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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 26 New Delhi June 15, 2019

Modi 2.0 and the Demise of Communist Forces in Bengal

Monday 17 June 2019

by Shiraz Sheikh

In the recently concluded Indian elections the Right-wing forces led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have recaptured power with a massive electoral mandate. The BJP won 303 seats out of the 543 seats with a 38 per cent vote-share. Series of opinion-pieces have been penned to make assessment of various facets of this outcome. Hindutva, anti-Muslim hatred, national security narrative, professional campaign, strong leadership of Modi, and a weak and divided Opposition have been a few of the identified causes attributed to the BJP’s landslide victory. To a great extent these assessments are an appropriate reflection of the political scenario and electoral outcome. In the backdrop of this noise there was a silent demise of the Left parties in India. Once a potent force in the Indian political system, the Communists have lost their strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala. The two States collectively represent 62 seats in the total tally of 543 Lower House seats. The Left parties won only one seat from Kerala. In its zenith in 2004 the Left parties won 43 seats out of the 69 seats it contested. In that election the Communist Parties won 26 seats in West Bengal. In the 2019 general elections the Communists have won a total of five seats, one from Kerala and four from Tamil Nadu. This article however specifically focuses on West Bengal which was once the Communist bastion and examines its gradual demise in the context of Modi’s re-election.

The Genesis of Communist Politics in India

The roots of the Left forces in India can be traced back to the colonial era when anti-colonial movements were high in the country. The period was parallel to the rise of Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat in Soviet Russia. It was in 1920 when the founder of the Communist Party of India (CPI), M.N. Roy, issued the Communist Manifesto in Tashkent (then part of the USSR) and laid out the framework for communist activities in India. Formally, the CPI was founded in 1925 in Kanpur. The idea was to create a masculine militant force against the non-violent method of M.K. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. However, the Britishers, who were aware of the potential of organised and mobilised proletariat, declared the party as an “unlawful association”1 and imposed a blanket ban on all communist activities in 1934. After the promulgation of the Defence of India Ordinance in 1939 the Communists were arrested and detained in camps.2 The party was legally recognised in 1942 after which it began to operate freely.

The real party activity gained momentum after 1947 when the CPI started to participate in the electoral process of independent India. In the initial stage the Indian political scene was dominated by the INC which inherited an established party organisation and to which the British transferred power at the time of their retreat. In the first general elections of India in 1952, the CPI won 16 seats against the mighty Congress party led by Jawaharlal Nehru. Although numerically the CPI’s tally was thin, they were the main Opposition party. The remarkable achievement came in 1957 when the CPI defeated the INC in the Assembly elections of Kerala and E.M.S. Namboodiripad formed first Communist Government in free India. However, a spilt emerged in the party in 1964 when the pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese ideology advocates failed to come to consensus. A group of Communists advocating the radical revolu-tionary ideology of Mao Zedong formed a splinter party, the CPI-M, during the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of India held in Calcutta in 1964. The main cadre for the CPI-M came from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. But the real success story was shaped in West Bengal with Communists defining and dominating power for more than three decades.

The Rise of Communist Forces in West Bengal

In terms of political ideology and dominance, Bengal’s political journey can be periodised in four phases. In the first phase there was a complete domination of the INC which under Nehru’s leadership reinforced a TINA factor. In the first general elections the INC won 21 seats out of 31 while the CPI managed to secure five seats from the State. In the Assembly elections of that year an alliance led by the INC won 150 seats and formed the government while CPI won 28 seats and became the principle Opposition. The Congress era ended in 1977 when the Communists emerged triumphant in both the general and Assembly elections. In the Assembly elections the CPM secured absolute majority by winning 178 seats out of 294 seats in the State. In the general elections of that year it became the single largest party from the State by winning 17 seats from the total of 42 seats.

These elections led to a rupture in the Indian political system as at the national level a non-Congress Government was formed for the first time in independent India. In West Bengal also it was the bitter adieu for the Congress. In 1977 the second phase of Bengal politics began. An era of Communist domination began with the swearing in of Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Basu ruled for 23 years in the top office and vacated the office in 2000. After him another CPM stalwart, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, assumed the post of the Chief Minister in 2001. Bhattacharya continued till 2011 when he lost his own constituency in the Assembly election against a Trinamul Congress (TMC) candidate. In the 2011 Assembly elections the CPM lost to its local rival, the TMC. Surprisingly, the CPM came third in the tally by winning only 40 seats. From here began the third phase of Bengal politics—the TMC era. The bruise of those elections created deep cracks in the invincible Bengal fortress of the Communist Party. The CPM could not revive itself from this shock which reflected even in the 2014 general elections. The Communists only won two seats in those elections while the TMC won 34 seats out of 42 seats. The erosion, that began in 2011, was deepened in the next Assembly elections of 2016 when the TMC registered a thumping majority by securing 211 seats. In those elections the CPM was saturated to its lowest of 26 seats. The worst was yet to come in the 2019 general elections when its hope of revival was to be muted by the Right-wing party—the BJP. The surge of this saffron force in West Bengal completed the Left’s burial by killing it ideologically.

The Saffron Surge and the Fading Red

After dwelling into this brief journey of Communist politics in India let’s zero-in on the central theme of the article: how the BJP’s rise will affect the Left’s future in Bengal. If statistics of the last two elections are examined it becomes evident that the BJP’s rise has a definitive correlation to the decline of the Communists’ influence in the State. In the general elections of 2014 the BJP had 16.80 per cent vote-share in the State and managed to secure two seats. While the collective Left Front got 34 per cent vote-share but won only two seats. This data was to change in the 2019 elections. In those elections the entire Left Front was reduced to mere 7.46 per cent vote-share and could not open its account in its bastion. In contrast, the BJP—a feeble force in the State’s politics—secured 18 seats with 40.30 per cent vote-share. It was an astounding electoral performance about which the party leaders spoke at length in their victory speech. This result was important as it will transform Bengal’s political landscape by pushing the Communists into irrelevance. The question which is to be answered here is: how the BJP—a Right-wing force—could script this plot in the State where it was absent since its origin.

