Left adrift

The communists once wielded influence out of proportion with their numbers. Now, they are in retreat on both fronts

The communist parties have plumbed the nadir in the general elections, with just five seats in the Lok Sabha — four in Tamil Nadu, one in Kerala and absolutely none in West Bengal and Tripura, their former strongholds in the east. Apart from the numbers, the influence that they had wielded in national affairs and policymaking has also dwindled to nothing. Once upon a time, they could claim to provide the moral armature of Manmohan Singh’s government, highlighting welfare and deploying the work of academics loyal to the cause for leverage in steering policy. That was before they let their anti-Americanism get the better of their political sense and withdrew support to the government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, a decision they were unable to explain to the electorate. That misadventure alone would have sapped the energy of the cadre in less committed parties, but it was not the first. In 1996, to the dismay of the troops, the Politburo had prevented Jyoti Basu from becoming prime minister of the United Front government. And in 2008, Somnath Chatterjee was expelled by the CPM for being more loyal to Parliament than to his party.

Ever since, the left has been almost shouldered off the electoral field and had retreated to the groves of academe. It ventured out of that safe haven this year to do combat in Begusarai, and lost one of the most closely watched contests. This would only embolden the BJP to proceed with its declared project to clear universities of left influence. Of course, success in this initiative would also deprive it of a pet peeve, that it had been excluded from academia and the writing of history by left-wing intellectuals. But that would be a small price to pay, now that it has demonstrated its electoral prowess beyond doubt.

The left movement has lost relevance because it is overtaken and outclassed. Its politics is based on the notion of class, whose contours have changed over time. Historically, it was also hamstrung by its decision to interpret caste through the lens of class. It doesn’t really matter any more, because Hindu pride may have, in many ways, trumped caste, too, in this election. The eclipse of the left may be a historical necessity, but which party is capable of filling the moral vacuum it will leave behind – its commitment to welfare, and to the centrality of the poorest? That question lingers on.

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