Low-key Left missing from national discourse

Low-key Left missing from national discourse

New Delhi: The deserted headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in Gole Market in central New Delhi aptly sums up the marginalization of the Left parties in national politics.

This especially is in stark contrast with the situation three years ago, when they were an ally of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Not only have their political fortunes nose-dived ever since they parted from the UPA, their interventions on key issues of national import have lost their distinctive bite. Even on ideological issues such as jobless growth, poverty, inflation and corruption, the Left is unable to mobilize like before.

The big question, therefore, is whether this is a temporary setback and a part of the political cycle, or something more structural. While Left leaders vowed it is just a temporary phase in the wake of the electoral debacle, Subrata Mukherjee, a former political science professor at Delhi University, said the faultlines are more structural and the damage likely to be more long-lasting.

Decline of Communists

The decline of the Communists has not only reflected in their performance in elections and in Parliament, but also in their stances on key economic and foreign policy issues. The Left, which has been championing the cause of unemployment for decades, was indifferent to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s report that the UPA generated a mere 400,000 jobs a year, compared with 12 million jobs annually in the previous five years; this, despite an average growth of 8.43% in national income.

While in the past it would have done so easily, the Left has struggled to manage an effective campaign against the UPA’s proposal to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail—a move that could potentially impact small retail shops.

The repeated electoral debacles in the 2009 general election and in its bastions of West Bengal and Kerala earlier this year seem to have demoralized its firebrand leaders, who used to ensure their voice was heard in all the debates on major economic, legal, social and political spheres.

Communication failure

While claiming they continue to raise their voices in key issues, the Communists admit they have failed to communicate effectively, which has created a vacuum that has now been gradually taken over by different forces, including the so-called civil society groups. In the last few months, the anti-graft movement led by social activist Anna Hazare and his team has stolen the media limelight as well as public attention.

Sociologists say that apart from the electoral drubbing, the increasing ideological differences within the CPM is also a key reason for the perceptible drift. The CPM-led Left parties’ strength has been reduced from 61 to 24 in the 15th Lok Sabha. The Left also faced an embarrassing defeat in West Bengal, where it had been in power for more than three decades, in the April-May assembly polls and was thrown out of power in Kerala by a thin margin.

The CPM leaders blame the lack of visibility on the media, which, they argue, is selectively excluding the Left from their coverage, and the reduced strength in Parliament.

Reduced strength

Basudeb Acharia, leader of the Left in the Lok Sabha, agreed that a reduced electoral strength of the party has led to lesser time being allotted to key party members to speak in the House and in decreased media attention. He, however, added that “despite a depleted strength", the party has been successful in presenting the common man’s problem in the House and creating a space for itself in Parliament.

“In the 14th Lok Sabha, I used to get 50-55 minutes of allotted time to speak. Now my time is reduced to only 15-16 minutes. As a senior member, I am allotted 10-12 minutes of extra time, after which also I get only 20-25 minutes to speak," he said.

In the monsoon session that ended on 8 September, the Left gave notices for 11 short-duration debates and six calling-attention motions, and moved an adjournment motion.

The Left and three other smaller parties have collectively initiated 24% of the total parliamentary debates in the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha, against 23% by the BJP, which has 115 MPs, according to data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research entity.

In the 14th Lok Sabha, despite being an outside supporter of the UPA, the Left had been the most vehement critic of its policies, delaying a number of reform legislations, including the Provident Fund Regulatory Development Authority Bill.

K.N. Balagopal, a Rajya Sabha member from the CPM, pointed out that the Left had initiated the impeachment process against justice Soumitra Sen and brought the second-generation spectrum allocation irregularities to public notice for the first time. “However, the Congress is increasingly becoming deaf to the opposition voice," he said. “The media and the corporate houses are also keen to suppress our voices."

Voice of opposition

Balagopal admitted that the Left’s failure in being the voice of opposition to the policy and political initiatives of the government has been exploited by different groups. “We have to get back to the mode and fill that gap. We are looking into ways to do so. It is true that we have also to improve in terms of communicating to the middle class and youngsters." he said.

The booming middle class is beginning to influence politics, but is not yet a cohesive group. The Asian Development Bank in a report last year said the middle class in the country grew by around 205 million between 1990 and 2008.

Mukherjee, who has been a close observer of Left politics in the country, said, “Their (Left parties’) idea of a highly centralized economic model has been rejected. Also, Indian Communists have failed to change like those in Italy and other countries, from doctrinal socialism to a flexible social democracy. Secondly, there is a great deal of duplicity in their behaviour, which is more in West Bengal and less in Kerala. For example, their approach to foreign investment. The middle class see they are perpetuating this just to retain their support base."

Mukherjee also added that the Left’s inability to have a strong backing among the unorganized sector also would hit its prospects. “The increasing trend of cutting down lower section of employees in organizations, which they are outsourcing now, has also affected the Left’s clout."

B.D. Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Kolkata-based Institute of Social Sciences, said the intensifying internal differences between hard-liners such as CPM general secretary Prakash Karat and others also seem to have contributed to the current state of the party.

“They do not have a definite framework to combat the differences in the party. Also, the Communists have to realize that they have to operate with the bourgeois in democracy while championing the cause of poor," Ghosh said. “It is ideologically directionless, too."