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Left Out: The Rapid Decline of India’s Communist Parties Continues

The Left did not manage to win a single Lok Sabha seat in their former bastions of West Bengal and Tripura.

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Elections
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Of all the Opposition parties left to wallow in their disappointment after the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the front that lost the most has to be the Left. And it comes as no surprise either.

The communist parties have been reduced to a fraction of the seats they once held in Parliament, managing to win only 5 seats in the Lok Sabha. They have fallen from winning 59 seats in 2004, to 24 in 2009, 10 in 2014 and now a mere 5 seats.

The Left did not manage to win a single Lok Sabha seat in their former bastions of West Bengal and Tripura. They won 1 seat in Kerala and 4 in Tamil Nadu.

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In what is their worst performance in decades, the Left parties have lost out huge chunks of their voteshare as well. In Bengal, the Left’s voteshare plummeted from 30.1% in 2014 to 7.5% in 2019.

The 22.6% fall in Left’s voteshare transferred to the BJP, with the saffron party recording a historic rise of 23.3% in their voteshare in Bengal.

West Bengal: Red Turns Saffron

The Left had held the reins of government in West Bengal for an uninterrupted 34 years, from 1977 to 2011. However, even after Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress ousted the Left from power in the 2011 Assembly elections in Bengal, the Left led by the CPI(M) continued to be the primary Opposition, along with the Congress.

  • For example, even when the TMC swept the 2011 Assembly polls, the Left recorded a voteshare of 39.7%, winning 60 seats out of 294.
  • In 2014, the Left won 2 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal but had a substantial voteshare of 30.1%.
  • In 2016, they emerged victorious in only 32 Assembly seats out of 294 but still had a voteshare of 26.2%.
But the 2019 Lok Sabha polls has seen the sharpest decline in the Left’s voteshare in Bengal, with the CPI(M), CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc recording a combined voteshare of only 7.5%. Their Lok Sabha tally in the state? Zero.

The Left’s loss has been the BJP’s gain in Bengal, with the latter making huge inroads at the former’s expense. Today, while the Left does not have a single Lok Sabha MP from Bengal, the BJP has 18, coupled with a voteshare of 40.3%.

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Tripura: A Long Reign Ends

The two Lok Sabha seats in Tripura had been held by the Left from 1996 to 2019, with the CPI(M) winning both constituencies for six consecutive elections. The state government too was run by the Left for 25 straight years from 1993 to 2018.

In 2018, the BJP toppled Manik Sarkar’s Left Front government by winning 35 out of the 59 Assembly seats that went to polls. And now, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP has won both seats in the state with a voteshare of 49%.

The reign of the Left in Tripura has come to an end.

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Kerala: Left’s Last Hold

Kerala, where Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan leads the only Left Front state government in the country at present, is the last bastion of the communist parties in India. But there too, the Left alliance (LDF) has fallen from 8 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 to 1 seat in 2019.

The Congress-led UDF alliance has routed the Left in Kerala this time, winning 19 out of the 20 Lok Sabha seats.

Within the UDF, the Congress tally stands at 15, the IUML has won 2, and Kerala Congress (M) and RSP have won a seat each.

The Left polled 31.9% of the voteshare in Kerala, significantly higher than the 7.5% they polled in Bengal and 17.3% received in Tripura.

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Causes Behind Left’s Decline

So, what are the causes behind the Left’s massive decline over the past decade and a half, and especially in this election?

First, let’s look at the statewise factors. In West Bengal, the TMC ended 34 years of Left rule in the 2011 Assembly polls.

Mamata Banerjee’s campaign against the Left had picked up steam during her protests in Singur and Nandigram, where the CPI(M) government had been accused of forcefully acquiring land from villagers for industrial projects, and was blamed for rampant human rights violations against locals who protested.

The violence in Nandigram and the massive protests that followed swung a huge amount of support towards Mamata, leading to a decline in popularity for the Left that was large enough for it to lose the 2011 election.

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Left Cadre Turns Right

The Left did not manage to win a single Lok Sabha seat in their former bastions of West Bengal and Tripura.
The flag of the CPI(M) isn’t flying high in Bengal. 
(File Photo: IANS)

The Left never really recovered from the 2011 loss, almost going into hibernation for the next couple of years. They were a weak opposition to the TMC in Bengal and large numbers of their cadre began shifting to the ruling party in the state. Further losses in both seats and voteshare in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2016 Assembly polls further demoralised the Left parties and their remaining cadre.

The political vacuum in the Opposition space in Bengal began being filled up by the BJP. Over the last couple of years, party president Amit Shah directed a significant amount of effort and resources to building the party’s base in Bengal, visiting the state frequently.
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But the factor that is most integral to the Left’s sharp decline in Bengal in 2019 was the shifting of their cadre’s loyalty from red to saffron. In the months leading up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, large numbers of the Left’s remaining cadre, who harboured a resentment against local rivals TMC, felt that a rising BJP in Bengal was a more viable option for them.

The Left’s organisational strength was in their cadre, and with that strength almost completely depleted, the CPI(M) and other communist parties hardly put up a fight in Bengal this time, with a feeble campaign and close to no organisation.

The situation was so miserable for the Left that CPI(M) leader and former Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had to issue an appeal to the party’s supporters (and cadre) that backing the BJP in order to defeat the TMC was not in the interests of the state.

The voteshares in the Lok Sabha polls in Bengal clearly indicate that it was not just the Left cadre that deserted the communist parties, but their voters too chose the BJP as the alternative to the TMC.
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Bastions No More

In Tripura too, a state that was an undisputed Left bastion for two and a half decades, the party is still reeling from the aftershocks of the 2018 Assembly election upset. The BJP has grown at the Left’s expense in the Northeastern state as well, and the CPI(M)‘s party strength has weakened considerably.

In Bengal, the party had almost gone into a slumber post the 2011 defeat. If it does the same in Tripura, the Left voteshare may crumble further just like it did in Bengal. Already, the Congress voteshare in the Lok Sabha polls in Tripura is 8 percentage points higher than the Left. The Left stands at 17.3%, down a whopping 47.5 percentage points from their 2014 voteshare. Congress, on the other hand, polled 25.3% of the votes in 2019.

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The Road Ahead

During UPA-1, the Left had faced criticism from various quarters for its opposition of the 123 Agreement on nuclear power between India and US. The Left parties, which had been providing outside support to the UPA-1 government, had withdrawn their support over the issue. But the Left’s decline in its bastions of Bengal and Tripura, and now Kerala, have less to do with such national issues and more to do with factors within these states.

While at the macro level, factors such as India’s gradual movement towards the right of centre on economic issues and growing distance from the Left’s worldview could be cited as hindering the Left’s revival, it is actually poor local organisation on the ground and a failure to provide a strong opposition in states it once ruled, that is causing the Left’s rapid decline. And making a revival seem ever more improbable.

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