By Arnab Sen Sarma
The Central Committee (CC), the apex decision-making body of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), recently released its review report of the 2021 Assembly elections in Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Assam. The 26-page document is the reverberation of the CC’s deliberations between August 6-8, 2021. Among all these States, the discussion on its erstwhile bastion West Bengal is important. The CC termed the party’s performance in Bengal as “devastating” and zeroed in on some of the cardinal issues that contributed to this debacle such as 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.
This is the first time, since independence, that a newly elected Assembly took oath devoid of Communist representation. The dwindling of popular support for the CPI(M) that commenced with the 2008 Panchayat elections attained its climax in the Assembly elections with the party scoring a duck. The CPI(M) is facing an existential crisis in the State. The pertinent question to ask is how did the once-mighty Bengal CPI(M), which successfully established a “party-society” in the State, disappear from the mainstream narrative of State politics?
Though the CC identified a few micro-themes for the poll fiasco, the more marked and persistent themes remain its ideological inconsistency and unwarranted dogmatism. The 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, it paid dearly.
The CPI(M) reigned supreme in West Bengal from 1977-2011. In 2011, it was ousted from power, in a political tempest of sorts, by the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC-Congress alliance. With the TMC catapulting to power, it realised Mamata’s decadal quest for power in Bengal. For the Congress, the party could taste power in the State after over three decades. But soon both began exchanging barbs against each other. Subsequently, the two parted ways in 2012 as the TMC, a partner in the Congress-led UPA-II government in the Centre, walked out of the coalition protesting the decision to allow FDI in the retail sector.
The fall brought the TMC in the crosshairs of both the CPI(M) and the Congress. In the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections, the local units of the parties decided to forge a pre-electoral alliance despite the scepticism of the national leadership of the parties. The alliance was based on the electoral arithmetic of the 2014 general elections, where both the parties cumulatively polled 32.7%. 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.
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 sympathisers on both sides. While CPI(M)’s vote, being a cadre-based party, was largely transferred to the Congress, vice versa didn’t happen as consistently. This 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.
Despite this, the Bengal CPI(M) decided to keep this alliance alive. This was not to be in the 2019 general elections as talks between the CPI(M) and the Congress over seat-sharing failed. 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 vote. The 2019 elections also marked the meteoric rise of the BJP in the State’s political landscape as the principal challenger to the TMC with 18 seats (42.86% vote share). With both the Congress and the CPI(M) failing to provide a viable alternative, 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. The Congress was not content with the seat-sharing formula with the ISF, and also many in the party believed that the alliance could prove to be a blow to their secular character. Though the CPI(M) touted the ISF as a secular political front, in reality, the party’s customary convoluted justification couldn’t find resonance among the electorate. The CPI(M) vote share plunged to 4% and it failed to win a single seat.
Problem at Core
The Congress question is not a recent one for the CPI(M) and 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 BT Ranadive broke away to form CPI(M). The Ranadive faction was inordinately critical of Nehru and the Congress. Unlike the CPI that decided to back the national bourgeoisie, the CPI(M) considered the industrial proletariat and the peasantry to be the leading agents of revolution.
But things changed when the CPI(M) joined hands with the Bangla Congress, a breakaway faction of 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 would make the CPI(M) hostile to the very social base they first chose to represent, evident from the party’s high-handed suppression of the ‘Naxalbari Andolan’, a radical peasant uprising against the rural elites in the Siliguri sub-division in the late 1960s. Eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm aptly stated, “the paradox of communism in power was that it was conservative”.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury often deploys the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete situations” to explain Marxism. The expression essentially means, to be a Marxist, one should change one’s outlook with changing conditions. Today, the Bengal CPI(M) is more status quoist and elitist in its approach than some of the major “reactionary” bourgeoisie forces of the right. The CPI(M), once known for its movements in the grassroots, is now barely connected to the subaltern reality.
It is critical for the party to undergo drastic overhauling, both ideological and organisational, and in the process conceive a viable 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 do so would see the CPI(M) gradually fade into oblivion, and the left political space that is embedded in the country’s political DNA would be taken over by either the populists or the more radical left forces.
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