'The Left’s decline is now a reality, both nationally and in West Bengal.'
'Behind it lie: Ideological rigidity and confusion, outdated party programmes... a socially conservative upper-caste leadership,' says Praful Bidwai.
The West Bengal electorate has handed a third major defeat in a row to the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
In the just-completed rural panchayat elections, the Front only won one of 17 zilla parishads, the same as the much smaller Congress.
The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress triumphed in 13 ZPs, equalling the Left’s 2008 score.
Although detailed party-wise voting percentages aren’t yet available, it’s indisputable that the benefits of the three-cornered contest have overwhelmingly gone to the TMC and that it retains its rural base despite the end of its alliance with the Congress.
The Left Front’s percentage-share of zilla parishad seats has shrunk from 68.7 in 2008 to a poor 24.8, while the TMC’s has improved from 16 to 61.6.
The TMC (with 57.5 of seats) trounced the Left (20.1 percent) in the intermediate-level panchayat samitis too.
True, at the lowest level, that of village-based gram panchayats, the Left won 31.1 percent of seats, down from 52.5 percent in 2008.
It also retained some of its support in North Bengal, winning a number of panchayats in Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur and Malda, besides the Jalpaiguri ZP.
But the Left failed to recoup most of the losses it suffered in southern Bengal in the 2011 assembly elections, except marginally in the North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly, all close to Kolkata -- probably a fallout of the Trinamool’s growing unpopularity in and around urban centres.
More crucially, the Left Front suffered major setbacks in its former citadels in central and south-western Bengal: Bardhaman (Burdwan), Birbhum, West and East Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia. These were its strongest and longest-standing support-bases.
For instance, Bardhaman has witnessed some of the greatest Communist-led struggles on land issues since the 1940s, and has produced legendary peasant leaders like Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Choudhury.
These losses are of a serious nature and suggest that the Left, especially the CPI-M, hasn’t been able to arrest its slide since the Singur (2006) and Nandigram (2007-08) crises, which pitted it against its core support-base: Small and middle peasants, workers and artisans.
The Left’s continuing alienation from working people led to its defeats in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2011 assembly elections.
The Left’s latest defeat reflects its glaring failure to take advantage of Banerjee’s appalling governance over the past two years.
This includes a sharp rise in crime, rising corruption and cronyism, repression of legitimate protest, outright denial of misdemeanours by ministers and officials, and not least, the Saradha savings scam, run to finance the TMC and generate publicity for it. The group’s collapse wiped out the savings of three million-plus people.
Crime against women in West Bengal has risen monstrously. The state accounts for 12.7 percent of such crimes in India, well above its population share.
Women feel unsafe even in urban upper-class localities. There have been terrible incidents such as a rape in Park Street in the heart of Kolkata, and rape and murder of a student in Kamduni, 20 km away.
Banerjee dismissed these as 'concocted' stories or 'small incidents.' She transferred the woman police officer who investigated the Park Street case. This has greatly demoralised the police, as has a thug’s shooting of a police sub-inspector in broad daylight in Kolkata.
The chief minister responded to this by sacking the police commissioner who ordered investigation against the suspect. All this has outraged the public.
Her off-with-his-head ways -- displayed in the arrest of a teacher who posted a cartoon about her on the Internet -- have earned her ill-will, particularly in the cities.
Her uncouth manner has lost her whatever sympathy the upper-caste bhadralok had for her.
Her industrial policy and opposition to land acquisition by the state for private industry have perpetuated West Bengal’s investment and employment famine amidst high state debt and disastrous public finances.
The Left officially attributes its poor showing to violence practised by the TMC, undoubtedly a party of lumpens. There is some truth in this.
Some 6,000 Left candidates were not allowed to file their nominations. And perhaps twice as many were effectively prevented from campaigning and mobilising their supporters to cast their ballots.
More than 40,000 Left cadres fled their homes due to the violence. Over 500 Left party offices were set on fire or vandalised. More than 20 people were killed in poll-related violence.
