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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 48, New Delhi, November 13, 2021

Bengal CPI(M) and their Congress dilemma | Arnab Sen Sarma

Saturday 13 November 2021

by Arnab Sen Sarma *

The Central Committee (CC), the apex decision-making body of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), has recently released its review report of the 2021 assembly elections in Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Assam [1]. The twenty-six-page document, which presents the party’s intramural analysis of its recent electoral performance in these States, is the reverberation of the CC’s deliberations between August 06-08, 2021. Among all these States, the discussion pertaining to its erstwhile bastion state of West Bengal is both imperative and tendentious. The CC termed the party’s latest performance in Bengal as “devastating” and zeroed in on some of the cardinal issues that have contributed to this debacle such as the party’s position on land question, decline in mass base, Samyukta Morcha, over-estimation of anti-incumbency against the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the right-ward shift in politics.

CPI(M) was returned empty-handed in the recently concluded West Bengal assembly elections. It is certainly a fatal blow to the party that takes pride in governing the state for over three decades. This is the first time, since independence, that a newly elected assembly took an oath devoid of Communist representation. The dwindling of popular support for the CPI(M), which commenced with the 2008 Panchayat Elections, has finally attained its climax in the Assembly Elections of 2021 with the party’s coring a duck [2]. Irrefragably, CPI(M) is facing an existential crisis in the state. Would the CPI(M) be able to buck this trend? Only time holds the answer. But, the more pertinent question to ask is how did the once-mighty Bengal CPI(M), that successfully established a “party-society” (Bhattacharyya, 2016) [3] in the state, disappear from the mainstream narrative of state politics?

The CC, in its review, identified a few micro-themes that have contributed to the party’s poll fiasco, but the more marked and persistent themes remain to be its ideological inconsistency and unwarranted dogmatism. CPI(M)’s episodic hobnobbing with the Congress is one of its glaring illustrations. It is quite evident from the party’s history that whenever it struck a union with the Congress, be it nationally or in the state, the party paid dearly for it.

The CPI(M) reigned supreme in West Bengal for 34 consecutive years-from 1977-2011. In 2011, the party was ousted from power, in a political tempest of sorts, by the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC-Congress alliance. The victory had been portentous for both the alliance partners. With the TMC catapulting to power, it realized Mamata Banerjee’s decadal quest for power in Bengal. For the Congress, once a dominant player in state politics, the party could taste power in the state after more than three decades. But, soon it became apparent that not everything was hunky-dory within the ruling alliance as both the parties kept exchanging barbs against each other. Subsequently, the two parties parted ways in 2012 as the TMC, a partner in the Congress-led UPA-II government in the center, walked out of the coalition protesting the central government’s decision to allow FDI in the retail sector.

The fallout of the TMC-Congress alliance brought the TMC in the crosshairs of both the CPI(M) and the Congress. Running up to the 2016 Assembly Elections in the state, the local units of the parties decided to forge a pre-electoral alliance despite the skepticism of the national leadership of the respective parties. The alliance thus concocted was based on the electoral arithmetic of 2014 general elections, where both the Left Front and the Congress cumulatively polled 39.64% [4]. As was expected, the equation failed miserably with the TMC securing a thumping victory. In 2011, the CPI(M) managed to remain as the principal opposition in the state with 30.1% vote share, but, in 2016, not only the party witnessed a 10% decline in its vote share but also lost the status of primary opposition.

For an alliance to succeed, transfer of votes between the participating parties play a crucial role. The Left-Congress “strategic” alliance was knocked together considering the quantitative data. The qualitative aspect, which plays a pivotal role in Indian elections, was not given due to pondering. The CPI(M) and the Congress share a checkered past in the state. Both the parties confronted each other viciously through the 1970s, embossing indelible scars among the activists and sympathizers on either side. While CPI(M)’s vote, being a cadre-based party, was largely transferred to Congress, vice versa didn’t happen as consistently. This lopsided transfer of votes benefitted the Congress substantially- the party won more seats than the CPI(M) and emerged as the new leader of the opposition in the state.

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Despite the electoral botch, and the CC flagging the issue in its 2016 review of Assembly Elections [5], local CPI(M) leadership decided to keep the alliance with the Congress alive in West Bengal. This was not to be, as in the 2019 general elections, talks between the CPI(M) and the Congress over seat-sharing failed to reach a consensus and an alliance couldn’t fructify. As was envisaged, both the parties performed egregiously. The CPI(M) couldn’t register a win in any of the seats, and received only 6.3% of the popular vote. The 2019 elections also marked the meteoric rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state’s political landscape as the principal challenger to TMC with 18 seats (42.86% vote share). With both the Congress and the CPI(M) failing to provide a viable alternative against the TMC, and having lost the popular support, the BJP in no time seized the opposition space.

In the 2021 assembly elections, the CPI(M) and the Congress once again joined hands to form a rather uncomfortable pre-electoral alliance, Samyukta Morcha. This time the bone of contention was the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a political outfit floated by Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric of the Furfura Sharif Shrine located in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. The Congress was not content with the seat-sharing formula with ISF, and also many in the party believed that the alliance could prove to be a blow on their secular character. Although, the CPI(M) touted ISF as a secular political front but, in reality, the party’s customary convoluted justification couldn’t find resonance among the electorate. When the election results were announced on 2nd May, CPI(M) saw their vote share plunge by another 2% to 4%, as compared to 2019, and failed to win even a single seat.

