Red turns Saffron in Communist bastions


One of the salient features of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) is its institutional capacity to introspect and discuss any issue that the party is ailing with, irrespective of whether the outcome of such deliberations will help improve its performance or functioning.  So, after every election, the party leadership ‘religiously’ sets up teams to find reasons for its debacle. The report of the team is then circulated and discussed threadbare at all competent party forums and eventually dumped into the cold storage. And after the next poll debacle also, the vain exercise is repeated.

The CPI(M)’s obsession with ‘fact finding’ and discussions has reached ridiculous levels, as in most cases findings are far removed from ground realities. For instance, former CPI(M) state committee member and CITU leader late VB Cherian, in a TV channel discussion, had recounted a real-life story happened in one of the party units in Kerala. He says, “In that unit there was an unmarried woman comrade and she became pregnant. At the party meeting the question was raised and she held the local secretary responsible. This created flutter in the party circles. The party set up a fact-finding team. After a month, the team came up with two findings: ‘the local secretary did not indulge in sex with the woman and the woman comrade was not pregnant’. But, after six months, the woman gave birth to a child. After this, the party met again and expelled the woman comrade for ‘gross indiscipline and anti-party activities’.”

Advances and reverses

The Communist parties have been on a path of steady decline and political irrelevance. The CPI(M), which used to be a force to be reckon with, is reduced to a fringe player in Indian politics. In the Fifties and Sixties there was a talk about “Communist Revolution” in India. In 1967, the CPI(M) emerged as the leading party in West Bengal and Kerala and united front governments came to power at the state level. In Tripura, the CPI(M) and the Left emerged as a major force. In Parliament also, the CPI(M) emerged a main opposition group. In the 1967 general election, the party received 6.2 million votes (4.28% of the nationwide vote). The party improved its position further in the 1971 general election bagging 5.12% of the national vote. The party was in power in West Bengal and Tripura continuously since then and intermittently in Kerala. More than its political power, the Left intelligentsia controlled academic, social and educational institutions in the country.

However, in West Bengal, CPI(M)-led Left Front with 62 seats suffered a massive setback after 34 years of continuous rule, losing to Trinamool Congress alliance’s 226 seats. In Kerala too, it lost power but could regain it in 2016. The national vote share of CPI(M) has also shrunk from 5.33% in 2009 to 3.28% in 2014. With the Narendra Modi government in power, Leftists are facing a wipeout from educational and academic space.

Significance of Tripura results

With the rout of the Left Front government in Tripura, the Communists have now only one bastion left – Kerala. There too, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front is facing a tough challenge from the BJP.

The reasons for the front’s rout in Tripura are not very far to seek. The 24-year rule has made the party lethargic and complacent. The party cadre had become lumpenised. It failed to gauge the bourgeoning resentment against the government which has done precious little to empower the poor, tribals and women. The Communists, as elsewhere, were anti-development and did nothing to promote industrialization or job creation in the last 24 years. An NGO activist Ashique Debbarma says people in tribal areas die like flies when there is an outbreak of Malaria. Educational and health infrastructure is in a poor condition in the hinterlands.

The only development work one could see in the whole state is that of highway expansion. For everything, one needs to approach the party. There is an element of truth when Assam Finance Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma, who oversaw BJP strategy in North-East, says the goons in the CPI(M) had defeated the party, “as people were fed up with the loompen elements”. The BJP managed to tap into the resentment with a systematic campaign. Given the poor living conditions of tribals and other disadvantaged sections, one gets a feeling that there is truth in the BJP’s allegation that the much-hyped high human development indices of the state are forged. It would not be wrong to say that in the uninterrupted Left rule, the only institution that had got strengthened is the party apparatus and it used to deliver victory for the party till last elections. At the end of the day, the party had nothing to show whereas the BJP was able to sell a dream.

According to Sunil Deodhar, Tripura BJP Organising Secretary and architect of BJP’s spectacular victory, the party has set up committees in all booths and has appointed Panna Pramukhs. What Deodhar had brought into the party is a killer instinct and sense of urgency.

The BJP had roped in educated youngsters to drive home the message of development. It has fanned out 42,000 Panna Pramukhs to coordinate sub-booth level activities. More names are being added to the list. Deodhar says this exercise has helped them weed out about 35,000 fake voters from the list. This had a telling effect on the polls.

