It was a bitter pill to swallow for Tamil Nadu’s two Left parties — the CPI(M) and CPI — when they were allocated just six seats each by the alliance partner DMK for the upcoming Assembly elections in April.
But the reality is that Left parties have little or no bargaining power, after having failed to win even one seat in the 2016 Assembly polls. It was a crushing and humiliating defeat for the leaders of Left parties, some of them who are role models in regional politics and known for being responsive to the needs of their constituencies. They always had their members in the TN Assembly since the first time they had contested back in 1957.
The CPI(M) state secretary K Balakrishnan attributed the reason for having accepted just six seats to a higher cause of keeping out an “anti-secular” force as the BJP out of a “secular land like Tamil Nadu”. “We formed a third front and contested in 2016, we did that as we thought there is a need for a change. But now we have bigger reasonability to stop BJP from gaining a foothold in Tamil Nadu, the party is a threat to the nation,” he told reporters.
To give the Left parties in the state their due, they have always been careful not to ally with the BJP and naturally gravitated towards a non-BJP front. They have always piggy-backed on the might of the two Dravidian giants, DMK and AIADMK, and briefly teamed up the Vijaykanth-led DMDK (whose vote-share has also nose-dived with each successive election) in the last Assembly election.
Yet, as the Left parties in TN face another Assembly election, it seems they have steadily lost their sheen, and their political influence and clout have diminished. While they drew a blank in 2016, they had together won 19 seats in 2011, 15 seats in 2006 and 11 seats in 2001. Their most impressive performance in terms of the number of seats won, was in 1980 when as part of the MGR-led AIADMK alliance, they had won around 20 seats.
The Left had always known that as a small party with a committed vote base, they could not hold on to their voters if they were not part of a dominant or winning alliance. And, if they strayed into an alliance with a third front, they were considered unviable and lacked credibility. They were only relevant if they joined one of the dominant regional parties, either the DMK or AIADMK.
In fact, even in the 2016 elections they had teamed up with DMDK only because the AIADMK leader, the late J Jayalalithaa was keen to fight most of the seats and was unwilling to ally with them. And, they were not on friendly terms with the DMK back then.
Being a small party, which lacked deep pockets, they faced political extinction without being part of the dominant alliances. But, they were shocked when they together mustered up a 1.5% vote share in an alliance with DMDK in the 2016 elections. When the conditions are favourable to their alliance both of them together have won around 5% of the popular vote.
However, the Left parties, who have remained a strong voice for labourers, farmers and Dalits in the State, are still influential in four parliamentary constituencies in the state, in Kanyakumari district, in Nagapattinam and Thanjavur districts, some parts of Coimbatore district and some pockets in cities like Tiruchirapalli, north Chennai and Madurai.
They have a presence among urban unionised workers, peasants and agricultural labourers in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam regions and in Kanyakumari district. CPI has strong vote banks in Mannargudi, Thiruthuraipoondi and the CPM in Nagapattinam.
The Left has ostensibly mended fences with the DMK and aligned their fortunes with the MK Stalin-led party for the 2021 Assembly elections.
The two major Dravidian parties bank on these small parties for reasons of their own. Besides bringing in votes from certain constituencies into the alliance, Left parties, say political observers, have some “respectability”, and are known in TN for some amount of “political integrity”. Allegations of corruption are not made against their legislators and their MLAs are helpful to people in their constituencies. More or less, these parties are considered to be harmless.
They also become the perfect vehicles of any ideology put forth by their alliance partner. It could be an electoral pitch against anti-corruption or an anti BJP – anti-communalism cry, which they are able to take up with conviction. But sometimes, they have also made big embarassing blunders by calling out BJP leader Tamilisai for not being as beautiful as the DMK candidate Tamilachi Thangapandian.
The CPI and CPM keep switching their loyalties between the DMK and AIADMK and this could one reason their image has slowly eroded over time. While in 2016, they were in the Vijaykanth led alliance, in 2011 they were with the Jayalalitha-led AIADMK alliance and in 2006 with the DMK alliance. In the 2001 Assembly polls, they were part of the AIADMK alliance.
Undeniably, the 2021 elections will be a crucial test for them. Contesting their lowest number of seats ever for the state Assembly, they clearly have to win all those seats to stay relevant in the state. They cannot afford another debacle, which may just set the stage for their disappearance from electoral politics.