Is This the End of the Road for the CPI(M) in Bengal?

Many grassroots CPI(M) workers held its leaders responsible for the broken relationship between the top party leadership and its cadres.

Kolkata: May 2, 2021 turned out to be a historic day for the Left parties for two reasons. First, by winning the assembly election in Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) broke a long cycle of one-term government in the state which was continuing since 1977. Second, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front failed to win even a single seat in the West Bengal assembly election. In a first since independence, there won’t be a Left representative in the Bengal state assembly. 

The Left Front lost a deposit in 158 of 177 seats it contested. It didn’t end here, in only four seats, CPI(M) secured a second position, the worst was 7th in the Darjeeling seat. 

A party, which uninterruptedly ruled Bengal for 34 years from 1977 to 2011, was reduced to zero in merely ten years.  

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party’s vote share was a mere 6.28%, even then it failed to win a single seat. Two years later, the party’s vote share declined further to 4.7%. How did this happen?

Who is responsible for CPI(M)’s fall?

A section of political observers believe that a large part of the blame lies squarely on the West Bengal leadership of CPI(M) and a section of the all-India leadership. 

Many leaders of the Left parties and political commentators publicly opined that the biggest issue with the CPI(M) leadership is that they continued to introspect but didn’t do much needed course correction. Even after their consistent electoral failures, not a single party leader took responsibility for it.

“First, nobody within the CPI(M) has ever been held accountable for their consecutive electoral setbacks. There was never any real introspection on why they lost power in West Bengal in 2011. Since then, their vote share has eroded in every election. CPI(M)’s line that BJP and Trinamool are the same, which led to the term ‘Bijemool’, is totally erroneous. BJP is no ordinary political party; it is backed by the fascistic RSS. TMC, Congress or other bourgeois parties may be ridden by many ills, but none of them subscribe to the extremist Hindutva ideology,” said former CPI(M) leader Prasenjit Bose. 

Also read: Statistical Afternotes: TMC May Have Won Bengal, but BJP Did Not Do Badly

Party’s top leaders, CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra, Left Front chairman Biman Bose, and other politburo members from Bengal like Md. Salim, Hannan Mollah and Nilotpal Basu, observers say, made no efforts to revive the party and strengthen the organisation in Bengal.

Left Front Chairman Biman Bose and Sanyukta Morcha candidates and supporters during an election campaign rally for Assembly polls, in Kolkata. Photo: PTI /Ashok Bhaumik

Responding to the allegation, the veteran leader Mishra told The Wire, “Whatever initial reaction we had to give, we have already given to the media. Currently, we are analysing the result and getting inputs from the ground level. So I will be able to comment once it’s done. It might take around a month to complete the process.”

Contrary to this, the Kerala unit of the CPI(M) took a risky but courageous decision to bench 33 senior leaders of the party from the electoral contest. These leaders include five sitting ministers and some popular regional leaders who can single-handedly win their respective constituencies. 

Chief minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan, who is also a politburo member, defended the move by saying the party needs to bring about leadership change.

While touring the state during the election, The Wire found that many grassroots CPI(M) workers held its leaders responsible for the broken relationship between the top party leadership and its cadres. The largest communist party in the country, however, has not made any effort to bridge the gap of leadership and its cadres on ground, they said.

Compromising on ideology

Left leaders in West Bengal kept on harping that theirs is an ideology-based party and their stance on policies or any socio-economic issues is driven by ideology. The same party forged an alliance with their arch rival Congress in 2016 with a singular aim to defeat Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. 

The alliance didn’t work. CPI(M)’s vote share reduced from 30% in 2011 to 19.7% in 2016. They only won 26 seats, a fall of 14 from 2011.

In 2021, again they forged an alliance with the Congress. This time, CPI(M) went one step-ahead and partnered with the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF). ISF was floated by a Muslim cleric Abbas Siddique just three months before the election. 

The alliance organised a rally at Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade Ground on February 28. However, it’s ironic that when the background of the main stage has a slogan which says ‘Amrai Bikolpo, Amrai Dharmoniropekkho, Amrai Bhobishot (We are the alternative, We are secular, We are the future)’, the showstopper of the public meeting was a religious leader Abbas Sidiqui – the leader of the newly formed Rashtriya Secular Majlis Party, popularly known as the Indian Secular Front.  

The Wire spoke to many Left workers who attended the meeting at Brigade and they said they were unhappy with their leadership’s decision to join hands with the ISF. However, the leadership kept on defending the move and many even called it a “game changer”. 

Activists and supporters gather at Brigade Parade Ground during a joint rally by Left-Congress and Indian Secular Front (ISF), ahead of West Bengal assembly polls, in Kolkata. Photo: PTI/Swapan Mahapatra

Sources from the CPI(M) told The Wire that party veteran Md. Salim is the key architect for stitching the alliance with ISF.

