The historical amnesia of Comrade Sitaram Yechury, now head honcho of the CPI(M), has turned Bengal from a red fortress into a red graveyard.
Marxists like to believe that they read, and therefore understand, history. Perhaps. But the jury is still out on whether they learn anything from the past. The historical amnesia of Comrade Sitaram Yechury, now head honcho of the CPI(M), has turned Bengal from a red fortress into a red graveyard.
His party was born in 1964, when it split from the parent CPI. Three years later, the CPI(M) faced its first electoral test in Bengal, and won 43 assembly seats. Today, it has been reduced to 26. This number would have been lower if a few of their candidates had not scraped through.
The CPI went into terminal decline the moment it compromised with the Congress in 1969-1970. CPI veterans like S.A. Dange were persuaded by Delhi’s fashionable leftist fellow-travellers that the Congress under Mrs Indira Gandhi had become a faintly pink version of the reds. Such was the CPI’s enchantment with Mrs Gandhi that it even supported the Emergency, justifying dictatorship, censorship and the imprisonment of every Opposition leader with phrases left over from half-clever argument. The party withered into irrelevance.
Conversely, the CPI(M), led by Jyoti Basu, Promode Dasgupta and E.M.S. Namboodiripad pursued a vigorous anti-Congress line, including during the Emergency. The reward was spectacular in Bengal, where the CPI(M) surprised even itself by winning a stunning victory in the 1977 assembly elections. From 1977 till 2011 the party was impregnable in the state, peaking in 2006 — just before its first fall.
In 2011, the CPI(M) was defeated by the laws of incumbency that can afflict any political organisation. In 2016, it has been destroyed because it betrayed its own ideology, and abandoned principle in search of a cheap return ticket to power. At least Comrade Dange and his colleagues like Hiren Mukherjee and Indrajit Gupta compromised with Mrs Indira Gandhi, a leader of stature who single-handedly postponed the Congress ebb by two decades. Sitaram Yechury cut a deal with Rahul Gandhi. Little remains to be said. It took the CPI more than a decade to collapse. The CPI(M) has managed to do that in three months.
Important CPI(M) leaders realised that a huge mistake had been committed, although they kept their views private. Tripura’s quiet and impressive chief minister Manik Sarkar refused to campaign for this unwise alliance in Bengal. But even he probably never realised that the cost would be so high.
Voters, of course, did not buy this deal, or the silly explanations that were put out to camouflage it — for instance, that this was an arrangement rather than an alliance, or that it had been propelled by grassroots demand. The grass showed how rooted it was to principle. The bigger story is that Marxist cadres rejected this compromise of everything they had stood for, of legacy and commitment, and displayed their indifference on polling day.
What astounds me is not that the CPI(M) leaders were blissfully unaware of what voters thought, but they had no clue about what their cadres wanted. This is evidence of how far the present leadership has moved from its own members. This would have been utterly unbelievable in the time of Jyoti Basu. Yechury and his ilk have never fought an election, unlike Jyoti Basu, who never lost one. Simplistic theories, which would have been laughed out of the Politburo by an earlier generation, got traction in 2016.
The silliest of them was apparently the most persuasive. Someone put out a “Theory of Numbers”. The argument went that elections are nothing but arithmetic. If you add the CPI(M)’s vote in 2011 to the Congress support, then the sum is larger than Mamata Banerjee’s vote. Presto! Triumph! I have no idea what the CPI(M) leaders have been imbibing, but this artihmetic became conviction with candidates. Until the exit polls brought the first troubled look on their faces, they were strutting about planning what they would do after they won — and these plans were not good news for the health of Mamata Banerjee’s or the BJP’s supporters. The incredible arrogance of 2011, when they refused to believe they could lose, was back.
That Rahul Gandhi should have promoted such malarkey is not surprising. What beggars belief is that the top echelons of a serious and apparently politically literate party should fall for this fallacy. Elections are not about arithmetic alone; they include algebra. There is always an “X” factor which captures the electorate’s imagination and turns the tide in one direction or the other. Numbers follow the tide; the tide does not follow numbers.
There is a second element that challenges such facile assumptions. The Congress is not what it was. Today it has become toxic. Proven corruption has stained the reputation of its top leaders beyond recognition. The dynasty in charge, having already outlived its utility, has been accused directly of feeding from this corruption. Did the CPI(M) think that Bengal’s voters would be outraged by the sight of some Trinamool leaders taking cash for election expenses, but ignore the names of Congress leaders in the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal? Don’t people know the difference between a pickpocket and a dacoit?
The Congress was a toxic ally in Tamil Nadu as well. It won only eight seats out of 41 whereas the DMK took half the seats it contested. In effect, the DMK handed over 33 seats to Jayalalithaa on easy terms. In Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League, which is well organised, held on to much of its territory but the Congress effect cost it a few seats. It is also absurd to believe that the presence of the Congress insures the Muslim vote. Thirty-four per cent of Assam’s electorate is Muslim. And while we must await details for deeper analysis, a cursory look indicates that it is impossible for the BJP to win as many seats as it did without getting a good percentage of the Muslim vote. Yes, rhetoric and allegation play their part in electoral persuasion, but why should a good section of Muslims not feel angry about corruption, or economic stagnation, or inefficient governance?
In Bengal, the Muslims stayed with Mamata Banerjee because she offered the rice and roads that they wanted, which is a rational decision. Her victory will confirm her party as the establishment for the foreseeable future. It is the opposition space that will be in contest in the coming three to five years. With the Congress in a daze, and Marxists in a wreck, that opposition space could be increasingly occupied by the BJP.
Every leadership puts up a brave, or at least stoic, face after defeat, so there are no instant reactions. But that does not mean that there will be no reaction at all. Marxists will analyse, even if it is the last thing they do. The Left vote has halved to 19.7 per cent; you would have got very long odds from any bookie for such an eventuality. If our comrades shout murder, they will be only marginally correct. The fact is that their demise in Bengal is mainly suicide. Mamata Banerjee merely let them bleed to death.
If Bengal’s communist movement matured in the coffee shop and adda sess-ions of Calcutta’s College Street, then it has been fatally wounded by the leftists of Delhi’s cafe society.
—– By M J Akbar