December, CPI, and the Meltdown of Communism in India: What is Left of the Left?

History has decisively demonstrated that Indians and Communism are not destined to be.

7 min read
Hindi Female

(This is part one of a four-part 'December' series that revisits significant historical events and policies, and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society.) 

How does one describe the fortunes of a political party that was formed in December 1925 to usher in a revolution of the proletariat? When they gathered in modern-day Kanpur 98 years back to formally launch the Communist Party of India (CPI), did the notables like MN Roy, Abani Mukherjee, and PT Acharya (another founder SA Dange was in jail for subversion and “conspiring against the King”) really believe that the peasants and workers they hoped to gather in their fold would give up their multitudes of deities and religious beliefs to bow down at the altar of Karl Marx?

Unfortunately for those dreamers, history has decisively demonstrated that Indians and Communism are not destined to be. In contemporary India, the Left is a pale shadow of itself when it comes to popular support and political representation.

It is already a fringe and marginal political player. No doubt, the Left continues to dominate the “intellectual discourse” and sets the “narrative”. But even here, the ruthless monopoly that the Left exercises over discourse and debate over “ideas” has been smashed and shattered by a new generation of scholars, writers, and thinkers who unapologetically flaunt their “Hindutva” credentials.


Talking of a new generation unabashedly flaunting Hindutva credentials, the Communist Party of India was not the only organisation formed in 1925 to reshape and mould modern India into its grand vision. Another obscure organisation with grand ambitions like the communists yet with a diametrically opposite ideology and worldview was formed and launched. This organisation was named the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Back in 1925, when the communist movement had become an inspirational beacon for the youth across the world, not many would have placed a bet on the RSS eventually outmanoeuvring and outfoxing the communists. Yet, that is exactly what has happened.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Left parties together managed to win about half a dozen seats. In contrast, the RSS spawned a political party called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951 which became the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while the Left struggled to win half a dozen seats, the BJP won a staggering 303 constituencies. But this is not about the RSS or the BJP. This is about the CPI with its distinct ideology showing tremendous electoral promise besides blooming and blossoming in many states and regions of India, before it started withering away towards political oblivion.

CPI's Historical Flip-flops 

The authors do not claim to be either scholars or historians, and they cannot offer any epistemological reasons or theories regarding why the communists failed to live up to their early promise in India. But looking back over the events of the last nine decades or so, there is a common-sense explanation for the ultimate and inevitable meltdown of political communism in India.

First, the CPI, even when it was formed in 1925, was not rooted in India. It always drew inspiration, ideology, and even “resources” from foreign shores, particularly the Soviet Union. Second, the communists were so hidebound by their ideology, rhetoric, and polemics that they refused to adapt to sweeping social, economic, and political changes in the world, and in India, over the last three decades or so after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992.

Workers, peasants, and the oppressed in India are chasing dreams of two-wheelers, smartphones, and LED televisions while the communists are still railing against Imperialism and the “Greedy Capitalists”. As we will see later, communism is disappearing from the political arena in India but continues to thrive on university campuses.

The Second World War should have made it clear to discernible and no-nonsense observers that the CPI couldn’t have had a very bright political future in India. When Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, British India was at war against Germany since the Imperial power England deemed so. During this phase of the war, the Soviet Union was allied with Germany. Not surprisingly, the CPI condemned England and declared that the colonial rule of the British must be rooted out. De facto, the CPI was allied with Nazi Germany.

But the tables were turned when Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the brutal and murderous Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union became a British ally. Overnight, the CPI changed its stand and came out in open support of the British. So much so that it fused to join or support the Quit India movement launched by the Congress party. Soon after independence in 1947, the communists decided to launch an “armed insurrection” against India to overthrow the “feudal” government led by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Unfortunately for the CPI, Stalin decided to have cordial relations with a Nehru-led India. Almost overnight, after receiving the necessary instructions from Moscow, the CPI decided to join the political mainstream, swear by the Constitution, and contest elections. And they were the first to humble the mighty Congress. In 1957, CPI became the first communist party in the world to win a proper election, defeating the Congress in the assembly elections in Kerala. The legendary EMS Namoodiripad became the first “Marxist” chief minister of India. Even admirers of Jawaharlal Nehru would admit that he not only acted against democratic principles but also misused Article 356 to dismiss the CPI government. Even the heroes of India come with flaws.


