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A self-destructive consensus explains the CPI(M)’s West Bengal disaster

The party-led Left Front (LF) ruled the state from 1977-2011. For an established political party within a democratic set-up to atrophy within a decade, is a rare, if not an unprecedented, political event
UPDATED ON MAY 05, 2021 03:16 PM IST
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Representational Image. (File photo)

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) has failed to open its account in the West Bengal assembly. The party-led Left Front (LF) ruled the state from 1977-2011. For an established political party within a democratic set-up to atrophy within a decade, is a rare, if not an unprecedented, political event.

To be sure, the CPI(M)’s decimation in West Bengal should not come as a surprise. It has lost ground in the state in every election since the 2009 Lok Sabha. That this could not be arrested in time in what is a Stalinist organisation — the CPI(M) still adheres to the principle of democratic centralism where the lower leadership is constitutionally bound by the decision of the higher leadership — entails that the buck, when it comes to the CPI(M)’s decimation in West Bengal, stops right at the top.

The history of decline

A brief recap of the West Bengal CPI(M)’s recent history is useful for this discussion.

In 2006, the LF under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya scored a massive victory, winning 236 out of the 294 assembly constituencies (ACs) in the state. It interpreted this victory as an endorsement of its line of krishi amader bhitti, shilpo amader bhobishyet (agriculture is our base and industry will be our future). The 2006 victory was followed by announcements of large-scale industrial projects, including the ones in Singur and Nandigram.

Trouble erupted in these places once the state-led land acquisition was started. Ironical as it may sound, the West Bengal leadership of the CPI(M), a party which had built its political fortunes by mobilising the peasantry on the land question, displayed a misplaced vanguardism in the wake of such protests. All opposition was dismissed as either a conspiracy or anti-industry dogma. Senior leaders of the party described the protesting peasants as children who did not know that the injection they were getting was necessary. Even setbacks in the 2008 panchayat elections failed to forewarn the party leadership of what was coming. In fact, they conveniently deployed a red herring to successfully obfuscate their own mistakes.

In July 2008, a couple of months after the panchayat polls and less than a year before the 2009 general elections, the Left parties withdrew support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the question of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Mamata Banerjee, who had recorded her worst-ever performances in the 2004 and 2006 elections, jumped at this opportunity. The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) formed an alliance with the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The TMC-Congress alliance won 26 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in these elections, while the LF, for the first time since 1977, fell below the halfway mark.

The West Bengal leadership of the CPI(M), in collaboration with a section of the all-India leadership, blamed its reverses on the decision to withdraw support from the UPA, which led to a TMC-Congress alliance. This argument was based on superfluous logic. The LF had polled more than 50% votes in both 2004 and 2006 elections. Had its own supporters not deserted it — its vote share came down to 43% and 41% in 2009 and 2011 — it would not have lost, no matter what the index of opposition unity.

An inability to course-correct

The LF government and the CPI(M), while admitting that the police firing in Nandigram was a mistake, kept defending its land acquisition policy. This gave the TMC an opportunity to portray the CPI(M) as anti-peasant and it gained further ground, eventually unseating the 34 year old LF government in 2011. A senior party leader from West Bengal used to campaign in a Nano car when he would contest the elections. The party released an audio-clip of an ailing Buddhadeb Bhattacharya even in these elections, defending the LF’s industrialisation (seen as forced land acquisition by most) policy.

This is in sharp contrast to the conduct of the Kerala unit of the CPI(M). It defended the Supreme Court (SC) 2018 ruling allowing entry to women of all age-groups in the revered Hindu shrine of Sabarimala and invested significant amount of political capital in championing its stance. The move backfired badly, and the Congress-led alliance won 19 out of the 20 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The CPI(M) manoeuvred itself out of this tight spot at the first opportunity when a larger SC bench stayed the original judgment. It also sent conciliatory gestures to sections which were against this decision by withdrawing police cases filed during the agitation. This has played an important role in the party’s victory in the 2021 elections in Kerala.

There is no reason to believe that the CPI(M) has revised its principled position vis-a-vis the women entry issue in Sabarimala, whatever its merits or demerits. But the Kerala party has had the political wisdom to realise that a political party can only bring policy change, and more importantly survive, only if it is in power and does not keep alienating its supporters.

Searching for an elusive silver bullet

To come back to West Bengal, the CPI (M) leadership, instead of realising its mistake after losing power in 2011, was still obsessed with finding a silver bullet which could put it back in power in the state. This entirely ignored the fact that while land acquisition was the immediate trigger, there were deeper political economy reasons which had contributed to the CPM’s problems in West Bengal, as documented in political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya’s book Governance as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India. But there was no effort to deal with these issues.

The CPI(M) thought it had found this silver bullet in 2012, when the Congress put up Pranab Mukherjee as the presidential candidate. By announcing its support to Mukherjee, the CPI(M)’s West Bengal leadership and those sympathetic to them in the all-India leadership thought that a wedge could be created between the TMC and the Congress in West Bengal and that the CPI(M) would reap the benefits of this wedge in a first-past-the-post system.

