West Bengal is seeped in left history, from revolutionary movements such as Naxalbadi and Tebhaga to cultural icons such as Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen (among others) delving into class and Marxist issues in films. Bengali culture, politics, and universities have always had a tremendous presence of leftist ideas, but will the left survive or improve its position in the 2021 elections?
Historically, the left in Bengal can be bifurcated into two entities, the electoral Left Front and the left forces emerging from Naxalbadi. The Left front has been a huge political force in electoral politics in West Bengal, consisting of the Communist Party Of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), Communist Party Of India, All India Forward Bloc (created by Subhash Chandra Bose), Revolutionary Socialist Party along with others.
In the history of the left In West Bengal, the other entity that emerged was from the Naxalbadi agitation. This armed revolt of peasants, tribals, and Dalits against feudal landlords in 1967 was led by what came to be known as the Communist Party Of India (Marxist-Leninist), which then was a faction within the CPI-M.
These two left entities were against each other throughout the 60s,70s, and 80s in Bengal. The Naxalbadi forces believed in violent revolution and thought of the CPI-M as revisionists. In simple terms, that means that they thought the CPI-M had abandoned the tenets of Marxism. On the other hand, the CPI-M and the left front held that the Naxalbadis were engaging in left adventurism, i.e heading into violence against the bourgeoisie forces, without any ideas on how to bring about revolution.
This loggerhead between the two entities did often erupt in violence, with instances such as the murder of Hemanta Basu of the Forward Bloc by the Naxalites, bombing of universities, schools, cinemas, etc. On the other side of the coin, during the 60s-70s, CPI-M and Congress were responsible for the murder and “encounters” of scores of young political workers and students, on the suspicion of being Naxals.
In 2021, the Left Front has remained the same, while the CPI-ML has split into many factions, with the Communist Party Of India (Maoist) being the largest one currently trying to bring violent revolution, and the Communist Party Of India(Marxist-Leninist-Liberation)(CPI-ML(L)) the most successful in electoral politics, giving up violent revolution at this point.
It is important to note that both the CPI-M and the CPI-ML(L) have denounced the Communist Party Of India (Maoist) as left adventurism. The same animosity does not exist between CPI-M and CPI-ML(L), even part of the left front in RJD’s Mahagatbandhan in Bihar. However, in the context of the Bengal elections and the polity of 2021, they should be viewed as separate entities.
CPI-M and the left front lost power in Bengal due to their own doing, in simple terms. Their administration from 1977-2011 while marked with positives in certain areas such as land reforms, was also one of violence. Incidents such as the Marinchjhapi massacre of Dalits in the Sundarbans, attacks on Naxals, and coercion and violence were common.
In fact, if one was to talk to the last generations of Bengalis who attended universities in Bengal, many would liken the actions of SFI(Student Federation Of India), the student wing of the CPI-M, to that of the ABVP in our generation.
The final nail in the left-front coffin was the Nandigram movement and the ensuing police violence. In 2007, the Left-Front attempted to establish an SEZ in Nandigram for Tata, which was met by fierce resistance led by current-day TMC leaders, including Mamata Banerjee. Eventually leading to police brutality from the left government leading to the death of 14 locals.
The Left-Front then lost power to the TMC, who then went on a violent campaign against the CPI-M at the grassroots, destroying party and trade union offices, attacking cadre, and so on. While the CPI-M was facing violence at one front, they are also facing an exodus of support, leaders, and cadre to the growing BJP.
Electorally, the Left-Front has only 23 seats in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, with performances worsening every election. In fact, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the CPI-M did not win a single seat from West Bengal, the first time that has happened since 1964.
I call the CPI-M arrogant, because of the line that it has taken in the West Bengal elections. The Left Front has formed a partnership with the Indian National Congress and the Indian Secular Front. Their pitch is that they are the third alternative, and to beat the BJP in Bengal, the TMC needs to be beaten too.
If one looks at the numbers, this alliance can barely win 20-30 seats out of the 294 seat assembly, if that. The People’s Brigade, an annual left-front event in the Brigade ground in Kolkata drew a million people on 28th February 2021. While many in favor of the CPI-M may argue that this shows that the CPI-M is a valid alternative, I would disagree.
One must also look at the fact that this is the first People’s Brigade with two other parties, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front. While it is still a strong showing, it is by no means an indicator that the alliance will be a strong alternative.
Visuals from the People’s Brigade in Kolkata. (Via @sitaramyechury/Twitter)
The CPI-M in its quest to dethrone TMC, may very well inadvertently hand power to the BJP, which is becoming a very real possibility as the days go by. The CPI-M in its haste to liken the TMC to BJP has also joined hands with the Congress, which has historically been a party that attacked and killed communists, in Bengal and elsewhere.
I am not one to argue for or against coalitions with bourgeoisie parties as it has become a necessity for the left in electoral politics. I simply wish to point out the hypocritical nature of CPI-M’s statements and actions, when the real threat is the fascism of the BJP.
To simply understand fascism from a left sense, we must look at Nikolai Bukharin’s Crisis Of Capitalist Culture (1934). To sum up his thesis, he proposes that fascism arises from a crisis in a capitalist society, and is a reaction of the landowners and elite to hold onto power. Therefore, battling fascism is by extension battling capitalism itself.
Therefore, shouldn’t the CPI-M and the left-front battle the major fascist force that is the BJP Instead of trying to soothe its wounded electoral ego by futilely attempting to beat the TMC and regain power.
The approach that might pay more dividends is the approach taken by the CPI-ML(L) in Bengal. The party will only contest 12 seats in the West Bengal elections. They have also said that they are willing to support both the Left Front Alliance and the TMC in the other constituencies.
The CPI-ML(L), being a relatively new party in electoral politics, only becoming unbanned in the 1990s has grown massively. Their current total of 12 seats in Bihar is their highest ever, and they only contested 19 seats! This is also a 300% increase from their 3 seats in the 2015 Bihar elections, showing that the party, even with limited financial resources has the ability to grow through dedicated followers and cadre.
If they do win some seats in Bengal, it will be a major victory for the party. Their line of simply resisting the fascism of BJP and helping other parties also shows a pragmatism away from the left-adventurism that afflicted Naxalbadi.
Another people’s campaign that has entered the political arena is #NoVoteToBJP. This campaign has spread to all corners of Bengal, with many students, workers, teachers, doctors, and other progressive peoples voluntarily joining in the campaign. The campaign’s premise is simple, vote for any other party, be it TMC or the Left-Front Alliance, but do not vote for BJP.
A NoVoteToBJP rally held in Kolkata. (Via @No_Vote_To_BJP/Twitter)
The campaign has been getting more support than the campaigners themselves estimated. In a conversation with one of the campaigners, I was told that when a cultural performance was organized in Asansol (a constituency currently in the hands of the BJP), they expected 300-500 people. However, as many as 2000 to 3000 came out to show their support.
An irony in the campaign is that along with the usual threats from the RSS, they also have cadres from the CPI-M attacking and threatening them simply because they support the TMC too.
To conclude, the CPI-M is unwilling to learn from its past in Bengal, nor is it willing to look at the reality of its weakness and the need to beat fascism. The fact that they are attacking a progressive people’s movement only goes to show where they are.
The goal of the left is to not just simply win elections, the success and failure of the left won’t be decided by how poorly or well the left-front does in this election. It will be decided on the success of NoVoteToBJP and the CPI-ML(L), and the reinvention of a left-base in Bengal which was lost in grand fashion by the CPI(M).