An uphill task for the Left


With support among its traditional base and younger cohorts waning, the Left’s decline suggests a very bleak prospect for its future as an electoral force with a pan-India base

In December last year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — the largest constituent of the Left Front — >held an organisational plenum for the first time since 1978. The main objective of this historical event, as directed by the >CPI(M)’s 21st Party Congress held in Visakhapatnam in April 2015, was to discuss strategies that would help in arresting the continuing electoral decline of Left parties in India. The discussion at the plenum and the resolution document clearly suggest that the Left Front is currently fighting a battle for its survival. A battle to remain relevant as an idea, when many think its ideology has outlived its time. And most importantly, to remain relevant as an electoral entity with a pan-India base.

But herein lies a deep paradox: >the Left Front is struggling to prove its relevance in a country like India which, with widespread poverty and rampant social discrimination, should have, in fact, been fertile ground for its success. In the recent past, many commentators have noted the long-term declining support base of Left parties in India. The Left Front’s national vote share in 2014 was the lowest ever (4.8 per cent), from the high of 10.6 per cent in 1989. The strength of the Left contingent in Parliament has also plummeted significantly. However, what is less well analysed is the shrinking support base and deteriorating organisation strength of the Left Front in India.

Shrinking support base

A careful analysis of the vote share data indicates that the >electoral decline of the Left is not just West Bengal-centric, but extends across the country. Earlier, the Left parties used to have pockets of influence in some States of eastern India (Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha) and southern India (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). The decline has been so steep that the vote share of the Left in these States was less than 1 per cent in 2014.

The Left’s support among its traditional base is also gradually waning. The time-series survey data from the National Election Studies (NES) conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that in the past, the Left has always done relatively better among agricultural workers, semi-skilled workers, and farmers in comparison to the salaried and business class. However, the comparison over time suggests that in urban areas, the Left’s support base among shopkeepers, hawkers and semi-skilled workers has dropped considerably since 2009. In rural areas too, the Left is not getting enough support among sharecroppers, small farmers, and unskilled service providers. These groups form an overwhelming proportion of electorates and the sharp decline of the Left’s share among these groups, especially in West Bengal, suggests that the Front faces an insurmountable challenge. The nature of this challenge is even bigger in urban areas where the Left will have to deal with both the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the forthcoming Assembly elections.

Organisational reversals

Similarly, the sharpest decline in the Left’s vote share has been among the younger cohorts. For example, in West Bengal, the Left won more than half of the votes during the 2006 Assembly elections among respondents below 25 years. This share came down to one-third in 2011 and one-fifth in 2014. This trend is largely reflective of the Left’s failure to mobilise Indian youth. The representation of younger leaders within the CPI(M)’s organisational machinery bears testimony to this argument. The CPI(M)’s 20th Party Congress held in April 2012 in Kozhikode had only two delegates whose age was below 30 years and another 28 delegates who were between 30 and 40 years, among a total of 727 delegates.

The CPI(M)’s organisational reversal is not limited to underrepresentation of the young. The documents of previous three Party Congress meetings suggest that CPI(M)’s organisational machinery has stagnated. The data presented shows that the number of members in many of the CPI(M)’s frontal organisations has significantly declined over the last decade. Furthermore, the number of subscribers to the party’s mouthpieces has also gone down. Over the last decade, the number of subscribers to People’s Democracy has almost halved and in case of Loklahar and Marxist, the number has come down by almost 20 per cent.

To be sure, the current decline in Left Front’s vote share is largely due to its abysmal performance in last few elections in West Bengal, where the Front ruled uninterrupted for more than 30 years till 2011. Now it has been reduced to almost the half of its earlier presence in the State thus limiting the possibility of the Left’s revival in a big way in this round of Assembly elections.

Electoral reversals are part and parcel of democratic contestation, but what we are witnessing in case of the Left Front is not merely a result of periodic electoral setback. The symptoms point to a deeper malaise within the Left’s body politic. The multidimensional nature of the Left’s decline suggests a very bleak prospect for its future as an electoral force with a pan-India base.

Why does the Left in India face an uphill task? The short answer to this question is that in most parts of the world, the Left parties thrive on class politics, detest religion and rely heavily on formal associations such as labour unions. In India, class politics remains marginal, religion and religious practice are ubiquitous, associational activity is weak, and the strength of labour unions is far from what the Left would expect.

It seems, therefore, that the ‘objective conditions’ that are essential to the electoral strategies of the Left parties elsewhere don’t gel with the basic facts of Indian political life.

(Rahul Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, U.S. This is the first article in a three-part series on the electoral prospect of Left parties in India.)

> Read all articles in the series

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 1:48:53 PM |

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