Marxist leader Hannan Mollah recalls the past with some pride. There was a time, he stresses, when the Left mattered. Its leaders locked horns with prime ministers, powerfully articulated issues in Parliament, and had a say in policy decisions.
Mollah was 34 when he was first elected to Parliament from Uluberia, a small town near Kolkata, in 1980. With eight successive victories as a Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate, he represented the constituency for 29 years — till he lost the seat to the Trinamool Congress in 2009.
“The CPI(M) always had an important role in Parliament. Now its absence will create a big void,” says Mollah, a member of the CPI(M)’s Polit Bureau and general secretary of the peasants’ front All India Kisan Sabha.
The Left’s pale presence in the 17th Lok Sabha will be a constant reminder — in and outside Parliament — of its worst-ever performance at the hustings. In the just-concluded 2019 polls, the CPI(M) won three seats, while the Communist Party of India (CPI) bagged two. Fifteen years ago, in its best show ever, the Left had won 61 seats.
In 1952, in the first general election after Independence, the undivided CPI had 22 seats and the iconic Communist leader AK Gopalan was the first leader of the Opposition. The CPI won 33 seats in 1957 as well as in 1962. The party split in 1964, leading to the birth of the CPI(M), and in the ensuing election in 1967, the CPI(M) won 19 out of the 62 seats it contested. The CPI went with the Congress, and together the Left bagged 46 seats. In 1971, the Left had 53 Members of Parliament (MPs), of whom 25 belonged to the CPI(M).
As Mollah points out, the Left did have its say in policy matters. Some path-breaking measures — such as the nationalisation of banks and the end of the Privy Purse introduced by the government were long-term demands of the Left.
“CPI(M) MPs have always been particular about taking up people’s issues and pursuing them to their logical end with ministers and officials. They always did better homework. Governments always listened to their speeches,” Mollah says. “Most of the parties do not go deep into people’s problems. They do not even attend sessions.”
But voters at large clearly view the Left differently. The last five years have marked the spectacular rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the equally dramatic fall of its political foe, the Left.
The reasons are still being debated. The Marxists are in a huddle, holding meetings and dissecting the defeat. The CPI(M)’s central committee had a three-day meeting last week that went deep into the poll losses. The party believes that among the factors that led to its defeat were the BJP’s deep pockets which enabled it to pump hundreds of crores of rupees into the poll campaign, Rahul Gandhi’s decision to fight from Kerala, which gave a boost to the Congress in the state at the cost of the Left, and the Trinamool Congress’s plank of communal polarisation, which gave a fillip to the BJP.
The party said it would now conduct a review of the implementation of decisions taken about its organisation at a plenum in 2015. “On the basis of this review, which will be completed by the states by the end of August, the future course for strengthening the party and galvanising our cadres will be undertaken,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury says.
Independent observers point out that the party failed to draw the youth to its programmes, and, despite successive farmers’ movements, was unable to convert their support on agrarian matters into votes. In West Bengal and Tripura, where the Left ruled for several terms, the people wanted younger faces and fresh alternatives, and believed that the Left’s opponents would help them realise their aspirations.
In West Bengal, for instance, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it has — for the time-being at least — been completely wiped out. After losing to the Trinamool in the state in 2011, the CPI(M)’s party congress had said: “The CPI(M), based on the Left and democratic platform of demands, will mobilise the working class, peasantry, agricultural workers, artisans and other sections of the working people to fight against the anti-people policies and to defend their livelihood and rights. The party should pay attention to winning over the masses under the influence of the bourgeois parties by drawing them into united struggles on their issues and problems.”
Clearly, as the subsequent defeat in the 2016 state Assembly election underlined, the CPI(M) failed to do any of what it had hoped to achieve to win back power.
“Had the CPI(M) been a little more self-critical and little less arrogant after Singur and Nandigram (where people protested against government moves to acquire land), then I think the people would have been ready to forgive them, and they would have captured the space of the Opposition to the Trinamool Congress,” says Aditya Nigam, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
The Right, meanwhile, is watching the developments with a measure of triumph. “The Left has lost touch with the ground. Their trade union or farmers’ union activities are just to gain political power, not for any benefit for farmers or workers,” says Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the RSS-led trade union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
Upadhyay, who has on many occasions shared a platform with Left leaders on joint agitations of trade unions, points out that the BMS, after elbowing out Left wing trade unions, is now the largest workers’ front in the country. “People understood that Leftist trade unions work to ensure power for their political bosses, not for the welfare of workers. They failed to assess the fifth and sixth generations of the industrial revolution,” Upadhyay says, adding that Marxism has failed not just in India — but across the world.
Economist Prabhat Patnaik disagrees about the global demise of the Left. He points out that Donald Trump’s main opponent in the US is Bernie Sanders, a Leftist by American standards.
“The classic example of the Left getting strengthened against the Right is in the US. When Trump came to power you actually had Sanders who was gathering considerable popular support. He did not have support within the Democratic Party. But he gathered support outside. Had he persisted he might even have won. In Britain, too, Jeremy Corbyn has a huge popular base,” Patnaik says.
Despite the losses, many in the CPI(M) hope to see the return of the golden era — when the Left had a say in politics at the Centre. Though the CPI and the CPI(M) — and their smaller partners, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party — were nowhere close to the ruling parties when it came to numbers in Parliament, they were largely treated with respect.
Historian Irfan Habib, the Aligarh-based academic who left the CPI to join the CPI(M) after the split, believes that 1996 was the most crucial year for the Indian Parliamentary Left.
