As it faces another poll in West Bengal, five years after the All India Trinamool Congress ended its 34-year rule, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has brainstormed on ways to revive its sagging political fortunes at its party Plenum in Kolkata, the first after 1978. The last few years have been forgettable for the party that once enjoyed considerable clout at the national level. At no point of time did it hold power in States other than West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, but the CPI(M) was seen as a party of intellectuals and made substantive interventions on policy matters, right from influencing India’s academic discourse on history to mounting a powerful challenge to the India-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008. However, with the electoral loss in West Bengal, this stature has taken a beating. While the party insists that this Plenum is not about its Bengal poll tactics but about making its organisation fighting fit, the fact remains Bengal will have to be the starting point for the CPI(M) becoming fighting fit. The party will have to reconsider its tactics on the ground in contending with the Trinamool Congress. Even some of the CPI(M)’s staunch supporters believe that the party might suffer another defeat at the hands of Mamata Banerjee if it does not swallow pride and enter into an alliance with the Congress. The dilemma is not just ideological: whatever the nature of its relations with the Congress in Bengal, the CPI(M) will have to necessarily fight the grand old party in Kerala. The political rhetoric in Bengal will have to be very different from that in Kerala. Incidentally, both States go to elections at the same time in 2016.
Even if the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front wins in Kerala, where it appears to be ahead of a dispirited Congress right now, another loss in Bengal could put a question mark on the party’s long-term future, and seriously erode its national-level presence. The issue of alliance is not the only existential dilemma of the party in a rapidly changing political landscape. The CPI(M) seems to have lost its grip even on Bengal’s villages and its urban poor. And as the success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi shows, there is space for an urban politics focussed on issues of equity and welfare. The CPI(M), which has lost the support among all its traditional support bases, appears unable to break free from the old mindset of engaging with the geopolitics of the Cold War era. The promise of an egalitarian society, unaccompanied by any radical programme for change, no longer holds the same appeal. Its jargon — terms like ‘neoliberalism’, ‘imperialism’ and ‘scientific socialism’ — may also not have any resonance beyond a few campuses in India. The party will need to reinvent itself, directly speaking to the livelihood concerns and social insecurities of the working classes, the weaker sections and women. Without finding a way of intervening on issues of immediate concern to the people, the CPI(M) cannot hope to win back its core supporters — or recover its historical role of framing larger concerns about liberty and constitutionalism, a role no other party has quite the same aptitude for.