Left out in the cold

Left out in the cold

By M.J. Akbar | 24 May, 2014
A deserted view of the CPI(M) office in Kolkata on 16 May, the day the general election results were declared. PTI
If Marxists want to know why they collapsed in Bengal, they do not have to look far: voters have punished every party that kept the corrupt, ineffective Congress in power.

Defeat seems to inflict unfortunate consequences on the thinking of even intelligent politicians. It has certainly destabilised the Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury, leader of CPI(M), once impregnable in Bengal and now reduced to a miserable, once-unthinkable two out of 42 seats in its primary citadel. Comrade Yechury has suddenly begun to suggest that a "partial" proportional representation would be a better idea than the first-past-the-post-system, which has served us so well since 1952.

Yechury's simmering frustration has boiled over after BJP's absolute majority in the next Parliament, obtained with 31% of the vote. He deftly avoids any mention of the fact that the BJP got a considerable vote percentage in the provinces where it won; or that never before in India's electoral history has a party more than doubled its MPs within just five years. Perhaps defeat alone would not have impelled Yechury to suggest such a change in the rules. He probably believes that Congress is unlikely to revive by 2019, and so the only way to thwart BJP is by subverting the system. He knows that if the 2014 election had been a direct contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the latter would have polled even less than the 19% Congress managed. Yechury must also be looking disconsolately at his own party's diminished vote share in Bengal.

Yechury's revisionism is a bit thick given that CPI(M) ruled Bengal for three and a half decades with 35% or less of the vote. Nor did he and

his fellow Marxists worry when Congress lorded over India for ten years with 26.53% of the vote in 2004 and 28.55% in 2009. But if Marxists want to know why they collapsed in Bengal, they do not have to look very far: voters have punished every party that kept the corrupt and ineffective Congress in power.

In a remarkable display of national consensus from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and Maharashtra to Assam, any party which cushioned the government of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh has been marginalised. Dr Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah were buried in a Himalayan avalanche; Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav were drowned in a Ganga-Jamuna flood; Sharad Pawar and Karunanidhi were driven into wasteland; the Left was stranded in Bengal. Nitish Kumar remained in good health till he began to flirt with Congress. Conversely, those who opposed Congress, like Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, were handsomely rewarded. Congress has been erased from most of India, and its friends reduced to a shadow.

Mamata Banerjee completed the destruction of the Left when she absorbed its muscle after usurping its vote. In 2014, she did to the Left what the Left had been doing to other parties for three and a half decades: smashed it, physically, at the polling booth.

There are other reasons for the Left's implosion. None of them are being addressed by its doyens, who continue to search desperately for alibis from the dustbin of electoral defeat. Its present leadership is largely from university campus politics, rather than field or factory; and glued to a watered down text of theories that have lost their relevance. Their thinking is stagnant while India yearns to move ahead. Marxists have not been able to offer an economic programme that appeals to contemporary youth. They could not engineer growth or offer jobs where they were in power. In public perception, Leftists have become a pale version of the 1950s' Congress. Their long years of success in Bengal were not due to productive governance, but political muscle: cadre was king. Mamata Banerjee completed the destruction of the Left in Bengal when she absorbed its muscle after usurping its vote. In 2014, she did to the Left what the Left had been doing to other parties for three and a half decades: smashed it, physically, at the polling booth. Is the red party over? We cannot be certain, but it is in an emergency ward certainly.

The Indian — as distinct from Marxist — Left, socialists inspired by the thought of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, are not in much better health.

Their most powerful face, Nitish Kumar, has been drummed out of the Chief Minister's job in Bihar. It may be of some academic interest that he was the only politician to take effective responsibility for a rout: leaders of every other defeated party, in the best traditions of dynasty politics, shifted the blame to lesser mortals and stuck to their chairs. It is not just Mrs Gandhi and her son who play the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose game with their own colleagues; Mulayam and his heir Akhilesh Yadav, or Karunanidhi and his son Stalin, or Farooq and his prince Omar Abdullah, or Lalu Yadav and his daughter Misa, are equally adept. We can always hope that the results of 2014 will initiate a change in culture, but we might be hoping for too much.

Bihar's Lohiaites have understood that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and are seeking to reoccupy what they lost through another bid at unity between factions led by Sharad Yadav and Lalu Yadav. But personality alone will not be sufficient for revival; like the Marxists, the Lohiaites will need to put together a few new ideas.

That is the tough part.

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