The CPI(M)-led Left parties have proved themselves to be the most ill-equipped among the major political forces in India, in facing the RSS-BJP’s offensive. The Left’s decline started at least a decade earlier from the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The failure to reverse this decline in 10 years, even after a change in the topmost leadership in 2015, has now led to its worst electoral performance, where the combined vote share of the CPI(M) and the CPI has fallen to 2.3%
The Lok Sabha strength of the Left parties has declined from 12 in 2014 to only 5 in 2019. Out of the 5 seats, the CPI(M) and CPI have won 2 seats each in Tamil Nadu as a part of the DMK-led secular alliance. In Kerala, while the CPI(M)-led LDF could win only 1 seat against the 19 won by the Congress-led UDF, the mass base of the Left did not witness a major erosion despite the Sabarimala controversy. However, the Left Front in Tripura has witnessed severe erosion of support after losing power to the BJP in 2018, with the LF candidates finishing third behind the BJP and the Congress this time. The most worrisome development for the Left has been in West Bengal, with the 40 LF candidates including 2 sitting MPs finishing third or fourth, with all but one forfeiting their deposits.
The LF's vote share in West Bengal has declined from 31% in 2014 and 26% in 2016 (in alliance with the Congress) to only 7.5% in 2019. The BJP's vote share has grown from 17% in 2014 and 10% in 2016 to over 40% in 2019. The Trinamool's (TMC) vote share was around 40% in 2014, 45% in 2016 and 43% in 2019. The Congress has declined from around 10% in 2014 and 12% in 2016 to 5% in 2019.
It is clear that the unprecedented growth in BJP's vote share in Bengal has been mainly at the cost of the LF, with left cadres and supporters shifting en masse to the BJP across the state. A section of the TMC base has also shifted to the BJP, which accounts for its losses in South Bengal, but another section of the LF and Congress votes have shifted towards the TMC, especially in Central and North Bengal, which is why the state-level net vote share loss of the TMC has been low. Deepening communal polarisation in the state over the past two years, owing to successive communal riots and the non-secular, anti-democratic and irresponsible politics practiced by the West Bengal Chief Minister, has certainly played a role in the BJP's rise.
But as the largest Left party, the CPI(M) and its leadership should take major part of the blame for the decline of the Left and the rise of the BJP at its expense. Unfortunately, the CPI(M) leadership continues to hold the repression unleashed by the TMC government in West Bengal and the BJP government in Tripura responsible for the erosion of their own mass base. This begs the question why they have failed to stand by their own cadres and activists and defend them against state repression, like they did in the 1970s in West Bengal or the late-1980s in Tripura? Why did the people of West Bengal and Tripura stop supporting them, if they were indeed fighting state repression?
This is actually a false premise because the BJP in Bengal and the Congress in Tripura have been able to grow or bounce back, faced with a similar terrain as the CPI(M)-led LF. Beneath the CPI(M) leadership's rants on repression lie a perpetual state of denial and an abhorrently arrogant attitude, whereby electoral defeats rather than leading to serious introspection and rectification are explained away as mistakes committed by the people. This disdain towards the people's mandate is primarily responsible for the Left's decline; the leadership simply refuses to be held accountable for their errors and failings.
The CPI(M)-led left parties today are stuck with an archaic ideological framework, a warped political line and a dysfunctional organisation which is leading them towards extinction. Nothing short of a comprehensive ideological-political-organisational overhaul would work to revive the Left. Programmatically, the Left parties need to shelve twentieth century orthodoxies surrounding the communist parties of the USSR and China and unhesitatingly embrace the democratic socialist programme of the New Left, which has emerged across continents through struggles against neoliberal capitalism and austerity—from Latin America to Europe and the United States.
Politically, the Left should stop wasting further time on the decades-old debate over whether or not to ally with the Congress. This debate has been rendered into a farce by now, especially after the debacles in West Bengal in 2016, where the Congress displaced the LF as the major opposition party, and in 2019 where the LF support ensured Congress' win in 2 seats in Bengal without any reciprocation. Such unprincipled and non-transparent alliances cannot provide any solution to the Left's problems. Rather, the Left should seriously consider abandoning its shibboleth of "democratic centralism", which only works to insulate a failed, geriatric leadership and prevent timely restructuring, and open up to popular platforms and broader electoral fronts in order to attract fresh blood, ideas and leadership.
The principal reason for the Left's decline in West Bengal, where it had ruled for three decades, lies in its many failures and mistakes in government. The entire template of policies and programme of Left governments need to change, vis-a-vis agriculture, industrial development, employment generation, land acquisition and land use, resource mobilisation and redistribution, cooperatives etc. The Left's policies on sustainable development, decentralised democracy, transparency and accountability in governance, gender and social justice, rights of minorities, dalits and adivasis, environment protection etc. also require serious rethinking in the light of past experiences. Without such a re-imagination of a leftwing programme, shallow debates over electoral tactics will lead nowhere.
The most glaring impact of the Left’s decline is felt in the absence of serious struggles and movements on livelihood issues which can upset the class-caste calculus of the RSS-BJP. The initiatives to form platforms at the national level have only led to sporadic and mostly tokenist forms of mobilisations. There were a few exceptions in Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh, but the limited impact of the peasant struggles can be seen in the reversal of the assembly election trends in the Lok Sabha elections. The university campuses have witnessed serious resistance movements by students and teachers, but so far they have been defensive battles with limited scale and efficacy. Sole focus on farmers’ and student movements cannot work in the backdrop of the paradigm shifts that have been brought about by the Modi regime in most spheres.
CPI candidate Kanhaiya Kumar’s campaign in Begusarai did not succeed in defeating the BJP, primarily because of the division in the secular votes caused by the RJD. However, the campaign could adopt innovative strategies and involve people from all walks of life, especially the youth cutting across castes and communities. This could happen because Kanhaiya Kumar articulated the politics of the Left in a fresh idiom, free from past baggage and represented a fresh face which emerged from a democratic movement. This offers a ray of hope.