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May day! May day! for the Marxists

Last updated on: April 17, 2014 10:51 IST

Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash KaratThe Marxists are heading for their worst debacle in many elections. How will May 16, 2014 affect India's Communists? T V R Shenoy surveys the landscape.

The first of May -- Labour Day -- is a red letter day in the Marxist calendar. In one of history's ironies, the decline of the Communists in India can be told as a tale of three days in May.

The first was May 16, 1996, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister of India. Though that ministry lasted but 13 days it brought the national leaderships of the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist into an embrace.

The second is May 20, 2011, when Mamata Banerjee replaced Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as chief minister of West Bengal. Kerala may be the icing on the Leftist cake -- Tripura being the cherry -- but the eastern state, twice the size of Kerala, is the cake itself.

What is the third? Prediction is a mug's game but it could be another May 16, when the results of the 16th general election are announced.

How many voters in Kerala realise just how much the world has changed around them?

Or, sadly, how irrelevant our state has become when seen from a national perspective?

That hit home while watching one of the many pre-election chat shows on television. Hindi news channels rarely look beyond the Hindi Belt, but here they were doing a great job of discussing what Jayalaithaa, Naveen Patnaik, and Mamata Banerjee might do in the post-poll scenario, or of how the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and the YSR Congress might respond to the BJP linking up with the Telugu Desam.

Nobody mentioned Kerala. The reason is two-fold. First, Kerala is stuck in a time-warp, a pretence that politics is still where it was in the quarter of a century from 1952 to 1977.

The second is that Kerala lacks a true regional party, one that can put together a rainbow coalition spanning a state.

In 1952 the Congress, with 364 MPs, was the largest party in the first Lok Sabha by a comfortable margin. But the undivided CPI's 16 MPs made it the largest party on the Opposition benches, and A K Gopalan, who had been elected from Cannanore -- then in Madras, the state of Kerala did not exist -- was effectively the Leader of the Opposition. (Technically, the title did not exist in 1952.)

As late as 1971 the CPI boasted 23 MPs in the Lok Sabha, not just from Kerala and West Bengal but also from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh.

Simultaneously, the CPI-M had 25 MPs of its own, mostly from its strongholds of West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura, a single MP being elected from Andhra Pradesh.

Can you imagine the CPI-M winning seats from Maharashtra or Punjab? Both were true in 1977.

Back then there were genuine differences between the Left and the Congress, on land distribution for instances. Those differences deepened between 1991 and 1996 when P V Narasimha Rao started economic reforms under pressure from international lenders. (India was virtually bankrupt; you didn't think Dr Manmohan Singh carried out 'reforms' out of any conviction, did you?)

That changed in 1996, when the BJP became the largest single party in the Lok Sabha. The result was an alliance between the CPI-M and the Congress that lasted for the next 14 years. The Lok Sabha polls of 1998, 1999, and 2004 were, effectively, a fraud on the voters of Kerala, who were never told that the Left and the Congress would cooperate the moment that their MPs reached Delhi.

This alliance went through three distinct stages. First, the Congress backed United Front ministries where the Union home minister was a Communist, Indrajit Gupta.

Next, the Left and the Congress cooperated in opposing the Vajpayee ministry that lasted up to 2004.

Finally, the CPI-M had to back a Congress-led regime.

Both the Congress Working Committee and the CPI-M Politburo had reckoned without the force of nature called 'Mamata Banerjee'. She saw that cooperation between the CPI-M and the Congress was an impossible situation for party workers on the ground, no matter what the exigencies of the national leadership.

In 1998 she led her supporters out of the Congress into the new Trinamool Congress.

It took time, but in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls Mamata Banerjee reduced the Left Front to 15 seats in a West Bengal that has 42 Lok Sabha constituencies. In 2011 she brought an end to 34 years of Left Front rule in the state.

Every local body elections seems to demonstrate that the influence of the Left Front has been eroding since then, not just in urban Bengal but in its rural strongholds.

In Surjeet's day the CPI-M haughtily deigned to receive support from the Congress. In the Vajpayee era it had to coordinate action with the Congress on equal terms. In the Karat period it had to offer support to the Congress. Today, the CPI-M is a dwindling force, dismissed with contempt even by its erstwhile allies in the so-called Third Front.

Whatever the contours of the 16th Lok Sabha it is clear that the Trinamool Congress will be one of the largest single parties, possibly the third after the BJP and the Congress. It is equally clear that the Trinamool Congress shall be a voice protecting West Bengal's interests.

Where is Kerala's equivalent of the Trinamool Congress?

Why has nobody in Kerala, Congressman or Communist, had the guts to walk out of the parent party, and create a genuine regional force?

The Muslim League caters only to a segment of Kerala. The Kerala Congress -- not to be confused with Sonia Gandhi's party -- is the voice of the Christians. Being chained to special interest groups makes it impossible for either to create a pan-Kerala presence by reaching out to other communities.

But Kerala seems happy to vote for either a CPI-M-dominated or a Congress-led front, as if nothing has changed since 1952. Not only have the Congress and the Communists lost ground outside Kerala, there is now a distinct convergence in their programmes.

Both the Congress and the CPI-M, for instance, oppose the Madhav Gadgil Report that sought to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the Western Ghats.

Garbage collection is a problem across Kerala, but neither party will consider privatisation (already used by neighbouring Tamil Nadu).

Outsourcing gives India a sizeable chunk of foreign currency but nobody in India's 'most educated state' asks why the money is flowing to a Bengaluru, a Pune, or even to Delhi's suburbs in NOIDA and Gurgaon, rather than to Kerala's towns?

Let us sum it up. Kerala cannot look beyond the Left and the Congress. Those two must cooperate at the national level. No other formation -- not the Aam Aadmi Party, certainly not a right-wing BJP -- has a hope of winning a single Lok Sabha seat in Kerala.

There will be two results. First, the Left and the Congress shall start to take Kerala for granted. Second, other parties will decide that their resources are better spent elsewhere.

Very slowly, Kerala's interests will be put on the backburner.

Two criminal cases rocked India in 2012, the killing of Jelestine Valentine and Ajesh Binki by Italian marines and the Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi. The two fishermen were shot on February 15, 2012; the case is dragging on. 'Nirbhaya' was raped on December 16, 2012; the rapists have been sentenced.

Why didn't any of the eight Union ministers from Kerala press for equally speedy justice for fishermen from their state?

Then there is the utter languor displayed by the Manmohan Singh ministry in tackling the potential problems of Saudi Arabia's 'Nitaqat' policy, which may restrict the entry of Indian workers. This is of obvious concern to Kerala; equally it seems to be of obvious unconcern to the powers-that-be in New Delhi.

Kerala lacks a regional party to voice its aspirations forcefully. It will not look beyond the CPI-M and the Congress, and both of those are being ground out beyond Kerala.

How many Lok Sabha seats are being contested in this general election?

The text-book answer is '543'. The real answer -- there is no 'contest' in Kerala (and Tripura) -- is '521'.

Image: Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat.

Please click here to read more columns by Mr Shenoy.

T V R Shenoy