At an ‘Insaaf Rally’ on September 20 in Kolkata, the police denied the organizers — the student and youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — permission to set up a stage. Enthused by the crowd that had gathered, CPI(M) West Bengal Secretary Mohammad Salim said the administration may deny a ” Mancha (stage)”, but it cannot stop ” Manush (people)” from coming to the rally. Over the past few months, rallies by the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M), have been drawing large crowds in the State.
After the 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal, when the Trinamool Congress successfully withstood the onslaught of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the opposition space in the State has been shrinking. Not only did the Trinamool win all the bypolls and sweep the civic polls after 2021, but the vote share of the BJP, the main opposition party in the State, also dropped significantly. In some cases, the Left parties recorded similar or higher votes than the BJP. For instance, in the bypoll to the Ballygunje Assembly constituency held in March this year, the CPI(M) candidate came second, securing more votes than the BJP nominee.
Post-2021, politics in West Bengal has been in a state of flux. The ruling Trinamool, despite its electoral success, is battling scams, and the BJP has not been able to reverse its political slide. The situation provides a flicker of hope to the Left to regain lost ground. The death of student leader Anish Khan in February 2022 became a rallying point for the student and youth wings of the CPI(M). Recently, allegations of corruption in the recruitment process carried out by the School Service Commission brought cadres of the Left parties on to the streets.
Despite drawing large crowds, the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M), face the challenge of reaching their core support base. The Left had been in power in West Bengal for 34 years (1977-2011) with the support of the working class, farmers and the workers in the unorganized sectors including labour-intensive industries such as tea and jute. Over 11 years since the Left Front lost power to the Trinamool, trade unions have virtually disappeared. This has made it almost impossible for the workers to fight for their rights. Farmers also constituted a significant part of the Left parties’ support base. During Trinamool rule, the Left parties’ hold on farmers and share croppers has also weakened. Although there are reports of agrarian distress, the Left has failed to galvanize farmers.
There is also a crisis of leadership. After former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee resigned from active politics due to failing health, there has been no mass leader who appeals to the cadres of the Left, both young and old. The CPI(M) has tried to rope in new faces, but that has not yet yielded results. Fielding student leaders from universities in Kolkata or from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi may generate headlines, but such efforts have not garnered electoral dividends for the party.
For the Left parties, the present political situation provides an opportunity to connect with their core constituency — the working class. They need to be more proactive when jute mills in south Bengal are shut down or workers are denied wages in the tea gardens in the Dooars or agrarian distress results in the deaths of farmers in Bardhaman or Hooghly. Lakhs of workers have not been paid dues for work done under MGNREGS in West Bengal; the Left could take up their cause.
The Left also suffers from confused messaging. For the last four-five years, ever since the BJP began to expand its base in West Bengal, the Left has had one strategy, which is to target ‘Modi’ (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) and ‘Didi’ (West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) simultaneously, often in the same line. While there is nothing wrong with this kind of messaging politically, the Left parties need to make it clear to their supporters who the biggest political adversary is now.
There is also a need for stronger unity within the Left. None of the Left parties, including the CPI(M), has any representation in the State Assembly. Therefore, holding different programs makes little sense. In fact, there is a need to bring in more Left parties together and hold sustained programs on the rights of workers and farmers.