The year was 1957 and the CPI was at the peak of its glory in Punjab. Veteran communist Jagjit Singh Lyallpuri remembers fondly how the CPI won “several” of the “around 70 seats” it contested then in an undivided Punjab against the Akali-Congress alliance. Here’s the irony: what he terms “several” is a single-digit number: 6. “Our deposit was not forfeited on many seats (21),” he adds, adding to the irony.
Lyallpuri is now 94, and is one of the founders of the Left movement in the state. Even that glory is a thing of the distant past now. In the last assembly polls, each one of the Left candidates had to forfeit deposit.
Five years later, state assembly elections will see around 40 Left candidates. Nothing has changed except for the CPI and CPM’s alliance with the PPP. This time, the CPM and CPI are contesting nine and 15 seats, respectively. But the result is not expected to get any better. Other Left groups, including the CPI-ML (Liberation), CPM (Punjab) and CPI-ML (New Democracy), are contesting seven, six and five seats, respectively. At some seats, they are pitted against CPI and CPM candidates.
The Left’s decline in the state is an undisputable fact. Why the decline, we ask Dr Joginder Dayal, member of the CPI national executive. “We couldn’t make a headway among the rural working classes after the crisis ushered in by the Green Revolution. Then the emergence of the BSP in the 1970s converted the class struggle into caste-based politics and took away a lot of our support.”
Agrees Mangat Ram Pasla, leader of CPM (Punjab), a breakaway faction of the CPM: “Traditional communists have failed to understand the complexities of Indian society, especially the caste question and how to link it to the class struggle.” He also cites terrorism as a reason.
“Due to our opposition to terrorists, we lost many leaders,” agrees Jagroop, former secretary of the CPI’s Punjab unit. The rise of the BKU led by big farmers gave it a further blow in the 80s.
As for the biggest Left party in India, the CPM, its state leadership relied on the since-departed stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet too heavily for too long, say observers. Surjeet has since departed, and so has the CPM’s relevance in Punjab. The split and degeneration of its leadership has continued unabated.
However, Charan Singh Virdi, secretary of the CPM’s state unit, feels terrorism was the main reason. On the other side, radicals like the CPI-ML (Liberation) and CPI-ML (New Democracy) have managed negligible votes in small pockets. In fact, all of the Left combined got barely 1% of the votes in 2007 (see graph).
But all these reasons cited by the leaders seem rather inadequate to noted political commentator Karam Barsat. “Left’s best independent performance was in 50s and 60s. That happened just after the remarkable land struggles. Now when there’s no struggle, there are no votes for them.”
Social scientist Dr Pramod Kumar details, “Religion, caste and class are interwoven in Punjab. In 60s, the Left enjoyed good mass base because economic issues dominated politics. Then they were marginalised because religion and caste began dominating politics. Later, Sikh radicals also took away peasants and agricultural labourers. A section of the Left went with Naxalites, which always remained away from non-electoral politics.”
Barsat adds, “Now people are in a severe agrarian crisis, but Left wants to bring about a ‘revolution’ riding on the back of PPP. I am not sure how far they will be able to go.”
When we ask CPI’s Jagroop about the ideological basis of the CPI-CPM alliance with PPP, since its founder Manpreet Badal’s split from his uncle’s SAD over the issue of reducing subsidies doesn’t match with the Left ideology, he says, “We’ve come together on the issue of unemployment and corruption.” Pressed further, he retorts, “Are they (the PPP) not saying Inquilab Zindabad?”