Left slides in Indian elections

'Official communist' gambit fails, writes Jim Moody

Apparently even surprising themselves, Sonia Gandhi and the Indian National Congress that she heads have been swept back into power under the umbrella of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the recently concluded general election in India.

Equally as surprised - not to say shocked - the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw its National Democratic Alliance come a poor runner-up, the BJP’s score of MPs dropping from 138 to 116. And, with public attacks already being made by leading members, the knives will now be out at the BJP, which has not fared well under its octogenarian leader, LK Advani.1

Congress’s victory is qualified by the fact that it could only achieve it as part of a wider coalition. Even then the UPA was initially 13 votes shy of an overall majority in parliament, though that hurdle has now been overcome after it received unexpected support from the erstwhile dalit (‘untouchable’) Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). The BSP had been in electoral alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), while the SP had been the biggest component in a bloc with regional parties.

The UPA coalition now has over 300 seats in the new Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, for which there were 543 contested places, and has thus achieved a clear majority for a new government. It will be a government with an almost identical complexion to the outgoing one. That said, a strengthened Congress-led government may decide to take on more of the regional role that suggestions from Washington have trailed lately. It certainly no longer needs the left as a cover and for additional support.

Just as the USA has its west Asian policeman in Israel, so it needs one for south Asia, especially now that the Obama government lumps Pakistan with Afghanistan as part of its new Af-Pak strategy. India is far and away the best candidate in terms of population, industry and military might; it helps, too, that unlike Pakistan it is completely onside on the question of the US administration’s interpretation of what constitutes terrorism - Indian governments, especially Congress ones, are only too aware that two Indian prime ministers have been assassinated in recent decades.2

With Kashmir still a festering sore, India has become an enthusiastic member of the US-led ‘war on terror’ (or, as we might rephrase it, the war of terror). And India’s governments have not been at all averse to using state terrorism, including in Kashmir - where, for example, widespread rape as a weapon has often been carried out by its jawans (troops), undoubtedly with top-brass approval, as part of army offensives aimed at cowing the majority Muslim population.

No party in India expects to govern alone these days, nor has that happened for some decades. But not only has the largest party by popular vote in these elections had to horse-trade in an alliance or front: so too has every other party of note, and not just on the right.

If Congress and the BJP led the first and second fronts respectively, the CPI(M) also joined with other parties, in a so-called Third Front. This was cobbled up almost at the last minute, on March 12 this year, and brought together the CPI(M) with the smaller Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), All India Forward Bloc, Janata Dal (Secular), the BSP and six regionalist parties. In the last parliament, the CPI(M) and its left allies supported the outgoing UPA coalition. For the last few years at least, the CPI(M), CPI, RSP, and All India Forward Bloc have comprised the core of the Left Front (LF) state governments of West Bengal and Tripura and the Left Democratic Front state government in Kerala.

But the ‘official’ communists’ gambit did not come off this time. Why, after all, vote for a party or alliance that had merely been the tail of the governing party, Congress? You might as well be voting for the dog that wags the tail instead. And to a degree that is what happened this time. The LF has seen its share of seats in the Lok Sabha fall from 59 at the last general election in 2004 to 23 this time. Indeed, so shocking has this been that the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, who had been expelled from the CPI(M), has called for party general secretary Prakash Karat to take responsibility for the party’s disastrous showing in the elections and resign. “Their campaign was negative and aligning with the likes of Jayalalithaa and Mayawati3 troubled those who are sympathetic to the left,” he said.

On May 16 the CPI(M) politburo admitted in a statement that, “The CPI(M) and the left parties have suffered a major setback in these elections. This necessitates a serious examination of the reasons for the party’s poor performance.” But there would be no change in its general approach, as it “will continue its cooperation with the non-Congress, non-BJP secular parties with whom we have been working.” This has been the party’s worst electoral performance since it broke away from the CPI in 1964.

