Withering of the left red communist flag in Indian politics

As Tripura, the Left’s last bastion, votes on Sunday, Richa Sharma, Prasanta Mazumdar and Aishik Chanda examine the growing irrelevance of the communist ideology.

Published: 17th February 2018 11:19 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th February 2018 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

When the people in trucks and in vans and the cyclists finally assembled for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Sonamura on the Bangladesh border in Tripura, the heads numbered nearly a lakh. The BJP had mobilized the numbers from nearly 23 constituencies on February 8. It was probably the party’s biggest showing in a state where it has had little presence.

Three days later, the country’s “poorest chief minister”, Manik Sarkar, held a rally, again near Sonamura. The numbers were close to a lakh. The CPI-M’s rallyists had come from just four constituencies.

As the tiny Northeastern state heads to polls next Sunday, the numbers game is haunting the Left. The CPI-M-led front has been in power in the state for 25 years. Losing Tripura would mean that the party, and the coalition, could be islanded in Kerala. Kerala has a history of swinging between the Left and the Congress every alternate election.

The Tripura result may also signpost the road for the Left ahead of the 2019 general elections. The signposts in recent years have pointed south. The voter base in what used to be the ‘Red Fort’, West Bengal, where they were in power for 34 years, has shrunk. Even in the states where the Left has never tasted power but has polled enough numbers to register a national presence – Punjab, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh – their vote count has dwindled.

But the Marxist top leadership is seeing signs of revival despite the Modi administration’s record of winning poll after poll since 2014. The Northeastern state could herald that revival, they assert.
“The CPI-M and the Left have their strongest base in Tripura built over decades of struggle. They are not under siege. Rather, they are poised to register another electoral victory. In fact, Tripura has shown there is an alternative path which makes it stand out in the Northeast.

The CPI-M has also increased its strength in Kerala. It is only in West Bengal that it has suffered a setback, which is also due to the terror and violence directed against it by the Trinamool regime. Here too, it is a matter of time before the movement reasserts itself,” Prakash Karat, politburo member, told The Sunday Standard.

The BJP suspects that the CPI-M would try to engineer a victory in Tripura by stealth. “The Congress is trying to split the anti-Left votes,” BJP president Amit shah told journalists in Agartala recently. “Their idea essentially is to help the CPI-M,” he alleged.

But party general secretary Sitaram Yechury rubbishes the portrayal of a resurgent BJP in Tripura.
“These are all speculations. I don’t think we have lost any ground in Tripura. In fact, our assessment is that we are going to retain our position as in the last elections. We don’t believe there is any threat to us in Tripura,” he said.

But the leaders admit to concern over the inability to expand in other states. “Except in West Bengal, the Left has not suffered any erosion in its traditional areas. What is lacking is the growth in other states. For this, the party has chalked out a plan of action to attract more youth to the party, to organize work among new sections of people, to step up the struggles against social oppression and to streamline the organisation. This work will eventually reflect in the electoral arena,” said Karat.

After ruling West Bengal for more than three decades, the Left was drubbed in two consecutive elections by the Trinamool Congress. Recent bypolls in the Uluberia Lok Sabha and in the Noapara assembly seats saw the party being pushed to the third position after the Trinamool and the BJP.
Election Commission of India data shows that voters have drifted from the party.

Across the country, the CPI-M and the CPI came down to 10 seats with 4.07 per cent votes in the 2014 general elections from a historic high of 53 seats with 7.07 per cent of votes in 2004. In 2009, the parties together won 20 seats with a vote share of 6.76 per cent.

The famous people-connect that marked the CPI-M’s sophisticated organizational machinery in Bengal during the years of Jyoti Basu has melted down. That distances the Left from potential voters.
“This (the decline of the Left) is a delayed effect of the Left’s directionless politics for a very long time. They have not really been able to respond to actual issues on the ground. Contemporary issues of urban living are not being addressed by the Left,” said Dr Aditya Nigam of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

The lack of a charismatic mass leader with national appeal and debates among the top leadership on a central line have confused party cadre. The CPI-M is yet to resolve whether to tie up with the Congress to thwart the BJP. The party committed a “historic blunder” – in the late Jyoti Basu’s words -- in 1996 by rejecting an offer to make him Prime Minister.

But the intellectual appeal of the Left does keep it alive even beyond the campuses of JNU and Jadavpur University. “There is a huge gap in the ideological political influence of the Left and in the electoral performance of the Left. The challenge is to narrow this gap,” said D Raja of the CPI. His daughter is a student leader in JNU.

“The areas that need radical changes (of line) include age, gender and social composition of the party and we need to be address those immediately.”


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