Questions the Left Must Answer If It Wants to See a Turnaround in 2016

Instead of focussing on people’s issues and movements outside the parliamentary arena, the CPI(M) leadership has continued to preoccupy itself with a sterile debate over an electoral alliance with the Congress in Bengal.

The Clock is Ticking, Comrades: General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury with politburo member Brinda Karat at the party's headquarters in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan

The Clock is Ticking, Comrades: General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury with politburo member Brinda Karat at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan

Will the parliamentary Left in India witness a turnaround in 2016? After the poor showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, all eyes are set on the assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala that are scheduled for the forthcoming year.

In West Bengal, the serious erosion of the Left Front’s support base in 2014 coincided with a sharp rise in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s  vote share to an unprecedented 17%. Since then, however, the BJP has lost political ground in the state owing to a host of factors – the go-slow on the Saradha scam investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the BJP’s hobnobbing with the ruling Trinamool Congress, its vulgar attempts to create communal polarisation after the Khagragarh explosions, internal squabbles within the state organisation and the absence of any credible state-level leadership have all contributed to the downslide of the BJP in Bengal. This became apparent in the last phase of urban bodies’ polls. Growing disillusionment with the Narendra Modi regime, as was seen in the BJP’s drubbing in neighbouring Bihar, has further dampened the party’s prospects in Bengal. This should be good news for the Left, since the BJP had increased its vote share almost entirely at the cost of the LF and its decline would tend to shore up the Left’s electoral support as the principal opposition force in Bengal.

The situation in Kerala seems favourable for the Left Democratic Front, with the Congress-led United Democratic Front government mired in corruption scandals like the solar scam, and internal strife affecting the coherence of the ruling coalition. The recently concluded panchayat and municipality elections have witnessed some gains made by the LDF. It is in this backdrop that the CPI(M) is holding a plenum in Kolkata on December 27-31, starting with a rally at the Brigade Parade Ground. On the surface, the stage seems set for a turnaround story.

Not quite 1998 again

Yet, there are reasons to remain sceptical of a Left revival next year, even an electoral one. The premise on the basis of which the CPI(M) leadership seems to be operating today is that the current political situation in the country resembles the situation after 1998, when a BJP-led government had come to power for the first time. The CPI(M) party congress held in Kolkata in October 1998 had dropped the line of “equidistance” between the Congress and the BJP, and had decided to support the Congress at the centre in order to replace the BJP. Consistent and spirited opposition to the RSS-BJP since 1998 had helped the CPI(M)-led Left to gain politically and energise its base, which resulted in the impressive electoral performance in 2004 – its best performance after independence.

The problem is that while there is another BJP-led government at the centre today, the situation vis-a-vis the Left has altered substantially.

Owing to its depleted parliamentary strength in 2014, the CPI(M)-led Left is no longer in a position to play a pivotal oppositional role to the BJP inside parliament, as was the case during the Vajpayee regime. Other regional parties, including the TMC, RJD-JD(U) etc. have taken up much of that space. This is not to argue that the CPI(M)-led Left should therefore soften its stand vis-a-vis the RSS-BJP and it’s communal, right-wing policies, but to underscore the home truth that a mere assertion of secular, anti-BJP politics is not going to yield political-electoral dividends for the Left at present, as it did between 1998 and 2004.

The pursuit of secularism through parliamentary interventions may be necessary today, but it will not be sufficient in ensuring a revival of Left politics. This is more so because the prime opponents of the Left in the key battleground states of West Bengal and Kerala are the Trinamool Congress and the Congress respectively, and not the BJP. This point is often missed by those who advocate a Bihar-style “Grand Alliance” as a recipe for the Left’s electoral revival.

No introspection over Bengal debacle

It is here that the CPI(M)-led LF continues to be on a weak footing. The CPI(M) leadership in West Bengal is yet to honestly come to terms with the reasons behind the downfall of the Left regime in 2011. The CPI(M) state conference held earlier this year obdurately refused to self-critically identify the ideological-political deviations and administrative malfunction under Left rule. Even after the passage of seven years, fiascos like Singur-Nandigram were explained away as ‘exceptions’ in the CPI(M) state conference held earlier this year, rather than acknowledging the flaws in the industrial and land acquisition strategy. In the absence of genuine course correction, people remain unresponsive to the CPI(M)’s confused policy vision.

Moreover, the CPI(M) leadership has also failed to build up sustained movements against the TMC’s misrule in Bengal. Protests and agitations on major issues like the Saradha scam, crimes against women or the power tariff hike have been sporadic, geared more towards drawing immediate mileage rather than foregrounding and resolving issues in people’s interest. Interventions on industrial closures or farm distress, which impact the livelihoods of millions of workers and farmers, have been dismal so far.