In the 11th Lok Sabha, the Left had 52 MPs. The CPI(M), which had 32 members, stayed out of the government, supporting it from the outside. CPI veteran Indrajit Gupta was the home minister and the CPI’s Chaturanan Mishra was the agriculture minister in the HD Deve Gowda and later IK Gujral Cabinets.
“The Prime Ministership was offered to the then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and was the highpoint of the Left’s Parliamentary influence. Then the decline started,” he says. The Left’s hold, he adds, was strong even when the USSR fell in 1991.
But 2009 changed the course for the party. In the summer of that year, the Left, which backed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government without being a part of it, withdrew support to it, objecting to an Indo-US nuclear deal that the government was working on. In the election that followed, the Left’s numbers fell drastically. The Left had 24 members in the 15th Lok Sabha and 12 in the 16th.
Yet, the leaders recall a time when the Left was at the centre of attraction in every session. The party in power paid attention to its leaders in Parliament, while the media seldom missed the briefings.
Veteran trade unionist MK Pandhe, though not an MP, shaped the party’s actions as the person in-charge of its Parliamentary unit. The CPI(M) had such tall leaders as Samar Mukherjee, Jyotirmoy Basu and Somnath Chatterjee, who took those directions forward.
Mollah, a former leader of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the CPI(M)’s youth wing, points out that he was trained as a Parliamentarian by the senior-most CPI(M) leaders, including former general secretaries EMS Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Ahead of every session, the veterans would brief the MPs about what should be and should not be done in Parliament. Storming into the well of the House was a strict no-no for the CPI(M) Parliamentarians.
The former Uluberia MP remembers confronting prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. His main contributions include two private members Bills discussed in 1980s about making employment a right.
“Some of the suggestions I had made in those Bill were later accepted during UPA-I (2004-09), some 25 years after they were moved and debated in Parliament,” Mollah adds. “Prime Ministers before Narendra Modi never missed question hours allotted to the PMO. I have seen Indira Gandhi spend a whole night in Parliament when a crucial Bill on internal security was to be debated. Under Modi, Parliament is facing a huge threat,” Mollah adds.
It was KN Balagopal, Mollah’s successor in the DYFI and former Rajya Sabha member, who first raised the alarm in the last Lok Sabha about the Centre using the Finance Bill to sidestep the Rajya Sabha. He wrote a series of letters to President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari, holding that the Modi government had inserted about two dozen Acts in the Finance Bill so that they could be passed without Parliament scrutiny.
Balagopal, who unsuccessfully contested for a Lok Sabha seat from Kerala in this poll, fears that without the Left, parliamentary democracy may face major hurdles.
“The Left’s interventions may be weak. But such interventions will not be limited to Parliament now. The BJP wants to destabilise all constitutional and conventional institutions such as Parliament, Supreme Court and the Election Commission. For a healthy parliamentary democracy, a strong Opposition is vital. For the last few years, no serious discussions have been encouraged in Parliament,” Balagopal adds.
The electoral losses have prompted calls for the reunification of the Left, a position that the CPI has consistently been talking. The issue came up at the CPI national executive meeting, held in Delhi soon after the results were announced.
“The marginalisation of Left will have very serious implications for the future of the country. Therefore, the National Executive of CPI has reiterated its position that the situation demands the reunification of the communist movement and reworking of strategies and reenergising of activities,” says CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy.
Other Left forces are open to this suggestion. “The Left — parties, groups and personalities — must unite because it is objectively necessary now. For this, the Left should recognise the gravity of the agrarian distress and a collective Left conscience has to shape a Left Minimum Programme (LMP) to address this,” says Fredy K Thazhath, a central executive committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag. “The unity of workers and peasants is vital for this Left alternative. This alone will help us fight antagonistic policies and market forces and in moving ahead in agriculture and industry,” he says.
What the Left does need — if it hopes to make a comeback — is to project itself as a credible alternative, the observers stress. And it needs to, loudly and clearly, articulate its position.
“The Left did not put up a credible alternative in India,” says Patnaik. “It was not very clear what exactly the Left was going to do. It had a manifesto, but it was not projected sufficiently and strongly before the people. The Left did not react on a day-to-day basis or on the basis of an immediate slogan on what should be done. The Left has a basic agenda, but in addition to it, it has to react to specific situations. The Left did not have any tactical slogans in this election. They should have said we demand there be the right to employment, like MGNREGA... It would have been a tactical slogan,” Patnaik adds.
Habib agrees, and stresses on the need to move with the times. “We have to change our slogans. The fight against landlordism helped the party to make inroads among people in the 1950s and 1960s. But now the fight is against big corporates and Hindutva politics. We have to change our basic approach for this,” Habib says.
Nigam believes that if the Left does have a future at all, it will be limited to Kerala and will depend on how the Kerala CPI(M) reinvents itself. “Losing elections over 2-3 per cent of votes every now and then has helped the Kerala CPI(M) survive and think on crucial junctures,” he says.
Patnaik is also concerned about the suggestions that the Left must increasingly engage with groups whose politics are identity based. “The Left must change the discourse from the cultural-identity politics to the basic conditions of life. It has to intervene in the identity politics but...shift the discourse to people’s bread-and-butter issues, survival and freedom. The point is not just to form a united front with identity groups. The Left has to nudge this alliance to a particular direction as the Left is for changing society. The Left’s attempt must be to push this alliance so that the entire order is changed,” he says.
The academics also believe that the only way forward is by taking the right wing on. “To weaken them, you have to get strengthened,” says Patnaik. “You have to fight.”