The Left has played an important role in national politics since the advent of the coalition era two decades ago. The 1989 general election saw the Left and the BJP supporting the VP Singh government. And in 1996, Jyoti Basu was within striking range of the Prime Minister’s chair till the rug was pulled from under his feet by his own party — a decision he termed a “historic” blunder.
Indeed, the Left has not only consolidated its hold in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, but also increased its clout at the Centre. But the 2004 general election redrew that diameter like never before. The 59 Lok Sabha seats won by the CPI(M), CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc marked the Left’s largest tally in history. Bengal’s share stood at 35.
The general election was followed by the Front’s 2006 victory in Bengal, which marked an unprecedented seventh term for the CPI(M)-led coalition. The Left’s political ascendancy, particularly in Bengal, has ensured greater political influence at the national level. MK Pandhe, CPI(M) politburo member, says the Left’s clout is strong in parliamentary debates and policy-making institutions.
From the Bengal perspective, the elevation of Somnath Chatterjee was a landmark in the Left’s role at the Centre. The two most vocal Rajya Sabha MPs, Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat, were also nominated from Bengal. “Some of the alternative economic policies followed by Bengal are also influencing central policies,” says Pandhe. Lok Sabha MP and CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta says the continuing success of the Left in the state has created the “impression” that it can also provide a viable, alternative force at the Centre.
Another reason for the Left’s growing influence is that it has managed to convince the Congress that it will not bring down the ruling coalition.
Professor Gurpreet Mahajan of JNU, however, wonders how far Bengal’s Left leaders have influenced national politics. Leaders like Prakash Karat and HS Surjeet, for instance, have pursued their careers independent of the state’s politics. “Bengal has a strong contingent of MPs but, since decision-making is centralised in parties like the CPI(M), it is difficult to say how much weight the state’s MPs carry,” Mahajan says.