Instead of focussing on people’s issues and movements outside the parliamentary arena, the CPI(M) leadership has continued to preoccupy itself with a sterile debate over an electoral alliance with the Congress in Bengal. There is much possibility of the Congress high command hammering out a deal with the Trinamool Congress supremo on the eve of the elections, as in 2011. The experience of the Presidential elections in 2012 also showed that the TMC, despite its posturing, is unwilling to close its options vis-a-vis the Congress. In this context, the public hankering by the CPI(M) leaders for an electoral alliance with the Congress only ends up strengthening the bargaining position of the Congress vis-à-vis the TMC.

Even if the TMC and the Congress fail to arrive at an electoral pact, an open electoral alliance between the CPI(M) and the Congress in Bengal is difficult to conceive. Just imagine Buddhadeb Bhattacharya addressing a joint election rally with Somen Mitra in Bagbazar, or Biman Bose sharing the dais with Adhir Chowdhury in Baharampur! Would the people accept such an unprincipled alliance, especially the generation that have witnessed the “semi-fascist” Congress rule of 1972-77? What policy alternative would such a coalition have to offer to the people of Bengal today – a cocktail of Brand Buddha and Manmohanomics?

After all, an electoral alliances is not only about arithmetic; two plus two in politics may result in zero rather than four. The CPI in West Bengal has already adopted a public position against any electoral alliance with the Congress. LF partners RSP and Forward Bloc have also expressed reservations on a tie-up with the Congress in Bengal. The CPI(ML) Liberation too, which led the united Left bloc in the Bihar assembly polls and commendably won three seats in a highly polarised election, has spoken out against the pro-Congress line. Thus, if the CPI(M) leadership finally opts for an opportunistic tie-up with the Congress party in Bengal, it may end up disrupting the unity of the Left, in sharp contradiction to the party congress resolution of broadening and strengthening Left unity.

The CPI(M) in Kerala, which stands a much better chance in displacing the Congress government in that state, is bound to be uncomfortable with the Bengal party leadership’s proclivity towards the Congress. Besides, it is unclear whether the people of Kerala would be willing to accept the leadership that is currently being projected by the CPI(M), after the shabby treatment meted out to veteran leader VS Achuthanandan. Issues like the murder of RMP leader TP Chandrasekaran will also continue to plague the LDF.

No clarity on the line

Strangely, these are not the questions that are going to be discussed in the forthcoming Plenum of the CPI(M). The Party leadership has chosen to focus on the more mundane aspects of organisational functioning, rather than addressing the pressing political questions. The political line of the CPI(M) itself remains unresolved. This is clear from the divergent interpretations of the “Political-Tactical Line” (P-TL) that has been adopted at the 21st party congress at Visakhapatnam earlier this year. In an article published on December 20 in the CPI(M) party organ, People’s Democracy,  in the run up to the plenum, the former general secretary of the party, Prakash Karat, writes:

“The Political-Tactical Line adopted at the 21st Congress has restored the primacy of building the Left and democratic front. This requires an enormous increase in the independent strength of the Party. This can be accomplished only if the Party organisation is capable of advancing the class and mass struggles.”

This view, which considers the P-TL as settled, has been contradicted by the current general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, in an article for the December 27 edition of People’s Democracy (officially circulated in advance) written on the eve of the Plenum. He writes:

“On the basis of such growth of our independent strength, the 21st Congress P-TL underlined the importance of united front tactics in the process of forging the LDF. The revolutionary tactics of the United Front have always emphasised the need to combine the principles of unity and struggle i.e., using conflicts within sections of the ruling class parties while uniting with some of them to achieve our immediate objectives and simultaneously strengthen struggles against the anti-people, anti-working class policies pursued by these very parties…At the same time, the 21st Congress P-TL also underlined the fact that the CPI(M) must adopt flexible tactics to meet swift changes in the political situation. Further, that electoral tactics should be dovetailed to the primacy of building the Left and Democratic Front.

So the former general secretary wants the CPI(M) to revive by according “primacy” to the unity of the “left and democratic” forces, while the current general secretary wants to achieve revival by using the “conflicts within sections of the ruling class parties while uniting with some of them”. Can organisational fixes be contrived of what is essentially a problem of political directionlessness?

It is this procrastination, indecisiveness and opacity – typical of a dysfunctional bureaucracy – which continues to afflict the CPI(M) leadership and makes the prospect of Left revival all the more distant. It was sheer disdain towards such bureaucratism which drove a revolutionary poet to pen those immortal lines:

“One more Conference
one last conference
to liquidate all conferences!”

(From “Lost in Conference”, Vladimir Mayakovsky)

Prasenjit Bose is an economist and political activist