A wake-up call for India’s left

March 15, 2018

Nagesh Rao reports on State Assembly elections in the Indian state of Tripura, where reactionaries won in areas previously considered left-wing strongholds.

AFTER MORE than two decades of ruling the northeastern Indian state of Tripura, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) was defeated in the State Assembly elections held late-February through early-March.

The right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the elections in a victory that will no doubt boost its future electoral prospects in the region.

This defeat for the CPI-M comes seven years after its spectacular collapse in its former stronghold of West Bengal.

Defeated then by the Trinamool Congress--a breakaway from the Indian National Congress, the centrist party that has dominated Indian politics since independence until recently--the CPI-M could still point to Tripura, a state that plays a minor role in national politics, but one where the left's position has seemed unassailable since it won state elections in 1998.

With this latest defeat, the mainstream electoral left in India has been rendered irrelevant in all but one state, Kerala, where its hegemony will face a stiff challenge in future elections from an ascendant BJP.

Supporters of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate an election win
Supporters of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate an election win

Although the CPI-M's vote share in Tripura dropped about 5 percent from the previous election, to about 43 percent, the left's loss to the BJP in terms of the popular vote was rather narrow--a margin of a couple of percentage points. But this translated into a loss of 33 seats that it had previously held in the 60-seat Assembly.

The BJP, which had no seats in the Assembly going into the election, won a whopping 35 seats to the CPI-M's 16. At the same time, the Congress party, which had previously been the left's main rival in the state, lost all of the 10 seats it previously held, and saw its vote share plummet from 37 percent in the last elections to less than 2 percent this time around.

Anti-incumbency sentiment certainly played a role in the left's defeat. Although the CPI-M government did help raise literacy levels and access to health care, a lingering high unemployment rate--nearly 20 percent, the highest in India--no doubt alienated many, especially the youth, from the ruling party.

The state's indigenous communities also broke with the CPI-M. The Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), a new electoral formation whose main demand is a separate state (within the Indian union) for the Indigenous population, won eight of the 10 seats it contested.

THESE ELECTION results are as much about the spectacular success of the BJP and the virtual collapse of the Congress as the defeat of the left government. For the far right, which won less than 2 percent of the vote in previous elections, this tiny northeastern state might well have been written off as unwinnable.

Instead, the BJP made it a priority, sending top national leaders to the state several times to help with campaigning, hiring thousands of supporters to knock on doors throughout the state. The zeal with which it pursued this election reflects its seriousness about confronting and defeating the left politically, ideologically and organizationally.

Tapping into alienation with the left, the well-funded BJP campaign offered promises of development, modeled on its rhetoric in the national elections that brought Narendra Modi to power as India's prime minister in 2014.

More significantly, the BJP repeatedly made Hindu chauvinist appeals to Tripura's Hindu majority, promising to amend the Constitution to grant citizenship to Hindus who enter the country from Bangladesh, the Muslim-majority nation that borders Tripura on three sides.

On the other hand, Muslim Bangladeshis who enter the country are demonized by the party as "illegals." "Bangladeshi [read: Muslim] infiltration" has become a potent rallying point for Hindu nationalism throughout the northeast.

Furthermore, the BJP forged an alliance with the IPFT that reeks of opportunism on both sides.

The alliance gives the BJP a commanding position in the State Assembly, with 43 seats out of 60, and the IPFT hopes that sucking up to the party in power in New Delhi will boost its clout locally and further its goal of carving out a new state of Tripraland, although the BJP has categorically rejected this demand.

THE ELECTION is yet another wake-up call for--or another nail in the coffin of, depending on your perspective--the CP-dominated electoral left in India.

With 43 percent of the popular vote, the CPI-M can still claim to be alive and well in Tripura. But now that the forces of the far right have found a foothold, it will be difficult to dislodge them, and more so for a left that is not inclined to critically reflect on its weaknesses and failures.

Since the election, CPI-M leaders and supporters have focused on a single talking point: the BJP threw a lot of money into this race. Little is being said about the left's failure to counter the BJP's appeals to Bengali Hindu chauvinism or to win the support of indigenous communities.

Instead of thinking about how to build grassroots solidarity and struggles against the oppression of Indigenous peoples and the scapegoating of Muslims as "illegals," the debate raging within the CPI-M now is whether or not to ally with this or that bourgeois party in the next election to halt the rise of the BJP. This denialism is evidence of a deeper malaise that afflicts the left nationwide.

The malaise of the electoral left has multiple causes. Not least among these is the top-down, bureaucratic centralist organizational model typical of Stalinist parties. Independent initiatives or actions by party cadres are shut down if they transgress the party line.

Social movements that don't fit into the parties' model of "class struggle" are ignored or even denounced. Thus, the parties have done little to engage with Dalit struggles for emancipation on their own terms, and have consequently been unable to break with upper-caste hegemony within the party apparatus.

In the state of West Bengal, they have lost ground to the Trinamool Party among oppressed communities such as Muslims and adivasis (Indigenous people).

While claiming to offer an alternative to capitalism, the CPs have discredited themselves by implementing policies that are indistinguishable from their neoliberal capitalist counterparts in the BJP or Congress.

This is most notable in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal, where the Left Front's attempts to forcibly acquire land from peasants and pass it along to corporations in the name of development was a major factor in its defeat in that state. This top-down approach is visible in the parties' exclusive focus on electoral gains, such that internal party debates are often narrowly focused on electoral strategy.

Meanwhile, even as Hindu chauvinists are gaining ground in virtually every state in the country, there has been plenty of pushback from grassroots movements. Dalit struggles in Modi's home state of Gujarat and student movements in Delhi and Hyderabad have mobilized people around issues of gender, caste, environmental and education justice, and raised the profile of a layer of young activist leaders.

If the CPs are to claw their way back to relevance in India, they would at the very least have to learn to relate to these and other struggles in a democratic and comradely way.

In turn, radical activists in these new movements, while rejecting the Stalinist dogmatism of the old left, can gain a lot by rediscovering the Marxist tradition and the lessons it offers for building a fighting movement for the self-emancipation of workers and the oppressed.

Further Reading

From the archives