The May 2016 Verdict and Lessons for the Left

AFTER suffering a series of electoral debacles all through 2015, the BJP has again made big gains in the recent round of Assembly elections. The party has come to power for the first time in Assam, thereby greatly bolstering its political presence and prospects in the North-East, apart from opening its account in the Assemblies of West Bengal and Kerala, backed by impressive double digit vote share in both the states. Two years into power, when the Modi government finds itself being rapidly discredited on every major front, the Assam victory will provide a much needed shot in the BJP’s arm.

The Congress has suffered a comprehensive defeat in both Assam and Kerala. While Kerala has evolved a well established pattern of alternating governments, and the LDF victory conforms to that established pattern, it is the loss in Assam, where the party has been in power for the last fifteen years, which must hurt the Congress really badly. Till recently, the BJP was not in a position to contemplate an immediate ascent to power in Assam even though with its Hindutva politics the BJP always had the potential to manipulate the sensitive ‘foreign national’ issue to its advantage. It was the split in the Congress in Assam with Tarun Gogoi’s once close lieutenant Himanta Biswa Sarma joining the BJP with several MLAs, and the AGP-BJP alliance, which brightened the prospects of the BJP in Assam.

The BJP grabbed this opportunity with both hands, reaching out to the Bodos and a couple of smaller tribes, while the Congress went to this crucial electoral battle isolated and discredited. The end result has been this sweeping victory of the BJP-led alliance which has now placed the BJP in an advantageous position to strengthen its presence in the entire North-Eastern region. The co-option of Assamese regionalism within the RSS-BJP framework of Hindutva is fraught with disturbing political implications. The RSS will now have a free hand to use the delicate and diverse ethno-religious composition of Assam and the North-East for its dangerous divisive agenda.

With the Congress dislodged from power in two more states – it now rules only in Karnataka in the south and in the Himalayan states of Himachal, Uttarakhand in the North and Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram in the North-East – the BJP has surely strengthened its position as the currently dominant all-India party of the Indian ruling classes. The Assam and Kerala blows have deepened the crisis of leadership and direction within the Congress and as it prepares for the next crucial round of elections in Punjab, UP and Uttarakhand, it will have a difficult time keeping its own house in order and contending with the growing pressure of regional parties in the anti-BJP camp.

The Congress and BJP apart, regional parties and the CPI(M)-led Left Front had a lot of stake in these elections. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK won a decisive victory despite growing disillusionment with her authoritarian and arrogant style of governance, the deepening agrarian and industrial crisis in the state and the huge administrative failure in managing the recent floods in Chennai and coastal Tamil Nadu. The DMK-Congress alliance improved its performance but was nowhere near dislodging the AIADMK from power.

In Tamil Nadu, the CPI(M) and CPI had begun with the idea of a programme-based alternative, floating a People’s Welfare Front with parties like VCK and Vaiko’s MDMK which had been with the BJP till recently. But as elections drew nearer, they entered into electoral collaboration with even more discredited forces like the DMDK led by actor Vijaykanth and the breakaway Congress group led by GK Vasan. In the process, the Left and even the PWF were relegated to the background and the whole thing became a vehicle for the projection of Vijaykanth as a Chief Minister aspirant. The move flopped spectacularly with Vijaykanth himself finishing a distant third and his party’s vote share declining to less than 3 per cent.

For the CPI(M), the big battles were in Kerala and West Bengal. In Kerala the party managed to galvanise its otherwise faction-ridden organisation in a powerful oppositional role vis-a-vis the scam-tainted Congress government and scripted a decisive victory riding on a powerful campaign led by the charismatic nonagenarian ‘rebel’ CPI(M) leader VS Achuthanandan. What queered the pitch further for the Congress was the phenomenal rise in the BJP bloc's vote share to an unprecedented 15 per cent (together with its ally, the Bharat Dharma Jan Sena (BDJS) which polled 3.9% votes) much of which came eventually at the cost of the Congress despite Yechury’s allegations of a tacit RSS-Congress understanding.

The RSS has long been quite active and organised in Kerala. In Kannur district in north Kerala, RSS and CPI(M) clashes and even gruesome killings have been recurring quite frequently in recent years. But this is the first time the BJP managed to translate its growing presence into an actual victory. But rather than this one seat, one should look at the growing BJP vote share, its influence among the hugely neglected tribal population in the state (Modi’s Somalia analogy which many in Kerala considered an ‘insult’ was actually made in the context of the deprivation of tribal areas in the state) and the rise of BJP allies like the BDJS. Traditionally bipolar Kerala politics now surely has a significant third force in the form of the BJP.