Much of the CPI(M)’s drop in support is down to its pro-business stance and the disgraceful way in which its West Bengal government has facilitated inward investment and capitalist development. In particular, the Nandigram scandal has all but engulfed it and left any democratic credentials it had in tatters.

As part of its neoliberal agenda, in 2007 the Left Front’s West Bengal state government agreed to an Indonesia-based conglomerate, the Salim Group, setting up a chemicals manufacturing hub at Nandigram under its Special Economic Zone policy. Local villagers resisted, resulting in clashes with police and 14 villagers dead. The pro-Congress All India Trinamool Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI)4, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind5 and Congress itself locally formed the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (Committee Against Land Evictions) to protect small farmers’ lands; it was also joined by large numbers of former CPI(M) supporters. There were reports that armed Maoists - the Naxalites6 - were involved in clashes with the Left Front’s local state forces over the Nandigram issue.

In the May 2008 local elections, the Left Front was defeated in Nandigram and adjoining areas by the Trinamool Congress-SUCI alliance.

Subsequently, this alliance and the Congress Party took over district councils from the CPI-M in three of West Bengal’s 16 districts - they had been controlled by the CPI(M) for the previous 30 years. The chemicals plant scheme in Nandigram has since been abandoned in the face of local state and opposition violence, which has included murders and rapes on both sides. Instead, on February 15, the West Bengal government gave 54 square kilometres (the size of Southampton) of land in sparsely inhabited Nayachar to a chemical company for a feasibility study into setting up the chemical hub.

Nandigram stands as a symbol of the anti-popular and ultimately anti-democratic ‘development model’ of West Bengal’s Left Front government. Although the location of this particular development has shifted, the name lingers on as a site of infamy as far as many workers and peasants are concerned. After all, the local state’s riding roughshod over farmers has been reminiscent of the way China’s rulers behave when clearing land needed for capitalist development. Clearly, the CPI(M)’s modus operandi owes more to the traditions of bureaucratic ‘socialism’ than to any kind of socialism that communists worthy of the name would accept.

The attrition that the CPI(M) and its left allies in West Bengal have brought upon themselves is now coming more fully to fruition, concretised by their massive loss of seats in the country’s parliament. They were to all intents and purposes social democratic administrators of the local state, despite their sworn allegiance to ‘official communism’. But their bankrupt ideology, which allowed them to take the reins of office in local government and share them in a junior capacity nationally, has finally backfired. Actions by their local armed bodies of men in beating, raping and murdering those who opposed them in Nandigram started to turn the mass of the people against them.

It is not as if the alternatives on offer in West Bengal are any closer to Marxism. But that is how the CPI(M) has, through an ostensibly working class organisation, made the local state into the opposite of any kind of liberation. Its repressive apparatus is turned against the people, including the working class. The CPI(M) epitomises the national socialist dead end.


1. Like all BJP leaders, LK Advani is a member of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of whose members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated MK Gandhi in 1948.
2. Indira Gandhi was killed by one of her Sikh guards in 1984, following her government’s attack on the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, following him ordering the Indian army into Sri Lanka in 1987, where it fought the LTTE.
3. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is former chief minister and current leader of the opposition in Tamil Nadu state. The BSP’s Mayawati (who, as a dalit, has no other name) is the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (190 million); from 2002 to 2003 she was chief minister of a BSP-led coalition government in Uttar Pradesh that included the BJP.
4. The Socialist Unity Centre of India describes itself as following the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Stalin and its late founder, Shibdas Ghosh.
5. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (Organisation of Indian Scholars) is a long-established Muslim group that opposed the creation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan in 1947.
6. Numbering around 10,000 armed fighters, Naxalites are a significant presence in several states. Although guerrilla Maoist groups did attack some polling stations during these elections, they apologised later, saying that this had been a mistaken local initiative by part of their organisation. As might be expected, the Naxalites of the CPI (Maoist) have no truck with elections, instead pursuing a so-called ‘people’s war’ strategy.