For the Indian Left, it is Mayday, Mayday!
Two weekends ago, the unthinkable happened: the 25-year old Left Front regime in Tripura was unceremoniously bundled out of office by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This tectonic political shift has more to it than just the audacious victory scored by the BJP, especially given that in the last assembly election, they won less than 2% of the vote share and 49 of their 50 candidates lost their election deposit.
While this is indeed true, it ignores a larger narrative: reaffirming the systemic decline of the Left parties in India. Its current leadership will be loath to admit it, but this is a ‘Mayday’ moment for a political formation which had harboured national ambitions.
Especially since the defeat in Tripura is ascribed to one key factor: failure to hitch the state to the national growth trajectory, resulting in lack of jobs and failed aspirations among the youth.
Their only surviving government is in Kerala, where too (embroiled in internal squabbles) they seem to be losing their way after winning a strong mandate under the leadership of a tough, no-nonsense chief minister. Worse, an internal report, as reported by a colleague in Mint on 27 February, points out, the biggest failing of the Left coalition is its alienation of the masses. Their national presence in the Parliament is a pale shadow of its former self.
Kerala’s CPM should reach out to the masses in a big way, suggested an internal review report, presented and discussed at the CPM state conference that concluded on Sunday.
The writing is on the wall as it were. What went wrong? Several things actually.
For one, the Left which drew its ideological roots from their counterparts in Europe suffered a body blow with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall, even while China, the other big communist power, began a dramatic rejig of its ideology by favouring free market principles, set in motion a fundamental political and economic transformation of the world. In India, the Left either lived in denial or simply preferred status quo; either way, it just ignored these changes.
Second, the industrial structure in India too began to undergo a dramatic shift. The worker-friendly assembly line approach to production defined around the textile industry started to give way to more sophisticated manufacturing with machines replacing low-end workers.
The famous Mumbai textile mill strike in the 1980s, preceded by the erosion of jute mills of Kolkata, only accelerated this makeover of the ecosystem for labour.
Industrial action became far and few, even as governments and courts started taking a tougher stance against them.
Thirdly, the birth of the new economy based on information technology only further atomised the work structures. Further, as the Indian economy traded up materially, poverty levels declined and the government permitted a larger play of market forces, aspirations took flight—leaving the idea of industrial class action outdated.
It is not that there were no doubting voices from within the organized Left. They were either ignored by a leadership ensconced in their ideological bunker or met with an ejection from the fold. With erosion of political clout, their criticism has become shriller and the Left less amenable to compromises—exactly why they were dropped from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Though their political opponents will not shed tears, the decline of the Left is a cause for worry. They lent variety to Indian democracy—so crucial for dialogue—and provided a space to articulate the cause of the less privileged. Their absence will only sharpen the binary national discourse and further deprive a national debate. Worrisome given that the country is at a moment tussling with key trade-offs: economy versus environment, labour versus capital, bricks versus the clicks economy and so on.
In all of them, some will gain while an equal number if not more will lose—a political consequence that has to be dealt with.
The decisions we take today will determine the future of several generations; consequently, they need to accommodate all points of view to define a common national interest.
A two-dimensional view of these challenges only provides space for misery mongering as the alternative view. This can’t be the case in an increasingly complex India. Worse, it will only sharpen the divide.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.