The Left was prevented from sending its agents to polling booths and ballot-counting centres. (The election was based on conventional paper ballots and manual counting.)
Yet violence cannot alone or substantially explain the Left’s rout.
Many CPI-M cadres, especially lumpen elements, defected to the TMC, which got divided between a 'Green TMC' (the original party with green as its main banner colour) and a 'Red Trinamool' (composed of CPI-M defectors). The CPI-M was demoralised and couldn’t mobilise its famous party machine.
The TMC won some 15 percent of the 85,000 panchayat seats without a contest. But to be brutally frank, the Left, especially the CPI-M, also practised such coercive tactics in the past. It too won some 10 percent of the seats uncontested in 2003 and 2008.
In those elections too, handsomely won by the Left Front, more than 20 or 30 people were killed.
The Left’s poor performance is at least partly attributable to popular discontent and anger against its long history of subordination of the state to the party, its building of a patronage system, abuse of power by party cadres, and recent pursuit of coercive and anti-people industrial and land acquisition policies which are indistinguishable from a neo-liberal orientation.
The fact that the Left has not admitted to having committed grave policy or programmatic errors, and that its state- and district-level leadership has continued unchanged, barring a few expulsions following a cosmetic 'rectification' campaign, has further eroded its credibility.
The panchayat debacle comes on top of a fall in the Left’s vote percentage from 51 in 2004 to 43 in 2009, and further to just under 40 percent in 2011 (assembly elections).
The Front’s seat tally in the 294-strong assembly plummeted from 235 in 2006 to 62 in 2011, marking its exit from power after a record 34 years, the longest such tenure in any democracy in the world.
A recent CNN-IBN opinion poll for the Lok Sabha forecasts an even steeper 15 percentage-point fall in the Front’s vote -- enormous by India’s standard even for 'wave'-like elections -- from 43 percent in 2009 to 28 in 2014, with a likely loss of Lok Sabha seats.
Another poll (C-Voter-Times Now) forecasts a mere two additional seats for the Left, but three more for the TMC.
At any rate, the Left doesn’t seem set to recover from its setbacks anytime soon although it might make small gains in 2014 if there’s no alliance between the TMC and the Congress, as seems likely.
The blame game has already started in the West Bengal CPI-M over the responsibility of different leaders for the panchayat election debacle.
Faced with this thorny issue, the party has indefinitely postponed its state committee meeting scheduled for August 22-23, which was to analyse the causes of the defeat.
The Left’s decline is now a manifest reality, both nationally and in West Bengal. Behind it lie other, deeper or structural, causes: Ideological rigidity and confusion, outdated party programmes, over-emphasis on parliamentarism to the exclusion of mass work and a live relationship with grassroots-based popular struggles, and a socially conservative (or at least, non-radical) upper-caste leadership.
Instead of imaginatively looking for alternatives to neo-liberal policies when in power, the Left’s leadership opted for expedient 'pragmatism' which encourages drift into these very policies, as happened both in West Bengal, and to an extent, in Kerala.
It showed an unhealthy obsession with industrialisation at any cost, and neglected social sector agendas, especially in West Bengal.
The result is that West Bengal has some of India’s lowest indices in health, education and labour welfare. Its school dropout rates are higher than Bihar’s, as well as the all-India average.
Its performance in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme is the worst among 20 major states and its Public Distribution System for food is among the most run-down in India.
The Left has failed to integrate issues such as caste, patriarchy and ecology into its theoretical understanding. It will have to reflect self-critically on all these if it wants to modernise and update its programmes and policies.
It will also have to radically transform its present organisational culture which outlaws difference and dissent and prevents free internal debate -- and honest introspection.
Above all, the Left must rebuild its links with grassroots movements by taking up people’s livelihood issues and learning humbly from these mobilisation.
One must hope that the Left soon regains its relevance.
It’s one of the few currents in Indian politics -- perhaps the most important one -- which is committed to the empowerment and emancipation of the marginalised and the poor, and is relatively untainted by corruption. That’s saying quite a lot!