When I first came to Trivandrum in 1971 as an IAS Probationer with three other batchmates, two of them from the north of India, the most common sight was that of red flags, little sheds and screaming protesters every 100 metres.The left ideology was preponderant and the policies of government were clearly, unmistakably anti-industrialist, anti - management and pro- labour. After completion of my probation, when I took charge of a sub-division, I vividly recall receiving an instruction from the State Government that in all labour-management disputes, officers must generally take the side of labour. The government in power at that time was not entirely leftist. The Communist Party of India had split , a Communist Party ( Marxist) had come into being and the CPI had aligned itself with the Congress and other non-left parties and formed a government headed by the dignified and well-read C. Achuta Menon.
The rise and decline of the Left in India is a story that has oft been told in many different ways. The main opposition to the Congress Party in the early years after Independence came from the Left. In 1952, the undivided Communist Party had 22 seats in the Lok Sabha and A.K. Gopalan was the first Leader of the Opposition. The Party won 33 seats in 1957 and in 1962. The Party split in 1964, the CPM fighting on its own in 1967 while the CPI was aligned to the Congress. Together, the Left won 46 seats. In 1971, they had 53 Members of Parliament. In 2004, they occupied pole position in UPA 1 with a commanding strength of 59 seats. Until the fiasco over the Civil Nuclear Bill , where they aligned with the BJP and other Opposition Parties to try to bring down the UPA Government and failed, they were dominant in decision making at the political level. From 59, their strength has come down to 5 in the 2019 Lok Sabha, of which four were won in Tamil Nadu thanks to their alliance with the DMK. The lone victory, with a small margin, in Alappuzha in Kerala is also attributed more to the credibility and acceptability of the Left candidate than to the strength of the Front.
From 1977 to 2011, the Left held complete sway over West Bengal, a record period of 34 years. Some of my colleagues in that State never saw any government other than that of the CPM from the beginning of their career until their retirement. In Tripura, too, the Left Front was in power from 1978 to 1988 and then again from 1998 to 2018. The collapse of the Left in both these States and the emergence of the BJP as a potent political force in this region signals a sharp political and ideological turnaround for which different explanations have been given by thinkers and intellectuals.
West Bengal, wracked by famine in British times , and afflicted by insecurities in land tenure, saw the emergence of a Left Front masterminded by Promode Dasgupta, consisting principally of the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Throughout the sixties and seventies, instability and spells of President’s Rule characterised the political scene. The victory of the Left Front in 1977, following the Emergency, gave Jyoti Basu and Promode Dasgupta the space to initiate sweeping reforms on three fronts: Operation Barga for registering sharecroppers rights, a land distribution programme and the institution of panchayats, essentially a Gandhian vision, which created a mechanism for rural development. Kheya Bag, in her paper “ Red Bengal’s Rise and Fall”( New Left Review 2011), said that these reforms, combined with other agricultural development measures, resulted in a more egalitarian Green Revolution in Bengal, with increasing prosperity and rising real wages. In the urban areas, relative peace replaced the chaotic conditions that prevailed earlier, and the lower bureaucracy in all sectors were converted into a support base for the Left. Labour militancy, both in rural and industrial areas, was contained through active involvement of the Party cadres.
The positive effects of all these changes, however, declined over time, as government became increasingly cash-strapped on account of burgeoning revenue expenditure. The fall of the Soviet Union and the economic reforms introduced by Manmohan Singh in 1991 were two challenges that the Left suddenly had to confront. West Bengal joined the reform bandwagon and actively sought private investment. In fact, West Bengal attracted the highest rate of foreign direct investment between 1996 and 2003, next to Gujarat. Policies akin to the economic reforms of China, Special Economic Zones and Agri-Export Zones were promoted. The culture of the Party leadership also changed. The ascetic leadership of the past had been replaced by the urban Bhadralok elite and corruption had begun to surface. In the words of Kheya Bag, ““At the party’s apex, elected politicians have engaged in very little graft:the Chief Minister lived in in a government tenement while modest, backwater party leaders lived in plush villas. Local fiefdoms would increasingly become flashpoints as a layer that had benefited commercially from political connections fought off those who got in the way of new opportunities.” With the exit of Jyoti Basu and the advent of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the move towards China-type economic reform gathered momentum. This coincided also with the rise of the fiery Mamata Banerjee and her breakaway Trinamul Congress Party. The attempt to set up a Tata plant in Singur and a special economic zone in Nandigram, cordoning off fertile agricultural land, changed the political scenario dramatically. The Left Front was voted out of power in 2011 and became a nonentity in 2016. In the 2019 national elections, we saw the decimation of the Left and the rise of the BJP as the main challenge to the Trinamul Congress.
