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Communism vs History vs Destiny

By Surjit S Bhalla
May 20, 2009 08:47 IST
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There are few parallels in history for the rapid ascent of the Communists in 2004, and their deep plunge into near oblivion in 2009.

In the run-up to Election 2009, I was struck by the number of politically correct chatterati-glitterati who voiced the following: the Left may not be good for the country, but they are the conscience of India. Or that we need someone to speak for the poor of India, and so let's give the Communists a big hand. How can a party that pays homage to Stalin on a daily basis at its headquarters in Kolkata be considered anything but morally repugnant is a mystery to me. As is the fact that consistently, and throughout history, the Communist parties have erred on the wrong side of patriotism. The latter is a crime in many countries, but some view it as a badge of conscience in India.

But that was in the past; the future is as bright as the Northern star. For Election 2009 posted one mega result: the Left is history. There is an unwelcome side-effect of this joyous news -- we are not going to have the Left to kick around anymore. The facts documented in the table have all the confirmatory evidence.

But as is common knowledge, the Left is not just the combination of Communists (political parties CPM and CPI). A large element of the Congress party has 'beyond leaning' Left elements. So there is a large interest group which will want to paint the magnitude of the Communist loss as 'normal', or par for anti-incumbency (what do you expect after 30 years of rule, etc). Echoing this sentiment, political scientist Atul Kohli writes, 'The proclaimed demise of the Left may turn out to be premature. In spite of losing seats, both the CPM and the CPI maintained their relative shares of the popular vote between 2004 and 2009.' (Indian Express, May 19, 2009).

Year Joint
Joint % 
seats won

Number of Seats

  % (number) (seats won/
seats contested)


1957 8.9 27 24.5 27 N/A
1962 9.9 29 21.2 29 N/A
1967 9.4 42 25.0 23 19
1971 9.8 48 31.6 23 25
1977 7.1 29 20.1 7 22
1980 8.7 47 42.3 11 36
1984 8.6 28 23.5 6 22
1989 9.1 45 39.5 12 33
1991 8.7 49 48.0 14 35
1996 8.1 44 37.3 12 32
1998 6.9 41 31.8 9 32
1999 6.9 37 27.2 4 33
2004 7.1 53 51.5 10 43
2009 6.8 20 15.4 4 16
Notes: Joint refers to the combined share of CPI and CPM.

The table shows the historical record for the CPI, CPM and joint performance since the time of the first parliamentary election in 1952. (I have deliberately not tried to calculate the seats for the Left, since that is an amalgam of parties and correct counting would demand that the Left within the Congress also be identified!) Two facts are obvious -- the Communists never had it so good as in 2004, and have never, ever, had it so bad as in 2009. In 1952, the Communists won 16 seats out of 39 contested; in 2009, 20 seats out of 130 contested. The joint vote share -- 6.8 per cent -- is less than at any time in history since 1952. Note the steep decline between 2004 to 2009 -- this just doesn't look like an ordinary election event. From winning more than half the seats contested to winning just 15 per cent -- the previous lowest percentage of seats won by the communists was 21.2 per cent in 1962.

There can be debate about what caused this decline, but the fact that the Left is fast on its way to extinction is quite clear. The Left faces some clear decisions, and introspection. So far, except for expelled member Somnath Chatterjee, the Communists madly believe that there is nothing to worry—elections are lost, there always is the next election. That "communism" may be appealing to a rapidly shrinking fringe element is something the leadership is loth to see; in contrast, its bête noire, the BJP, already admits that identification with its own parallel fringe was one of the major electoral lessons in 2009. To the extent they can, the BJP also admits to a failure of leadership. In contrast, the Left feels it saw no evil, and definitely did no evil.

The choice for the last remaining Communist party on this planet is clear. (Did you know that they and they alone celebrated the 90th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution? I would appreciate being corrected on this fact, i.e., was there any other official celebration, anywhere, celebrating this "occasion".) It either reinvents itself, as its brethren around the world have repeatedly done. Or it walks off into the JNU sunset.

If the Left is out of the way for the Congress, what remains? We have all assumed that May 16, 2009 was a historic moment in Indian democracy -- the beginning of the end of the two-party system, and the beginning of true, responsive middle class democracy in India. By the end of this week, Manmohan Singh will announce his Cabinet, and the selection of his team will give verification, or rejection, of the "history in making" hypothesis. No matter how it is camouflaged (continuity, experience, wise old men at the helm, etc.), if the team is the same old men then I am afraid all bets are off.

India, yet again, would have lost an opportunity, and Manmohan Singh would have lost his chance to make an indelible mark on the Indian polity, and history. He will always be fondly remembered for his stellar role in jointly making history with Narasimha Rao in 1991; the last five years are best forgotten by the Congress. Let's chalk it up to party building. Fair enough.

But what now -- who are the Cabinet members, the team, to lead India (and the Congress) forward? Will the Congress continue to rely on feudal politics for its leaders, or will it begin to bank on middle class professionalism, and entrepreneurship? If the former business as usual model is chosen, then it will be confirmed to all that the Congress did not win this election, but that the regional parties, the Left and the BJP, lost it.

If the latter, and ex-ante there is a 50 per cent chance of this happening, the team is A class, relying more on merit than on caste, sex, age, religion, and party experience, then there is a very high chance of May 16 being mega historic. It would mean that the Congress has become forward-looking, and that it was on its way to shedding its left past, and on its way to fulfilling Nehru's (and all of our) dream of achieving our destiny.

The changed world order places a high premium on whether India can provide the necessary leadership at beyond the Prime Ministerial level. Look no further than the Sensex's reaction once the Cabinet is announced. If euphoric, India will make new history. If tepid, then it may not be even the case of good men, bad ideas. It will be bad, bad... And Rahul Gandhi's commendable efforts to rebuild the party will slowly turn into failure. The Congress won because it appeared to promise something different from the Left, from the BJP, from caste, from regionalism. It promised a middle class democracy—let us hope the solemn promise is fulfilled.

The author is Chairman of Oxus Investments and anchor of Tough Talk, a talk show on NDTV Profit.

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Surjit S Bhalla
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