These hopes were demolished in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 assembly elections. The TMC fought on its own in 2014 and won convincingly. The CPI(M)’s own tally dropped to just two Lok Sabha seats. The party then took the Congress question a step further and formed an alliance with it in the 2016 elections. This time, it ceded even the opposition party status to the Congress.

The CPI(M) central committee, its highest decision making body, in its review of the 2016 elections, “concluded that the electoral tactics adopted in West Bengal was not in consonance with the Central Committee decision not to have an alliance or understanding with the Congress”. No disciplinary action was taken against the people responsible for violating party discipline though. Neither has anyone in the leadership taken responsibility of the party’s never ending debacle and stepped down. Even bourgeois parties are far more forthcoming when it comes to fixing individual responsibility for electoral reverses.

The 2021 debacle

2019 and 2021 were mere formalities in the CPI(M)’s atrophying. It did not win even one assembly segment in both these elections and will now suffer the ignominy of being a communist party whose only pre-poll ally in the assembly will be a legislator from the Indian Secular Front, which has been floated on the eve of elections by a religious cleric.

It remains to be seen whether the CPI(M) central committee, in its review of the 2021 elections, finds that the electoral tactics of allying with a religious cleric’s party was (again) not in consonance with the basic principle of keeping religion and politics separate.

What is even more remarkable is the fact that during this entire period, there has never been any precipitation or division of opinion (at least officially) within the CPI(M) over the West Bengal question or the leadership’s role in handling it. This clearly shows that the relationship between the West Bengal and all-India leadership of the party has been that of a tail wagging the dog. While the proponents of the West Bengal line might have been wrong, those who have accepted these positions within the party uncritically for the sake of unity cannot absolve themselves of their complicity in the CPI(M)’s decimation in what used to be its strongest bastion.

Even in the 2019 elections, the CPI(M) had polled 3.6 million votes in West Bengal, which was almost double the 1.8 million it had polled in the rest of the country excluding Kerala. Without a revival in West Bengal, the CPI (M) will be reduced to just a party in Kerala. If the party does not make radical decisions to resuscitate itself in West Bengal — and the 2023 panchayat elections will be the litmus test — every serious political observer will treat it as a Kerala-based regional party, with some isolated islands of limited influence elsewhere.

In 2024, when the Narendra Modi government will seek its third term in office, the CPI(M) will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. 60 is also the age of retirement in India. The commissars who sit in AKG Bhawan, the all-India headquarters of the party in New Delhi, face the challenge of preventing a permanent retirement of the CPI(M) from the national political stage. If they cannot break out of their self-destructive consensus, they must retire themselves in the interests of the Left movement in India.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) has failed to open its account in the West Bengal assembly. The party-led Left Front (LF) ruled the state from 1977-2011. For an established political party within a democratic set-up to atrophy within a decade, is a rare, if not an unprecedented, political event.

To be sure, the CPI(M)’s decimation in West Bengal should not come as a surprise. It has lost ground in the state in every election since the 2009 Lok Sabha. That this could not be arrested in time in what is a Stalinist organisation — the CPI(M) still adheres to the principle of democratic centralism where the lower leadership is constitutionally bound by the decision of the higher leadership — entails that the buck, when it comes to the CPI(M)’s decimation in West Bengal, stops right at the top.

The history of decline

A brief recap of the West Bengal CPI(M)’s recent history is useful for this discussion.

In 2006, the LF under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya scored a massive victory, winning 236 out of the 294 assembly constituencies (ACs) in the state. It interpreted this victory as an endorsement of its line of krishi amader bhitti, shilpo amader bhobishyet (agriculture is our base and industry will be our future). The 2006 victory was followed by announcements of large-scale industrial projects, including the ones in Singur and Nandigram.

Trouble erupted in these places once the state-led land acquisition was started. Ironical as it may sound, the West Bengal leadership of the CPI(M), a party which had built its political fortunes by mobilising the peasantry on the land question, displayed a misplaced vanguardism in the wake of such protests. All opposition was dismissed as either a conspiracy or anti-industry dogma. Senior leaders of the party described the protesting peasants as children who did not know that the injection they were getting was necessary. Even setbacks in the 2008 panchayat elections failed to forewarn the party leadership of what was coming. In fact, they conveniently deployed a red herring to successfully obfuscate their own mistakes.

In July 2008, a couple of months after the panchayat polls and less than a year before the 2009 general elections, the Left parties withdrew support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the question of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Mamata Banerjee, who had recorded her worst-ever performances in the 2004 and 2006 elections, jumped at this opportunity. The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) formed an alliance with the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The TMC-Congress alliance won 26 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in these elections, while the LF, for the first time since 1977, fell below the halfway mark.

The West Bengal leadership of the CPI(M), in collaboration with a section of the all-India leadership, blamed its reverses on the decision to withdraw support from the UPA, which led to a TMC-Congress alliance. This argument was based on superfluous logic. The LF had polled more than 50% votes in both 2004 and 2006 elections. Had its own supporters not deserted it — its vote share came down to 43% and 41% in 2009 and 2011 — it would not have lost, no matter what the index of opposition unity.

