India's Left parties, among the world's biggest parties belonging to the Communist tradition, face a huge crisis as the Lok Sabha election approaches. The election will largely decide if they can reverse their recent setbacks, or go into a steep decline, with waning political-intellectual influence and growing organisational disarray. The Left, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) — the world's second largest Communist formation after the Chinese party — saw its Lok Sabha strength plummet from 61 to 24 seats between 2004 and 2009. The Left lost the West Bengal Assembly in 2011 after a world record of being democratically elected to power for 34 uninterrupted years. It was also defeated in Kerala, and later in the West Bengal panchayats.Going by ground reports, and opinion polls, the Left's Lok Sabha strength could shrink further.
The Left parties are in no position to win more seats through grassroots people's mobilisations — unlike in the past. Rather, they are groping for a two-pronged strategy detached from mobilisation. The first is trying to build an alternative "third front" to Congress- and BJP-led alliances, based on regional parties. But such an 11-party formation, announced two months ago without a programmatic foundation, has collapsed. The AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party, walked out of it. This jeopardises the two seats the Left won in Tamil Nadu and one in Odisha through alliances.
Now, the CPI and CPM are negotiating "pragmatic" seat-sharing arrangements with rival parties, as in Andhra/Telangana.More important, the Left strategy's second prong, recouping its own strength, is in trouble, except in tiny Tripura (two seats). In West Bengal, which returned 15 Left MPs (nine from the CPM), the Left faces a formidable challenge from the Trinamool Congress against which it's unable to mobilise its cadre partly because of the TMC's strong-arm methods. The CPM recently suffered a major setback with the departure of its "Muslim face" and highly-regarded former minister Abdul Razzak Molla.
To counter this, the CPM has resorted to "identity politics" by giving 10 of its 33 tickets to Muslims. It also fielded unknown young candidates. It's risking a gamble, with uncertain results. The CPI, which won two of its four Lok Sabha seats from Bengal, is also reportedly on a weak wicket.In Kerala, the Left theoretically has a chance to improve on its ultra-low 2009 score of four seats (of 20), and make up for the narrow margins of its 2011 Assembly election losses. But it faces disadvantages rooted in rivalry between former CM VS Achuthanandan and party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, and the alleged involvement of CPM cadres in the 2012 murder of dissident leader TP Chandrasekharan. Worse, the Revolutionary Socialist Party has quit the Left Democratic Front after 35 years on being denied a promised ticket.
The CPM is trying to rescue the situation by seizing on settler-farmer-planter resentment against the Western Ghats conservation plan. It's opposing the plan on ecologically unsound grounds to back five independents, four of them Christians. This is the first time the CPM is giving a fifth of its seat-quota to non-party members — mainly to win minority-community support traditionally denied it. It's hard to say if these tactics will work. But if the Left loses, many worthy national agendas will suffer, including principled secularism, opposition to neoliberalism, redistribution-oriented policies, and decentralisation of power. This will harm India's democracy. The Left is India's most important political current with a commitment to radical social transformation and uplift of the dispossessed. If it didn't exist, we would have to reinvent it.The author is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi