D raja of CPI
After being the main opposition once, the Communist Party of India has finally lost its status as a national party for electoral purposes. File photo shows party chief D Raja (centre) and others at a protest site.

CPI, India’s second oldest political party, on the brink of collapse in its 98th year

Its biggest shortcoming was its blind adherence to Moscow, which was to cost it politically

After being the main opposition in three consecutive Lok Sabha elections, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the country’s second oldest political party, has been reduced to a pathetic state, finally losing its status as a national party for electoral purposes.

From being a political formation which once commanded tens of thousands of dedicated activists all the way from Peshawar to Chittagong in undivided India, the CPI has now been reduced to a two-men show in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, a great fall which its leaders lament.

On Monday, the Election Commission announced that it was withdrawing the “national status” accorded for decades to the CPI and to the much younger Trinamool Congress, which are incidentally bitter rivals in West Bengal.

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The development marks a humiliation for the CPI, which was founded in Kanpur in 1925, the same year the Communist Party of China (CPC) was born and which has ruled China since seizing power in 1949. 

Leadership holds meet

On Tuesday (April 11), the National Secretariat of the CPI met in New Delhi, under party general secretary D Raja. “The Election Commission of India should have given due consideration to the rich history of Communist Party of India and its preeminent role in the fight against the British raj and its role in shaping the national agenda in post-independent India,” said a statement issued by the National Secretariat. “CPI has remained at the forefront in strengthening the democratic polity of the country.”

“CPI is one of the oldest political parties in the country and continues to have pan-India presence and mass following. CPI is second to none in making supreme sacrifices for taking the country forward and defending the ideals of the Constitution, towards social justice, secularism and socialism. CPI will continue its dedicated service for the country and struggle for the rights of the people,” the statement, signed by party leader Roykutty, further said.

British crackdown

There was a time when the CPI combined militant anti-imperialist struggles with internationalism to create a movement parallel to the peaceful campaign for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi.

The British, always wary of the Soviet Union, cracked down hard on the CPI, keeping it weak organisationally, although it managed to penetrate industrial and farm workers in a major way in the decades since its formation.

Despite its largely underground status, the CPI was the first to hold a May Day rally in the country, in 1923. It took control of the All India Trade Union Congress (which was allied to the Congress even before the CPI’s birth), and set up the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), All India Students Federation (AISF), Progressive Writers Association as well as the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

Its biggest shortcoming was its blind adherence to Moscow, which was to cost it politically both before and after Independence, until the collapse of the Soviet Union left it virtually rudderless.

After Independence, the CPI emerged as a major advocate of equality for women, nationalisation, land reforms and social justice for the lower castes, making it an attractive force. Accordingly, despite the Congress domination of the political scene post-1947, the CPI was the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha elections in 1951, 1957 and 1962.

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In 1957, the CPI became the first communist party in the world to capture political power through elections, when it formed a government in Kerala. The state government was dismissed by the Nehru government in 1959.

The dramatic fall

The 1960s heralded the beginning of the slide for the CPI, a momentum which has finally now led to the party losing its national status.

It lost the 1960 Kerala Assembly elections, was seriously jolted by the Sino-India war of 1962, and suffered a crippling split in 1964, when hardliners went on to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M). The last development considerably weakened the CPI across the country, forcing it to virtually surrender to and join a coalition led by the Congress in Kerala. 

From about 1969, the CPI nationally moved closer to Indira Gandhi and the Congress as the two forged close links with Moscow. The CPI’s political stock crashed when it ended up supporting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule of 1975-77 when the government jailed tens of thousands of political opponents. Once the Emergency ended, the CPI did a volte-face but it lost face and space to the CPI(M), which became the big brother in Left politics.

Since then, the CPI’s performance both nationally and in states has been dismal. It has lost its earlier strongholds in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It got just four Lok Sabha seats in 1999, the tally rising to 10 in 2004 (when the Left backed the Congress-led UPA), and again fell to four seats in 2009. It won only one seat in 2014 and two in 2019. Countrywide, it has just 21 seats in various assemblies, reducing the once formidable CPI to an also-ran.

Technically, the party lost its national status after a poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But, it got some relief when the Election Commission, in 2016, decided to review the national party status every 10 years instead of five. This led the CPI to think it had time to shore up its position, before the EC sprung a surprise on Monday (April 10). 

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Today, the CPI is part of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition that’s ruling Kerala. Its presence elsewhere in the nation is negligible. The party’s fall has been most apparent in West Bengal, where it currently has no representation in the Assembly or Parliament, after 34 years of rule, between 1977 and 2011. It’s on the verge of losing even state party status in Bengal.

Little to learn

Following the loss of national party status, what’s visible in party circles is some belligerence at the EC’s move. Sources told The Federal there was no serious introspection about the slide in its performances over the years. “Instead, the leadership tried to find fault with the technicalities of granting national party status based on only electoral representation,” a leader said on the condition of anonymity. 

A CPI youth activist from Bengal said the party itself was largely responsible for its present state of affairs. “After much pussyfooting, the party last year had decided to infuse young blood in the organisation, fixing the age bar for various party forums, starting from the National Council. Due to opposition from some senior leaders, the guideline is yet to be properly implemented.”

The proposed 15 per cent reservation for women in state and district councils is also not followed, pointed out Animesh Mandal, an activist of the All India Students’ Federation, the student wing of the CPI. 

In most states, including West Bengal, the party has destroyed its grassroots organisation by playing second fiddle to the CPI(M), said a CPI leader from Bengal. Repeated attempts in the past to bring all the communist parties in India under one umbrella have been futile.

The reaction from the party’s top leadership has been more or less muted. The latest post on its official Twitter handle is dated January 25. 

“CPI’s recognition is in the hearts of the toiling masses. It is built up with the blood, sweat and tears of the fighting people.The party will intensify its battle for democracy, secularism and socialism,” tweeted CPI Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala, Binoy Viswam.

“Despite the Election Commission withdrawing the national party recognition, the CPI will continue to work among the people with increased vigour and dedication across the country. At the same time, the CPI will intensify its campaign for comprehensive electoral reforms including the system of proportional representation, abolition of electoral bonds and for state funding of elections as recommended by the Indrajit Gupta Committee to ensure level playing field to all participants,” said the National Secretariat statement.

“The CPI has the capacity and commitment to take up the challenges of time and overcome them.”

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