Home >opinion >online-views >The political economy of CPM’s atrophy in West Bengal
Between 2009 and 2015, the CPM was split down the middle on the question of its relationship with the Congress in the state. Elevation of Sitaram Yechury to the general secretary’s post in 2015 clinched this debate in favour of the pro-Congress faction. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Between 2009 and 2015, the CPM was split down the middle on the question of its relationship with the Congress in the state. Elevation of Sitaram Yechury to the general secretary’s post in 2015 clinched this debate in favour of the pro-Congress faction. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The political economy of CPM’s atrophy in West Bengal

Within five years, CPM has been relegated to a poor third position in the state assembly with just 26 seats out of 294

New Delhi: When he took over as general secretary of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) at the 21st party congress held last year, Sitaram Yechury termed it “the congress of the future, both for the party and the country".

A year later, it seems Yechury has seriously jeopardized the future of his party by allowing those manning (there are no women anyway) Alimuddin Street in Kolkata to align with the Congress in violation of the collective understanding reached at the same party congress which elected him to the top post.

The CPM-led Left Front ran a democratically elected government in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011, a feat unparalleled in India and perhaps the world. Within five years, it has been relegated to a poor third position in the state assembly, with just 26 seats out of 294. The party had won 176 seats in 2006. This time, even the Left Front put together has fewer members than the Congress, which will now have the leader of opposition in the assembly. To be sure, the party has been suffering continuous erosion in its base for quite some time. What makes the latest results remarkable is that all false alibis peddled by the leadership to explain the downslide have now been exhausted.

A bit of history is necessary to explain this. Drying-up of redistributive gains from land reforms and the rising challenge of employment generation had put a lot of pressure on the Left government in West Bengal.

The overwhelming mandate for the Left Front in the 2006 assembly elections was interpreted as one for rapid industrialization and bonhomie with big private capital. Trouble started after industry-related forcible land acquisition in Singur and police firing on farmers in Nandigram, which alienated large sections of the peasantry—the bedrock of the party’s support base in the state. That was 2007. The state leadership, however, was “dizzy with success", if one could use Stalin’s words urging a temporary halt to collectivization of farms in Soviet Russia. They got an alibi by the time the 2009 Lok Sabha elections came. The spat between the Left and the Congress over the nuclear deal led to an alliance between the Congress and the Trinamool in the state.

It was this opposition unity, and not erosion in their own support base, which adversely affected the Left’s performance in the elections, the comrades in Kolkata argued. The trend continued in the assembly elections of 2011 as well. A logical corollary to the argument was that things could change if the Congress is made to come over to the CPM’s side.

Between 2009 and 2015, the CPM was split down the middle on the question of its relationship with the Congress in the state. The elevation of Yechury to the general secretary’s post in 2015 clinched this debate in favour of the pro-Congress faction. Many commentators thought a more pragmatic Yechury could achieve a turnaround in the party’s fortunes. They, too, like the “let’s do business with the Congress to isolate the Mamata Banerjee" camp in the CPM, missed the woods for the trees.

What’s the larger point then? CPM’s predicament in West Bengal is a direct outcome of its muddle-headed understanding of the current political economy. Unlike the other regional parties, the CPM’s relations with the Congress have not been a function of Machiavellian skills of the former’s leadership, which is often evoked in relation to the period when Harkishan Singh Surjeet—who played an important role in the formation of the United Front and the United Progressive Alliance-I government—was at the helm of party affairs.

The CPM’s formation in 1964 itself was a result of differences over the communists’ attitude to the Congress—the main ruling-class party in that period—and its economic idea of India. The CPM’s first-generation leadership was crystal clear that Congress’s bid to placate both the rural landed elite and big business would result in an irreconcilable contradiction, as rural inequality due to not implementing land reforms would make it difficult to increase rural incomes and expand the size of the domestic market.

At a time when Indian capitalism was still in its nascent stage, the CPM’s strategy of focusing on the inequality in rural economy through land reforms in states ruled by it worked well. However, with economic reforms resulting in much faster growth in other states, things became difficult. To be sure, the demonstration effect was more from China than other states in India.

Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation that “I don’t care what is the colour of the cat as long as it catches mice" and China’s rapid economic growth was too attractive to resist. There was a problem with the idea though. Even the non-Left political camp in India was more than willing to emulate the China model. And, it did not have to worry about taking care of an organic support base of working class and peasantry, a significant majority of which has not emerged as winners in the ongoing reform push. To take an example, even prolonged anti-land acquisition movements have not brought any serious political harm to the ruling party in a state such as Odisha, very similar to West Bengal on most indicators.

The larger point is, unlike the pre-reform period, when the Left was sure of its critique of the political economy framework being followed, it is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish itself from the mainstream view today. To take a crude example, the Left in West Bengal still suffers heartburn over the shifting of the Nano plant to Gujarat, so much so that its candidate in Singur campaigned in a Nano car this time. But if bringing the Nano to West Bengal is the benchmark, why should people not prefer the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Congress, which have brought much bigger investments to states where they rule? Of course, the party supports trade unions and opposes most economic reforms. But these have become more of a reactive strategy than pro-actively mobilizing its basic support base, which has shifted allegiance in West Bengal. The fact that the CPM has also lost the opposition’s leadership within five years of losing power in the state is the starkest manifestation of its political-ideological confusion.

Most people reading this piece may differ with the arguments made, and for valid reasons. India’s middle-class has made definitive gains from economic reforms, but they never supported the Left in any case. It is those who are feeling the brunt of worsening rural distress and growing inequality in India who need the Left to take up their cause not just on paper but also in practice. An abdication of all sincere attempts to mobilize its basic class base, and resorting to cobbling opportunistic last-minute alliances shows that it is just unwilling to take up the challenge. In a party which still operates on the principle of democratic centralism—which makes the entire organization subservient to the decisions of highest leadership—the buck stops right at the top.

The ability of state governments to pursue alternative policies is being increasingly squeezed under India’s federal structure. The rise of multiple kinds of identity politics has made the Left’s job more difficult. The influence of illicit money—something in which the Left is still much better than others—has increased manifold. And so on. But politics is a winner’s game. Didn’t Marx say, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

Subscribe to newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperLivemint.com is now on Telegram. Join Livemint channel in your Telegram and stay updated

Close
×
My Reads Logout