Why India's Communists Are Losing Ground

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Indian Trade Union activists seen through a communist flag during a demonstration march against the economic policy of the government in New Delhi on February 18, 2009

For decades, they have been a familiar sight in the sun-kissed Indian state of Kerala or the country's crumbling eastern metropolis of Kolkata. The somber portraits of dead white men — a bearded Marx, a bespectacled Lenin, and Stalin, his moustache bristling — peer down at passers-by from banners strung up over palm trees or street-corner billboards, accompanied by the less-hallowed visages of local comrades. India's Communists have been key players in the hurly burly of the world's largest democracy, dominating the ballot box in states like West Bengal, where Kolkata is the capital, and where a Communist government has ruled for over thirty years. But this month's national elections, won decisively by the ruling Congress-led government, has plunged India's left-wing into crisis. (Read about the key players to emerge from India's elections.)

Amid the hundreds of acronyms that make up India's political landscape, the Communists rank among the few recognized "national" political parties of India, along with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Congress party. Competing for 130 seats, they only won 20, losing more than half their seats in the 543-seat lower house and suffering particularly costly setbacks in their strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala. In the last government, the Communists and their allies — known collectively as the Left Front — were an influential part of the ruling coalition. Now they have been relegated to the fringes of Parliament. "This necessitates action and rethinking," said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the main Communist faction, speaking to reporters soon after the polls. (See pictures of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi on the campaign trail in 2004)

Things are likely to get worse for India's Communists before they get better. Their defeats stem in part from a record of poor governance in the states where they draw most of their support; in West Bengal, a move by the ruling Communists to take land from peasants for private industrial projects led to a voter backlash in May's elections. Party insiders expect the outcome of state assembly elections in 2011 will end their already thin grip on power, and a growing schism between CPI-M politicians pushing for capitalist reforms and the more orthodox intellectual elite in New Delhi have led many anti-Communist critics to gleefully prophesize the party's disintegration. Leftist intellectuals are also uncertain about the Communists' prospects. "There's going to be a lot of churning," says Aditya Nigam, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based think tank, who worked for the CPI-M for seventeen years. (Read about the five challenges facing India's election victors.)

It's little surprise that far-left politics have thrived in India, where a third of the country remains below the poverty line and the majority still ekes out a living in the countryside. While the main Communist parties have always tied their lot to parliamentary democracy, championing land reform and opposing moves toward privatization, myriad splinter groups fighting for the marginalized and dispossessed continue to wage bloody insurgencies in pockets of the country. Still, India's remarkable economic growth in recent decades and its emergence as a key player in global affairs under the Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh has put an air of anachronism around the venerable Communists. "In this day and age, why do you still celebrate the 90th anniversary of the October revolution," asks Surjit Bhalla, a financial pundit and anchor of the show "Tough Talk" on NDTV, one of India's main cable news networks. "How many democratic parties in the world have a bust of Stalin in their headquarters?"

In an attempt to paper over the extent of their losses, the Communists have been quick to point out their vital influence in shaping the policies of Singh's past government. The rural upliftment schemes that many believe won Congress this election, for instance, were pushed and prodded along by Communist support. "They have an effect that goes beyond their electoral strengths," says Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and a prominent left-wing columnist. But the country's focus now is more on the effect of the Communists' absence. Unshackled from leftist dogmas against free trade and deregulation, Singh's new government is expected to push through significant liberalizing measures, including reforms of public sectors such as banking, health and education, and an overhaul of India's bloated state bureaucracies.

Singh's emboldened mandate will also extend beyond India's borders. Left Front opposition to an Indo-U.S. nuclear deal nearly brought down the government last year when the Communists, who still view the U.S. with a Cold War lens, clamored against strengthening ties between New Delhi and "imperialist" Washington. They pulled out of the ruling coalition and Singh barely survived a no-confidence vote. Experts now anticipate an India that will be more muscular in its regional affairs, better equipped to deal with the urgent policy challenges posed by a rising China. Some in the CPI-M foster a sense of solidarity with the land of Mao that Beijing has never reciprocated. "There is some kind of strange blindness to China," says Nigam, the former CPI-M member. "I don't even know how [the Communists] still see it as socialist. China is not in any way different from any other one-party, authoritarian state."

Observers outside India have hailed the general results of this month's polls as a sign of stability and progress. Rather than vote along divisive lines of caste or creed, peddled by some candidates and parties, the electorate rewarded good governance and platforms that promised further development. The right-wing BJP is flailing desperately to recast itself as a more moderate political force; the CPI-M faces a long spell out in the cold. "All of us Indians have been shocked by how long the old ideas have lasted," says Bhalla. "But now we are graduating to a sort of center-space like in Western democracies." Few can speculate the Communists' way forward — the CPI-M's central committee is set for a rancorous showdown in New Delhi next month. Nigam hopes the socialist revival in Latin America can offer ideas and inspiration for a movement in India that is short on both. But the days when the specters of a fading ideology line entire city streets may be truly numbered.

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