Left on terminal decline? Three historic blunders that cost communist parties their place in Indian politics

Anil Nair
Sabarimala protests

India’s Communist parties have plummeted to their worst electoral performance in history, winning only five seats in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections. While they managed to win only one seat in Kerala, the CPM and CPI drew a blank in West Bengal and Tripura, the states they dominated for decades. The decline of Left Parties was rather dramatic. The dismal performance came in just 15 years after their best that saw them winning 59 seats in 2004. This time round, CPM had put up 70 candidates, just to get three elected, compared with nine in 2014. The CPI had fielded 51 candidates, of which just two won.

In the early years of Indian democracy, Communist Party of India was the main opposition party. During the rule of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the CPI occupied a political space disproportionate to its electoral strength, despite a vertical split in 1964. The golden run of Indian Left continued into 1990s and early 2000s. The CPM played the kingmaker in the age of coalitions, becoming the glue for disparate political parties to come together and form the government. In UPA I, their influence peaked and they managed to push their socioeconomic agenda through the Manmohan Singh government. The political decline of the Left parties started in 2008, when they decided to withdraw support to the UPA government. This led to a series of events that diminished their influence in Indian politics.

Several tactical blunders led to the CPM’s decline from a powerful force in national politics to a marginal player. Here are three of them.

Stopping Jyoti Basu from becoming PM

The year 1996 offered a historic opportunity to the CPM, when its leader Jyoti Basu was offered the prime ministership by a coalition of regional parties after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government failed to secure a vote of confidence. The party at its dogmatic best decided that Basu should not lead a coalition government that would not be able to implement its Marxist agenda. A disciplined Communist, Basu obeyed his parties decision, but later described the decision as a “historic blunder”. The party, which had shrunk to West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura by then, lost a huge opportunity to expand its influence beyond its pocket boroughs.

Singur land acquisition

In 2006, the West Bengal government announced its decision to acquire 997 acres of land for Tata Motors to set up a factory to produce small car Nano. The move threatened the livelihood of around 6,000 families of agricultural workers and marginal peasants as many of them were to receive no compensation. The CPM government led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took a hard stand and decided to evict protestors. Mamata Banerjee assumed the leadership of the struggle against the state government. The movement eroded the image of CPM as a pro-poor party as it was seen protecting the interests of a powerful corporate group. This led to the Left Front’s defeat in the 2011 assembly elections and the CPM lost its pre-eminent position in West Bengal politics.

Handling of Sabarimala movement

The Left Front government led by Pinarayi Vijayan was on a roll when the Supreme Court ruled in September 2018 that women of all ages should be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple. Vijayan had the image of a tough leader and an able administrator and was hugely popular among all sections of the society. His government chose to enforce the Supreme Court verdict that struck down the temple tradition disallowing the entry of women between ages 10 and 50. Both the BJP and the Congress-led United Democratic Front grabbed the opportunity and launched an agitation against the government. True to his image of a strong leader, Vijayan handled the movement with strong-arm tactics, which made him unpopular among the Hindu Community. The electoral debacle of the Left Democratic Front in the Lok Sabha election can be attributed to the Sabarimala movement, which helped the Congress-led United Democratic Front to win 19 out of the state’s 20 seats. This could be a temporary setback for the CPM, unlike the reverses it suffered in West Bengal. But the movement showed that the party has lost its ability to gauge public sentiment.