The popular appeal of a political party rests mainly on two things — the principles it stands for and the quality of its leadership. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) seems to have a problem on both counts. Its defeat in the recent civic elections in West Bengal is largely a matter of the vacuum within the party. And the vacuum manifests itself at two levels. First, the people do not quite know what the CPI(M) stands for. There was a time when the party’s principles and positions on various issues were easily identifiable. It was another matter that the principles smacked of a totalitarian ideology and that most of the positions were outdated. But the party’s confusions have only worsened ever since it sought to change some of its earlier positions. In Bengal, the party’s changed views on crucial areas such as land, industry, agriculture or education were at best half-baked. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s reformist steps were guided more by his personal zeal than by any fundamental changes in the party’s ideology. The CPI(M)’s confusions — and misdeeds — proved costly for Bengal. The verdict in the civic polls shows that the people are not ready to trust the CPI(M) as yet. In the changed order of politics and economy, the Left has less and less to offer.
The other big vacuum that confronts the Bengal unit of the CPI(M) is that of leadership. Mamata Banerjee has her unorthodox ways and her eccentricities. But none among the CPI(M) leaders in Bengal matches her mass appeal or her street-fighting skills. Bhattacharjee and Surya Kanta Mishra, the Opposition leader in the state assembly, have their appeals to the party’s rank and file. But they are not quite the leaders who, like the chief minister, have worked their way up to the top, fighting battles at the grassroots level. Success or failure in mass politics has much to do with the personal appeal of a leader. But then, the organizational structure of the CPI(M) makes the rise of a leader that much more difficult. It has always been a party that puts the organization above the individual. Even at the height of his popularity, Jyoti Basu was very much a representative of his party and ruled in accordance with the script prepared at Alimuddin Street. Bhattacharjee tried to do a few things differently, but within the guidelines set by the party. The road ahead for the CPI(M) in Bengal can only be bumpy.