India's Left will not be decimated in West Bengal and Kerala polls

This article has been co-authored by Suryakiran Tiwari and Subhash Chandra.

 |  Breaking views  |   Long-form |   14-03-2016

The Left front (a group of Communist parties in India consisting of CPM, CPI, AIFB, RSP and a few others) is fighting the battle for their survival in the ensuing state elections of 2016. Out of four states going to polls (Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu), the Left front is the principal opposition party in two states - Kerala and Bengal.

The front not only has strong pockets of influence in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, but also a significant presence in other states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Punjab because, for years, it has championed the cause of the working class.

The Left front, which used to be an important national political force, has seen its fortunes decline massively in the last two Lok Sabha elections. The party is currently in power in only one state - Tripura - in the northeast, which does not play a significant role in political landscape of the country.

CPI - one of the constituents of Left front - is credited with forming the first non-Congress government in any state in India (Kerala). The front played a prominent role in government formation at the Centre in 1989 (VP Singh), 1996 (Deve Gowda and IK Gujral) and 2004 (Manmohan Singh).

Also read: Why Mamata will return to power in West Bengal

In 2004, the front recorded its best performance bagging 53 seats (CPM + CPI only). In 2009, its tally fell to half (27) and in 2014 to a mere ten seats. In terms of vote share, it declined from 7.1 per cent in 2004 to 4.1 per cent in 2014. It lost its citadel West Bengal to Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress in 2011 after having ruled the state for 34 years. In line with the trend of the past three decades, it also lost Kerala to Congress in the same year in a surprisingly close elections.

Seats and vote share of Left front (CPM and CPI) over the years in Lok Sabha

cpim-_031416013501.jpg
Source: Election Commission

Reasons for the precarious position of the Left today:

1. Lack of uniform position across states

The Left front claims to be the patriarch of the poor and lower classes and defies the caste-based politics prevalent in many parts of India. However, despite getting massive support from these classes and minorities, the upper caste - which accounts for between 20 -30 per cent of the state population in Bengal - occupies powerful positions in the Left front. On an average, more than 40 per cent of the MLAs of the Left in Bengal belong to the upper class, popularly known as Bhadralok.

Not only MLAs, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee council had 16 Brahmins as ministers, accounting for 48 per cent of his outgoing Cabinet in 2011. Adding other upper castes like Kayasthas and Baidyas, this number went upto 69 per cent. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Left front secured the highest votes from the upper class (42 per cent), which proves the above point.

% of Upper caste MLAs of Left front (CPI and CPM) in West Bengal Assembly over the years

cpim2_031416013554.jpg
Source: Rise of the Plebeians?: The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot, Sanjay Kumar

In states like Bihar and Odisha too, the party has had more upper caste representatives than those from the communities that they claim to represent (workers and marginal farmers). This disconnect has damaged the party in the regions, making it increasingly difficult to retain vote share over the years.  

The good news is that the party has been far more rooted in Kerala where the non-forward caste Ezhavahas have backed the LDF despite the fact that it has been in and out of power since 1957. The last CM of the Left was VS Achuthanandan who was from the Ezhava community. Pinrayi Vijayan, a powerful member of the CPM Politburo also comes from the community.

In many ways, the Kerala model is probably the future for the party. Ideological beliefs aside, a strong on-the-ground cadre-based party representing the aspirations of the underclass, and respectful of the local customs and traditions may go a long way to aid the Left front.

2. Historic blunder - Refusal to form government at the Centre in 1996

The Left front got a golden chance to form government at the Centre when the Third front constituents requested it to lead them in 1996. The front refused the offer. A few years later, even Jyoti Basu termed the decision as a "historic blunder".

This created an impression in public minds that the Left front is shy of undertaking responsibility. It was a good opportunity to showcase their ideologies and their experience in running the country.

3. Support to a Congress-led government at the Centre in 2004

In 2004, the public gave a hung verdict. NDA lost the polls despite its India Shining campaign. UPA emerged as the largest combination (222 seats). The Left front provided outside support to UPA and the minority government survived for four years due to this gesture till it pulled out due to differences on the Nuclear Bill in 2008.

The Congress and the Left have been fighting for decades nationally, especially in states like Kerala and Bengal. The front was one of the earliest to challenge the Congress dominance nationally. This decision confused Left front's votebank. Additionally, many of the Congress' policies, took a left of centre orientation (MGNREGA/FSB) and the Congress, in fact, is the new Left in many senses.

