The beleaguered Left Front found Kerala as its electoral lifeline, even as it has faced a rout in West Bengal and gained four seats in Tamil Nadu. With this, analysts say the CPI(M)’s Bengal unit leaders henceforth will have a much lesser say at the national level as the power dynamic could shift to the southern state of Kerala.
The mood was somewhat upbeat in 2021, after the Left parties had won 16 of the 29 seats they had contested as part of the Mahagathbandhan, in the Bihar Assembly polls last year. The Communist Party of India, the CPI (Marxist) won four of the six they contested, while CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation won 12 of the 19 seats it had contested. But the RJD-led alliance that they were part of had failed to overthrow the National Democratic Alliance led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (United).
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) has won 97 of the 140 seats in Kerala besting its own 2016 tally of 91 seats. The Left broke the 40-year-old tradition in the state, in which voters never re-elected an incumbent government. CPI(M) Kerala Chief Minister Pinnarayi Vijayan will once again be the CM.
CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri thanked voters for giving a second chance to the ruling party. “This result shows people’s faith in this government and the Left. This is a victory safeguarding the constitutional mandate for secularism and democracy,” Yechuri told the media in Delhi.
Across the country, Kerala is the only state, the party will be in power. Elsewhere, the Left has been wiped out.
The LDF in Kerala fought on Vijayan’s governance and the government’s welfare initiatives. The successful handling of devastating 2018 Kerala floods, the Nipah virus crisis, pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, all worked in favour of the party. Though, the opposition countered them on allegations about gold smuggling, deep-sea fishing contracts, Sabarimala women’s entry issue among others. But the party trumped and won all seats even in the region, where protests had erupted against the Sabarimala issue.
In contrast to Kerala, the Left Front, which once ruled West Bengal for seven consecutive terms – nearly 35 years until 2011 under the leadership of late Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee – today faces a rout in the state. The Left parties nearly drew a blank, except that its ally Rashtriya Secular Majlis Party was leading in one seat.
With heavy polarisation by the BJP this year in West Bengal, the Assembly election was by far a direct contest between the BJP and TMC. In the process, the Left suffered a sharp decline in the vote share. The combined vote share of the Left Front reduced from 41 per cent in 2011 to 25 per cent in 2016 to about 6 per cent in the current election.
For Mamata Bannerjee, in terms of numbers, it’s a repeat of the 2011 election, except that BJP has replaced the decimated Left, to become the principal opposition.
But the Left cadres campaigned hard urging people not to vote for the BJP, which sought to divide the state on communal lines. Party insiders said their votes might have shifted in favour of TMC to keep the BJP out. But the slow disintegration of Left Parties in the country was also blamed for the loss in West Bengal.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, a journalist and political observer, author of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment, said when former Tripura CM and politburo member Manik Sarkar came to West Bengal to campaign for elections, his focus was to keep the BJP out, rather than to seek votes for the CPI(M).
Besides, he said the divided opinion within the Left, where some perversely considered the TMC as a better political option to fight the BJP than their own political front, caused the votes to shift in favour of TMC. CPI(ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya had criticised the CPI(M) and the Left Front for equating the BJP and TMC and for calling for a fight against both.
For instance, in Raidighi, where CPI(M)’s former minister Kanti Ganguly contested, he came a distant third in the region. The BJP had little presence until the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the area. So, to counter the BJP, the CPI(M) lost its ground.
“For now, it’s difficult for the Left to re-emerge in West Bengal in the shadow of TMC’s powerful victory,” Bhattacharya said. He went on to add: “It depends on two things – one, if the BJP loses control of the state leaving the demoralised camp without protecting the cadres, the CPI(M) could capitalise on the vacuum that gets created. Two, they have to start the fight through students’ movement to gain grassroots’ support”.
Also, the Left’s attempt at breaking secular votes by aligning with Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front, worked in favour of TMC, as the minorities threw their weight behind Mamata Banerjee, in a high-stake battle against the saffron party.
With a bleak future ahead, as it is going to be difficult for the Left to recoup anytime soon, cadres said it’s time the Left Front leaders take a pragmatic approach and introspect about rebuilding the cadre-based party.
Even as the CPI and CPI (M) gained two seats each in Tamil Nadu out of the 12 seats contested, local leaders were still not happy since they lost in key areas in the western region of the state, where the party had a considerable strong presence in places such as Erode, Bhavani Sagar and Tiruppur (North) Assembly Constituencies. In TN, they have gained their lost ground. They drew a blank in 2016, while they had bagged 19 seats in 2011, 15 seats in 2006 and 11 seats in 2001.
CPI’s state secretary Mutharasan pointed out, “The communist parties today are disintegrated. CPI, CPI(M) and CMI(ML) are divided today. And that’s a weakness as people do not believe in us. There’s an immediate need for us to merge and work together in the national interest.”
Globally, as Left parties align with social movements on gender issues, environmental issues, public health, education and other issues, in India, the cadres argued that the parties should now go beyond working-class issues and focus on other aspects as well.
“With different social issues plaguing the country, there’s a need to fight on all fronts and gain ground at the all-India level,” said Mutharasan.
Even as they often declare that no individual is higher than the party, leadership matters in the end, whether it was Basu, Bhattacharjee, or Vijayan. The party needs someone to lead from the front. With a record-breaking victory, Vijayan’s leadership and style of functioning will now probably set the tone for the Left, as it seeks to revive itself.