Just before the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Prakash Karat, still strutting with the swagger of the Left’s largest ever contingent in Parliament, declared before an election rally in Agartala that it was a “thousand per cent confirmed” that the Third Front would form the next government in Delhi.
The Left was promptly reduced to a rump in the Lok Sabha and Karat’s grand Agartala boast turned out to be the mother of misjudgements.
With the Left parties now also trounced in their two primary bastions the state assemblies of West Bengal and Kerala Mr Karat is staring into the abyss and confronting deeper existential questions than ever before.
The election results last week have prompted much debate around one primary theme: is the Left now history?
The glib and lazy answer is yes. After all, the Left only remains in power in Tripura which will go the polls in 2013. It’s a far cry from the halcyon days of 2004 when the stock markets, ficklest of creatures at the best of times, would quiver at the slightest sound-byte in anger from Left Front MPs basking in their new-found importance in television studios. Remember A B Bardhan and his famous ‘bhaad mei jaye disinvestment’ retort which came to symbolise the moment.
Karat had dogmatically insisted from every rooftop before the results came in that the Left would still retain West Bengal and Kerala. The scale of Mamata Banerjee’s victory now and the eerie silence from Gopalan Bhawan ever since completes the picture of a general in retreat and worse, a general in denial.
Yet, look at the numbers from these state elections and it becomes clear that the obituaries of the Left are premature. In West Bengal, the Left Front may be down to a mere 61 seats from 227 in 2006 but it managed to retain a little over 40 per cent of the vote share. It has been wiped out in terms of seats and its vote share declined drastically from 48.4 per cent in 2006 but it still retains a core base that can be harnessed again if Mamata crash-lands.
Unlike the Congress which simply got erased without a trace from the Hindi heartland in the 1990s, the Left can take solace from the fact that it can still bank on such a large chunk of the state’s voters despite three and a half decades of incumbency.
Secondly, in Kerala, the real story is not the Congress-led UDF’s victory but the fact that VS Achutanandan almost managed to thwart it with a spirited counter-attacking campaign in the last stages of electioneering. Rahul Gandhi’s ill-considered ‘old man’ jibe certainly didn’t work the way it was supposed to and the fact is that the LDF only has 4 seats less than the UDF. Its vote share actually went up marginally from 2006 (44.1% to 45%).
Though the UDF substantially increased its voting percentage in 2011, very little separates both alliances in an election where the primary gainers were parties like the Muslim League and the KC (M).
The Left is down, but it is far from out.
This becomes easier to understand if we start seeing the Left not as the monolith of its own construction but as it has evolved in practice in recent years: as separate regional outfits in West Bengal and Kerala, led by a largely unelectable crowd in Delhi that pretends to run a national movement.
The wide disconnect between the stalwarts who fight elections in the states and the ideological apparatchiks who run the party in Delhi has been the Left’s reality for a while now and also its primary problem. In Kerala, for instance, the Politburo dithered till the last moment before backing the 87-year-old Achutanandan: whose vigorous campaigning in the end surprised and blind-sided the Congress.
The greatest challenge for the Left then is not ground numbers but leadership at its nerve centre. In a country with as many sharp divides as ours, a creative Left movement based on the language of equality will always engender enough takers. The problem for Mr Karat is finding the right idiom and a vocabulary that still appeals to those outside the circle of the converted and avoids the obscurantist mental cobwebs of the past.
The BJP, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is still struggling to come to terms with the lessons of its defeat in 2004 and to come up with a new idiom for expressing its politics.
After three decades in Writers’ Building, the red bastion of West Bengal was bound to fall one day. The question for Mr Karat is whether his party will honestly think through the lessons in the politics of aspiration that its fall brings and come back stronger or reflexively dismiss it as a minor blip in the march of the proletariat.