More than Kerala, it was West Bengal which marked the biggest battlefield for the CPI(M) and it has been trounced completely in the battle of Bengal. The result clearly shows that the CPI(M) has made little recovery in rural Bengal, once the strongest bastion of the Left Front and the desperate bid to regain power by cobbling an opportunist alliance with the Congress has proved to be a humiliating disaster. The CPI(M) and the Left Front have been reduced to its lowest ever tally of 32 seats, nearly half of its 2011 tally while the Congress, bolstered by votes transferred by the CPI(M), has emerged as the second biggest party with 44 seats! If the 2011 defeat marked a grievous injury to the CPI(M) after its 34 years of uninterrupted stint in power, the debacle this time has added lethal insult to that injury.

Unable to justify the alliance in terms of the political line adopted by the party at its Visakhapatnam Congress in April 2015, CPI(M) leaders described the Bengal alliance as mere seat adjustment as desired by the people! Nothing could be farther from the political truth known to everyone in West Bengal. The distinction between an alliance and adjustment is not a matter of mere formal nomenclature nor is it determined by the fact whether CPI(M) PB or CC members from outside the state shared platform with Congress leaders or not. The combination was projected as a ‘people’s alliance’, the campaign was conducted jointly all over the state and Surjyakanta Mishra, CPI(M) State Secretary and PBM was projected as the would-be chief minister of the alliance government. Surely, this political readiness to share power – and that too dictated not by any so-called post-poll ‘compulsion’ but deliberate pre-poll design – matters much more than the diplomatic script of stage-sharing during the election campaign.

It was well known that the Congress vote is concentrated in a few districts and spread very thin in the rest of the state. While the CPI(M) transferred its vote to the Congress – in fact, the Congress campaign in many constituencies ran on the strength and steam provided by the organised Left cadre – traditional Congress voters in most constituencies with Left candidates went over to the TMC or even preferred to vote NOTA, not to mention the 'friendly contests' where the Congress put up its own candidates against the Left. Going by electoral arithmetic, the Congress-Left alliance was expected to sweep in North Bengal, but the results show that of the 76 seats in the North Bengal districts of Alipurduar, Coohbehar, Darjeeling, North and South Dinajpur, Malda and the adjoining central Bengal district of Murshidabad, the TMC has bagged 32 seats, just marginally behind the 38 seats won by the alliance. But within the alliance, it is the Congress which has got the lion's share of 28 seats with the Left getting only 10 seats. Indeed, going by the Assembly segment-based figures of the 2014 elections, the Congress had led in 29 seats, but with CPI(M) support its tally has now gone up to 44 whereas the LF tally continues to stagnate at 32, almost the same level as in 2014.

In the wake of the 2011 defeat, the CPI(M) had talked about undertaking some rectification campaign in West Bengal, but we never saw any serious self-criticism on the party’s major blunders that alienated it from large sections of the rural poor and the peasantry as well as the progressive intelligentsia. During the election campaign the CPI(M) harped on the bankrupt theme of Singur-style industrialisation, undertaking a padyatra from Singur to Salboni, two cruel symbols of land acquisition that yielded no industriy or employment while robbing thousands of people of their land and livelihood and in Singur itself, the CPI(M) candidate launched his campaign riding a yellow Nano car, the model that even the Tatas are now discarding as a flawed idea!

Indeed, the only ‘rectification’ witnessed in practice was this alliance with the Congress, hailed as a ‘brilliant, courageous and pragmatic reinvention’ of the Left by the influential Ananda Bazar Group which advocated and engineered the alliance and virtually served as the organ of the alliance all through the protracted election campaign. It remains to be seen how the CPI(M) now evaluates its Bengal disaster which has been rendered incredibly profound by the party’s stubborn refusal to learn from its mistakes and the opportunist centrist formulations that invited and presided over this disaster.

Far from broadening and reinvigorating the model of Left unity on the lines of the united Left bloc in Bihar, the CPI(M) virtually abandoned its own old model of Left unity in West Bengal and courted the Congress as a reliable ‘democratic’ ally. Instead of building on the encouraging experience of Bihar, the CPI(M) went in for the grand alliance that it perhaps ‘missed’ in Bihar, seeking to use West Bengal as a laboratory to replicate the grand alliance experiment. But while the Bihar grand alliance succeeded as an anti-BJP coalition, the West Bengal grand alliance was pitted primarily against the TMC. The unmistakably clear outcome of the disastrous experiment is here for all to see – the TMC has gained as have the Congress and the BJP, and the Left has emerged as the net loser having funded the entire experiment at its own political cost.

As an energised BJP celebrates its Assam victory as its best gift on the second anniversary of the Modi government and the TMC resumes its second term of authoritarian populism in West Bengal, the Left must draw its lessons and strengthen its united and independent political role as the most consistent and credible platform of people’s struggles to resist the policies of corporate plunder and the politics of communal fascism.

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