The CPI(M)’s Continuing Dilemma: To Join or Not to Join


Statistically speaking, the 2004 elections have seen the Left parties put up their best ever electoral performance. For the first time the combined strength of the Left bloc in the Lok Sabha has crossed the 60 mark. As many as 55 of the Left’s seats have come from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. In West Bengal, the Left Front wrested 9 of the 10 seats held earlier by the TMC-BJP combine while the Congress was successful in wresting three additional seats from the Left, raising the Congress tally in the state to six. The TMC’s stock was clearly falling in the state since the 2001 Assembly elections, but the Congress has not yet succeeded in reclaiming the opposition space in and around Kolkata that once belonged to it and later came to be occupied by the TMC. This resulted in a huge electoral benefit for the Left Front with the CPI(M) managing to win even the most difficult seats of greater Kolkata. Mamata Banerjee managing to hold on to her seat with a considerably reduced margin was the only ‘consolation prize’ the TMC could win.

The most remarkable result for the Left has however come from Kerala where the Congress could not even win a single seat. Evidently, all the four southern states have been hit by a particularly strong ‘anti-incumbency’ wave powered by a huge mass resentment against the new economic and labour policies. While agriculture in south India has been hit hard by the WTO-dicated agrarian policies and successive droughts, Kerala has also had to cope with the fallout of America’s Iraq war, the migrants who have had to return home because of vanishing jobs and increasingly insecure conditions in the Middle-East and Gulf region. And to top it all, the Congress in Kerala was a thoroughly divided house, much like its Punjab counterpart. The result has been a bumper harvest of 18 seats for the LDF in Kerala.

The remaining seats won by the Left – four in Tamil Nadu, two in Andhra Pradesh and one in Jharkhand – have all been won in alliance with the Congress and its regional allies. In Punjab where the going was tough for the Congress itself, the CPI and CPI(M) too failed to win any of the two seats allotted to them. In Bihar the CPI(M) failed to hold on to its lone seat (Bhagalpur) in spite of the backing of the RJD-Congress-Lok Janshakti combine. In Orissa, the two parties did not contest any Lok Sabha seat as part of an understanding with the Congress. The Congress allotted them a few Assembly seats of which the two parties have managed to win one each. In other states where the CPI and CPI(M) contested a few seats on their own, they managed to poll some good votes only in five constituencies (the CPI(M) in two Maharashtra seats, and the CPI in two seats in Bihar and one seat in Assam). The Left’s best ever Lok Sabha tally thus once again mirrors the chronic weakness of the CPI and the CPI(M) outside of their three traditional strongholds, and especially in the Hindi belt.

The election tactics of the CPI and CPI(M) was professedly driven by one single and supreme consideration – not to divide secular votes against the NDA and supporting the most viable candidate. CPI(M) District Committees in UP were reportedly asked to inform the Party leadership about the most viable non-NDA candidate in each constituency so that the Party could officially declare support for those candidates. Going by this logic, the two parties should not really have contested any seat outside of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura or states where they were in alliance with the Congress. By fielding candidates in the western region and in the Hindi belt, have they not been guilty of dividing ‘secular votes’ to the advantage of the BJP and its NDA allies?

The CPI(M) discovered the limits of ‘secularism’ when Pappu Yadav, accused of masterminding the assassination of Ajit Sarkar, former CPI(M) MLA from Purnea, was fielded as the nominee of the very alliance of which the CPI(M) was an integral part in Bihar. The CPI(M) tried to seek an escape route by supporting the Samajwadi Party from Purnea even as the SP was contesting against the CPI(M) candidate from the adjacent constituency of Bhagalpur. Incidentally, both Purnea and Bhagalpur have been bagged by the BJP.

It was, however the CPI which suffered the worse predicament in Bihar. The party had long made it clear that it would join the RJD-led ‘secular’ combination in Bihar but Laloo Prasad would not talk to the CPI leadership. And the CPI(M) too would not say a word to defend its Left Front partner in Laloo’s court. Eventually the CPI ended up contesting six seats on its own and in three of these seats the party could manage to poll only around 15,000 votes each.

