What's next for India's Communist Party?
The distrust of the Communist Party, once a powerhouse in parts of India, could signal a major change in Indian politics. Here's what its leaders plan to do to keep their old mission alive.
For years, the hammer and sickle – a symbol of more than three decades of Communist Party rule in the Indian state of West Bengal – has flown proudly over the state capital of Calcutta. Across this crumbling metropolis of 14 million, red communist flags hang limply from lampposts and hand-painted murals cover the sides of colonial-era buildings. A statue of Lenin stands at the edge of a famous park, gazing with furrowed brow over a traffic-choked intersection.Skip to next paragraph
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But after 34 years in power – the world's longest tenure by an elected Communist Party – the red sun may be finally setting in West Bengal, signaling a major shift not just for the Indian state but for other parts of India where communist parties have been historically powerful. At state elections in May, the left suffered a landslide defeat and the familiar communist iconography has been slowly pushed aside by the Trinamool Congress’s green and orange insignia. Experts chalk the defeat up to corruption, complacency, and shortsighted economic policies.
“A question mark hangs over the future of the Indian left,” says Calcutta-based journalist Ashis Biswas.
The communists came to power in West Bengal in 1977 on the back of strong support from industrial workers and the rural poor. They are now struggling to come to grips with the magnitude of the elections in May, which have upended the political order, slashing the representation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), known as the CPI(M), in the 294-seat state assembly from 233 seats to just 62.
“We are still trying to get over the shock,” says Subrata Bose, a former member of parliament from the Forward Bloc, part of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. Mr. Bose, a nephew of India’s wartime hero Subhas Chandra Bose, says morale within the communist movement is now at an all-time low, with many young cadres jumping ship to share the spoils of the new government. “We are hated now. We are not getting new members…. People are trying to join the party that has come to power,” he says.
How it happened
Along with Kerala and tiny Tripura, West Bengal is one of just three Indian states to have elected a communist government, but it has historically been communism’s largest supporter in India. After its initial victory in 1977, the CPI(M) won the next six elections by large margins on the back of strong support for its rural land reform program. Even when West Bengal’s economy took a downturn in the mid-1990s, hamstrung by the constant strikes and work disruptions of CPI(M)’s militant trade unions, it continued to win big at the ballot box.