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Besieged by the BJP, Left struggles to stay alive

June 15, 2017 08:59 IST

As the BJP snaps at its heels, can the Communists stay relevant in the electoral game?
Ishita Ayan Dutt, Shine Jacob and Archis Mohan report.

Taking on the plausible

When someone says Indians should only support the Indian cricket team, you want to nail the argument but can't.

You hear about Kashmiri students who are the target of the rest of the hostel because of their perceived pro-Pak views.

Bullshit Busters enables you to answer both.

It tells you, for instance, about the famous cricketers who played for a country other than that of their birth.

Or the several practising Muslims who have played for the Indian cricket team, including from Kashmir.

That apart, it takes on propaganda and other ways of buttressing rigidity and appropriating national symbols.

Discussed in Bullshit Busters And Other Propaganda Demolished, a beautifully minimalistic pamphlet.

Produced by Indus Syndicate, describing itself as bringing progressive voices to a progressive India. Challenging some everyday arguments, it is designed for the thinking and questioning Indian.

It questions and factually answers many distortions, half-truths and misrepresentations that are routinely passed off as 'nationalist'.

The pamphlet does not resort to Left dogma or the rhetoric of the 'Never Forget Class Struggle' kind -- it argues with fact and reason.

A pamphlet to be read by everyone.

West Bengal: Ceding ground in its bastion

Even the Left's critics will not dispute that it changed the rural landscape in Bengal after coming to power in 1977.

Through land reform, its government redistributed more than a million acres to three million farmers in 34 years.

Operation Barga, which registered sharecroppers and gave them legal rights to the land, benefited another 1.5 million people.

And perhaps the bigger reform was decentralisation of power or Panchayati Raj, bringing social empowerment.

"But after 1991, they (the Left) didn't know how to negotiate economic reforms and lost the plot," says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury.

Also, agricultural productivity started falling. Between 1990 and 1995, it fell by 2.3 per cent.

By the time the Left realised industrialisation was the only alternative, towards the end of then chief minister Jyoti Basu's tenure, many industrialists had already left, after being subjected to militant trade unionism.

And, even then, then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was the lone advocate for industrialisation within the Communist Party of India-Marxist party. Bhattacharjee was for making big changes and he knew time was running out.

"In his rush, he did not take his support base along," says Basu Ray Chaudhury.

Soon, Bengal became the symbol of land agitation movements.

In the assembly election of 2011, Bhattacharjee and his government were routed.

"Initially, the CPI-M was flabbergasted. It just couldn't reinvent itself, couldn't come up with new faces. The same faces that were rejected by the people were leading the party," says Basu Ray Chaudhury.

There was another problem. The Left's positioning in Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee was more Left than the Left. So, what would the Left be fighting for?

It would just have to wait for Banerjee's Singur moment.

Kerala: Losing the caste struggle

The CPI-M's political stance in Kerala is sometimes inexplicable.

Abdul Nasser Madani's People's Democratic Party, with alleged links to terrorist outfits and still under judicial custody in connection with the 2008 Bengaluru serial blasts, has got the CPI-M backing over the years.

When former Bharatiya Janata Party state president K Raman Pillai formed the Janapaksham party, the CPI-M was quick to woo him.

"The attitude of soft-pedalling towards communal forces was the reason for the party's downfall over the years in Bengal and they are now making the same mistake in Kerala," believes B R P Bhaskar, a political analyst.

"Despite being called a common man's party, with a strong base among the backward classes and the Dalits, the majority of the Left leadership came from the upper castes, except a few in recent times like V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan. This was its major drawback across the country," Bhaskar adds.

Political observers believe this upper caste supremacy in the Left was the reason for its downfall in other strongholds of Bihar, Telangana, Maharashtra and even Rajasthan.

"When the Zamindari Abolition Bill was introduced in the Bihar assembly, the CPI opposed it, as its state leaders were upper caste landlords. Likewise, the party is now close to land grabbers and corporate houses in Kerala," Bhaskar alleges.

Sunnykutty Abraham, a veteran journalist, says the rise of groups within the CPI-M and increasing political violence, coupled with poor governance, has reduced the Left's acceptability over the years. 

Caste is the current issue. The rising influence of the BJP among the OBCs and Dalits is a cause for concern in the state's Left.

For a long time, after the renaissance of the backward classes led by Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, these groups had a soft spot for the CPI-M.

