Calcutta, May 16: It’s one thing to be in decline and quite another to fall like this. The decline of the CPM in Bengal, that began with the panchayat elections of 2008, has been unchecked over the next two polls — to the Lok Sabha in 2009 and the Assembly in 2011. But what has happened this time may be final proof of the party — and Left politics in the state — withering away.
Why and how it happened obviously had much to do with the Narendra Modi wave. Caught between the saffron gale and an unstoppable Mamata Banerjee, the CPM simply wilted like an old tree whose foundations had become too weak to withstand the double assault.
While the saffron surge cut deep into the Left’s vote share — it fell by nearly 12 per cent from 41 per cent in the 2011 Assembly polls — it seems to have lost a substantial part of its Muslim voters to the Trinamul Congress. To a majority of Muslims, Trinamul, and not the Left, was the best bet against the BJP. Thus, both Mamata and the BJP gained from the Modi wave, mostly at the cost of the Left.
It its traditional areas of strength such as Malda and Murshidabad, the Congress, rather than Trinamul, was the Muslims’ party of choice against the saffron threat.
However, there is a bigger context that may explain the sudden death of the Left in Bengal. The transfer of votes, the gradual decline of the Left’s organisational power and other such factors look like only footnotes to this larger story. And it is about the irrelevance of the idea of Leftism in Indian politics today.
Leftism — or the variety of it represented by the CPM — means less and less to more and more people even in Bengal. For younger generations, the white-haired leaders of the party are men and women from the past to which they cannot relate. Nor do the party’s rhetoric and programmes fit into the new generations’ aspirations for the future.
The rise of the CPM — and of Left politics in Bengal — had a historical context in the partition of Bengal and what it did to society and politics in the state. The rise was helped by the steady decline of the Congress since the late 1960s. It was a time when the global political context too made sense to many people of the Left’s politics of protests — against capitalism, imperialism, the Congress and so much else.
Except to the party faithful, these ideas have little appeal now, especially after 34 years of the Left’s uninterrupted rule in Bengal. It’s not so much a question of what the people thought the Left did right or wrong during its rule. It’s more about the people wondering what this Left politics is all about. It’s about the people not being able to connect Left politics to life around them and to their plans for the immediate future. And also about the Left not being able to connect to the people’s hopes and fears.
True, they seem to argue, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, as the Left says. But what the new generations want is not so much to complain and shout about it as to compete, succeed and get rich themselves. And they hate the clichéd slogans and the politics of strikes. So what’s the Left’s point, they wonder.
Is this then the end of the road for the Left in Bengal? For the record, even in these worst of times, it secured 29 per cent of the votes. In last year’s rural polls, in which Trinamul did not allow Opposition candidates to file nominations in nearly 40 per cent of the seats in many districts, the Left had got 38 per cent of the votes. Trinamul faced allegations of using terror and rigging the polls in many places even this time. But CPM leaders would fool only themselves if they attributed this big crash to “rigging”.
So is there a hope of recovery, however slow, for Bengal’s Left? There could be a clamour in the party rank and file for a change of leadership. There could be some rethinking on how the party and affiliated fronts readjust their lines on mass politics. But these are minor remedies that may not do much to revive the party. It is obvious that the BJP will henceforth rise further in Bengal to fill the vacuum left by the Left.
So what can the Left do to stay relevant at a time when Leftism itself is losing relevance? Alimuddin Street doesn’t seem to have any answers.