Left parties

Power and principles

Print edition : May 02, 2014

CPI(M) leaders Brinda Karat, S. Ramachandran Pillai, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and A.K. Padmanabhan releasing the party's manifesto in New Delhi on March 20. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

CPI leaders D. Raja, Sudhakar Reddy, A.B. Bardhan and Gurudas Dasgupta interacting with the media after a Left parties' meeting on presidential election in New Delhi on June 21, 2012. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

CPI(M) Kerala State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan arriving at Kooveri in Kannur to address a Left Democratic Front election campaign meeting. Photo: S.K. MOHAN

“THE role of the Left parties in India’s polity cannot be understood merely in terms of electoral politics. The policy formulations and interventions that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its associates in the Left Front initiate and advance as well as the political values they advocate make a significant contribution to the overall progress of the Indian people. This too needs to be kept in perspective while seeking to understand Left politics in India.” The late CPI(M) leader Harkishan Singh Surjit made this comment in the run-up to the 2004 elections to a group of journalists who had gone to his residence in Delhi to cover a meeting he had with Mulayam Singh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.). The S.P. chief, who was also present during this interaction, recounted the comment to this writer in 2008, after the death of Surjit. He added that while the late communist leader’s opinion had tremendous relevance in analysing Left politics in India, the experience of governance in the country between 2004 and 2008 offered other nuanced messages too.

Mulayam Singh Yadav’s contention was that the governance record of United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I showed how electoral gains and the consequent strength in Parliament and the legislatures made the Left policy initiatives and interventions more powerful and incisive. The S.P. leader’s reference was obviously to the Congress-led UPA government’s dependence on the Left parties in the 2004-08 period and the manner in which this association resulted in path-breaking legislation and schemes such as the Right to Information Act, the Forest Rights Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The 2004 elections saw the largest ever presence of the Left parties in Parliament, with a total of 61 members. The CPI(M) alone accounted for 44 of them. Ironically, despite the creative interventions cited by the S.P. president and many other political activists and observers, in the 2009 elections, the Left parties’ tally plunged to 24 seats in the Lok Sabha, with the CPI(M) accounting for 16.

Deficiency in communication

The Delhi-based political analyst Sheetal Prasad Singh is of the view that the Left was unable to present its contributions in the UPA-I government in the right perspective before the people, whereas the Congress managed to showcase even the initiatives taken after much persuasion by the Left as its own. “In the final analysis, it would have to be seen as the result of a huge deficiency in political communication in electoral battles. The biggest question five years later, in 2014, is whether the Left has been able to get over this communication deficiency,” Sheetal Prasad Singh told Frontline.

The record of elections in different parts of the country in the past five years underscores the fact that there has been no significant progress in rectifying this deficiency. Barring Tripura, where the Left Front has been in power since 1993, the Left parties have been at the receiving end everywhere. In West Bengal, where the Left had the record of running the longest-serving single coalition government in India’s parliamentary history for 34 years, its defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections was followed by a rout in the 2011 State Assembly elections. In Kerala, the other State where the CPI(M) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by it have a significant following, the coalition failed to return to power in 2011. In the case of Kerala, the CPI(M) leadership has admitted that the communication deficiency was complicated by factional fights between State party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and former Chief Minister and veteran leader V.S. Achuthanandan.

However, all this has not prevented the party from pursuing the non-electoral political contribution referred to by Surjit in his 2004 statement. Even after the series of electoral defeats beginning with the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Left parties had made it clear that they were not interested in sewing up mere election-oriented alliances and coalitions.

The CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), the two big Left parties, consistently exhorted non-Congress, non-BJP parties to come together on a common policy platform with shared understanding of issues and problems concerning the people. These initiatives, in fits and starts, led to alternate periods of joint action and inactivity. The issues addressed as part of this off-and-on process include the rise in prices of essential commodities, the introduction of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail trade and other business operations, and the fight against communalism.

In the periodic conclaves that Left parties hold to discuss sociopolitical issues and strategies, these initiatives and interventions are highlighted as organisational instruments that help break new ground and attract new sections to the Left movement. In this regard, the inability of the Left to attract significant segments of the north Indian population, particularly the depressed sections of society, is a point that comes up repeatedly. Time and again, the Left conclaves have witnessed references to how the Left has taken up several people’s causes and yet failed to develop a political constituency from it. Despite this, the leaders of Left parties are in agreement that these broad-based joint action plans need to continue. The last such exercise was carried out in early February when the Left parties brought together 11 political parties on a non-BJP, non-Congress platform to take up some issues unitedly in Parliament and to forge a common sociopolitical thrust against the forces of communalism. A number of political observers had perceived that this would lead to a common election front too, but the leaders of the Left and other parties, such as the S.P., the Janata Dal (United), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Biju Janata Dal, who attended the meeting, made it clear that nothing of this sort was in the offing. Though the leaders of these parties did discuss electoral prospects individually and severally later, no larger alliance was built up. Only the Janata Dal (U), the ruling party in Bihar led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, brokered an understanding with the Left by giving the CPI two seats in the State.

Apart from that, the Left Front and the LDF as well as its constituents are concentrating on chosen electoral battles in traditional areas of following. Thus, the Left Front is fighting elections in West Bengal and Tripura and the LDF in Kerala. The CPI(M), the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc are contesting individually or jointly in several other States such as Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir. However, the main electoral prospects for the Left parties are from their traditional strongholds in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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