Bihar Assembly election

Left parties in Bihar come together to fight the 'common enemy'

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Dipankar Battacharya, CPI (M-L) Liberation general secretary, and party leader Kavitha Krishnan addressing a press conference in connection with the Bihar Assembly elections, in Patna on October 31. Photo: PTI

CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat with CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar (right) at an election rally in Samastipur on October 27. Photo: PTI

The Left parties come together and join a broader political platform in Bihar to fight a ‘common enemy’, which, besides opening up the possibility of grand alliances elsewhere, is expected to help them reach out to large sections of people with their socio-economic agenda.

A significant development in the Bihar Assembly elections is the coming together of the Left parties to constitute a critical part of the Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress. The three Left parties—the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India—are together contesting 29 of the 243 Assembly seats. While the CPI and the CPI(M) have had electoral understandings in the past in States other than Bihar, this is the first time that the CPI(M-L)has joined hands with the two Left parties and is part of a larger alliance as well.

In the run-up to the elections, the Left parties had planned to negotiate seat allocation collectively but the CPI (M-L), which had an understanding with the RJD in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, acted in haste. Unable to reach a consensus with the RJD on its share of seats, the Liberation group revolted and announced at a press conference that it would contest 25 or more seats. In the first week of October, the RJD allotted the Liberation group 19 seats, the CPI six and the CPI(M) four. The RJD is contesting 144 seats and the Congress 70.
Also read: Left and AIMIM: Emerging forces in Bihar politics

According to a Left party insider, the RJD has given “the CPI and the CPI (M) fewer seats as compared to their influence on the ground”.

The RJD’s decision to field its candidate Tanveer Hassan against the CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai in the 2019 Lok Sabha election did not go down well with the Left party. Giriraj Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the seat. The Liberation group candidate contested the Arrah seat with the support of the RJD, but lost to the BJP. The CPI (M-L), which has a presence in rural Patna, extended its support to Misa Bharti, RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s daughter, who contested from Pataliputra. The BJP’s Ram Kirpal Yadav won the seat.

The situation today is different from what it was in 2019. The clear understanding reached by the Left parties and the RJD and its allies after the initial hiccups were sorted out, marks a significant development in the political landscape of Bihar and opens up possibilities of a broader understanding among non-BJP parties elsewhere. Of the three Left parties, only the CPI (M-L), with a strong support base in Siwan, Arwal, Jehanabad and Katihar districts and rural Patna, has a presence in the State Assembly. The party has three legislators in the outgoing Assembly. In 2000, it had won six seats; in the February 2005 Assembly election it won seven; and in the fresh election held in October-November the same year, it won five. In 2010, the CPI (M-L) did not win a single seat. The year 2000 was a good year for the Left as the three parties together won 13 seats. But it was not as good as the 1990 and 1995 elections when the CPI won 23 and 26 seats respectively. The CPI (M) and CPI (M-L) won six seats each in 1995.

Revival of issues raised by the Left

The role of the Left in the present elections is significant in a situation of close contests between the constituents of the grand alliance and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It also poses a distinct possibility of the revival of the Left and the issues it represents. For instance, one central issue that has struck a chord among the youths of Bihar is unemployment, which Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD has been raising at every public meeting. The RJD manifesto, “Pran Hamara” (Our Promise), raises mostly economic issues. Thus the Left’s long-standing demands on these issues are being taken to the people through the election campaign. That was one reason, political observers feel, for a large number of people flocking to the RJD election rallies. The RJD, which has been drawing political sustenance mainly from Yadavs, appears to have expanded its reach among all sections of people.