Also read: Key Economic Lessons Learnt From the West Bengal, Kerala Electoral Results

Several Bengal Left leaders who contested elections recently have already showed their discontentment against the alliance after the electoral debacle. Party veteran and state committee member Kanti Ganguly in an interview to a regional news channel said, “Alliance with ISF was never discussed in the state committee. At least, I was not part of any such discussion.” 

“Not all Left Front partners were enthused by the alliance with the Congress and the ISF, but it was the CPI(M) leadership which pushed it. It was an opportunistic alliance, which neither had any progressive programme, nor had a smooth seat-sharing deal. It was largely perceived by the people as a spoiler, which was trying to cut into TMC’s votes and helping the BJP,” Prasenjit Bose said. 

Two former CPI(M) MLAs, Tanmoy Bhattacharya and Ashok Bhattacharya, who lost election this time, openly rebelled against the party leadership after the election results were out. 

In a sharp contrast, the CPI(M) unit in Kerala firmly defended the apex court’s verdict allowing entry to women of all age groups in the popular Hindu shrine of Sabarimala, even after suffering a huge setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. 

Chief minister Vijayan’s stance on issues had irked many cadres and leaders of the party. Many leaders opined that Vijayan’s stance could bring in more trouble for the party in the next assembly election. In the 2021 assembly election, CPI(M) bagged all five seats from Pathanamthitta district, the hotbed of Sabarimala protests. The party turned around the political adversity without compromising their ideological position. 

Faulty poll strategy

In 2019, CPI(M)’s election strategy in Bengal hinged on the slogan, “Oust BJP, Save the Nation; Oust TMC, Save Bengal.”

Left Front supporters en masse voted for the BJP, helping it win 18 seats from just two in 2014. The BJP’s vote share increased from 17.02% in 2014 to a remarkable 40.23% in 2019.

Right after the election, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury in a video message denied that CPI(M) cadres were helping BJP in any way.

“Both BJP and Trinamool are jointly spreading a canard and the media is lapping it up to create a binary narrative in Bengal by saying that the CPI(M) and the Left are promoting BJP. Fact remains that the only consistent fighter against the BJP and the communal forces is the CPI(M) and the Left. The Left remains the last hurdle against the BJP in West Bengal and the rest of the country,” said Yechury.

However, later Yechury admitted that CPI(M) supporters voted for the BJP in the parliamentary election. 

As if there were no lessons learnt, the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s stance remained the same even in the 2021 assembly polls. It continued to see the BJP as their opponent nationally, and TMC as their chief rival in Bengal.

After winning 12 seats out of 19 in the Bihar assembly polls, the CPI-ML (Liberation) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said that the Left Front and the Congress should identify BJP as the “political enemy number one” in Bengal and should refrain from clubbing TMC and the saffron party in the same bracket. 

Also read: The Bengal Poll Verdict Is a Chance to Reclaim Space for Education and Health

Reacting to it, Front chairman Biman Bose said, “The situation in Bengal and Bihar are different. Here, both Trinamool and BJP are harmful for the state. The Left will fight against both Trinamool and BJP. I don’t know what Bhattacharya has said or what his party’s standpoint is. But in Bengal, we consider Trinamool no less dangerous than BJP. These two parties have all along been into competitive communalism. “

Similarly, Yechury rejected Bhattacharya’s proposal and said, “The kind of violence Trinamool has resorted to and the corruption that they are running, people’s anger has been collectivised against the ruling party. Siding with Trinamool would potentially mean to hand all the anti-incumbency votes to BJP.”

After the results were out, Bhattacharya wrote an opinion piece in Telegraph stating, “The fundamental flaw of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal analysis was to treat it as just another state election delinked from the overwhelming national context.” He wrote that the Left didn’t understand that, “…it was not about settling scores with the TMC over Singur and Nandigram and for the 2011 defeat, it was about addressing the pressing present reality of West Bengal and India from a Left point of view.” 

In the scathing attack, Bhattacharya said, “While the whole world saw BJP and TMC as two adversaries, the CPI(M) harped on the presumed equivalence and unity of the two. Hence, the absurd formulation that to defeat the BJP, one had to first defeat the TMC, or the concoction of a fictitious entity called ‘Bijemool’ by lumping BJP and TMC.” 

The Wire reported during the 2019 parliamentary elections and 2021 assembly election that a section of Left voters opted for voting BJP to save themselves from TMC’s atrocities. In Jangalmahal area, Paschim Medinipur, scores of Left cadres switched to the BJP with the sole intention of removing the TMC. 

Speaking to The Wire, senior CPI(M) leader and central committee member, Amiya Patra said, “A large section of traditional CPI(M) voters shifted to the BJP in 2019 to teach the TMC a lesson. The primary reason for this was that the Left party could not provide them enough support and assistance to resist attacks from the TMC. They took refuge under the BJP as it is the ruling party at the Centre and can provide them help and assistance. In 2021, we thought of winning back a section of these voters, but it didn’t happen.”

