The decimation of the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala: A curious case of two different tales

The only saving grace is Tamil Nadu where the CPI(M) and CPI have won two seats each, that too at the mercy of the DMK and the Congress with which it had allied.
The decimation of the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala: A curious case of two different tales
The decimation of the CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala: A curious case of two different tales
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A bizarre outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is the decimation of the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M). It’s been completely wiped out in West Bengal, where it had ruled back-to-back for more than three decades, and in Kerala - except a lone seat -  where it’s currently heading the ruling coalition. 

The only saving grace is Tamil Nadu where the CPI(M) and CPI have won two seats each, that too at the mercy of the DMK and the Congress with which it had allied.

Curiously, it’s not the countrywide onslaught of the BJP and the NDA that has led to the debacle of the CPI(M) in its apparent strongholds, but bad politics, poor public image and a lack of strategy. Looking at the numbers, it could be easily surmised that even without the BJP sweep that the country has witnessed, the CPI(M) wouldn’t have done any better because the party has boxed itself into a unique situation where its relevance and ideology - or the lack of it - is under serious threat.

First things first. 

The Communists had indeed been a major stakeholder in India long before Independence. After India won its freedom, they were the opposition in 1952 and both the undivided Communist Party and later the CPI and CPI(M) had some of the best Parliamentarians the country has seen. In the first general elections in 1967 - after its split with the parent CPI - the CPI(M) had won 19 seats out of the 59 it contested and by 1971, it had raised it to 25 out of which 20 were from West Bengal alone. By 1980, it had about 30 seats and in 2004, it went up to an all-time high of 43. 

In fact, at about 63%, its success rate was the highest in 2004 and that helped it even gain a controlling stake in the first ever UPA government led by the Congress. But since then, things have gone downhill. In 2009, its numbers slid to 19, and by 2014 to just nine plus two independents. This time around, it will be just four from Tamil Nadu and one from Kerala.

The CPI(M)’s historic washout in 2019 is evidently because of its complete routs in Kerala and West Bengal, but the circumstances of their failure in either state are dissimilar. In Kerala, it fought a good battle against the Congress and the BJP simultaneously, but in West Bengal it got consumed by revenge politics in which it allowed itself to be swallowed by the BJP.  In other words, if its aim was political in Kerala, in West Bengal, it was only to spite Mamata Banerjee because they hate her.

Let’s look at West Bengal first.

A mere glimpse of the tragic low of the CPI(M) and the concomitant rise of the BJP in the state shows how the party has lost the very purpose of its presence in politics. In the last elections, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)  had won 34 seats and the BJP only two. This time, the TMC has lost about 10 of them to the BJP.  In vote share terms, this means that the BJP added more than 20% additional votes to its kitty. 

And this was made possible only by the CPI(M) and its ecosystem of cadres, proxies and voters defecting lock, stock and barrel. By the afternoon on Thursday, the BJP’s vote share had risen to about 39% from 17% in 2014 while the CPI(M)’s share fell from about 29 % to a single digit. The BJP simply took over a struggling CPI(M) and made it into a winning entity. And the CPI(M) was too willing to be taken over: at least that’s what leading media organisations had reported ahead of the elections. In some place, the CPI(M) functionaries even worked as BJP’s polling booth agents.

While the CPI(M) at the national level professed a party programme that said it was solely against the BJP, it not only gave up without a fight in West Bengal, but aided the latter’s rise because in the state its only rival is the TMC and Mamata. It’s unfortunate that the TMC lost some of its seats despite raising its vote share by about five percent. Needless to say, the CPI(M) has more or less disappeared from the electoral scene to a place from where it’s now impossible to come back. After the sell-out,  there’s neither a political will nor an ecosystem to facilitate it.  

However, in Kerala, it was a different story.

For some time, the CPI(M) in Kerala has been trying to pitch itself as a rival to the BJP than the Congress with a view to making the saffron party appear bigger than what it is. Probably, the party thought that any growth of the BJP could happen only at an erosion of the Hindu votes from the Congress. This strategy seemed to have worked in the last Assembly elections because the BJP’s vote share rose substantially in most places and the Congress candidates lost wherever the BJP gained strength. 

Probably, the CPI(M) also thought that a weaker Congress would additionally help in weaning away the latter’s minority vote-base by presenting itself as a more formidable opponent to the BJP. With the migration of a sizeable number of its votes to the BJP, the Congress did look vulnerable after the 2016 Assembly elections. The CPI(M)’s consistent campaign that Congress cadres and party infrastructure in other states have migrated to the BJP lent more credence to this narrative. Top CPI(M) leaders even named some candidates who were in the fray and warned the minorities that if they won, they would join the BJP.

The CPI(M) also went an extra mile to attract the minority votes by raking up the Sabarimala issue. Although it appeared to be morally and constitutionally right on Sabarimala, the party’s game was completely political because it did nothing to follow through and take the issue to its logical conclusion. The idea was to appear tough on a “Hindu” issue that was dear to the BJP and send an appeasement message to the minorities. The Congress read the game correctly and took a pro-“believer” stand. It was religiously neutral, less vicious and palatable to the minorities as well. 

The CPI(M) strategy has obviously backfired. It not only put off the Hindus, but also failed in attracting the minorities because nationally, the Congress by then had emerged as the only bulwark against the BJP. While the Congress’s counter strategy on Sabarimala ensured that there was no further erosion of Hindu votes, it could also bring back some of those votes that had migrated earlier to the BJP; its political strategy vis-a-vis the BJP led to a consolidation of the minority votes in its favour.

The margins of victory of the Congress and its allies in Kerala show that the CPI(M)’s strategy has been comprehensively beaten. Although the party has seen worse defeats (post-Emergency, it couldn’t win even a single seat), this drubbing will hurt more because it betrays an underlying political problem. The numbers show that the Congress and the United Democratic Front which it leads has the overwhelming support of the minorities and also the Hindus. When the final numbers are available, it will most likely show that the Congress has wrested away some of the turfs that it had lost to the BJP in 2014, added more votes and probably even attracted some of those who voted for the CPI(M) earlier.

However, predicting a West Bengal style existential trouble for the CPI(M) in Kerala is misplaced because the state’s polity is different from the rest of India. It’s a classic outlier.   

The author, a former journalist and UNDP Senior Adviser in the Asia Pacific, is presently based out of Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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