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End of the road for the CPI?

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January 12, 2006 19:32 IST
This summer should see elections to several states, notably West Bengal. Here is something that I had not known about the state until I saw the figures at the Election Commission's web site. In the West Bengal assembly polls of 2001, the BJP won 5.19% of the total votes cast where the CPI got only 1.79%. How on earth could such a thing be possible?

The performance of the BJP is astounding given that it was then at loggerheads with Mamata Bannerjee. The BJP put up candidates in as many as 266 seats while the Trinamool Congress had 226 nominees. Given that the West Bengal assembly has no more than 294 seats this idiocy meant that they were busy cutting into each other's votes. I am not sure how either party gained by this spectacular display of enmity.

But let us leave the BJP aside in favour of another look at the CPI. The CPI was not alone, it was fighting as part of the Left Front coalition led by the CPI-M. Even worse, not only was it left in the dust by the CPI-M, even the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party garnered a larger share of votes (5.65% and 3.43% respectively). In other words, had the CPI gone it alone as the BJP did it would certainly have fared even worse than the actual situation.

The CPI, please remember is technically a 'national' party. It claims to be India's second oldest party, next only to the Congress.

The first leader of the Opposition in the first Lok Sabha was a CPI man. How is it that a group with such a proud history should now be so feeble that it barely registers on the radar even in its old stronghold of West Bengal, and has been all but wiped out elsewhere? Will there be anything left of the party once the next assembly election in West Bengal and Kerala are over?

The brutal fact confronting CPI leaders is that being part of the Left Front has been a losing proposition for the party. They have all but lost their identity, with the CPI-M taking away their supporters one slice at a time. After 28 years of being in the Left Front there is little left of the CPI.

On the other hand, the golden era of the CPI was when it walked hand in hand with the Congress. Who remembers today that the CPI and the Congress fought the general election of 1971 as alliance partners? The relationship was so strong that the CPI was the only major group to back Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. It was only after the debacle of 1977 that the CPI ate humble pie and sought shelter under the CPI-M's wings.

The Congress actually treated the CPI far more generously than the CPI-M does today. A CPI man, Achutha Menon, was the chief minister of Kerala from 1971 to 1977. That government was not just the all-time record holder for undisturbed chief ministership, it was also the best administration bar none that Kerala has had since the state was formed. (And I am old enough to remember all of them!) Keralites today may find it hard to believe but the state used to have so much power in the Achutha Menon era that it could sell the surplus electricity!

Achutha Menon's home minister, the senior Congressman in the coalition, was K Karunakaran. In an odd reversal of roles, the same man is now bosom friends with the CPI-M, which used to be the principal Opposition party to the Achutha Menon ministry. And this fact does not please the CPI one bit.

The CPI-M is now considering whether the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) should be formally invited to join the Left Front. The CPI is opposing this as much as it can. For public consumption it offers the reason that the Left Democratic Front can win the assembly polls even without any aid from Karunakaran. The unstated reason is that it knows perfectly well that the entry of the Karunakaran group will further cut the ground from under its feet.

The problem is that the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) is strongest in precisely the same areas that the CPI considers its bastions in Kerala. The Left Democratic Front cannot offer any seats to Karunakaran without taking something away from the CPI. But it is equally true that Big Brother CPI-M has nothing to lose and much to gain by courting Karunakaran. And if cutting the CPI even farther to size is a by-product of sewing up victory, well what is wrong with that from the CPI-M perspective?

It is all but certain that the Left Front is poised to win the elections in both Kerala and West Bengal. (Frankly, given the paucity of choice and the wretchedness of such alternatives as exist, I myself wouldn't hesitate to vote for the Left!) To me, the most interesting question is the identity of the loser.

The BJP is a fringe element in both states, and it has nothing to lose. The Congress is all but sure to lose the elections but that has been expected since the 2004 general election. But the biggest loser of all from the Left Front will, ironically, be the CPI.

T V R Shenoy