Left to pick up the pieces

The Left parties find themselves in a difficult place, unable to expand their support base

April 14, 2015 12:16 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and its subsequent victories in many Assembly elections has forced many political parties to undertake an organisational overhaul and change in political strategy. For example, with the Bihar Assembly elections only a few months away, various political parties which are splinters of the Janata Parivar have decided to merge together to pose a challenge to the BJP. The Left parties are also faced with the same challenge. A Janata Parivar-like merger to address the problem of overall weakness has been mooted by some among the Left. Others have called for greater political coordination and joint organisation of key protests.

For the last few months, the Left parties have also been discussing a strategy for revival. In the recently concluded National Council meeting of the Communist Party of India, S. Sudhakar Reddy was re-elected as the party’s general secretary. The Communist Party of India decided to work towards re-establishing an “independent image”. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), too, in its 21st All India Congress meet, scheduled to take place in Visakhapatnam from April 14-19, is expected to elect its new general secretary. The meet is also crucial as the party is set to review its political-tactical line and discus a political resolution in tune with the changed realities since 2014.

The Lok Sabha verdict indicates that the situation is quite critical for the Left parties. The Left’s performance was poor: it managed to win only 12 seats — all from Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura — and had a national vote share of just 4.8 per cent. The real magnitude of this decline is apparent when compared to the Left’s performance in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when it registered its all time best electoral achievement. Since then, its vote share has almost halved and its seat tally has reduced drastically from 62 to only 12 seats. This shows that there is an immediate need for the Left to introspect about its future prospects and identify the political challenges that it is facing.

Not only has the Left’s national electoral presence reduced; its geographical presence has also shrunk. The Left parties used to have sizeable presence in States such as Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab; now their presence is only restricted to West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Further, the overall vote share of the Left parties outside these three States was less than 1 per cent in 2014. The national electoral fortunes of the CPI(M), which used to consistently win seats in many other States earlier, depend largely on whether it is able to stage a comeback in West Bengal. During its 34-year rule in the State, the Left frequently won more than 30 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, but in 2014 it secured only two Lok Sabha seats.

Relying on traditional supporters

The gradual decline in the Left’s vote share reflects its shrinking support base. We use data from the National Election Studies (NES) to compare the Left’s vote share among working class groups over three Lok Sabha elections: 1996, 2004 and 2014. The 1996 and 2004 elections represent the high point for the Left in the last two decades. The working class groups form a significant proportion of the electorate and the Left’s performance in the previous elections among them has been better than among other groups. Its vote share among lower level government employees and the unemployed, semi-skilled and unskilled workers has remained almost constant. The Left which claims to represent the interest of the workers was supported by less than 5 per cent of skilled workers and service workers. Among hawkers and petty businessmen, its vote share has declined sharply as compared to 2009. In rural India, it has tried to represent the interests of the agricultural labourers and address their conflict with the landed elite. But even among this group the party now has negligible presence with just 3 per cent of the vote.

Estimates from the NES show that there has not been any significant decline in the proportion of these working class groups in the electorate. Thus, the deterioration in the Left’s performance is primarily due to a decrease in support among these groups. We see a similar trend even in West Bengal as the Trinamool Congress had a lead of more than 10 percentage points over the Left among skilled and semi-skilled urban workers and agricultural labourers. Political parties have a core group of traditional voters who mostly support them in elections. Parties try to expand their support from among this group while extending their appeal to the floating voters. As per estimates of NES 2014, slightly less than three per cent of the voters identify themselves as the traditional supporters of the Left. This figure is almost equal to the overall vote share of the Left Front which indicated that it only got votes from its traditional supporters; it failed miserably in attracting the swing voters, even in West Bengal and Kerala.

Finding a leader

The absence of a popular national leader is a major challenge that the Left is facing at the moment. Findings of the post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) during the 2014 elections indicate that no leader from the Left Front was among the ten most preferred/popular choices for the post of Prime Minister. Many members of the CPI(M)’s top decision-making body, the Central Politburo, have not contested a popular election; they’ve only contested student body polls. The Left needs to find a leader who can lead them at the national level. At the State level, too, the CPI(M) needs to control factionalism and successfully complete the generational transition. In West Bengal, the party recently replaced senior leader Biman Bose with Surjya Kanta Mishra as the state secretary. In Kerala, the tussle between former Chief Minister and party veteran V.S. Achuthanandan and former state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan has hurt the prospects of the party.

Despite ruling West Bengal and Tripura for so long and holding power in Kerala for numerous terms, the Left has been unable to showcase its model of development as an alternative to the nation. The constituents of the Left Front need to re-establish their independent positions in national politics. The Left has tried to form a non Congress-non BJP ‘Third Front’ with regional parties at various junctures in the past. If it is unable to revive itself, it wouldn’t even be capable of being an integral part of a ‘Third Front’, as the Janata Parivar and the Dravidian parties would be more than willing to ally with the Trinamool Congress. The Left must realise that it needs to be successful in electoral politics to come to power. For this, it has to not just retain support among its traditional base but also attract voters from other sections.

(Sanjay Kumar is Professor and Director at CSDS, New Delhi, and Pranav Gupta is Researcher with Lokniti-CSDS. Views expressed are personal.)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.