The Congress question is not a recent one for the CPI(M), rather can be located at the core of its inception. The CPI(M) came into being as a result of a split in the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1964. When the friction between the “conservative” right and the “radical” left grew within the CPI over several ideological disagreements, the left led by B.T. Ranadive broke away to form CPI(M). The Ranadive faction, so to speak, was inordinately critical of Nehru and the Congress. Unlike the CPI, which decided to back the national bourgeoisie, the CPI(M) considered the industrial proletariat and the peasantry to be the leading agents of revolution. But, this class predilection of the party turned on its head when the CPI(M) joined hands with the Bangla Congress, a breakaway faction of the Congress representing the interests of landlords and rural rich, to form United Front governments in the late 1960s. This commingling of antagonistic class interests and the compulsion of coalition politics also turned the CPI(M) hostile to the very social class they first chose to represent, evident from the party’s high-handed suppression of the “Naxalbari Andolan” [Naxalbari Movement], a radical peasant uprising against the rural elites in the Siliguri sub-division of West Bengal in 1967. The Naxalbari Andolan also led to a split in the CPI(M) in 1969, when the radicals in the party couldn’t come to terms with the party’s decision to put down the jacquerie, and subsequently parted ways to form the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML).

Bengal CPI(M)’s belligerent stance against the peasantry was not constricted to the Naxalbari movement. It once again became conspicuous during the resistance movements against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram in the mid-2000s. When the Budhhadeb Bhattacharya- led CPI(M) government tried to steamroll its industrial policies on them, local peasantries in the respective places violently confronted the security forces, leading to complete mayhem. Coincidentally, this was also the time when the Congress-led UPA-I government in the center was reigning with the external countenance of the CPI(M). Eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm aptly stated, “the paradox of communism in power was that it was conservative”.

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury quite often deploys the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete situations” in his interviews to explain Marxism. The expression essentially means to be a Marxist one should change one’s outlook with changing conditions. Today, Bengal CPI(M) is more status quoist and elitist in its approach than some of the major “reactionary” bourgeoisie forces of the right. CPI(M), once known for its movements in the grassroots, is now barely connected to the subaltern reality. Faced with the crisis in 2011, the party instead of taking to the streets, collaborated with the populist Congress in a bid to recuperate its lost political eminence in the state. It is critical for the party to undergo drastic overhauling, both ideological and organizational, and in the process conceive available and neoteric “left-alternative” narrative that is distinctively distinguishable from the populist-bourgeoisie forces, which often appropriate leftist socio-economic policies to consolidate power. Failing to course-correct would see Bengal CPI(M), the biggest unit of the party, gradually fade into oblivion.

The left political space is embedded in the country’s political DNA and thus will not perish with the right-ward political shift. In the absence of the CPI(M), there would be three notable outcomes that would shape the left politics of the country in, at least, the foreseeable future. First, the right-wing forces would eclectically accommodate left policies to enhance their political appeal as BJP does with its wide-ranging socialist schemes. Second, the centrist parties would re-brand themselves to posit as the “new-left” as the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is seeking to do [6]. The recent admission of former CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar into the party [7]sends the message loud and clear. Third, the more radical left would see a revival as was witnessed in the recently concluded Assembly Elections in Bihar, where CPI (ML) won 12 out the 19 seats they contested [8].

(Author: Arnab Sen Sarma, Researcher on Public Policy, Associated with Peoples Pulse, Political Research Organization. peoplespulse.hyd[at]gmail.com)


[1Communist Party of India (Marxist). 2021. Review of Assembly Elections. [online] Available at: https://www.cpim.org/documents/review-assembly-elections-0 [Accessed 2 November 2021

[2Ghosh, H. (2021). Is This the End of the Road for the CPI(M) in Bengal? The Wire. https://thewire.in/politics/west-bengal-cpim-elections

[3Bhattacharyya, D. (2016). Government as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India (South Asia in the Social Sciences). Cambridge University Press.

[4Solomon, S. (2016, May 22). West Bengal: Left-Congress alliance weak in arithmetic and chemistry. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/elections-2016/india/india-news-india/west-bengal-left-congress-alliance-weak-in-arithmetic-and-chemistry-2813058/

[5Communist Party of India (Marxist). 2016. Review of Assembly Elections. [online] Available at: https://www.cpim.org/documents/review-assembly-elections [Accessed 2 November 2021].

[6Kumar, S. (2021, September 28). View: Congress is the new Left in today’s India. CNBCTV18. https://www.cnbctv18.com/politics/view-congress-is-the-new-left-in-todays-india-10919752.htm

[7Correspondent, H. T. (2021, September 28). Kanhaiya Kumar joins Congress, Jignesh Mevani lends support. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/kanhaiya-kumar-joins-congress-jignesh-mevani-lends-support-101632852901819.html

[8Mathur, S. (2020, November 11). Left scores in 16 out of 29 seats in Bihar, CPI-ML wins 12 of 19. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/assembly-elections/bihar/left-scores-in-16-out-of-29-seats-in-bihar-cpi-ml-wins-12-of-19/articleshow/79161263.cms

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