Year-long centenary celebration of the Communist Party of India was inaugurated on 17 October 2019 even as controversies over its date of birth had not ended. Whether the founding year was 1919 or 1925 as some believe, the fact that it was linked with post- First World War political development and was a movement in India that had to go along with Gandhiji’s Non-Cooperation would not change.
In the Ahmedabad session of the Indian National Congress in 1921, communist perspective of complete independence was put forth. This fact goes in favour of celebrating CPI centenary in 2019.
Those were turbulent years in the political scene in India. Second and third decades of the last century witnessed the rise and growth of different streams of nationalist movements led by pacifists, moderates and also radicals, a strong Non-Brahmin and Self-Respect Movement in the then Madras Presidency, rise of leaders to champion the cause of depressed classes, and the birth of Hindu Mahasabha.
According to some records, the Communist Party of India was founded with seven members which included MN Roy and MPT Acharya at Tashkent, which is presently in Uzbekistan. It represented socialist struggle against capitalist and colonial forces during the Freedom Movement. It was against the zamindari system.
The centenary marks the survival of Communist parties against many odds though 2019 has confirmed its downward progress in parliamentary politics which started in 2014. Communist Parties and the Left Front in general are at crossroads struggling through a conflict between Communist ideology given a burial under liberalisation and globalisation and Communist Parties desirous of retaining a place in Parliament and elections.
In 2019 Lok Sabha election, CPI(M) – the party formed by split in the CPI in 1964 – put up 70 candidates and won only three seats, and the CPI contested 51 and won two. In their best performance in 2004, the Left parties won 59 seats. From the status of being the main opposition party in the 1950s and 1960s, they declined to near total elimination in the Lok Sabha. In West Bengal and Tripura, also their strongholds, Communist governments faced defeat.
The downfall of the Left parties which wielded considerable influence in the ruling parties in 1990s and early 2000s is rapid and decisive. It even came nearest to wresting the post of Prime Minister in the United Front government, but missed it due to ideological hold failing to accept reality. In 1996, the CPI(M) decided against accepting the post of Prime Minister in a coalition of the United Front which could not accept in toto and implement its Marxist ideology. It was nowhere near winning majority to push its agenda.
The CPI (M) was fully in parliamentary politics, but was unable to take the road it opened. Left parties cannot take leadership of a coalition at the Centre, but are willing to be part of it. The case of regional governments is different.
However, the moot point is that the rout in Parliament does not signal the disappearance of pro-workers, pro-peasants, and pro-poor policies of Communist parties. Every party and every coalition of parties have to adopt populist policies, inclusive development, special assistance and concessions for the weaker, and actively strengthen their mass base. Consequently, Communist Parties have lost their unique ideological identity and have become one among many parties.
In other countries, Communist parties changed with the times. In China, starting as professed Marxists, they expanded to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thoughts and kept away from Stalinism. Present China is able to adapt to liberalism from its communist base. Rise of radical Left parties became possible in many countries under new strategies of mobilisation and organisational structure. Indian Communists got split and are unable to merge and the two major groups — CPI and CPI(M) — have become different political parties, sometimes in the same political alliance and sometimes in different.
Communist parties failed to fill the gap between the Congress and the BJP as their political, electoral progress was not steady. Even ideological unity comes under strain due to differences in electoral politics. The label “Communist” became untenable long ago. Leadership is coming more and more from politically inclined people and not from grassroots workers actively involved in people’s problems. The bifurcation is like that between theorists and practitioners.
Differences within CPI(M) came into the open as never before on the question of leadership election in 2015. In 2014 election, the Left parties managed to win only 12 seats — all from Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura, and got a vote share less than 5 per cent. Shrinking support base of Left parties in general only showed that there were no takers for their ideologies. It had no attractive alternative model of development to attract voters. The CPI lost its status as a national party after 2014 election.
Before 2019 Lok Sabha election leadership itself was divided on the question of alliance with the Congress. Kerala and West Bengal units functioned like separate parties – a consequence of politics replacing ideology and guiding the party and taking reins. Though sharing power is not the stated objective, Communist parties want a say in political issues. It is reflective of the prolonged conflict the movement undergoes in transforming to parliamentary politics.
The first Communist government was formed in Kerala in 1957 and it was also the first government to fall to Article 356. Land reforms started in Kerala in 1969, and socialist ideas like people’s planning were introduced. Decentralised power distribution for planning and implementation and cooperative movements were introduced. The two, CPI and CPI(M) got into typical party politics and coalition governments in Kerala. At times, they are in rival political alliances.
In West Bengal, the Left came to power in 1976 and embarked on land reforms very soon. CPI(M) rule continued for 34 years till 2011 when it was defeated by TMC. The defeat was not to anti-Communist forces as there was some kind of alliance between TMC and Leftist groups. Communist ideology had to make many compromises on its economic policy for survival in party politics and popular elections.
A speciality about the Left parties is the ability of leaders to remain in limelight and retain respect and recognition on the face of electoral defeats. But, membership is declining. Total extinction of Communist parties has not happened in India. Split in the CPI has helped to preserve the movement, while affecting Leftist unity and electoral strength.
The ideological battle in the minds of confirmed Leftists is a reason for the survival of Leftism as well as decline of electoral strength. They were in and out of Third Front by holding at times the importance of ideological convergence particularly on economic issues and inadequacy of coalition of secular forces. The attempts to bring together CPI and CPI(M) have not succeeded in closing their organisational division.
There is no meaning in raising the question of relevance of communist ideology today. No “ism” like communism can become irrelevant though parties subscribing to it may become ineffective. The conflict within and between Leftist parties is common to movements transforming into political parties.
The writer is Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi.