In the recently concluded legislative elections in Kerala and West Bengal, in sharp contrast to Kerala where a Vijayan led CPM secured an impressive and enhanced second term, in West Bengal its miserable and sharp decline is manifest which is stunning but expected. The Indian political system has evolved differently at the federal and the state levels. The Duverger model of a stable two-party system in a first-pastthe-post system has not yet evolved at the Centre, though in many states binary two-party or formations system have consolidated.
In West Bengal, the brilliant Marxist theoretician Pramod Dasgupta grasped an elementary fact, just as Lohia with his antiCongressism did it at the Centre, that with both the Congress and the Communist party enjoying approximately 35 per cent of the votes each, either of them could form a coalition with smaller parties and they would always have a comfortable majority over the others. The implementation of such a scheme allowed the Left Front to rule uninterruptedly for thirty-four long years. But Mamata Banerjee ended the long rule by an impressive victory in 2011 and repeated it in 2016.
The first important warning signal for the CPM came in the 2016 assembly election when the leadership of the opposition went to Congress’ Abdul Mannan as the Congress had more legislators than the CPM. This trend of declining fortunes continued for the CPM in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in which with the surprising rise of the BJP, the Congress could win two seats but for the CPM it was zero. One year before the assembly election of 2021, it became apparent that the forthcoming election would mainly be a straight fight between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, in which a thirdparty combination would be a net loser.
But both the CPM West Bengal leadership and the Congress were convinced that there was reasonable political space for themselves to dislodge the Trinamool Congress from power and relegate the BJP to a distant third position. They invented a phrase “Bijamul” to explain that both the BJP and the Trinamool were two sides of the same coin. This would become crystal clear to the electorate and the new combination along with a religious minority leader would be enough to turn the tables. In this grand vision, some untested youngsters from JNU with their success in student elections were supposed to be an unbeatable army.
It did not occur to them to ask a simple question – could these leaders who were mostly from JNU’s School of International Studies and were only popular in the highly subsidised platform of a small university of 3,000 students win a municipal election from adjoining Munirka? It is more surprising that the leadership unhesitatingly put the BJP and the Trinamool in the same category forgetting that BJP is a formidable national force with a defined ideology whereas the Trinamool is a marginal player with its influence at present confined to West Bengal.
It has no clearly identifiable ideological positioning though it stoutly opposes BJP’s plank of a highly centralised Indian state. But the CPM leadership ignored this fundamental difference and proclaimed their oneness even when a large number of Trinamool leaders were leaving the party to join the BJP which was promising “Ashol Poriborton”. The adversarial nature of relations between the two parties were clearly drawn out, but the CPM leadership imagined the two to be complementary. In the 1990s, when Jyoti Basu had an opportunity to be the Prime Minister, it was mainly the Bengal unit of the CPI-M that scuttled it.
Jyoti Basu later commented that it was a historic blunder. It is near certain that if a similar proposal had been made to EMS Namboodiripad, the Kerala unit would have endorsed it. But in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly Election it was a different narrative altogether. On the questions of Singur and Nandigram, instead of apologising for them, and forgetting that they were instrumental for the CPM’s defeat in 2011, the new narrative was that Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s actions were essentially sound, though there were some mistakes.
They even forgot to mention that they were not mistakes but were blunders in which dozens of lives were lost and an arrogant Chief Minister never visited either of the two places of carnage. It is an interesting parallel that Babul Supriyo of the BJP has blamed the voters of West Bengal for their Himalayan blunder of not voting for the BJP. Similarly, the CPM leadership for its failures blamed the voters and not the party. This arrogance of the CPM leadership ~ that it could not do anything wrong ~ was exhibited in its alliance with Abbas Siddiqui who is a religious preacher and is well known for his illiberal and misogynist views. For instance, he advocates tying deviant and independent women to a tree and spanking them.
Since there could be no ideological affinity to such obscurantist ideas with the CPM and a liberal Congress the question remains unanswered that how could such an unholy alliance be formed except for a sinister design of dividing the minority votes which would inevitably benefit the BJP and harm the Trinamool. Ajoy Ghosh in the early 1950s abandoned insurrectionary tactics of Ranadive and opted for parliamentary socialism which gave rich dividends to the party making it the largest opposition group in the first Parliament in 1952.
After the split of 1964, there was a noticeable effort in the party to analyse the Indian scenario independently of both Moscow and Beijing. It is because of this quest for autonomy the Maoists went against it and the CPM with other opposition groups opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. By these important actions, the democratic credentials of the party got firmly established. But, in 2021, all such positive historical developments that were cultivated meticulously were forgotten and for the CPM the BJP and Trinamool became similar if not identical.
It became terribly intolerant of left and liberal opinions which pointed out these glaring contradictions. No wonder, its vote share has come down from nearly 50 per cent to 8 per cent in 15 years and that is also in alliance with others. Dipankar Bhattacharya, the leader and the theoretician of the CPM in Bihar who had won an impressive victory in last year’s Bihar Assembly Elections had warned the CPM Bengal Leadership that equating the BJP with Trinamool would be suicidal as at the present juncture the only recourse was to provide for a joint fight against the BJP.
When Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was Chief Minister, he refused to invite the BJP representatives to any all-party Meeting on the ground that they were absent in the legislative assembly. By its own logic, both the CPM and the Congress should also be excluded from any such parleys now. The CPM always took pride in the fact that it combined extra parliamentary struggle with the parliamentary one. In this formulation, they followed Eduard Bernstein, a revisionist, and not Marx.
The CPM in Kerala has performed spectacularly well in tackling the current pandemic with the help of both the state machinery and social initiatives which is why the voters rewarded it with a second term. Its health minister Shailaja Teacher won with 60,000 votes, the highest in the state. She is a household name in Kerala. The state tops in human development indices. All these have given respectability and credibility to the Left in Kerala. The Left in West Bengal because of its incapacity to reinvent itself has become increasingly irrelevant.
(The writer is retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi)