Left Parties In India Need To Rethink Their Strategies, Or Perish

Posted on August 5, 2014 in Politics

By Ayushi Vig:

The summer of 2011 is not often remembered for being particularly eventful. The events of that summer, however, were politically crucial to India’s Left front, serving it a final blow that it has yet to recover from.

left front

After a thirty-four year rule, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was voted out of power in West Bengal, as well as out of Kerala, leaving it with a ruling presence only in Tripura. The CPI(M) comprises the significant majority of the Left Front, which also consists of its parent CPI, the All India Forward Bloc, and the Samajwadi party.

The Left Front has not yet been able to regain the power it lost. As per the results released by the Election Commission of India, the CPI(M) won only 3.2% of votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, gaining a grand total of zero seats. This percentage has been dropping ever since 2004, seemingly indicative of the Left’s steady decline. To begin to understand this political phenomenon, we need not look further than West Bengal. Holding a thirty-four year reign in a state is no small feat for any party. Neither, of course, is defeating such a party, and both phenomena need to be examined.

As historian Ramachandra Guha points out in his book Patriots and Partisans, the parties of the Indian Left “built their strength from the bottom up” in West Bengal as well as in Kerala and Tripura. They created a solid base of support among the working class by focusing agenda specifically on their issues and then proactively resolving them, fostering loyalty among the people. Indian communist leaders in these regions also proved themselves to be less corrupt than their counterparts from other parties. With such a loyal mass following, it is no wonder that they were able to rule for such a long stretch.

Yet at the same time, during the CPI(M)’s rule in West Bengal, the state performed extremely poorly by traditional measures of socio-economic development such as per-capita income and quality of teaching. The state was worse off than UP and Bihar, both states truly infamous for their poor development.

This performance, however, comes as no surprise once you examine the party’s practices – such as its discouragement of the teaching of English, for instance, a handicap whose impact will last long after their rule. Fierce hatred of the West, which is the basis of so much of the party’s ideology, led to an inevitable decline in foreign investment in the state as well. In addition, the party made it a point to expand its control to public institutions, such as the police. With such control, the party was easily able to fix panchayats and local elections. This control extended to the extremes of a bandh culture–the CPI(M) began to resort to bandhs as its most convenient mode of protest, constantly bringing cities like Kolkata to a complete halt. Buses, autos, and taxis would stop running, and party members would take to the streets.

Keeping all this in mind, it is no surprise that the people of the state eventually voted for change. Yet Left politics in India has been significant since India’s independence movement–indeed, Nehru, one of the key leaders both before and after independence, leaned largely towards the left. The CPI itself was formed in 1925. Why then does it seem so incompatible with the people today?

Kerala, after all, where the CPI(M) also ruled, is a state known for its excellent education and health facilities. But the CPI(M)’s success here is misleading. To understand, we need to examine Kerala before the arrival of the Left’s rule. For one thing, Kerala is a matriarchy, which gives its womens’ literacy levels an automatic, gigantic boost. In addition, caste reformers and missionaries played a larger and extremely crucial role in this state than elsewhere in the country in facilitating people’s education. By the time the CPI(M) came to power, it is safe to say that the wheels had been set in motion for Kerala’s easy development. The CPI(M) has proved itself to be quite capable of continuing the process of development–yet not of initiating it (as shown by West Bengal) or even of expanding it. One would think that Kerala, rather than a city like Bangalore in Karnataka, would be at the front of India’s software revolution, given its natural developmental advantages. Yet no city in Kerala even comes close. Once you think of the CPI (M)’s anti-westernism and anti-industrialism policies, however, that no longer seems so unnatural. As Ramachandra Guha also adds, the CPI(M) managed to pack universities across Kerala with party loyalists, and introduced to workers a “culture of mindless militancy” that “scares off investors and entrepreneurs”.

Put simply, the Left absolutely refuses to budge even an inch away from its rigid practices, and thus is failing to adapt to contemporary realities and the wider Indian public.

India has always been fond of multi-party democracy – a system that is well suited to a country as diverse as ours. The CPI (M), however, while contesting parliamentary elections, still remains firmly attached to the idea of a one party state, refusing to join coalition governments at the center – such as with the Indian National Congress in 2004 and with the Janata Dal in 1996. This deprives them of a chance to bring their issues to the national agenda, as well as expand their base nationally.

The base of the Left has spent at the very least the last several decades being centered around the southern states, and a few eastern states. Beyond that, the parties have barely tried to expand their following.

In addition, their insistence on sticking to their traditional policies means that they lose out on golden political opportunities. Today’s middle class most significantly sways only between the Congress and the BJP – those who do not favor Hindutva vote for the Congress, those dissatisfied with Congress’ longstanding rule vote for the BJP. Being the non-inclusive party that it currently is, the CPI(M) does not present itself as an option for the majority of them. If the party decided to increase its appeal beyond the working class and recognize the benefits of economic growth, it could gain an incredibly significant following. Yet because of its rigidity, it does not.

Like other political parties in our country, the CPI (M) refuses to face criticism as well, even from its own cadre. Inevitably, it leads to a loss of legitimacy, which is especially significant in the eyes of today’s youth, a generation that specifically demands legitimacy in government. Blunders like the CPI(M) led-violent land-grabs in Singur and Nandigram–very practices that the Left spent many years denouncing–have been devastating for the party, yet it refuses to own up to its error. These are events that undoubtedly significantly shaped the outcome of the 2011 elections, yet the CPI(M) continues to search for excuses and avoid blame. As Debansu Mukhopadhyay, a college student in Mumbai, points out, established parties can still afford to ignore criticism, but not a party that is “half-dead”.

As prominent Left leader Kavita Krishnan says, however, “it’s a little premature to be writing obituaries for the Left in India”. She insists that she sees a bright future for the Left in the country, pointing out the role of Left student organizations in the anti-rape movement, anti-corruption movement, and movements against Delhi University’s Four Year Undergraduate Programme. The Left, she says, provides the only “consistent platform for democracy today”.

There is no doubt that the Left’s appeal hasn’t faded away entirely, and it is certainly still capturing the imaginations of at least a a section of Indian workers and youth. But if these parties are serious about getting ahead and becoming majorly politically relevant once more, they need to rethink their strategy. It’s time to revise, to include and liberalize thought. Political parties need to adapt to the people, and if the Left still cannot grasp that, its chances of survival fall by the day.