The Tripura story is different. In 1998, when Manik Sarkar came to power, tribal insurgency was at its peak. The conflict between Bengalis and tribals and the influx of migrants from Bangladesh had created an atmosphere of instability and fear. Ideological reorientation, development and security were the pillars on which Sarkar built his government and ruled for two decades . The work he did on roads and railways, power ,irrigation, literacy, even the phenomenal growth of Agartala airport, as well as his own spartan lifestyle, all these sustained him for long years.But,over time, a new generation of voters had gained ascendancy in Tripura, a generation that wanted jobs, prosperity, a generation that was attracted more to Narendra Modi’s clarion call for building a New India. The deprivations and the struggles of the past had been forgotten and the younger generation wanted to strike a different path .Besides, the ethnic differences of the past surfaced again and had a major role to play in the unravelling of Left hegemony.
Kerala has been the odd man out in the story of the Left. For the first time ever, anywhere in the world, a Communist government was elected to power in 1957 and a couple of years later was dismissed and President’s Rule imposed. Some significant reforms took place under the Left government including land reforms. The Left was also primarily responsible for the introduction of public private management in education through the system of infrastructure being put up by private managers who also ran schools and colleges with teachers being paid for by the State. In later years, Left Governments spearheaded the movement to achieve full literacy and introduced significant reform in diverse areas such as public health, public distribution and even tourism led by private entrepreneurs.Kerala was, however, never a Left bastion for prolonged periods, as in West Bengal and Tripura. After an initial period of instability, the political Parties in Kerala coalesced to form two Fronts, both generally following the path of social democracy and taking turns at ruling the State at intervals of five years.
Many reasons have been cited for the decline of the Left. In 2011, the Left ideologue, Prabhat Patnaik, in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, attributed the fall of the Left to “empirisation”, the inability of the Left to engage in a sustained struggle against capitalist forces. There are others who attribute the present position of the Left to their proclivity to make “ historical blunders” such as their refusal to permit Jyoti Basu to be Prime Minister to head the United Front Government in 1996, the loss of their preeminent position in UPA 1 on account of a very rigid position on the civil nuclear bill and even the recent over enthusiasm shown in implementing the Supreme Court decision on allowing women of all ages to pray at Sabarimala. There is, of course, the global factor: the fall of the Soviet Union, the new capitalist oriented economic philosophy of China, the disappearance of communism from countries in which it appeared to be well entrenched and the association in the public mind of communism with violence.Perhaps the biggest change that occurred in the character of communism was the loss of the asceticism and self-abnegation that characterised the early communists of India. In the words of EMS Namboodiripad, “ Elements of Gandhism were by and large inherent in my lifestyle and mode of thinking even after I adopted Marxism. While expressing my ideological differences with Gandhism, I became a political activist who upheld the high values of Gandhism and tried to translate them in my personal lifestyle.”
The Left misses today the spartan lifestyle of their early leaders as well as the political savvy of Harkishen Singh Surjit. It brings nothing new to the table for the Indian electorate to savour. Its ranks are thinning and we see even the unusual sight of prominent Marxists moving to extreme right, the collapse of their cadres in all parts of India, save Kerala, and a manifest inability to cash in even on economic crises of the kind that afflicts the agrarian sector and the worsening employment situation.
It would be interesting to see whether the Left can reinvent itself and emerge again as a significant force in Indian politics.