and a rival Congress-led alliance, Indian Marxists confront their biggest challenge yet.

OUTSIDE AKG Bhavan, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s headquarters in Delhi’s Gole Market area, barricades are in place with armed policemen on duty. India’s biggest Communist party in mainstream politics has been at the receiving end of violent protests in the past few years by rival political parties, especially Hindu nationalists, some of whom had barged in, fulminated at General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and reportedly even tried to assault him. On the veranda, a bust of Lenin faces that of Marxist leader A. K. Gopalan, after whom the office is named.

For the CPI (M), the drubbing in Tripura was also a significant symbolic reversal, coming seven years after it lost its strongest fortress ever, West Bengal, where it was in power for an uninterrupted 34 years. With its control of governance now restricted to Kerala alone, a State where power typically rotates between the CPI (M)-led coalition currently on top and a rival Congress-led alliance, Indian Marxists confront their biggest challenge yet.

Never in its history has it seen its law-making strength shrink so drastically. Compared with 43 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, the CPI (M) now has only nine seats in the Lower House. In 2004, the Left bloc, comprising the CPI (M), CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP, had 59 seats, making it a formidable force in an era of coalition politics. The Left bloc now has just 10 seats in the Lok Sabha, its lowest tally ever. Even in the 1971 General Election held after India’s victory against Pakistan that gave Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi an unassailable aura, the CPI (M) had won 25 seats.

In most elections held after the decline of the Congress since 1977, whenever no party had an absolute majority to form the Government at the Centre, the CPI (M) and its allies played kingmaker. This was a role that, in the mid-1990s and later in the noughties, the late CPI (M) Chief Harkishan Singh Surjeet played with finesse. He was disappointed, though, when in 1996, after the fall of the 13-day AB Vajpayee Government, the CPI (M) lost its only chance to have one of its leaders as Prime Minister. Its late stalwart Jyoti Basu was offered the post on a platter by the United Front, but a brute majority in the CPI (M)’s Central Committee rejected the proposal (a ‘historical blunder’ as Basu later termed it). The argument of the old guard, which included the CPI (M) patriarch EMS Namboodiripad, was that Basu becoming Prime Minister would give the party national exposure and let it extend its influence to the ‘cow belt’. However, the younger lot were not convinced about the merits of joining a Government that the CPI (M) could not dominate strongly enough to implement its pro-worker, pro-peasant policies, and voted against the idea. The Party Congress, the CPI (M)’s typically triennial gathering of leaders, held in the late 1990s overwhelmingly endorsed the decision not to join the UF Government (and to offer external support instead). The party has had slow growth beyond West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, though the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) had units across the country and was influential in most industrial towns and in such States as Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Maharashtra, among others.

The CPI (M) had begun worrying about its dwindling electoral appeal as early as the 1970s, when it began to lose its grip even in States it was once a power to reckon with. In Andhra, for example, the party once held sway before it lost out to regional parties in pursuit of what experts call ‘pure politics’, as exercised by founder-general secretary P. Sundarayya who hailed from the State. He abhorred the idea of aligning with secular national parties and stepped down in the mid-70s after his proposal of a sort of ‘Left alone’ front was rejected by the party majority. It was the Jalandhar Party Congress of 1978 that put forth the concept of a national alliance with secular parties, a proposal first floated among communists globally in the 1930s by Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov in the form of a ‘popular front’, an anti-fascist coalition that he envisaged would go beyond working-class groups and draw centrists and social democrats into its fold.

In late 1978, the CPI (M) convened a meet in Salkia, West Bengal, to discuss ways to spread out to more States. The political-tactical line adopted there came to be known as the ‘Salkia Plenum Report’. The political-tactical line adopted in 2015 at the party’s Visakhapatnam conclave marked a departure from that stance. The party decided it would not work towards forming a ‘third front’, a grouping of non-Congress and non-BJP parties with which it had associated for long.

The thrust of the argument was that the Left Front, the biggest constituent being the CPI (M), has lost its ‘credibility’ by associating with parties that have embraced liberalisation and earned a bad name for corruption. This included most regional parties, such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. The idea put forth was to engage India’s most distressed groups (which form a majority) and mobilise them in support of a communist agenda across the country while retaining its electoral strongholds.

The ongoing war of words between Yechury and a few of his loyalists on one side and Prakash Karat, Pillai and others on the other is over the implementation of the 2015 plan. Yechury has evidently strayed far from that political resolution, though as party chief he was to implement the party line. He has famously mooted the idea of a larger understanding with the Congress to keep at bay what he calls the ‘greater danger’, the BJP. However, the rival camp insists on falling back on mass mobilisation at the grassroots to attract people swayed by the Hindu nationalist party and other regional parties.

The Marxist scholar Perry Anderson has stated in the ‘Enlarged Edition’ of his work, The Indian Ideology, that though he hasn’t been able to tackle in depth the marginalisation of the Left in India, ‘where religion fuses with the nation in any independence struggle and ensuing construction of a post-colonial State, the Left confronts a far more difficult terrain’. As for Kerala, he notes that ‘one might speculate that cultural determinants have been at work in Kerala, Christianity and Islam weakening the grip of Hinduism in a society marked both by relatively high levels of literacy and particularly vicious forms of caste discrimination...’ The RSS-BJP has set its sights on the State, vowing to decimate the communists by wooing Hindus who have traditionally voted for the Left. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has a laconic response to the Right’s assertion that it will turf out communism from the State: “We will see.”

(INAV)