Rebuilding the Left in West Bengal

Rebuilding the Left in West Bengal

A rally by Communist activists in West Bengal (7 Oct 2015) | Saikat Paul/Alamy

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bid to conquer West Bengal in 2021 failed, but the party consolidated its position as the principal opposition party with a vote share of 38% and a tally of 77 seats. It now appears to be following a two-pronged post-poll strategy: of not allowing the state government, led by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), to settle down, through a relentless campaign of central overreach; and a systematic stoking of the fire of communal polarisation within the state. It remains to be seen if the central overreach leads to the imposition of President’s Rule in the state.

Of the five states that went to the polls in March and April, West Bengal attracted the greatest attention because the battle there was most keenly contested. Even before the Election Commission announced an unprecedented eight-phase poll schedule, clearly designed to benefit the BJP, significant sections of political observers projected a BJP victory. These projections rested on three key premises, that: (i) there had been a tectonic shift in West Bengal society and politics and the state was no longer a ‘party society’, but rather was driven by identity politics; (ii) communal polarisation had changed the state quite unrecognisably; and (iii) there was massive anger against the incumbent TMC government, which would by default favour the BJP as the prime challenger.

Social identities are here to play a bigger role in West Bengal politics in the coming days.

The results showed us that while all these assumptions had some elements of truth, the readings of West Bengal missed the larger picture. While parts favoured the BJP, the whole rejected it. At the end of the day, West Bengal is still a party society, only the names of the parties have changed: from Congress and Communists up till the early 1990s, to TMC and CPI (M) (Communist Party of India (Marxist))/Left Front till recently, to BJP and TMC now. Of course, the BJP polled a significantly greater share of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe votes than the TMC. Social identities are here to play a bigger role in West Bengal politics in the coming days.

Another stunning aspect of the Bengal poll outcome was the alarming decline of the Left Front. The CPI(M)-led front, which was in power from 1977 to until 10 years ago, could not win a single seat even after forging an alliance with Congress and the newly launched Indian Secular Front (ISF). (In fact, it was the ISF that won the lone seat for the combine that had projected itself as the only secular political alternative in West Bengal.) The CPI (M) fielded several young candidates and improved its votes in select segments compared with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But sadly, this was not enough to stop, let alone reverse, the downward electoral trend. The decline of the CPI (M), which started in the wake of the Singur-Nandigram episodes, has gone on irreversibly to reach this nadir.

The question, therefore, is not just of the electoral revival of the Left in West Bengal. The Left has to rebuild itself politically and make itself relevant in the changing social and political climate of the state.

Class struggle is meant to be waged as vigorously against social oppression as against economic exploitation and political repression.

In the tactical political context, it calls for acknowledging and addressing the new reality of unprecedented domination and aggression of the BJP in the all-India context and its alarming ascendance in West Bengal. The electoral arena in almost every state is becoming increasingly bipolar; with the BJP, independently or with some state-specific allies, occupying one pole. There are only a few major states, like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and Bihar, where we have multiple parties with significant electoral influence. In Maharashtra the major non-BJP parties have had to forge a post-poll alliance; in Bihar there is now an effective pre-poll alliance; in UP the non-BJP parties are yet to find a shared political wavelength against the BJP.

In West Bengal, the Left-Congress combine had emerged as the main opposition after the 2016 assembly elections, with a total tally of 76 seats. That space has now been occupied by the BJP. While the TMC repositioned itself as the main anti-BJP force in the state, the Left-Congress combine essentially kept on competing with the BJP in the anti-TMC opposition space. The result is the TMC has emerged stronger, almost monopolising the anti-BJP space, while the BJP has effectively monopolised the anti-TMC space.

An independent third force can viably function in West Bengal only by stepping up its opposition to the RSS-BJP camp in the context of both India and West Bengal, even as it holds the state government accountable for all its omissions and commissions.

The politics of the Left is commonly understood as the politics of workers and peasants. The question of social injustice, whether in terms of caste or gender, is often not seen as an integral and key part of the Left agenda. This is certainly not how it should be. Class struggle is meant to be waged as vigorously against social oppression as against economic exploitation and political repression.

Even if one makes caste, and not class, the point of departure, and follows Ambedkar, one reaches remarkably similar conclusions. Ambedkar gave the clarion call for the annihilation of caste and emphasised the need for class unity across castes when he reminded us that caste was not a division of labour, but a division of labourers. The task that follows is to unite the labourers against injustice, suffered in terms of caste oppression and discrimination and also as workers.

With a consistent and vibrant paradigm of class struggle, the Left can emerge as a bulwark of the struggle for justice and democracy.

The CPI (ML)’s (Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)) political and electoral experience in Bihar suggests that in real life, there is no Chinese wall between caste and class, between social mobilisation around identity politics and ideology-driven class politics. With a consistent and vibrant paradigm of class struggle, the Left can emerge as a bulwark of the struggle for justice and democracy. The CPI (ML)’s continued battle for basic human dignity and rights to land, wages and political representation has enabled the movement to strike deep roots in several districts among the most oppressed sections of Bihar society and the party to expand and consolidate its organisation. Its electoral tally has fluctuated since it entered the electoral arena, falling to zero members in the state assembly twice, first in 1989–90 with the dramatic changes in the social and political environment of Bihar in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission recommendations; and then in 2010, after the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance promised increased representation and opportunities for mahadalits and extremely backward classes (EBCs) and dented the class unity of the rural poor. Yet in the 2020 assembly elections, as the political agenda shifted towards dignified and secure employment and as the Rashtriya Janata Dal joined hands with the CPI (ML), the party gained 12 legislators.

Today, the Modi government is working relentlessly to crush dissent and curb the political opposition. Dissenting citizens are being jailed under various draconian laws and opposition-led governments are being harassed by all means. Having failed in its attempt to conquer West Bengal, the Modi government has singled out the state to unleash unmitigated political vendetta and vengeance. In the months to come, the BJP will try and make its organisation more ‘atmanirbhar’, by lessening its dependence on TMC turncoats and making its Hindutva more Bengal-attuned.

As West Bengal emerges as a major battlefield in the ongoing struggle for federalism, the Left will have to play a key role in this battle. The Left should take the lead here, rather than being inhibited by the fact that the ruling TMC may benefit in the short run from the Left's bold opposition to the fascist offensive of the Sangh brigade and the Modi regime. The new phase of the Left movement in West Bengal will have to broaden and streamline its politics to foil the BJP’s regressive design of social engineering and communal polarisation, even as it holds the state government to account for all its acts of omission and commission, for its failures and betrayals.

Dipankar Bhattacharya is General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)

Dipankar Bhattacharya
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