Daya Varma


After over 30 years of continuous rule in West Bengal, the Left Front (LF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM was  defeated in the May 2011 Assembly elections; it  had  235 seats in 2006 and won only 62 in 2011. As expected, the victor Mamata Banerjee is jubilant. But others, especially independent leftists and Naxalite parties  are jubilant too and that  reveals the state of the left in India more than the jubilation in the ranks of Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee.  This is because a setback in any communist formation can never be a harbinger of the blossoming of another.


Various reasons have been offered for the defeat of CPM.  Some say that the communist movement is catching up to the debacle in Soviet Union, France, Italy and elsewhere. Some think, erroneously in my view, that it is a specific CPM phenomenon.


Ashok Mitra,  a former Minister in Left Front Government  has attributed the defeat of CPM  to  a number of factors: a culture of  arrogance on   the part of the party and its leaders, attempt to industrialize poor West Bengal with the help of private capital, neglect of its peasant base, cronyism coupled with sycophancy, allowing the entry of corrupt elements within the party, lack of inner party democracy, seeking help from the center to deal with Maoists and so on (The Telegraph, May 20 , 2011).


According to CPM leader Brinda Karat (<http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-left-will-endure/792887),  CPM’s conduct was the opposite of what Mitra says and she feels confident that the left will endure.


A team of left intellectuals (Dilip Simeon, Jairus Banaji, Sukumar Muralidharan, Satya Sivaraman and Rohini Hensman) (http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article21670; May 19) argues that the defeat of CPM is not tantamount to defeat of the “Left” because according to them, the real left, is outside the organized party and it is exerting its presence through different kinds of mass movements “ with more imagination and greater integrity”. They forgot to add that it is their “real left” which  contributed to the defeat of the Left Front nor do they realize that any kind of left is, in the final analysis, a byproduct  of the organized communist movement. Sometimes a molehill thinks it is a mountain.


A relatively more substantive article (http://kafila.org/2011/05/22/why-the-left-front-did-not-endure-sharib-ali-and-shazia-nigar/; May 22) by Sharib Ali and Shazia Nigar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, finds the arguments of Brinda Karat evasive. They feel the answer lies in the dramatic defeat of CPM in contrast to its performance in 2006 rather than a gradual decline in its popularity. They argue that in West Bengal from 1990 onwards “almost everything had almost come to a standstill – the economy was breaking down, more and more people were becoming jobless, education and heath sectors were stagnating, and there were hardly any opportunities. The city was truly becoming timeless.” They also point to the alienation of Muslims who constitute almost 25% of the population. Ali and Nigar argue that although the defeated Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was cognizant of this stalemate, he went too far in either addressing or not addressing these issues and alienated CPM supporters on one hand and non-CPM sympathizers on the other, which allowed CPM rival Mamata Banerjee to take full advantage of this alienation. They write: “Nandigram, Singur, and Lalgarh were probably the breaking point in the Left Front’s association with the people.  A government which came as a messiah of the people – introducing land reforms, protecting its minorities, and deriving its ideology and strength from the common people – turned its back on them when it tried to snatch their land away and give it to corporates who wanted to roll out cars and chemicals that the people to whom those lands belonged could only dream of. It was almost a historical blunder – not so uncommon in red history all over the world. In haste to incorporate the famed Bengali ‘aspiration’ after a long hiatus, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya forgot some of his own lessons.”


As to be expected Dipankar Bhattacharya and, especially, Arindam Sen vent the traditional hostility of Marxist-Leninist formations against CPM rather than analyze the defeat of CPM in the historic context of the communist movement in India, and their own experience,  to arrive at a program for rejuvenation of the organized left in India.


Ali and Nigar’s contention that the defeat of CPM in West Bengal in the 2011 election was dramatic and not gradual in contrast to its performance in 2006 is wrong but it points towards the real issue. A decline of votes polled by CPM to approximately 40% in 2011 from an astounding 50% in 2006 cannot be treated as dramatic; the effect of this marginal decline on number of seats won is of course dramatic but that has much more to do with the “first-past-the-post”  electoral system in India than the popular standing of a party. In most countries, including India, a 40% vote usually brings a majority of seats in the legislature. The arch conservative Stephen Harper formed a majority government in Canada while polling less than 40% votes.


