On a lower key than the life and death war raging between the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar-Congress Mahagatbandhan or Grand Alliance and the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance, there is another front that hopes to tunnel its way to a fresh start in 2015. Reduced to a token presence of one seat in the outgoing Bihar state assembly, the three largest and politically relevant Communist parties are fighting as a coalition this time to halt the precipitous decline that has been the cost of allying with regional partners.
The decision to field 243 candidates in Bihar is a retro-engineering exercise undertaken by the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (Liberation) against the steep decline in their appeal . By dumping Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal as an ally in Bihar and therefore delinking themselves from Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the Congress, the Left hopes to restore its fortunes in the state.
If this new coalition seeks to reconnect the Communists to the history of successful durable Left alliances in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, it also marks a break with the Left’s politics of coalitions that emerged in 1977 and continued through the 1980s and 1990s, acquiring strength and political capital enough to see it through three governments at the Centre. The coalition brought regional parties into the mainstream on a scale that was unprecedented. For the CPI-M, this Bihar election is the first time that it is putting into practice the decision of the party to re-grow its independent base by connecting to issues of class and neo-liberal economic policies.
The break with Lalu and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal is a sharp shift, making it clear that these regional satraps are just not progressive enough. The break out of the Left from the increasingly difficult association with regional parties in Bihar is the final step of a process for the CPI-M in particular – which began after 2008 when it dawned on the party that the politically flexible regional parties were less reliable when it came to the crunch on signature Left issues.
The CPI-M belatedly and painfully woke up to the reality that it had been decimated politically, its organisation was in shambles and its reputation was in shreds, and the Left parties had been reduced to one seat in 2010, from the around 14-20 that they had traditionally won through the 1980s and 1990s. Hannan Mollah, who has been in charge of the Bihar state party, admits that the cost of maintaining the coalition of broad democratic-secular-progressive platform of anti-Congress, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party forces had become prohibitively expensive for the Left.
As a Left Front, the CPI-M, the CPI and CPI-ML (L) are a separate alliance with a distinctive political agenda that is self-consciously progressive, secular and democratic. It is a now or never gamble that the Left Front hopes will boost its appeal among the largest segment of voters, namely landless labourers and the marginalised peasantry. The demand for land reforms and distributive justice adopted by Liberation, CPI-M and CPI is only one of the issues that makes it different from the regional parties that despite achievements in social engineering and intentions of taking it further, have veered away from socialist politics and turned to ideologically conservative, structurally orthodox choices where social hierarchies have succeeded in blocking radical change.
Compelled to distance itself from Nitish Kumar after he joined forces with BJP, the Left nevertheless had some hopes that his progressive position would push him into structural transformation in Bihar via land reforms, Mollah says. For the Left, Nitish Kumar’s cave in to landlord pressure to abandon land reforms as recommended by the Bandopadhyay Commission report of 2008, is an opportunity that it must seize to reconnect to its traditional base of landless and agricultural labour and the marginalised peasant. Attaching itself to the Mahagatbandhan would have meant the three Left parties voluntarily giving up the biggest opportunity for any progressive force to cash in on causes that impact the largest segment of voters cutting across caste and community identities.
The Left’s election appeal therefore is on issues that have resonance with rural masses, daily wages, food security, distribution and use of irrigation water, delivery of schemes that benefit the poorest peasant families. It is focusing on the delivery of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) scheme and on an issue that is politically sensitive, namely the delivery of safe and hygienic mid-day meals in rural schools. Getting reconnected is as important as winning for the Communist parties.
The decline in the Left share of votes has been sharp over the past 30 years; from 10% it is down to between 2- 2.5%. The decline in seats is even worse. In 2010 it was down to one, with the CPI holding on to Bachwara in Begusarai district, from about 14 in 2000 and nine in 2005.
Armed with a slogan that emphasises fighting the elections to win, optimism is keeping the Left going. It hopes to increase the number of seats it wins in Begusarai, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Purnea, Chappra, where the seats of Bibhutpur, Siwan, Ujiarpur, Chappra East, Pipra, Purnea town, have been targeted. Increasing its vote share and re-establishing its bases across Bihar is the other equally important point of the 2015 election.
Speaking for the CPI-M and on behalf of the Left alliance, Mollah says “we found that we had been marginalised in the interests of maintaining the broad democratic, secular, progressive anti-Congress anti-BJP platform.” In a piquant fall out, the Left lost seats in the adjustments and accommodation required for bolstering the RJD. According to Mollah, the RJD benefited from the Left’s credentials as the party of the poor, for robust welfare schemes by the State, for secularism and against economic reforms that hurt the poor, the peasant and women. In return, the Left’s image was tarnished as a support for Lalu Prasad and the corruption that is synonymous with his regime.
Alienation of the Left parties
There were other reasons as well for snapping political ties with the regional parties in Bihar. The space the Left needed to pursue its own politics had shrunk. The alienation of the Left from Bihar’s long history of peasant movements over land rights, wages and agricultural prices, the subject of extensive research interest especially among subaltern historians, had reached a point of near extinction. The report of the CPI M’s 20th state committee meeting spelt things out: “In the Hindi region, we frequently find sharp reactions and spontaneous movements on various issues in absence of organised movements and limited appeal of the left parties. We must intervene into this and try and give direction and reach out to newer sections of people.”
To continue to remain relevant, the CPI-M now finds it imperative to go back to the causes it had historically championed. Bihar is the first stage for the party in its struggle to find its way back from being perceived as a party that is “pragmatic” and willing to tailor its politics to suit the agendas of regional partners, sections of the bourgeoisie and even capitalists. This election for the Left and the CPI-M in particular is to establish its credentials to lead the spontaneous movements that have erupted in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, by clearly declaring its pro-poor loyalties.
The Bihar elections are a departure from the politics of coalition building and support to regional parties by the Left. The next old ally that may be abandoned is fairly easy to identify – Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose last minute deal with the Congress on the nuclear deal continues to rankle with the CPI-M.
Any whiff of success in Bihar will galvanise the Left, specifically the CPI-M, into speeding up the overdue overhaul of the tactics and strategies that it has followed over the last 30 plus years. The verdict of voters in West Bengal that the CPI-M is as bad as a bourgeois party has shocked the leadership into acknowledging the grim reality that if they cannot find ways of re-rooting themselves in issues that affect the rural masses they will lose relevance. This alienation and the fear of becoming irrelevant for the masses is driving all the Communist parties for now in Bihar.