In the hullabaloo over the BJP’s massive mandate and the Congress’s humbling defeat, political commentators have missed out on some other important outcomes of the Lok Sabha elections. The election results confirm the long-term declining trend of the Left parties in India. The Left Front’s national voteshare in 2014 has been the lowest ever (4.8 per cent), from the high of 10.6 per cent in 1989. The Left Front in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09) had a sizeable contingent of 62 MPs and that has declined to only 12 MPs in the current Lok Sabha.
The Left in the new Lok Sabha is represented by just two parties (and two independent MPs) — the CPM and CPI. The CPM has five MPs from Kerala and two each from West Bengal and Tripura, while just one MP (from Kerala) represents the CPI in Lok Sabha. As a result, both the CPM and CPI may lose their national-party status according to the new guidelines of the Election Commission of India. Two other political parties, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Block (AIFB), have been part of the Left Front for a long time. The AIFB failed to open its account in this election, whereas the lone RSP member in the Lok Sabha is not part of the Left Front as the RSP in Kerala joined the Congress-led alliance before the elections.
Can the Left Front revive its electoral fortunes? The data presented in Table 1 makes it clear that the Left’s decline is not just Bengal-centric as the Front’s voteshare in other parts of India has reached its nadir. The Left used to have pockets of influence in some states of eastern India (Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa) and southern India (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) in earlier decades. In its traditional bastions of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, the decline in the Left Front’s share is largely due to its abysmal performance in West Bengal.
While the Left Front won both seats in Tripura with very big margins, its performance in Kerala is not extraordinary, especially when the ruling Congress-led alliance in the state held on to its voteshare despite such a strong national mood against the party. So, though the Left’s decline is all-India, its route to revival passes through West Bengal.
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A deeper analysis of the electoral trends from West Bengal portends ill winds for the Left, especially because of the rise of the BJP as a third force in state politics. The recent attacks on BJP workers are an indication that the party is gaining popularity. On the other hand, the Left’s support base in the state has been shrinking since the panchayat elections of 2008. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the 2011 assembly elections, the Congress and Trinamool Congress (TMC) alliance pushed the Left Front to a distant second. This election, the TMC further marginalised the Left by winning 34 of the 42 seats.
The Left had hoped for a revival in its fortunes this time round, as the BJP’s surge in the state had turned the contest multi-cornered in many constituencies. The results, however, have shattered the Left’s hopes of making a comeback. The Left Front won only two seats in the state by very narrow margins — both CPM — Murshidabad and Raiganj. And many traditional Left bastions that the Left Front has been winning since the 1980s (like Bishnupur, Bolpur, Jhargram, Durgapur, Arambagh, Bankura, Alipurduars, Balurghat and Midnapore) have fallen to the TMC by big margins.
The election returns also indicate that the Left has lost a substantial portion of its votes this time to the BJP. The data presented in Table 2 provides a regional picture of the gains and losses incurred by various parties in the state. The Left Front’s voteshare has declined by 13.7 percentage points, whereas the TMC increased its voteshare by 8 percentage points in comparison to 2009. It would be important to point out here that the TMC contested all 42 seats in 2014, while it contested only 27 seats in 2009, when the Congress was its pre-election ally. In comparison to 2009, the Congress’s voteshare in the state has declined, but the party continues to hold its sway in the traditional stronghold of central West Bengal by winning four seats (Malda Uttar, Malda Dakshin, Behrampur, and Jangipur), and narrowly losing Murshidabad and Raiganj to the CPM.
The biggest beneficiary of the Left’s declining fortunes has been the BJP. The party made decent gains in terms of votes in all regions of the state, especially the greater Kolkata region. Though the BJP won only two seats, it won 16.8 per cent votes, a net gain of approximately 11 percentage points from 2009. The emergence of the BJP, if it manages to continue the momentum in the upcoming municipal elections in Kolkata next year, signals a realignment of political competition in the state. In the 2014 election, the BJP led in 24 assembly segments and was runner-up in another 21 of the 294 assembly segments of the state.
The Left, on the other hand, led only in 27 segments. The big question that many are asking is whether the BJP would make further gains and thus relegate the Left (at least its biggest constituent, the CPM) to third place. Though it is hard to make any prediction about it at this stage, the picture of Bengal politics, as seen in Table 2, gives a clear advantage to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in the near future. The TMC will continue to benefit due to the fragmentation of the opposition space, much like the hegemonic status the Left enjoyed for three decades in West Bengal.
The Left Front seems to have remained aloof to the changing pulse of Indian politics. Its shrinking base in the last 25 years indicates that decline is often incremental. Therefore, it is important that the Left work on its political message soon. We are, however, not holding our breath. The Left has not produced a new idea in many years that has enthused the working class and poor. Its national politics is still mostly centred around the empty slogans of “neo-liberalism” and “anti-Americanism.” The Left’s denial of its declining popularity reminds us of other actors in 19th century France, whom Marx characterised in the “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” thus: “No party exaggerates its means more… none deludes itself more light-mindedly over the situation.” The Left may take note of these words of Marx.
The writer is with Lokniti-CSDS and Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US