Just a few days after the Left was routed in the West Bengal Assembly election, the Labour Party in the UK faced a historic by-election defeat by a landslide. It’s not that the failure of Left-leaning parties is a universal event in the recent past. In fact, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won a historic reelection in New Zealand in October. The Joe Biden-led Democrats could defeat Donald Trump in January, and, in the just-concluded Assembly elections, the incumbent Left Democratic Front, under the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan broke the tradition in Kerala and retained power.
Every place is different, and, importantly, the local factors may be dominant features in an election. It’s, however, remarkable to see how quickly the Left Front lost its massive vote share in Bengal. It got more than 50 per cent votes in both the 2004 and 2006 elections. It started to lose its support base due to many reasons, and the Singur and Nandigram movements were particularly instrumental in the Left’s decline. It also resulted in the rise of TMC.
However, despite losing power in 2011, the Left Front had polled 43 and 41 per cent in 2009 and 2011 respectively, which are certainly remarkable by any standard. It would be ideal for the Left to play the role of an opposition diligently until they come back to power again. It’s true that the emergence of the BJP in the state has made the task of the Left harder. But there might be reasons to believe that the Left also had made their own job increasingly difficult.
While, in a democracy, it is ideal for the opposition to wait for the opportune moment to strike back, the Left possibly hurried prematurely. Maybe after a long stint in power, they were uncomfortable themselves as an opposition. Who knows? And, the Left which despite losing got a formidable 41 per cent support in 2011 Assembly elections, could manage only about 7.5 per cent vote share in the State in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It is widely believed that in 2019, a large chunk of the traditional Left voters voted for the BJP.
This might or might not be true. However, even if the Left votes were not shifted in an organized way, there is little doubt that the BJP’s astonishing performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal could be possible largely at the expense of erstwhile Left votes. A CSDS study, however, showed that a large chunk of traditional Left votes shifted to TMC as well in 2019. In any case, the Left, along with the Congress Party, lost the glamour of the main opposition. In 2021 also, it is widely speculated that some of the remaining traditional Left voters have voted for TMC.
As a result, Left did not win even one assembly segment in both 2019 and 2021 elections. Visibly disappointed by the dismal performance of the Left Front, one of my Leftist former students told me that if we had a system of voting like the Alternative Vote (AV) or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), as exists in many countries, he had no doubt that the Left would have got the most second choice votes. In an AV system, every voter puts a number by each candidate, with a ‘one’ for their favourite, ‘two’ for their second favourite and so on.
Such a system, for example, is used in Australia to elect the House of Representatives and in Australia’s states to elect at least one House of their state parliaments. Yes, this is not the system in India, I know. And I’m in no way suggesting that it is a better system than ours. However, the opinion of this former student motivated me to think over this issue in a different way. After careful thinking I’m convinced that it would be like that.
First, most of the TMC voters may not like BJP as the second choice. Same for BJP voters – many of them would not opt for TMC as the second choice, for sure. Although the Left could manage a meagre 5.5 per cent vote share in the assembly elections this time, they still have a deep-rooted support base in the state – at least a soft support towards the Left exists in many people’s mind. It’s true that people have mostly voted for TMC and BJP in this election. This is what had to happen as the first-past-the-post electoral system like ours eventually tends to be a two-party system, and the third party largely gets decimated.
This is Duverger’s law, framed by the French sociologist Maurice Duverger in the 1950s and 1960s, and is largely valid within many of our states, at least. Thus, when the Left got a meagre 7.5 per cent vote share in 2019, its 2021 fate was almost sealed as it was no longer within the top two parties/alliances in the perception of the voters. The Left lost the 2021 battle in 2019 itself. Thus, to be honest, not much prospect for the Left remained unless they could course-correct appropriately in the meantime.
Voting is largely a habit. It’s never easy to get back voters who have now started voting for another party just because they once voted for your party, and for a long duration. And people tend to ride the ‘bandwagon’ of the winner. So, unless there is a widespread belief that a party or an alliance can win the election, its vote share is bound to diminish. That is what happened to Left parties in West Bengal. The Left in Kerala was the ruling alliance, and they did not have to face such a situation. However, as a legacy of its 34year rule in Bengal, the Left-leaning mentality may still be persisting in the State.
As my student said, the Left might still be the credible second choice to many in the Bengal electorate. And that’s clearly the advantage in any effort of resurgence for the Left. But a resurgence is never easy. For one needs to admit mistakes, and somebody has to take responsibility also. It needs course-correction through reorientation of the organization and by re-establishing the connection to the people.
After the recent ‘bitterly disappointing’ local election results in the UK, Jonathan Freedland, a columnist of ‘The Guardian’ wrote an opinion piece titled “To win back working people, Labour should learn from Joe Biden.” Well, every country or state is different, and the sociopolitical dynamics also differ considerably. After the recent election debacle, when the Labour MPs and others called for him to urgently change course, Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a televised clip: “I take full responsibility for the results, and I will take full responsibility for fixing things.”
Starmer has conceded his party had lost the trust of working people across England. And the party is now even considering moving the party’s headquarters out of London to reflect Labour’s determination to show that it represents the whole country. Some desperate and visible efforts, at least.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)