The BJP didn’t give a day’s respite to the CPI(M). A slew of other corruption charges and scams and involvement of CPI(M) leaders in the Rose Valley chit fund scam have helped BJP to tear apart Manik Sarkar’s paragon-of-probity image. It used RTI to the hilt. It also consolidated anti-CPI(M) votes by decimating Congress and Trinamool Congress. Making geo-tagging mandatory for MGNREGA assets has blown the lid off a major scam of misappropriation of Central funds. Besides, by rising unemployment and underdevelopment, the BJP cornered the CPI(M).

It is also used Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a development-man to the hilt. His rallies drew mammoth crowds unparalleled in the history of Tripura.

Ideology as albatross

In fact, Left Front’s debacle in Tripura should be seen in the perspective of the overall decline of the Left in the national scene.  One of the major bottlenecks in the way of the CPI(M), which is inspired by Leninism and Marxism, is its ideology. It leaves little room for pragmatic political experimenting and demands complete submission to the party hierarchy to the extent that, according to CPI(M)’s constitution, a worker cannot even resign from the party — the party can only expel him/her. In 1996, prima donna of Indian Communism and long-time Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu had a chance to become the prime minister in 1996 and the party ruled otherwise, thereby committing ‘a historic blunder’. The Communists parties have not been able to attract new blood. For the Indian aspirational youth, who is enjoying all the different kinds of freedoms, the party has nothing to offer but a few outdated slogans and hollow sermons on secularism.

Despite their tall talk on “proletariats and working class emancipation”, the Communists have failed to understand the ground realities of India. As economist Meghnad Desai rightly puts it: “They never understood the Indian society and salience of caste.” For Communists, religious practice was an expression of communalism and majoritarianism.  “On the nationalism issue too, they had a different approach. They always stood against national interests. So when China invaded India, they took a pro-China stance,” says J Nandakumar of RSS.

For decades, the CPI(M) was not able to make up its mind as to who is its main enemy — the BJP-RSS  or the Congress. Now that it has identified BJP as its main rival, the debate is whether the party should have a tie-up with the Congress or not to defeat the BJP. The party could not finalise it so far because its vision was limited to winning two states – Kerala and West Bengal. Any decision would have resulted in the party’s split. Prakash Karat, supported by the Kerala unit of the CPI(M), is dead against any truck with the Congress, as it fears it will be detrimental to its interests. But the party general secretary Sitaram Yechury and the West Bengal unit want tie-up with the Congress, as the party is facing an existential crisis in the state. The CPI(M) has surrendered its space to the BJP in the state. So for the party, it is a Catch-22 situation.

Another problem with the Left is that they had failed to produce a charismatic leader of the stature of Mao of China or Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. They always looked towards Russia or China for inspiration and guidance. After Communist Revolution in China, there was a talk that it was India’s turn. But Stalin thought India was not ripe for revolution. Disheartened Indian Communists decided to play the democracy game.

Left’s losing grip in Kerala

Although people in Kerala have been electing CPI(M)-led LDF and Congress-led UDF alternatively, the Left continues to enjoy considerable support in the state, though BJP is making steady breaches in its strongholds. In Kerala, CPI(M) is the biggest Hindu party in the state, for about 75 per cent of its vote share comes from Hindu communities. With CPI(M) pandering to Muslim communalists – EMS Namboothiripad had stated that majority communalism is more dangerous than minority communalism —  and carving out a Muslim-majority district Malappuram, it had given space for BJP’s first avatar Jana Sangh. It is true that the BJP could not win many seats in the Assembly contesting with two formidable coalitions. But individually, the party has been able to poll about 16 per cent votes in the last Assembly elections and open an account. The BJP’s efforts to bring about Hindu consolidation had only partially helped it. If BJP manages to do that with new strategies and programmes, the Left is in for a trouble.

The Left in Kerala too is facing a crisis of credibility. Earlier, the party had some public-accepted leaders like EMS Namboothiripad, C Achutha Menon and AK Gopalan. But today’s top leaders such as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan cannot claim to be paragons of probity. Balakrishnan’s son was allegedly involved in some corruption cases in Dubai. Both the leaders were allegedly involved in murder cases.

Although the CPI(M) has been aggressively projecting itself as the savior of minorities, recent murders of Muslim youths by CPI(M) and CPI cadres have angered the community. The recent incident of lynching of a starving tribal youth has also put the Left in the dock.

The social structure in Kerala has undergone a change. The lower class space is shrinking, as a result of which middle class is expanding, thanks to affluence brought about by Gulf remittances. The old slogans directed at toiling masses won’t work. The party has not so far oriented its strategies to target burgeoning middle class.

One of the major reasons for the CPI(M)’s continuing hold on the public is its control over cooperative societies. In most areas, CPI(M) is controlling the cooperative societies.

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