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The drift and decline of the Left

Last updated on: April 09, 2009 20:59 IST
Prakash Karat told an election rally in Agartala on April 5 that it was 'thousand per cent confirmed' that the Third Front would form the government in Delhi after the Lok Sabha polls.

'Thousand per cent'? For India's sake I hope the general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist is just as good a soothsayer as he is a mathematician.

India could fool around -- a little bit anyway -- with Third Front ministries back in the days when the global economy was booming; the dinosaur economics of the Left will lead only to drift and decline.

But drift and decline seem to be in the DNA of the Left. Look at the records, and you can see how the Communists have been losing ground.

Jawaharlal Nehru's Congress sprawled over the benches when the first Lok Sabha met in 1952, occupying 361 of the 489 seats. The other parties were in such disarray that the next largest category consisted of Independents, 37 MPs in all.

You could count the seats won by the Jan Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha, the ancestors of today's Bharatiya Janata Party, on two hands -- and still have a few fingers left over. The Jan Sangh had only three MPs, the Hindu Mahasabha was slightly better off with four.

The single largest party on the Opposition benches was the undivided Communist Party of India, 16-strong and led by the late A K Gopalan. The Revolutionary Socialist Party had three MPs and the Forward Bloc added a solitary representative.

The title of 'Leader of the Opposition' was not in vogue in those days. Gopalan would not have qualified in any case since the CPI did not have 10 percent of the seats, not even close to that. But it was generally assumed back then that the party would develop into a national alternative to the Congress.

The Congress is now a pale imitation of its old self; the party cannot win 361 seats, probably not even half of that. The BJP has expanded almost twentyfold since the Jan Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha days of 1952. But what of the Left?

Technically, the Left Front now has three times the number of MPs that it did back in the first Lok Sabha. But in some ways the Left has conceded space instead of going forward. In 1952 five of the CPI's 16 seats were from West Bengal and two from Tripura, both still Leftist bastions. But one MP was elected from Orissa and the other eight, half the total, were from the then Madras presidency. (The CPI drew a blank in Travancore-Cochin.)

The name 'Madras' is slightly misleading since the giant state included most of what is now Andhra Pradesh along with chunks of modern Kerala and Karnataka. Most of the Communist MPs won from Telugu-speaking areas, the exceptions being Gopalan from Cannanore and K Ananda Nambiar from Mayuram (Mayiladuthurai).

The point is that the CPI back then was strong enough to win seats on its own from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. These are states where it now plays second fiddle to regional parties.

The CPI actually improved in the 1957 polls, both geographically as well as in absolute numbers. It had 27 MPs in the second Lok Sabha, expanding into new areas -- winning four seats in the old state of Bombay and one each in Uttar Pradesh and in Punjab. In 1962 the CPI tally went up to 29, with the party now making its parliamentary debut from Bihar too.

The Congress still dreams of winning back Uttar Pradesh though it has been whipped there in every election since 1989. The BJP has long-term plans of building a strong presence in the south, with Karnataka of course already in the party's bag. Can you imagine the CPI-M on its own managing to get a single MP elected from Uttar Pradesh, or Punjab, or Gujarat and Maharashtra (collectively the old state of Bombay)?

Fellow travellers may argue that in 2004 the Left Front registered its best performance ever in terms of numbers. How do those numbers stack up?

The CPI-M won 43 seats. Twenty-six of those were from West Bengal, 12 were from Kerala, two each from Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, and one from Tamil Nadu.

The CPI-M's junior partner the CPI won ten seats. West Bengal and Kerala each contributed three, it won two in Tamil Nadu, and one each in Jharkhand and in Andhra Pradesh. (It is a disgrace that this tattered rag of an outfit continues to be given the status of a 'national' party.)

The Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party each won three seats in West Bengal. Sebastian Paul, running as an independent candidate backed by the Left, won the Ernakulam seat in Kerala, as did the Janata Dal-Secular's M P Veerendra Kumar in Calicut.

Going through the lists above it is clear that the bulk of these 61 seats came courtesy of West Bengal (35) and Kerala (17). I suppose it is possible that the Left Front shall do fairly well once again in West Bengal. But it is hard to see a repeat performance in Kerala where the CPI-M chief minister and the local party boss can barely bring themselves to be civil to each other.

The problem for the Left Front is that, for all practical purposes, it does not exist outside West Bengal, Kerala, and tiny Tripura. Any major losses in West Bengal and Kerala simply cannot be made up by gains in other states.

Forget about the Third Front, there is a possibility that either the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party shall overtake the CPI-M as the third-largest party in the Lok Sabha behind the BJP and the Congress. Will Comrade Karat then run around trying to create a Fourth Front?

Rereading Prakash Karat's statement, I note that the CPI-M boss spoke only of 'forming a government', not of winning a majority. That is the story of the Communist movement in India in a nutshell, it is a group that prefers to cut deals behind closed doors rather than reach out to India to win the people's mandate.

T V R Shenoy