When asked Patra about CPI(M)’s devastating result, he said, “Firstly, the media played a key role in projecting as if there are only two parties in Bengal. This narrative has politically polarised the election. Secondly, the minority community felt that security is the most important issue this time. They felt the BJP must be stopped or else they won’t have security. So, they voted for the TMC at the highest scale. Third, TMC retained votes of beneficiaries of the various welfare schemes of the state government.”

Leadership crisis

After Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s exit from the post of general secretary, the CPI(M) was first led by Prakash Karat and now, Sitaram Yechury. And as it happened, when put to test, the party’s national leadership failed as far as the party’s electoral fortunes are concerned.

At the state level, after 2011, a political void has marked Bengal’s CPI(M) leadership. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s departure from active politics has not led to the emergence of fresh leaders.

Bose, Salim, Mishra hardly have any political capital on the ground. The workers on the ground don’t have much faith in their leaders. The Wire, during the election travel in various districts of Bengal, found that people, other hardcore party workers, have stopped taking CPI(M) as a serious political party. 

When asked about CPI(M), Pintu Mallick of Birbhum told The Wire, “They [the CPI(M)] themselves don’t know what they want. Some time, they are with the Congress, some time, they are without the Congress. This time, they are with the Congress and Bhaijan (ISF). Can their leaders tell us why the party that ruled the state for 34 years is in such a mess?”

Political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty believes that the Left’s biggest mistake in this election was to join hands with the ISF. “When CPI(M) is targeting TMC and BJP for communal politics, they themselves forged an alliance with another communal force. This is nothing but double standard. People didn’t accept.” 

Chakraborty, however, opined that this time the Left leadership cannot be completely blamed for its disastrous result. “Elections this time had unique characteristics. The electorate was completely polarised politically. It was either for the BJP or against the BJP, and there was no place for a third player. The reason Left succeeded in Kerala is the same reason Left failed in Bengal.”

The Left leadership in Bengal is often held responsible for not making way for the next generation. But in this assembly election, CPI(M) fielded many young leaders from various constituencies. 

Also read: How Bengali Civil Society Stood up Against the BJP

Students Federation of India (SFI) leader Pritha Tah (29) contested the assembly polls from Bardhaman Dakshin. Srijan Bhattacharya (27) contested from a high profile constituency of Singur. Democratic Youth Federation of India’s (DYFI) state president Minakshi Mukherjee (33) contested from another keenly watched constituency, Nandigram.

Sitting JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh (26) contested from Jamuria constituency in Paschim Bardhaman. Former JNUSU leader Dipsita Dhar (28) contested from Howrah’s Bally constituency. Apart from these, there are other young candidates like DYFI state secretary Sayandeep Mitra who contested from Kamarhati, SFI state president Pratikur Rehman who was the candidate from Diamond Harbour, Saptarshi Deb from Rajarhat Newtown, etc. 

CPI(M) candidate from Bally constituency Dipsita Dhar during her election campaign, at Bally in Howrah district. Photo: PTI

Although all of them lost the election, a majority of these young leaders have performed better than their seniors and have polled more votes. Political commentators believe the need of the hour is to bring in some radical changes in the CPI(M). “Young leaders fielded by the CPI(M) lost this time, but there is no reason to feel disheartened about it. This is just their debut election, a long road is waiting ahead. But CPI(M) should have taken this decision long back, until now they have not given any importance to generational change,” said one political commentator. 

Although CPI(M) Bengal has inducted fresh faces and fielded almost a dozen of them in the election, there is a qualitative difference in how the party’s Bengal and Kerala unit view the generational change.

Many debutants who contested the assembly election in Bengal have no experience in electoral politics. Some candidates have never done active politics in the state. Like Aishe and Dipsita were living outside Bengal for a few years now and were paradropped for the election. It is felt in the party ranks that before throwing these young turks into the fray, the party should have done some hand-holding. This also means the process of bringing new faces should have started long back. 

CPI(M) in Kerala appointed 21-year-old Arya Rajendran as the mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. With this she became the youngest-ever mayor in the country. But much before she contested the civic election, she was a popular face in her locality as a state committee member of Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and as the state president of Balasangam, the children’s wing of the Left party. 

Likewise, CPI(M) Kerala unit nominated 28-year-old Linto Joseph from Thiruvambady in Kozhikode. He is one of the youngest CPI(M) members to contest election from Kerala and won the seat by 4,643 votes. Joseph is the current president of the Koodaranhi Gram Panchayat in Kozhikode district. LDF leaders acknowledge that Joseph’s image as an active youth activist and his role as the panchayat president helped him in winning the seat.

Similarly, K.M. Sachin Dev, one of the youngest LDF candidates in the fray, won Balussery with a whopping margin of 20,372 votes. Sachin Dev is the state secretary of SFI and a popular face in Kozhikode district.