Coupled with the economic are the interlinked questions of privatisation, filling up the backlog vacancies in the State’s health and education departments, regularisation of scheme-based workers and the unfinished agenda of land reforms and land consolidation. It is no secret that the issue of land reforms, which is at the core of the Left’s agenda for social transformation,was put on the back burner by so parties such as the RJD and the Janata Dal (United) whose politics is built around the slogan of social justice.
Also read: Interview with Dipankar Bhattacharya, CPI (M-L) Liberation leader

The erosion of the Left’s base was significant in the years following the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations providing 27 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs. Although the Left is committed to social justice and the Mandal recommendations, a large section of its cadres and leaders from the OBCs shifted their allegiance to the RJD and the JD(U). Political observers feel that the parties espousing the social justice cause have moved beyond Mandal and sidestepped issues such as land reforms and increasing investment in agriculture. For the Left this is the ‘unfinished agenda’ of socio-economic transformation. Apart from fighting for land reforms and redistribution, the Left parties have been opposing privatisation of key social sectors such as education and health, labour law reforms, and building movements around the demands for regularisation of jobs in health and education departments as well as the Integrated Child Development Services.

In recent years, the mass organisations of Left parties have come together to conduct joint protests on issues concerning workers, agricultural labourers, students and other democratic movements, even as individually each of them has striven to increase its own base and mobilise people on these issues.

Nitish Kumar’s apathy

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, a retired Professor of Economics from Patna College, said that the issues raised by the Left could find resonance in government policies and programmes if the grand alliance was elected to power. He mentioned that the D. Bandopadhyay Commission on land reforms, which was set up in 2006, had identified 20 lakh acres [one acre equals 0.5 hectare] as surplus land in Bihar and almost the same number of landless people. Such land, the report said, could easily be distributed and agriculture made productive. The commission also recommended house sites for the landless. The report was not formally presented to Nitish Kumar as he did not want anything to do with it. It was not placed in the State Assembly as well. When Bandopadhyay went to submit the report in 2008, Nitish Kumar reportedly refused to meet him. Only the Left parties supported the report.(Bandopadhyay was specially commissioned by Nitish Kumar to undertake the exercise following the success of Operation Barga in West Bengal, an initiative of the Left Front government. One of the main recommendations of the commission was to enact a new law to protect the interests of the bataidaars, or share croppers.)

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary also said that Nitish Kumar set up a committee to study the problem of distress migration from Bihar, but his government later denied that migration was taking place. “It is important that the issue has come up again in the context of these elections and raised by the Mahagathbandhan,” he said.
Also read: Nitish Kumar: Alone in a battle

He said :“In 2001, I invited a renowned professor of economics from JNU to preside over a conference. I went to meet Nitish Kumar. He was Agricultural Minister and I suggested that he could discuss land and other issues. He told me ‘land is no issue in Bihar’.”

Democratic feudalism

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary uses the term “democratic feudalism” to describe the present state of affairs in Bihar. How can there be a large social transformation without dismantling the feudal and semi-feudal land relations that exist today? Land consolidation was given up by Lalu Prasad during his tenure. It is illegal to lease out land in Bihar. But land is nevertheless leased out by big landholders who are now the new middle and upper classes of Bihar. The share croppers, did not receive the benefit of any government scheme, be it bank loans or compensation for their crops during floods or drought. The original landowner is the beneficiary. Therefore, the share cropper despite being the original cultivator neither, has the capital nor the incentive to invest in land.

It cannot be disputed that Lalu Prasad continued with the agenda of the social justice movement although he was not its originator. Social power and economic power got concentrated in the hands of the intermediary castes and did not get democratised further. “They are not interested in taking it beyond that,” said Nawal Kishore Chaudhary. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, carried forward the neoliberal agenda of the NDA government. Bihar had, like some of the States, introduced changes in its labour laws increasing the number of working hours from eight to 12. “I often ask, growth for whom?” he said. It was this question of growth without equity and employment that became a rallying cry in run-up to the elections. The emphasis on government jobs by Tejashwi Yadav undoubtedly struck a chord among the voters as a government job as opposed to one in the private sector symbolised stability of employment and social security benefits.

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary told Frontline that the Economic Survey of Bihar was not published by the State government. The social sector in the State is in a bad shape. The history department of Patna University, which once had 30 faculty members previously, has only one teacher now.

