Nationally, the CPM has lost its anti-system USP. In Bengal, it’s lost the Muslims. Is decline irreversible, asks Ashok Malik
IT’S THE missing pole of Indian politics. A narrow defeat in Kerala and a thrashing in West Bengal (both in 2011) have rendered the CPM weaker than at any time in the post-Emergency period. It has lost its clout in New Delhi and its territorial base in West Bengal. In some senses, it has also lost its USP. The Congress cultivates fellow-traveller groups and centres its politics on welfare programmes and legislation. The Trinamool Congress opposes FDI. Arvind Kejriwal and India Against Corruption play the conscience of the polity and take on the crony capitalist establishment. What then does the official Left do?
Whatever it is, the leadership of the CPM is not unintelligent. In private conversations, it admits it doesn’t see an immediate or even a foreseeable upswing. “In 2004,” says a senior CPM functionary, “we won 60 seats in the Lok Sabha. That was an aberration. It was the result of the Left winning 18 of 20 seats in Kerala and the Congress getting zero. This had never happened before and is unlikely to happen again.” The freak result in Kerala was matched by a sweep in West Bengal, with the Left Front winning 35 of 42 seats and the CPM alone accounting for 26.
By 2009, the Left Front had plummeted to 24 seats. In 2014, some improvement is expected in Kerala (where the Left won only four seats in 2009) but overall even a 30-seat finish is unlikely. The key is West Bengal, the loss of which has crippled the CPM and the Left coalition it leads. “She’s holding on,” admits a senior CPM office-bearer of Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress chief. “We have not seen evidence of a decline in her strength.”
The CPM faces three problems. The first is to package itself for a contemporary electorate at a time when various progressive strands, rather than one doctrinaire definition of Leftism, seem to have appeal. As even party general secretary Prakash Karat acknowledges (see interview), “We cannot have a repetition of the socialism of the 20th century.”
The second challenge is its estrangement with the Congress. Traditionally, the Congress has used the CPM to win respectability among relevant interest groups such as minorities, Left-leaning academics and trade unions. It did this in 2004 as well. Today, with its declining numbers, the CPM is no longer useful. The Communists, on the other hand, are bitter about the betrayal of 2008, when the Congress snubbed the Left for the nuclear deal.
In normal circumstances, the CPM approach to regaining power in West Bengal would have been to wean the Congress away from the Trinamool. Instead, it finds Mamata has walked out on the Congress herself. She assesses, like the CPM does, that the popular anger against the Congress is high and an alliance with it would be damaging.
Finally, West Bengal remains the lost jewel. What worries the CPM most is the complete and absolute transfer of the Muslim vote to Mamata. Twenty-six percent of the state’s population is Muslim. With this starting point, the Trinamool is virtually unbeatable.
THE CPM’S concern is, it has pockets of influence among the Muslim peasantry but no Muslim leaders. “Some 25-30 percent of the gainers in the Left Front’s land reforms were Muslims,” a senior CPM leader explains, “but this vote has gone to Trinamool. We have to win back the Muslim peasantry. Otherwise, we will face a crisis should identity politics grow.”
Mamata has resorted to symbolism that caters to her leading minority community. This has given her inroads into the rural Muslim vote and near absolute sway among Urdu-speaking Muslims (with roots in UP or Bihar) of Kolkata and surrounding districts. Among the Muslim peasantry, the CPM’s biggest name is Abdur Rezzak Mollah, former land reforms minister, and he appears to be at the cusp of rebellion.
That aside, the Muslim hostility to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee remains high. Part of this was due to the Nandigram controversy, where land with a large Muslim population was earmarked for an industrial project and rumours of dismantling of mosques and homes spread like wildfire. By the time the CPM realised what was happening, the damage had been done and Buddhadeb had become a hate figure. “His statements about madrassas on the Bangladesh border being used by religious radicals were also turned against him,” admits a CPM functionary.
Yet, Buddhadeb cannot be dumped. He is still the most popular leader in the state party, with the tacit recognition that the economic programme he pushed for is essentially valid. “We certainly need private sector investment,” says a central CPM leader, “though perhaps with a different approach to land acquisition.” Nevertheless, with Buddhadeb as the face — despite his health issues — it is unlikely the Muslim voter can be wooed back.
Also worrying the CPM is the trend from the recent Jangipur by-election in Murshidabad district. Pranab Mukherjee’s son, representing the Congress, won his father’s former seat, and the CPM finished second in a race the Trinamool refused to run. However, the BJP won 10 percent of the vote. Between them, the Welfare Party (a front of the Jamaat-e-Islami) and the Social Democratic Party of India (an affiliate of the Islamist Popular Front of India) won 7 percent.
Jangipur could be a one-off, but if the process Mamata has triggered does lead to religious mobilisation, the CPM will be torn. It could conceivably see a split between those seeking to compete with the Trinamool’s aggressive wooing of the minorities and those advocating a middle-Bengal nativist line. That is a situation the CPM would want to avoid. It could leave comrade Karat as general secretary of a permanently marginalised party.