I am not surprised but I am disappointed at the performance of CPM. I was not surprised but disappointed at the CPM performance in the 2009 parliamentary elections when the seats of the Left Front was reduced by more than 50% compared with the 2004 elections. Likewise I was disappointed but not surprised when CPI (M-L) Liberation drew a blank in the 2010 Bihar Assembly elections, losing all the five seats it previously held and losing the sole parliamentary seat it had won on its first attempt.


The best performance ever by the Indian Communist Party was in India’s first parliamentary elections in 1952. The Party emerged as the official opposition with more than 50 seats and has been going downhill ever since in two ways. It is becoming more of a regional party with its major strength in West Bengal and Kerala. It is compromising its secular credentials in parliamentary opportunism by allying with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as allies of BJP like Akali Dal, AIDMK, Nitish Kumar’s Samata Party and others, thereby losing the trust of minorities, such as Muslims, and other democratic sections.


Various factors have contributed to the gradual decline in the influence of the communist movement in India despite the fact that India never suffered from anti-communist phobia as witnessed in many countries.


Before I express my views on the factors leading to the decline of the influence of the communist movement in India, it would be prudent to dwell on the regional character of India. Economically, socially and politically India is one of the most uneven countries in the world. That is why most political parties have some regional characteristics. Most people treat only Congress and BJP as truly national parties; however, their strength is also not truly national. Indeed, the communist movement is as national as Congress and BJP. In that sense a setback in the communist movement should be treated as a national phenomenon despite the fact that there is almost no decline, let alone a significant decline, in CPM and Left Front’s performance in the recent elections in Kerala.


Communist movement of India has committed many errors, of which some proved very costly. The split of the communist party in 1964 giving rise to CPI and CPM has eventually proved the costliest and the cost of the hot-headedness of the leaders of CPM against merger of the two parties is still not reckoned with. The 1964 split glorified the whole concept of splits, which has been taken to absurd dimensions by the parties which grew out of the prairie fire. If honest and significant political criteria were used to analyze the multiple communist parties that exist in India, there are only two- the Maoists and the rest. Between the others, the differences are academic and not political but each is sufficiently clever to elevate these academic differences into uncompromising principles.  


The hasty analysis that CPM lost in West Bengal because its outgoing Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee espoused a neoliberal agenda is misleading. The same analysts who find fault with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s development strategy in West Bengal credit the victory of Narendra Modi of Gujarat and Nitish Kumar of Bihar to their development strategy. If favoring corporate interests is the cause of the defeat of CPM, one should look forward to the ouster of BJP from Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh  and Madhya Pradesh, may be even Karnataka.


The problem with the West Bengal CPM was not that it wanted to industrialize West Bengal but that it did not do so when Jyoti Basu was still the Chief Minister.  West Bengal used to be the most industrially advanced region of India and over time CPM neglected industrialization while basking in the glory of land reform. Land reforms are much needed all over and where they are done such as earlier by Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir and Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, the peasantry responds enthusiastically. But land reforms are not sufficient to deliver prosperity in any region.


CPM should also have anticipated that the “new left” of Dilip Simeon and associates mentioned above would dawn in full force when CPM undertakes the task of industrialization. It is also likely that Tatas always had a backup plan to start manufacturing the Nano car in Bengal but finish it in Gujarat.  CPM should also have anticipated that their main enemies of are the Maoists and other communists and not BJP or Mamata Banerjee.  It is this lapse, which can be attributed to arrogance on the part of CPM, that contributed to its defeat. Coupled with this is CPM’s disregard for the plight of Muslims. It is true that Muslims are safer in West Bengal than in most other parts of India but safety must accompany economic wellbeing.


It seems communists do not realize the danger posed by the BJP. Their main enemy seems to be Sonia Gandhi’s Congress. Some dream of a Third Force out of spent, or even decadent, forces. As long as communists remain divided and target the wrong enemy, there is little or no future for them. 

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