One argument which is rapidly gaining currency in the media is that the Communists have tacitly supported the BJP to teach a lesson to the TMC leaders. However much the Left supporters disagree with this, the polling data corrobo-rates this allegation. In the 2014 elections the Left Front had 34 per cent vote-share which dropped to seven per cent in the 2019 elections while the BJP’s vote-share grew manifold to 40 per cent from 16 per cent in the previous election. Since the TMC’s vote-share also grew by four per cent it is evident that the Left voters have shifted their loyalty. Again it is intriguing as to why Communist sympathisers would endorse an ideologically opposite party. One pragmatic argument is the rational choice of the Left leaders and cadres who sought political survival against the TMC. Since the Communists were out of power for the last two terms and had no prospect of revival at the national level the political elite crossed over leaving the sinking ship. It reaped dividends also as many of the turncoats from the CPM, TMC and INC, who joined the BJP, made to Parliament. More than this tactical and pragmatic shifting of cadres and leaders what is worrisome for the Communists’ future in Bengal is the ideological defeat it conceded to the Right-wing BJP. The BJP has a strong presence in the Hindi-belt of central and northern India. In the southern part of India, except Karnataka, it has marginal influence. Wherein in the North-Eastern part of the country the BJP-led alliance made its presence in the last elections. In its march towards the east Bengal was the biggest hurdle. Since the State was dominated by two regional parties, the BJP was struggling for its space. Aware of the scenario that it cannot woo the voters with policy pronouncements the BJP opted for the polarisation path. Since Bengal has above 27 per cent Muslim population that voted the TMC to power in the last elections the BJP found its fodder for communal politics. They accused the TMC of appeasement politics of Muslims by neglecting the Hindus. Some of the spectacular events such as riots in Islampur, attack on the Kalichak police station by a Muslim mob, grand celebration of the Hanuman Jayanti and Ram Navmi by the BJP helped in Hindu vote consolidation against the constructed pro-minority image of the State Chief Minister, Mamata Banrejee. The consolidation reflected in the election results as from the Muslim dominated constituencies Hindus voted en masse for the BJP while Muslim votes got fragmented among the TMC, Congress and CPM. In Raiganj constituency where Muslim voters are around 49.5 per cent the BJP candidate won the seat with 40 per cent vote. In Malda constituency also where Muslims constitute more than 51 per cent a BJP candidate won with 37 per cent vote-share.

The communal polarisation also echoed in constituencies inhabiting the Matua community in North 24 Pargana and Nadia districts bordering Bangladesh. The Matuas are a Scheduled Caste populace who migrated due to religious persecution from East Bengal after partition and settled in the bordering areas. From 2009 they were backing the TMC as the community matriarch “Boro Ma” rendered her support for Mamata Banerjee. Given the numerical strength of this socially disadvantage community both the BJP and TMC attempted to woo the affluent of the Matua community. During his election campaign Modi flagged the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill under which Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis who migrated to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and resided in the country for seven years were to be accorded citizenship, even without possession of any document.3 The Act discriminates against the Muslims and in a way comforts wounded memories of Matuas who suffered the wrath of Muslims. The BJP fielded Boro Ma’s grandson, Shantanu Thakur, from Bongaon defeating the TMC. The BJP also won the Ranaghat parlia-mentary seat where the Matua community constitutes 40 per cent of the population which voted en masse for the BJP.

Although the Left parties may argue that this shift is only tactical and momentary, the BJP has made inroads in the Communist bastion. Now there will be nurturing of one political class—both leaders and cadres—whose political survival will depend on the parent party. It was apparent when after the election result over 50 TMC councillors along with three West Bengal legislators, one each from the CPM, TMC and Congress, defected to the BJP.4 It will be a tough task for the Left and TMC to woo back its leaders and foot-soldiers, who are reaping fruits under the new patronage. It is being argued that the Communists have committed a blunder by bringing in Right-wing forces to defeat the local rival. Now once the BJP has tasted power in the State they will not concede any ground to the Communists. After all Communists are the biggest ideological nemeses of the Right-wing. The BJP has come to Bengal to complete its pan-nationalist presence. Modi 2.0 has laid the foundation of the fourth phase of Bengal politics. Their stay is going to be longer than what the Communists are expecting. It will be a long winter for the Communist forces in Bengal before they see the spring again. 

Endnotes

1. Manzer, Habib, “British Measures Against Indian Communists, 1934-37”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Indian History Congress, Vol. 65, 2004, pp. 776-783.

2. Fischer, Ruth, “The Indian Communist Party”, Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 22, No. 7, June 1953, pp. 79-84.

3. “PM Modi Pitches For Citizenship Bill, Says Will Bring Justice And Respectabilityv, Outlook, 2 February 2019. URL: https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-pm-modi-pitches-for-citizenship-bill-says-will-bring-justice-and-respectability/324776~

4. Liz Mathew, Santanu Chowdhury, “BJP hits TMC again: Gets three Bengal MLAs, over 60 Councillors”, The Indian Express, May 29, 2019.

The author is a Ph.D in International Studies and is currently a Project Associate under the UGC-Centre for Pakistan Studies at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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