4. Dearth of a young leadership

In a country where 65 per cent of the population is young and below 35 years of age, the Left has failed to nurture young talent/leaders. The average age of CPM politburo is 75 years, even higher than the Congress Working Committee's average of 69 years. Most of the members are so-called "backroom politicians" with no mass base, who have never fought Lok Sabha elections.   

The clear message for the Left is to get its house in order to include young blood and new ideas. The party's student wings have been ruling JNU for the past many years as brought to light by the Kanhaiya incident. However, these leaders are not inducted into the organisation at an early age to connect with the youth of India.

5. Inability to re-invent itself and face competition

The Left front-ruled states - Kerala, Bengal and Tripura - have historically seen bipolar contests between the Congress and the Left. As soon as a third/fourth force entered in the fray, the front was seen as coming under pressure. For example, the BJP and the Trinamool in West Bengal and BJP in Kerala. Its inability to re-orient its ideology in tune with the aspirations of the neo-middle class has cost the front dearly.

Prospects of the Left front in the forthcoming elections

1. Kerala

The LDF had managed an incredible turnaround during the local elections in 2015 after being the runner-up in last three big elections of 2009 (Lok Sabha), 2011 (Assembly) and 2014 (Lok Sabha). The turnaround was achieved on the basis of the intense anti-corruption campaign against the UDF government and some deft moves to protect the traditional Ezhava vote, which was under serious threat from the BJP on account of its tie-up with Bhartiya Dharma Jana Sena -BDJS (SNDP's party). It is also involved in a violent clash with the RSS in Kannur and this can be seen in the prism of the Left and the BJP fighting for control over that region.

Kerala has an uncanny habit of throwing out incumbent governments for the past three decades and therefore the Kerala unit of the Left is well-oiled on account of these periodic trips to the Opposition in order to return to power in five years. Recent surveys have shown that the LDF has protected its Ezhava vote while making small gains amongst Dalits and Muslims. The UDF appears to be losing some of its traditional Nair vote to the BJP, making it a relatively easier task for the LDF. The three big threats for the LDF are the continued threat to its Ezhava vote from the BJP, the potential of minorities fully consolidating in favour of the UDF and the UDF's strength amongst voters. While the momentum is clearly in favour of the LDF at this moment, with two months to go, there could still be a twist in the tale.

2. West Bengal

Unlike Kerala, the Left unit has spent very few years in the Opposition in West Bengal during the last 40 years. In that sense, the organisational strength is not at the same level as the unit in Kerala. Further, the TMC unit in Bengal is far more aggressive in protecting its turf than the UDF in Kerala. Lastly, the BJP has a much stronger base in Bengal than in Kerala and absorbs some of the anti-TMC vote that could have gone to the Left instead. All these conditions make the task in Bengal a much more uphill one.

While CM Mamata Banerjee too suffers from a serious anti-incumbency threat, the inability of the Left front to fully project a strong leadership candidate is also a risk. The Left front has attempted to navigate many of these issues by spending the last few months mobilising and energising its cadre, getting into a de-facto seat-sharing arrangement with the Congress party and "indirectly" projecting Mr Suryakanta Mishra as the CM candidate.

Our recent survey shows that the Left has a fighting chance to win the election if it focuses on practical development issues, improved law and order with extraordinary commitments on employment. It will also need to tighten perceptions on leadership, particularly amongst Congress voters who prefer Mamata to Mishra at this moment. The TMC has a wider set of tools to win this election and is therefore projected as the winner by most surveys. The momentum is with the TMC, but the Left front can spring back with brilliant strategy and execution.

Conclusion

The Assembly elections are unlikely to spell a death knell for the Communists nor will they necessarily rejuvenate the Communists. As India evolves and numerous Indians lag behind, the Communists will have to offer an alternate vision that touches the hearts and minds of the average voter. Even after 67 years of Independence, millions of Indians continue to live in abject poverty, little education and lack of access to basic necessities in life. Such a circumstance offers the Communists an opportunity to mobilise voters and deliver to them these basics in the most practical way possible.

The Lula model in democratic Brazil (aside from Corruption) offers the Left an excellent template to move from being an ideologically-rooted party to a party rooted to in the weakest sections of our society. In serving the weakest (non-violently) lies the path to salvation for the Communists in India. However, there is a need to reduce the disconnect of Communists with the current values and ethos of young India and that requires hard work.

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