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Left out in Bengal: For the first time since independence, communists draw a blank in state polls

The electoral politics of West Bengal have consistently maintained a peculiar characteristic over the past five decades. Ever since 1972, the state has always voted overwhelmingly in favour of a single party or alliance. The trend has continued in the just-concluded elections as well, with the incumbent Trinamul Congress winning more than 200 over the 294 seats in the legislative assembly.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come a distant second in the polls, it is perhaps a shock to political observers that the Left Front — which ruled the state for three decades before being routed a decade ago by the current party in power — has drawn a complete blank. The communist parties in the state could not even win a single seat this time.

This makes it the first time since independence that West Bengal, the cradle of communist thought in India, will witness a communist-free assembly.

More by Somshankar Bandyopadhyay

So why this debacle? Is the Left ideology so discredited that the populace don’t find it appealing any longer? Is it the high-handedness of the ruling party witnessed by the common man during their years in power so fresh even after 10 years that voters do not want to hear anything from them? Did the pre-poll alliance stink too badly of opportunistic politics that the astute voter smelled the rot?

Probably it is a combination of all these factors that led the once-mighty Left Front bite the dust so hard in the elections this time.

The communists’ seminal work among the landless labourers for the three decades after independence was one of the main reasons for their storming into power in West Bengal in 1977, along with the anti-Congress wave that was unleashed in the country due to the Emergency and Jai Prakash Narayan’s movement.

However, its traditional anti-industry stand and militant trade unionism led to the complete demise of the industrial sector in West Bengal — a factor that continues to plague the state’s economy to this day.

Despite being home to some of the richest iron and coal fields in the country, the state remains one of the most backward in the country in the industrial sector. The communist parties’ high-handedness during the 1970s and 1980s in dealing with industry has left the state permanently crippled in this field.

As education has spread through the countryside, educated youth in the state now have no option but to migrate to other parts of the country to find jobs. Thus there is a deep-rooted angst among the people on this issue, a factor that has likely contributed to the latest debacle.

Pulse of the people

However, the most important factor in this complete whitewash is probably that the Left just could not identify with the aspirations of the common man in the state. That was quite a climb-down from what was once their forte — feeling the pulse of the people.

The gerontocracy that leads the Left parties in Bengal has completely lost touch with the present generation. As such, the communist thought that attracted idealistic youth to this ideology in previous decades was anyway discredited as the dictatorial regimes that it spawned in Eastern Europe fell apart in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Added to this was the liberation of the Indian economy in 1991 following reforms led by PV Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. This unleashed a wave of economic growth in the country, from which West Bengal could never benefit due to the hardline stance of the communist regime in power in the state.

However, even after almost three decades of this event, the communists in West Bengal do not seem to have learnt their lessons. Harping on terms like ‘class struggle’, ‘revolution’, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is useless since those terms simply don’t cut ice with today’s youth anymore.

Mostly born after the fall of communism, today’s young — even in the most infrastructure-starved villages — yearn for a life of urban comfort. Going to them with the age-old ideological baggage, is shooting yourself in the foot. And that is precisely what happened.

The point is, our dear communists have forgotten the one truism Karl Marx had himself propounded — that society is ever changing, and ideas will accordingly change. This is when he elaborated on Hegel’s concept of thesis — the original idea, antithesis — the new idea opposing it and synthesis — the sum of the two, leading to the new thesis.

Inability to evolve

Thus Marx himself expected his theories to evolve with time. But our communists have remained in the stone age of theoretical knowledge, and thus their debacle and current status was a foregone conclusion.

If one has to compare, let us look at the last communist bastion in India — Kerala. This southern Indian state has consistently remained on top in the country in terms of several criteria on the Human Development Index — primary education, health etc.

The Left Democratic Front, which for the first time in Kerala’s history has managed to beat the traditional anti-incumbency factor and return to power, has never really harped much on ideology. They have done work on the ground, and it has yielded the desired results through the ballot.

So, where does the Left go from here? A small step forward this time has been the fielding of some fresh new faces in the elections, some as young as their 20s. If this is a serious experiment and not just a public relations exercise, then maybe — just maybe — the new breed of leaders can bring some fresh thought processes and breathe new life into the party.

If they can repackage the disparaged ideology into the language of the millennials, it may strike a chord with the new generation, possibly creating a new support base to build upon.

However, judging by first-hand interactions that this writer has had with the young Left, it is equally likely that this experiment will fail. My interactions showed that these young party members are sometimes even more dogmatic than their elders in terms of ideological inclinations.

If that is so, and the young Left follows the same path as the Left of yore, then the 2021 assembly elections might have hammered the last nail in the communists’ coffin in West Bengal.