For almost two decades, the communists remained the principal opposition force to the Congress. However, owing allegiance to powers based overseas does lead to peculiar situations. When China, led by another murderous and brutal dictator, invaded India, Indian communists received two divergent instructions from Moscow and Beijing. The one from Moscow wanted the CPI to openly support India. The one from Beijing, for obvious reasons, wanted the CPI to denounce India. The party inevitably split and a new Communist Party of India (Marxist), that was beholden to Mao and China, was formed.

The interesting thing is that even today, more than 60 years after China militarily humiliated and humbled India, leading CPI(M) leaders refuse to condemn China. The twists and turns continued. In the early 1970s, the CPI lurched closer to Indira Gandhi and the CPI(M) became the dominant Left party. The CPI even supported the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. The CPI has never really recovered from that political blunder. The CPI(M) remained a potent and powerful force in West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala. Kerala is the only state where the Left is in power. It stands decimated in its erstwhile bastions of Tripura and West Bengal.

How the Left's Ideologicial Rigidity Cost Them

Some analysts think that while the decay and the rot had set in earlier, the process accelerated after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. The Left won close to 50 seats. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee resigned after serving a 13-day tenure, the Left had a golden opportunity with non-Congress parties forming the United Front and offering the post of prime minister to Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) chief minister of West Bengal. The offer was refused. Even many communists concede in hindsight that the decision to deny Jyoti Basu the prime ministership was a “Himalayan Blunder”.

Even in West Bengal, though the Left won elections via a “democratic” process, its Stalinist mindset was always on full display as it ruthlessly controlled institutions and used unrestrained violence on opponents as a “legitimate weapon”. Twice, communist goons attacked TMC leader Mamata Banerjee so viciously that she almost lost her life. Ironically, those very goons (most of them) are now stormtroopers of Mamata Didi, and the vicious cycle of political violence continues.

In 1967, when the Congress first lost power in 10 states, after the Emergency when Indira Gandhi was humbled, in 1989 when V P Singh became prime minister, and in 1996 when H D Devegowda became PM, the communists made many attempts to play kingmaker in Delhi. They got another golden chance in 2004 but squandered it all away by 2008. In 2004, the Left won about 60 seats and its support was critical for the survival of the Manmohan Singh government. Beset by ideological rigidity and arrogance, the Left withdrew support to Dr Singh in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Dr Singh survived and won a repeat mandate in 2009. The voters rebuffed the Left in 2009 and ousted them from power in West Bengal in 2011.

Politically, the Left is a spent force. But its ideological brethren, the Maoists, have been on a murderous spree in vast swathes of India for the last three decades. The Naxal movement started in Bengal in the late 1960s and was crushed in the 1970s. It was resurrected in the 1990s in Andhra and soon the extremely violent version of the Left was strong in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra, and even Karnataka. It has been a bloody war between security forces and the Maoists since the 1990s. The Maoists have been pushed to the wall now, but they remain a threat.

But the Left, politically at least, is becoming as obsolete as a postman or a video cassette recorder. It has lost the ability to win elections. But as mentioned above, the Left still exercises considerable influence over a large section of youth pursuing higher studies in diverse colleges, institutes, and universities. Be it the humanities department of IIT, Mumbai, the National Law School, Bengaluru, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Central University, Hyderabad, or even expensive private universities like Jindal and Ashoka, students still profess allegiance to the Left ideology. It is a truism that the young are “idealistic” and drawn instinctively to the Left. One can see the extremes of this even in top American universities that have been captured by a new and virulent strain of the Left called “Wokeism”.

And of course, there is that formidable Left bastion right at the heart of the capital, in the form of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The joke is that when the Left is mauled and decimated in all states and regions of India, it can still hope because it will win student elections in JNU. Incidentally, the JNU was also founded in December.

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