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Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | How Left parties lost touch with people and issues

Left’s concerns remain critical, but strategies do not resonate with the 21st century India

Labour Day is often associated with the Left parties, trade unions and workers’ movements. As one celebrates Labour Day in the midst of a national election, it is relevant to dilate on the current state of Left parties and their role in contemporary Indian politics. In not the too distant past, the Left was seen being a principal player in at least three states—Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura—with important pockets of influence across the country. Today, it is out of power in Tripura, is likely to be pushed to a distant third position in the electoral politics of West Bengal and runs the government in Kerala. Its zones of influence in the electoral politics of the rest of the country appear to have drastically receded though it continues to assert its presence in popular protest movements.

What are the factors that have contributed to the decline of the Left? After decades of enjoying uninterrupted power in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee, emerged as ‘more Left than the Left’. The Trinamool not merely took over the ideology and principles of the Left, it literally captured its ground strategy of mobilization and entrenchment at the local level. The Left parties have not only conceded space to the Trinamool Congress but in this Lok Sabha election are poised to allow the BJP to emerge as the key opponent of the Trinamool. This inability to recover is possibly linked to the inability of the Left to re-calibrate its strategy and provide a dynamic and younger leadership to challenge chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

In Kerala, the Left Democratic Alliance (LDF) emerged in power as part of the revolving door policy that the electorate of the state has followed for quite some time. In the bipolar competition it faces with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the Left parties have now to budget into all electoral and political calculations, the emergence of a third force in the state – the BJP. While it could take a few more rounds of elections for the BJP to make the electoral contest in the state an authentically tri-polar competition, it is clear that the BJP has the potential to eat into the Left vote bank. On the Sabarimala issue, the Left is clearly on the back-foot with the Congress having cleverly manoeuvred to ensure that the BJP does not monopolize the protest against the Supreme Court judgement. On 23 May, one would be keenly watching the electoral trends in Kerala, as many believe it could be an expression, at least in some pockets, of the public response to the debate that has emerged in the state on this contentious issue.

In a post- liberalization environment, the Left parties and the movements they are associated with have lost an opportunity to represent the voice of those disadvantaged by the processes of liberalization and privatization. Lokniti-CSDS surveys have consistently shown that unemployment, price rise and fulfilment of basic needs continue to be the key concerns of common citizens. The Left parties have been unable to package and present these issues, moving beyond their ideological prism, in a manner that can draw public attention and become the basis of electoral support. While the concerns of the Left remain critical, their strategies do not appear to resonate with the emerging 21st century India.

Sandeep Shastri is pro vice chancellor of Jain University and National Coordinator of Lokniti Network

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