An inability to course-correct

The LF government and the CPI(M), while admitting that the police firing in Nandigram was a mistake, kept defending its land acquisition policy. This gave the TMC an opportunity to portray the CPI(M) as anti-peasant and it gained further ground, eventually unseating the 34 year old LF government in 2011. A senior party leader from West Bengal used to campaign in a Nano car when he would contest the elections. The party released an audio-clip of an ailing Buddhadeb Bhattacharya even in these elections, defending the LF’s industrialisation (seen as forced land acquisition by most) policy.

This is in sharp contrast to the conduct of the Kerala unit of the CPI(M). It defended the Supreme Court (SC) 2018 ruling allowing entry to women of all age-groups in the revered Hindu shrine of Sabarimala and invested significant amount of political capital in championing its stance. The move backfired badly, and the Congress-led alliance won 19 out of the 20 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The CPI(M) manoeuvred itself out of this tight spot at the first opportunity when a larger SC bench stayed the original judgment. It also sent conciliatory gestures to sections which were against this decision by withdrawing police cases filed during the agitation. This has played an important role in the party’s victory in the 2021 elections in Kerala.

There is no reason to believe that the CPI(M) has revised its principled position vis-a-vis the women entry issue in Sabarimala, whatever its merits or demerits. But the Kerala party has had the political wisdom to realise that a political party can only bring policy change, and more importantly survive, only if it is in power and does not keep alienating its supporters.

Searching for an elusive silver bullet

To come back to West Bengal, the CPI (M) leadership, instead of realising its mistake after losing power in 2011, was still obsessed with finding a silver bullet which could put it back in power in the state. This entirely ignored the fact that while land acquisition was the immediate trigger, there were deeper political economy reasons which had contributed to the CPM’s problems in West Bengal, as documented in political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya’s book Governance as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India. But there was no effort to deal with these issues.

The CPI(M) thought it had found this silver bullet in 2012, when the Congress put up Pranab Mukherjee as the presidential candidate. By announcing its support to Mukherjee, the CPI(M)’s West Bengal leadership and those sympathetic to them in the all-India leadership thought that a wedge could be created between the TMC and the Congress in West Bengal and that the CPI(M) would reap the benefits of this wedge in a first-past-the-post system.

These hopes were demolished in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 assembly elections. The TMC fought on its own in 2014 and won convincingly. The CPI(M)’s own tally dropped to just two Lok Sabha seats. The party then took the Congress question a step further and formed an alliance with it in the 2016 elections. This time, it ceded even the opposition party status to the Congress.

The CPI(M) central committee, its highest decision making body, in its review of the 2016 elections, “concluded that the electoral tactics adopted in West Bengal was not in consonance with the Central Committee decision not to have an alliance or understanding with the Congress”. No disciplinary action was taken against the people responsible for violating party discipline though. Neither has anyone in the leadership taken responsibility of the party’s never ending debacle and stepped down. Even bourgeois parties are far more forthcoming when it comes to fixing individual responsibility for electoral reverses.

The 2021 debacle

2019 and 2021 were mere formalities in the CPI(M)’s atrophying. It did not win even one assembly segment in both these elections and will now suffer the ignominy of being a communist party whose only pre-poll ally in the assembly will be a legislator from the Indian Secular Front, which has been floated on the eve of elections by a religious cleric.

It remains to be seen whether the CPI(M) central committee, in its review of the 2021 elections, finds that the electoral tactics of allying with a religious cleric’s party was (again) not in consonance with the basic principle of keeping religion and politics separate.

What is even more remarkable is the fact that during this entire period, there has never been any precipitation or division of opinion (at least officially) within the CPI(M) over the West Bengal question or the leadership’s role in handling it. This clearly shows that the relationship between the West Bengal and all-India leadership of the party has been that of a tail wagging the dog. While the proponents of the West Bengal line might have been wrong, those who have accepted these positions within the party uncritically for the sake of unity cannot absolve themselves of their complicity in the CPI(M)’s decimation in what used to be its strongest bastion.

Even in the 2019 elections, the CPI(M) had polled 3.6 million votes in West Bengal, which was almost double the 1.8 million it had polled in the rest of the country excluding Kerala. Without a revival in West Bengal, the CPI (M) will be reduced to just a party in Kerala. If the party does not make radical decisions to resuscitate itself in West Bengal — and the 2023 panchayat elections will be the litmus test — every serious political observer will treat it as a Kerala-based regional party, with some isolated islands of limited influence elsewhere.

In 2024, when the Narendra Modi government will seek its third term in office, the CPI(M) will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. 60 is also the age of retirement in India. The commissars who sit in AKG Bhawan, the all-India headquarters of the party in New Delhi, face the challenge of preventing a permanent retirement of the CPI(M) from the national political stage. If they cannot break out of their self-destructive consensus, they must retire themselves in the interests of the Left movement in India.

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