Just like Kemal, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, the Indian Left's best moment may have arrived and gone in 1996 without it even realising. Jyoti Basu, who could have been the country's first Marxist prime minister, had later famously called it a "historic blunder".
Looking back, it may well have been. The CPM politburo's dogmatic decision to not head a multi-party coalition by diluting ideology may well be its last.
From a high of 10.6 percent national vote share in 1989, the Left's votes came down to 4.8 percent in 2014 and 2.33 percent in 2019. From 59 seats in 2004, it is left with 5 seats in 2019, not enough to fill up a row in an aircraft's economy class.
It has been wiped out of its bastions of Bengal and Tripura. In Kerala, it rules in the state with little to show at the Centre.
Could India's Left revive? The path of politics winds through thickets of impossibility. So, here is a quick SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis.
Right now, very little. A fairly robust majority in Kerala and vocal student unions in some high-visibility campuses like the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University are all that the Left has to brag about.
A talented, entrenched and ideologically ruthless lot still rules India's academia. But electorally, there are no green shoots. The Left can't show a single state where it is growing, there is not a single new leader in sight, and the hype around Kanhaiya Kumar burst with a 4.20 lakh-vote defeat from Begusarai in 2019.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury's tenuous grip on his flock was exposed when the party refused to nominate him to the Rajya Sabha again.
The party's biggest weakness is its total failure to understand the caste and religious complexities of Indian society and politics. Its stubborn dogmatism and touching faith in the Western template stopped it from evolving a homegrown model, and its real slide into irrelevance started from the Mandal protests.
Eventually, the bigger blow came from Hindutva. Initially, it helplessly watched Hindu anger rise, not knowing where to plot it on its godless matrix. But then, it made a bigger mistake.
The Left allied with radical Islam in the name of secularism. The CPM government-presided Marichjhapi massacre of lower caste Hindu immigrants in 1979 may not have been conducted at the behest of Islamist apologists within the party, but chastising Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee over his concern about radicalisation in Bengal's madrassas was one of the early signals.
The Left has since comes of long way, from supporting the likes of Umar Khalid to legally pushing for and trying to execute a breach in Sabarimala temple tradition despite a massive Hindu backlash.
In Kerala — a state where it occupied the anti-Islamist space, it has fiercely gone after reformist governor Arif Mohammad Khan.
All this has been makes a large section of Hindus very angry with the Left. With an aggrieved Hindu nationalism of the rise and firmly in power, it is not only going to make the Left more irrelevant.
The 1983 General Election was disastrous for Britain's Labour Party. Under Michael Foot, it was routed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. It got just 27.6 percent of the votes.
The party's manifesto, which promised unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Common Market, was termed the "longest suicide note in history".
But then, the Left bounced back with 'New Labour', shedding much of its ideological orthodoxies and becoming economically and politically a lot more mainstream and electable.
The Left is India can reinvent itself by distancing itself from radical Islam and gradually — if not by embracing, at least by not opposing — letting comrades get real with the religious aspects of society. It certainly needs to overcome the perception of being anti-Hindu.
CPM leader Gautam Deb in Bengal recently suggested that the party members should get involved in religious trusts, and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has noticeably softened his stand on the Sabarimala protests.
The current economic slump, drying up of jobs and the latest impact of the coronavirus on India's economy could create a small but crucial window of opportunity for the Left to revive, especially in urban and semi-urban centres.
But its biggest political opportunity may arrive if Mamata Banerjee's TMC loses the state elections to her main contender, the BJP, next year. TMC was built on widespread anti-Left feelings, and ended up providing a playground for petty opportunists and Islamists. A party without a strong ideological glue of cadre discipline is likely to disintegrate in defeat faster than one expects.
With the BJP in power, Bengal could again be wide open for the Left to play.
The biggest threats to the Left are its own ideological orthodoxy and being in bed with Islamists and the far-Left. It will only turn off the new India.
The other formidable challenge is for the Left to get new, mature and electable leaders. Not outliers and rabble-rousers. Not armchair ideologues. The Left, more than ever, needs quiet and committed grassroots leaders of EMS Namboodiripad or Saroj Mukherjee’s mettle to lift it from this morass, a job our martini Marxists can never hope to accomplish.
Updated Date: Mar 16, 2020 08:24:38 IST