The Left Front, comprising Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, Communist Party of India (CPI) and smaller communist parties, is likely to face an uphill battle in its two main bastions of West Bengal and Kerala in Lok Sabha Elections 2019, says a recent pre-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
In West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be on course to replacing the Left Front as the principal challenger to the Trinamool Congress while in Kerala, the decision of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to contest from Wayanad could wean away a section of the Left Front’s support base.
These challenges come in the wake of a long period of decline for the Left Front, an analysis of election data from the Election Commission and survey data from Lokniti-CSDS shows.
Over the past two decades, the Left Front recorded its best-ever Lok Sabha performance in the 2004 election when it won 61 seats, garnering 8% of votes. Since then, there has been a consistent decline in support and it could only win 12 seats in 2014.
The electoral presence of the Left Front has traditionally been concentrated in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. Until 2004, they also won a few seats in some other states. But, over the past decade, their presence has sharply declined outside the three core states.
The Left Front’s aggregate vote share in states excluding the three was less than 1% in 2014. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections could be a moment of crisis for the Left Front as the Congress and the BJP are threatening to further erode its electoral presence in Kerala and West Bengal, which together elect 62 Lok Sabha members.
In West Bengal, the Left Front was relegated to the third position (in terms of seats) in the 2016 assembly election despite an alliance with the Congress. It slipped further in the 2018 panchayat elections in West Bengal when the BJP stood second.
A pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in the last week of March reveals that the BJP is likely to improve its performance in West Bengal as compared to 2014. Irrespective of whether it makes substantial gains in terms of seats, it would end up hurting the Left by weaning away some of its electoral support and fragmenting the opposition vote in the state. The Congress’s decision to go it alone in West Bengal further hampered the Left’s prospects as a 2016-like arrangement could have kept the alliance in contest on some seats.
As in 2014, the Left’s best scope for winning seats lies in Kerala which accounted for eight of the twelve Lok Sabha seats the Left Front won in 2014. Even here, the Left could suffer adversely if the BJP manages to improve upon its 2014 performance.
This is because the Left Democratic Front (LDF) relies on support among Hindu groups—mostly the Ezhavas and scheduled castes—in the state, and the BJP is trying to gain foothold among these groups after its active participation in the Sabarimala movement.
If the Congress manages to extend its lead among religious minorities after Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad outreach, the Left’s vote share could drop further.
Apart from these states, seat prospects for the Left are limited to Tripura and Tamil Nadu in Elections 2019. Though the BJP starts as a front-runner in Tripura, the Left Front—which has consistently held both Lok Sabha seats from the state since 1996—cannot be ruled out. In Tamil Nadu, CPM and CPI are contesting two seats each as part of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance. If the state has a one-sided result, as it often does, these could be crucial victories for the Left. Overall though, the Left Front’s tally is not likely to improve much in 2019.
What can the Left Front do to get out of this dire situation?
As its principal opponents—the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and United Democratic Front in Kerala—are also anti-BJP, the Left Front needs to reshape its agenda and extend it beyond anti-BJP rhetoric.
Secondly, the March Lokniti-CSDS survey shows that issues the Left Front claims to champion still remain relevant for the Indian voter. For instance, unemployment was the most important issue while voting, for a plurality of respondents in survey. More than 4 out of 10 respondents (43%) said that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the last five years. What the Left needs are new and attractive solutions to these issues which would resonate with voters.
Finally, to be able to woo more voters, the party needs stronger mass leaders, without which it would find the going tough in increasingly leadership-driven contests. Outside Kerala, the party has very few mass leaders. Unless the Left is able to make these course corrections, it may not be able to arrest its terminal decline.
Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, US.
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