Sarvodaya Sarma, CPI(M) State secretariat member, told Frontline that when the RJD was in the saddle, Nitish Kumar used to lament that there was no development. He used to demand a special package for Bihar. The demand was supported by all parties, including the RJD. But after he came to power in 2005, Nitish Kumar stopped talking about it altogether. He got re-elected in 2010 and in 2015, but he could not do anything. His government was rocked by several scams, including the Muzaffarpur Shelter Home and toilet construction scandals.

Sarvodaya Sarma said: “Nitish would talk nice but do nothing. In fact I am surprised that the media never talked about how he used to deploy the police to crush democratic movements. He would never try to negotiate. The media only highlighted how good he was and reported on the traffic lights and roads, particularly in Patna.”

When migrants began returning to Bihar during the lockdown, they were not allowed to enter the State .The police were posted at the border. “But Biharis are determined people. He could not stop them from entering,” he said. The migrants were kept in quarantine centres and provided low-quality food. No political party cared to monitor the scene as its members were scared of contracting the virus. The camps were run by the police and a corrupt bureaucracy. Hospitals in the State were in a mess. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences was the only place people could go to for treatment in Patna. During the lockdown, he said, two CPI (M) members were fatally attacked by the ruling party goons in Khagaria district for protesting against corruption in the distribution of foodgrains. One of those killed had contested the Lok Sabha election in 2019.

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary said: “The Left has a chance to say that the intermediary castes have outlived their utility. But there are some issues, such as criminality, with some of the candidates put up by the dominant constituents of the grand alliance.”

According to Sarvodaya Sharma, the Bihar election provides an opportunity for the Left to win over the more democratic elements among the intermediary castes who are disillusioned with the leadership of RJD and the JD(U). “The prestige of the Left is still pretty high in Bihar. When Lalu got elected in 1990, he had the single largest party but did not have a majority. He asked the Left for support and we did support. In 1995, the Janata Dal at the Centre was dependent on our support though we were not part of the government.” He said the RJD seemed to have learned some lessons. In 2019, it did not arrive at any understanding with the Left and put up a candidate against Kanhaiya Kumar, who was a popular candidate, in Begusarai.

Both Sarvodaya Sarma and Nawal Kishore Chaudhary believe that the Left has to guard against the reactionary aspect of the caste system as it raises democratic questions of social reform and combines them with economic questions. The demand for social justice arose from rampant casteism, which denied equal opportunities in education and jobs and discriminated against caste in the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. Although the Left has made it clear that it is committed to the agenda of social justice, its political influence among the youths has waned as many among the younger generation left the state in search of better opportunities. Most industries have closed down in the State. The Tatas had set up base in undivided Bihar as early as 1907. But with the bifurcation of the State most of the mineral wealth went to the newly created Jharkhand.

Between the 1930s and 1950s,the Communist parties led powerful agrarian movements that laid the base for the growth of the social justice parties in the 1990s. But there was a difference in the way the Left and caste-based parties raised social justice issues. None of the social justice parties wanted to touch land issues as they felt that it would alienate the middle classes, the ruling classes and the bureaucracy from them. It will be interesting to observe how the Left parties manage to get around this complex issue as they challenge reactionary caste tendencies and communal politics.

‘Fascist bulldozer’

As for the danger of communalism and fascism, the CPI (M-L) manifesto talks about “stopping the fascist bulldozer”, “saving the Constitution”, “reclaiming democracy” and “people’s rights.” It says “at this critical political juncture in the history of Bihar and India, the CPI (M-L) is determined to pour all its energies into strengthening the broad-based emerging unity against the fascist offensive of the [Narendra] Modi government and the Sanghi conspiracy to hijack Bihar and turn it into a laboratory of feudal-communal-patriarchic violence, bigotry and hate as it is doing in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.” It also lists nearly 163 instances of communal violence that took place during the 15 years of Nitish Kumar’s three terms as Chief Minister.

That explains the rationale behind the Left parties coming together and joining a broader political platform. The general impression among political observers is that the Left will make considerable gains in this round of Assembly elections.

Also read: Left agenda makes a comeback in Bihar with increased vote share

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