Even as the exit polls were being broadcast, with predictions that the Left Front would be decimated (the predictions placed the Left as securing 7-13 votes), party boss Sitaram Yechury put up a brave face. “We won’t do that badly”, he commented baldly. In the event, his stand was partially vindicated- they won more than seven seats, ten to be precise. Together, the vote share of these constituent parties amounted to 3.2%. While that was more than the 2% secured by the debutante Aam Admi Party, it was less than the 5.33% it had secured in 2004. In its traditional strongholds, Kerala and West Bengal, the Left constituents did manage to secure about 30% of the vote. In Tripura, they did considerably better. They managed to win both the seats as well as to corner 64% of the vote. But Tripura sends only one MP to the 545-member Lok Sabha.
The present predicament of the Left becomes starker against the fact that it posed as the principal opposition to the Congress during the first three decades of Independence. They had a nationwide presence. In 1957, they formed the world’s first democratically elected government in Kerala. Their presence and influence in the industrial hubs of Mumbai and Kanpur are the stuff of legends. In Bihar, they led some of the most effective movements against the privileged castes. In West Bengal, they controlled the State Government for 34 years. Throughout the 1990s, despite the perils faced by global communism, Leftist leaders in India played the role of king-makers. As late as 2004, they lent support to the incoming UPA government and influenced the passage of momentous social protection legislation such as the NREGA.
West Bengal exemplifies the decline of the Left. During the 2004 national elections, led by the Communist Part of India (Marxist), they garnered nearly half the vote. By 2009, however, this had dipped to 43%. And in these elections, they barely managed to secure 30% of the vote. Against the 15 seats they won in 2009, this time they won two. In 2011, they were electorally slaughtered by the resurgent Trinamul Congress. Even so, they managed to secure 62 seats in the 294-member legislative assembly. Reports on the 2014 elections suggest that this time round, they recorded a lead in a mere 27 assembly segments. If assembly elections were held today, and the same trends hold, they might gain only 27 seats! The question being asked in Bengal is whether the Left would even finish as the opposition party in 2016, when legislative elections are due.
These are historical factors for the decline of the Left. But there are pretty specific reasons for their decimation in these elections. The party politburo plans to meet next week to analyse the data, but preliminary explanations have already been offered. Two of these stand out.
- The Trinamul Congress rigged the elections.
- The corporate media sponsored a virtual blitzkrieg in Modi’s favor that drowned everyone else
A third one may be deduced from the commentaries one hears and the analysis of Indian society based on the electoral verdict. This one might be summarized as follows: Indian society today is an aspirational society. No one has any time for the poor. Hence, formations such as the Left are bound to lose out.
Let us examine each of these explanations:
- Trinamul rigging of elections. While plausible, this does not explain why the BJP managed to win in the seats it did. Unless there was a ‘deal’ between the BJP and the TMC. Unlikely, given the vitriol during the electioneering.
- Corporate sponsorship of the Modi juggernaut. This argument doesn’t explain why Didi, subjected to intense grilling by the Modi brigade, survived- indeed, she flourished.
- India today is an aspirational society with no time for the poor- and its champions the Left. This argument too holds no water. The Left Front had swept to power in West Bengal on the back of the ‘middle peasant’ rather than the poorest segments of society, namely the agricultural laborers. Agricultural laborers never held leadership positions in the Party in any case.
Clearly, the Left leadership has a lot to answer for. None of their explanations carry much weight. In the light of the growing inequalities in India, one would have expected the Left to be more, rather than less, relevant. The electoral verdict reveals quite the opposite. In the light of this dismal performance, there are well-justified demands within the Left’s rank and file for a complete overhaul of the party leadership, starting right from the politburo. However, instead of listening to its grassroots leaders, the politburo members have responded by expelling key leaders who have voiced these demands. From the demands of the dissidents, it appears that there are three prime reasons that might explain the Left’s debacle.
- The absence of a coherent message. The Left prided itself as a champion of secularism and an opponent to the BJP’s hardliner Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. However, it was its rival the Trinamool Congress who stood up to Modi’s threats and called him out on the tenuous assertions he made from time to time. The Left’s wait and watch policy made it appear insincere and incompetent.
- An anachronistic assessment of the concrete reality in India. The Left failed to assess the growing numbers of the population who had escaped poverty but had failed to stabililise in the middle class. This group, variously called ‘vulnerable to poverty’, ‘neo-middle class’ and ‘aspirers’ formed over a third of the population. Even the poor were not a sedentary population, as reports speak of a growing number of internal circular migrants that criss-cross the country in search for dignified livelihoods. The Left’s manifesto did not even acknowledge the existence of these groups.
- A continued ignorance of the caste question. The bulk of the electoral support to the Left has historically come from the poorest sections of Indian society, the overwhelming majority of whom are Dalit. Yet, at least nine of the 15 politburo members of the CPI(M) are of evidently privileged caste origin. As education and awareness among Dalit populations increase, including in Left-ruled States such as West Bengal and Kerala, it is impossible to ignore the underrepresentation of these groups in the top echelons of the party. It is for this reason that dissidents such as Abdur Razzak Mollah have called upon the party leadership to take caste more seriously than it so far has.
The electoral decimation of the Left in 2014 provides a good opportunity for progressives to take stock of their analytical and political strategies. Caste parties that spearheaded the campaigns for social justice since the last two decades also find themselves in tatters. Perhaps progressives on both sides of the caste-class intellectual divide need to wake up to common challenges and develop a shared program to face the future. Inequalities are increasing in India, and are expected to deepen with the model of development espoused by the incoming government. Much of these inequalities will build on existing social cleavages in India, provided primarily by caste but also mediated by ethnicity, gender, religion and generation. Can the Left meet this challenge?
Indrajit Roy is at the University of Oxford where he is completing a manuscript on ‘Restive Subjects: The Politics of the Poor’. His core intellectual interests lie in investigating the political sociology of economic transition with a special focus on the ‘emerging markets’ of India, Brazil and South Africa. Another recent article he has written on the election results appeared in the Hindustan Times. He blogs at ‘Politically social’.