There is a predictable pall of gloom in the liberal, secular circles in the country as the newbie BJP beat the 20-year-old Manik Sarkar government of the CPM in the Tripura Assembly elections last week. The anti-BJP non-Communists were hoping that the CPM in Tripura would defy in what was seen as Prime Minister Narendra Modi- and party president Amit Shah-driven BJP juggernaut. When the CPM was reduced to 16 seats and the BJP captured 35, the sighs of despair resounded loudly from the liberal quarter. Both Mr Modi and Mr Shah knew that they did not merely win as in other state Assembly elections, and that this was sweet ideological triumph more than anything else. The two hit out where it really hurt.
So, is this really the end of the Left in east India? The fall in West Bengal is followed by the defeat in Tripura. The two became the impregnable red bastions of the east. The apparently invincible Left has been shattered. In West Bengal, the credit goes to the indefatigable and feisty Mamata Banerjee and her All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC) that she had single-handedly forged. In Tripura, the BJP gets the laurel. But it should not be forgotten that the Left Front in West Bengal and the CPM in Tripura had a long run and it is not bad either for the people of the two states, or even for the Left parties themselves, that the Left Front and the CPM had been trounced. It was long overdue. The comrades needed to be woken out of their political reverie. The story of the Left Democratic Front led by the CPM is different because it never enjoyed an unbroken reign as in the other two eastern states.
Former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat in an informal interaction with a group of newspaper journalists had made the incisive observation in 2010 that the young members of the CPM in West Bengal did not know a time when the party was not in power, and that they did not know what struggle and protest meant. He was anticipating the 2011 defeat in the state. The same could be said of CPM in Tripura as well. But the come back for the Left in these two states could be a long and arduous one. It may not happen in the next election or even the one after that. They may have to sit out in the wilderness for many years. This is not really doomsday for any political parties. The Labour Party in Britain was out of power for 18 years between 1979 and 1997, when the Conservatives ruled the roost, under the charismatic Margaret Thatcher for 11 of those 18 years. But a reformed Labour, many critics called it a Thatcherite Labour, under Tony Blair whose admiration for the Iron Lady was no secret. And Blair had a tough time steering the old Labour from the trade unions and to forge a market-friendly and not-so-welfare-minded new Labour.
Even before losing power in West Bengal, chief ministers Jyoti Basu and his chosen successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee showed clear signs of pragmatism with regard to private investment, and Bhattacharjee had even agreed with then Union home minister L.K.Advani about the problem of intruders from Bangladesh and the existence of madrasas. But it failed to save the party from defeat. Manik Sarkar did not show the pragmatic flair of Basu and Bhattacharjee. There is, however, a difference between the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal and that of CPM in Tripura. Mamata Banerjee was a non-ideological leader in the Congress mould, and the defeat of the Left Front did not mean the defeat of Left ideology. In Tripura, on the other hand, it is the defeat of Left ideology and the winner is a party that is rooted in right-wing ideology. And that could be a troubling development. The BJP might pretend that it is not a hidebound ideological party like the Left and that it is more interested in what it professes to be good governance and development. But there is little doubt that if the CPM tries to bounce back, then the BJP would not hesitate to bare its ideological fangs, which translates into toxic Hindutva.
There is also a deeper problem with the CPM. Its party ideologues still call the shots as can be seen from the resistance to align with Congress as part of a secular front to fight the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha election. Some of them like Karat cling to the ruins of Marxism, which is quixotic and tragic. Party general secretary Sitaram Yechury still quotes Marx, but he is willing to be flexible when it comes to the question of political alliances. The bare truth is that Marxism can now only be used by radical academics to interpret the world, and that it is incapable of changing the world. Many of the nostalgia-soaked Leftists still believe in the dictum of the youthful Marx who had written in his Notebooks that hitherto philosophy had interpreted the world, but the point is to change it. Marxism has become obsolete and it is not equipped to change the 21st century world despite capitalism and globalisation being in deep trouble.
Many in the conservative Indian bourgeois, who harbour fierce hatred of Communism and who in a way form the support base of the BJP, seem to believe that the defeat of the Communist parties in the elections is the defeat of Marxism as an ideology, and the with the death of ideology the Communists would wither away. It could be a miscalculation. Communist parties would survive in Indian politics despite electoral setbacks. They may win fewer seats for quite some time because the Communists have become an integrated part of India’s parliamentary democracy and its political pluralism. It could be the case that the Kerala Communists could be carrying the party standard in the future because they have shown that you can lose an election and that you wait out to win the next a lesson that the party in the other two states got to learn. Both West Bengal and Tripura need a political opposition. The one-party rule of the Left cannot be replaced with the one-party rule of the Right. Congress has ceased to be a credible political party in these two states. Communism is dead, but Communist parties are alive.