Decline of Left politics in India

The Lal Salaam Era Is All But Over

Decline of Left politics in India
The newly constituted Lok Sabha marks consolidation of the political right and defeat of the Left, Left-of-Centre and the liberals

Kanhaiya Kumar, who became the young mascot of India’s beleaguered Left after he was thrashed, imprisoned and faced the worst for never-proven charges of raising “anti-national slogans” three years ago, lost last month’s election by a huge margin. The victor, a Narenda Modi Government minister is notorious for his provocative utterances against the Muslims.

The contrast is obvious. It symbolizes changed times: consolidation of the political right and defeat of the Left, Left-of-Centre and the liberals.

Ideologies apart, Kumar’s defeat in Bihar is a resounding slap for the squabbling opposition parties that went by a misleading name, Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). Not endorsing his candidature, some of them even fought him.   

Unsurprisingly, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where Kumar led the students’ movement, will before long cease to be the Left’s bastion. A decade back, it was called “Kremlin on the Jamuna” by an American diplomat in dispatches back home, as per Julian Asange’s Wikileaks.

The whistleblower’s own fate hangs in balance. He readies for prosecution in another sign of what is a worldwide surge of ‘nationalist’ rulers who would rather shoot the liberals.

Kumar’s Communist Party of India (CPI) is among the world’s oldest, first founded in Tashkent in 1920 and then in India in 1925. The latter coincided with the birth of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), whose ideology has triumphed, with Modi, most ministers and lawmakers across the country belonging to it.

Frequently banned by British colonial rulers, the communist activists worked under socialist and Congress banners, organising farm and industrial workers, staging plays and promoting ‘progressive’ literature and cinema.  

India’s communists contributed significantly to evolution of the Marxist-Leninist principles of the global communist movement in the last century. But while interpreting and acting upon them, they also suffered numerous splits, throwing up a plethora of rival left groups, including four Revolutionary Socialist parties, with tendencies ranging from Bolshevik, Trotskyites and Maoists, to plain vanilla Marxist.

Their bigger problem has been approach to the two principal poles – Moscow and Beijing – and the biggest at home, to the Congress. The 1964 split, following the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, created two communist mainstreams, the CPI and the CPI (Marxist). The more radical ones, meanwhile, continue to this day to confront the State with armed revolution.

In its parliamentary journey the Left has produced some of India’s best lawmakers. It was the principal opposition in the first three parliaments. The world’s first democratically elected communist government was formed in Kerala in 1957.  

Vigorous pursuit of their different lines landed the two parties in opposite political camps.  The CPI supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. After the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi’s government, the CPI (M) and the BJP joined hands behind Prime Minister VP Singh to keep the Congress out, both losing ground nationally during this brief period.   

Claiming to be ‘scientific’ in their approach, the communists have, however, displayed serious contradictions – and they justify them. They opposed the Congress’ ‘authoritarianism’ in the past, just the way they oppose the ‘communal’ BJP today.  

The CPI (M) was the kingmaker when then General Secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, one of the most down-to-earth Marxists with a mind uncluttered by dogma, helped forge alliances that formed non-Congress, non-BJP governments at a time of political instability.

But its rigid hardliners have prevailed while dealing with ideologically different forces, refusing to share unless they have the upper hand. The CPI(M) hardliners, dubbed ‘Stalinists’ scuttled Jyoti Basu’s becoming the prime minister even as CPI’s ministers performed creditably. The cooperation between Left and other democratic parties has always been problematic.

The Left’s sun shone bright in 2004 with 61 parliamentary seats and a key advisory role that helped it push multi-billion anti-poverty schemes. But it fought the Manmohan Singh Government, even tried to oust it, to oppose India’s civil nuclear deal with the chief global bugbear, the United States. Somnath Chatterjee, the only communist Lok Sabha Speaker ever, was expelled. That marked the beginning of the end of its national role.

Despite long years of internal debate, the CPI(M) that leads the Left combine has failed to resolve its original contradiction: dealing with the Congress. It persists with West Bengal (Sitaram Yechuri) versus Kerala (Prakash Karat) line. The Left’s self-inflicted isolation has in the long run allowed BJP complete advantage.

West Bengal was lost in 2011 after 33 years of Left Front rule. The Left slumped to just 10 seats in the 2014 election. And then, the BJP stormed tiny Tripura. Across the east, cadres, even legislators and now long-time-loyal voter, have transferred their support, almost wholesale, to the BJP. With vote share down to seven percent, the Left scored a duck in 2019. The once-red region has turned largely saffron.

Its pockets elsewhere in the country long gone, only Kerala remains, but under siege from the BJP that has emerged as the third force threatening what has been a revolving door arrangement between two fronts. With the Left Front in power, the Congress snatched five seats from the CPI(M), including one for Rahul Gandhi, thus damaging the Left hugely, not the BJP.

Gopalkrishna Gokhale who mentored Mahatma Gandhi once said “what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow.” Is West Bengal going the BJP way judging by the party bagging 18 parliamentary seats? And is Kerala, India’s most literate – and politically mature – state with significant population of Muslims and Christians, too, heading in the same direction?         

The combined Left tally of five is its lowest in parliamentary history. The CPI and the CPI(M) may lose their “national party” status. Worse, four of the five seats — two each of the CPI and the CPI (M) – were from Tamil Nadu, where both rode piggy-back on the regional major, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The Left’s decline was foregone. A pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in the last week of March correctly showed that the BJP was set to improve its performance in West Bengal as compared to 2014. It did with an impressive 18. Irrespective of the numbers, it has damaged the Left, perhaps, irreparably. The Congress’s decision to go it alone in West Bengal and fielding Rahul in Kerala seriously hampered the Left’s prospects.

The decline is all-round. The Left together claims a million members. Compare that with the BJP’s 88 million, with or without the cadres of the affiliates. It claims to be the world’s biggest political party.

As elsewhere in the world, India’s middle class has grown richer, vocal and powerful. The State treats efforts at collective bargaining as law and order challenges. As millions are displaced from their homes, the corporates-controlled media has no sympathy for farm and industrial workers who fed the communist movement.

In the past, tens of thousands of Indians turned out for communist rallies, chanting proletarian slogans and wearing hammer and sickle neck chains with their Marxist-red t-shirts and hats. But today, the movement, after a century of struggle, is fighting a desperate survival battle. The “Lal Salaam” era is over.

The writer can be reached at

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