Both the CPI(M) and CPI however tried to turn their predicament into a statement of ‘political independence’. According to press reports in Patna, the CPI(M) state secretariat chose not to support any of the three prominent criminal candidates of the RJD-led combine. According to the report the CPI(M) had chosen to support the CPI(ML) in Siwan against the notorious RJD nominee Shahabuddin, the CPI in Ballia against the LJP nominee and notorious mafia don Surajbhan and the Samajwadi Party against Papppu Yadav in Purnea. It is of course another matter that in Siwan their Party District Committee issued a statement supporting Shahabuddin and Sitaram Yechuri went to the Election Commission to oppose the EC’s move to probe booth-capturing in Siwan and Bettiah!

The CPI in Bihar extended support to ten candidates belonging to various parties. Among the ten was the Congress nominee Nikhil Kumar from Aurangabad even as the veteran CPI leader Chaturanan Mishra was pitted against a Congress candidate in Madhubani! We however extended support to the CPI in both Madhubani and Ballia where we did not have our own candidates.

Formation of a secular government at the Centre was the central slogan of the CPI and the CPI(M). And the two parties had made it abundantly clear that as far they were concerned such a secular government could only be formed under the leadership of the Congress. The CPI(M) did belatedly make some mild noise in West Bengal about its preference for a government led by a third front, but that was only to maintain some semblance of distance and demarcation from the Congress.

Having made the formation of a secular government its central electoral slogan, the CPI(M) was naturally under tremendous pressure, both internally as well as from outside, to join such a government. Like in 1996 the CPI was once again ready to participate, but this time around the party decided not to break ranks with the CPI(M) on this score. The pressure on the CPI(M) was palpably higher this time what with hundreds of signatures and phone calls asking the party not to miss this unprecedented opportunity and not to commit another ‘historic blunder’. But with the Congress becoming the main opposition party in West Bengal and the CPI(M) hoping to return to power in Kerala in the next Assembly elections, it was understandable that the CC once again negatived the idea of having a go at the Centre.

The ‘updated’ programme of the CPI(M) has indeed opened the floodgates of parliamentary opportunism. In 1996 the CPI(M) rejected the offer of heading a United Front government to be supported by the Congress from outside. This time around the CPI(M) was faced with a debate on joining a Congress-led coalition government. This debate is a logical corollary to the CPI(M)’s opportunist politics of ‘secular front’. If the party can enter into alliances with the Congress in state after state with the single-point call of forming a ‘secular’ government at the Centre, what really prevents the party from joining it? The CPI(M) decision not to join the government is clearly a temporary decision driven by purely pragmatic calculations and the debate is certainly far from resolved.

Were the CPI(M) to join the government it would have done so on grounds of strengthening and stabilising the new-found unity of ‘secular’ forces. But ironically while the CPI and CPI(M) were busy deciding their course of action, a veritable stampede was staged in the share market. And financial analysts attributed this dramatic decline of the share market indices to the anti-disinvestment noise made by the CPI and CPI(M)! Stabilising the share market thus became the primary concern before even the building blocks of the new government could be put in place and the Left was under pressure to ‘behave’. Even as Manmohan Singh asked the market not to panic, Comrade Surjeet was quick enough to promise possible cooperation between the Congress and the Left even in matters of economic policy! One does not however know whether the market ‘felt’ more reassured by the Left decision to stay out of the government or by the eventual political denouement of the post-poll ‘power play’ which catapulted Manmohan Singh into the Prime Minister’s chair.

During the 1996-98 UF regime, the CPI(M) had not joined the government, but it had played a key role in drafting the common minimum programme which only carried forward the new economic policies of the Rao-Manmohan period. Will the CPI(M) follow the same track once again? If the 2004 mandate has conveyed any message, it is clearly about a reorientation or even reversal of the ongoing economic reforms. Will the Left uphold this message or will it only market Manmohan Singh’s rhetoric of reforms with a ‘human face’ and a ‘safety net’? Beyond the realm of economic policies, will the Left show the guts to insist on an early repeal of POTA? And what about steering India’s foreign policy away from the domain of strategic partnership and military coperation with the US towards active opposition to US unilateralism?

These are all issues which figured prominently in the manifestos of CPI and CPI(M). With a strength of more than 60 MPs, the Left bloc today is quite favourably placed to mount effective pressure on the new government. Non-participation in the government clearly makes sense from the standpoint of exerting pressure on the government. But if the CPI(M)-led Left bloc is to repeat its 1996-98 role, it might as well do it from within the government.