Now, they have an alternative in the BJP.

Tripura: A breached fortress?

The CPI-M-led Left Front returned to power in Tripura for a fifth consecutive time in 2013.

It won 50 of the 60 legislative assembly seats, bettering its position after the 2008 polls by one seat.

The CPI-M alone won 49, three more than earlier; the Left's vote percentage rose from 51 per cent in 2008 to 52 per cent.

The Congress won the remaining 10 seats. Its allies, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura and the National Conference of Tripura, drew a blank.

Chief Minister and CPI-M Politburo member Manik Sarkar said after the victory: 'It is a verdict of the people in favour of peace, harmony and development.'

'Peace and development' was the Left's main election slogan.

The state was plagued by insurgency for decades, the two major extremist groups being the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the All Tripura Tiger Force.

Sarkar's government was successful in addressing this, becoming the only state to stop applying the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, saying it wasn't needed any more.

Now, the BJP is snapping at the Left's heels.

In 2015, it stood second in civic body elections, edging the Congress out.

In rural Tripura, the BJP got 142 panchayat members and took as many as five panchayats.

The BJP seems to be challenging tribal extremist groups and appealing to tribal loyalties.


CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury lists 5 issues his party is flagging

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told The Hindu that for the BJP the Left is its 'principal enemy.'

The BJP was scared of the Left, Vijayan said. This comes when the Left is in power in only Tripura and Kerala, and currently in the throes of a decline in its legislative strength, both at the Centre and in states.

Since the CPI-M elected Sitaram Yechury as its general secretary in April 2015, the party has kept itself in the background, while its unseen hand has been a catalyst to forge the unity of the secular Left against the Narendra Modi government's policies and actions, particularly in the social sphere.

Yechury talks about five distinct issues the Left is flagging:

Intolerance

One of the first efforts to highlight the Sangh Parivar's divisive politics, Yechury says, was in the aftermath of the murder of rationalist M M Kalburgi in Dharwad, Karnataka, in August 2015 and the increasing attacks on minorities, including a mob lynching Mohammad Akhlaq, a tailor in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015.

Several intellectuals, writers and filmmakers returned their earlier awards from the government in protest.

The CPI-M, and other Left parties ensured that they were not in the vanguard of the protest. Ashok Vajpeyi, Nayantara Sehgal and Uday Prakash were some of the leading names to return their awards.

Atrocities on Dalits

By mid-2016, as attacks on Dalits increased in some states, six organisations came together to hold a Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh rally in Delhi in September 2016.

Prakash Ambedkar inaugurated the rally, addressed by Radhika Vemula, Jignesh Mevani, Bezwada Wilson, Paul Diwakar, Vimal Thorat and other Dalit activists, as also Yechury and CPI General Secretary Sudhakar Reddy.

Speakers demanded deterrent action be taken against gau rakshaks, the cow vigilantes groups.

Issues of peasants

To protest the Modi government's efforts at amending the 2013 land acquisition law, several farmers's organisations launched a struggle under the banner of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan or movement for land rights.

At its Central Committee meeting in June 2015, the CPI-M asked all its units to extend support to the Andolan.

On the issue of land rights, former Lok Sabha member Hannan Mollah has led the CPI-M's outreach to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the National Alliance of People's Movements.

These organisations have carried out rallies on the land issue in several parts of the country in the past two years.

Education Policy

The Left has also brought together students and youth organisations, as well as intellectuals, to protest 'saffronisation' under the 'Save Education' banner. Currently, the platform consists of 11 organisations.

Under the auspices of the 'Mumbai Collective' and 'Hyderabad Collective', protests and seminars have been organised in these cities to raise voices on this and to protect Constitutional freedoms, Yechury says.

The effort is to plan a larger nationwide protest in the months to come.

Left & civil society unity

Yechury says there are efforts to bring together leftist and democratic civil society, as well as mass organisations, to raise 'people's demands' -- joblessness, agrarian distress, farmer suicides, price rise, etc.

The process is underway and 110 organisations are involved.

The plan is to hold a nationwide convention to highlight the Modi government's failures to keep its promises on providing jobs, reducing agrarian distress and 'expose' its efforts to 'sabotage' the rural jobs scheme.

Photograph: Jayanta Dey/Reuters

Ishita Ayan Dutt, Shine Jacob, Archis Mohan
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