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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.

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Laveesh Bhandari, an economist who co-wrote a 2009 report on West Bengal’s economy, says widespread youth unemployment was a key factor that helped tip the scales against the CPI(M). “What brought the communists to power was widespread anger against exploitation,” he says. “What took them out was anger against unmet expectations.”

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A 2007 government crackdown when police shot and killed at least 30 villagers who opposed a government plan to acquire land for a large chemical plant at Nandigram, in the Purba Medinipur District, solidified the downturn for the party. Footage of the crackdown was beamed across India. “The brutality of the police action in a left-ruled state shocked the country,” says Mr. Biswas. “The left lost its credibility as a pro-poor entity.”

New contender

West Bengal’s communists now have to contend with the powerful new Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a former railways minister who emerged trumpeting transparency from virtual obscurity to topple the CPI(M).

“She is a No. 1 lady,” says Mahir Daj, a taxi driver, who praised Ms. Banerjee for lifting taxes and lowering the price of gas.

Says Sanjar Agarwal, a chef working at Kolkata’s Sonar Bangla Hotel: “We want a fine, clean, and corruption-free country, and Mamata Banerjee is going in the right direction at the moment.” Asked if the communists could ever mount a revival in West Bengal, he says, “Never. It’s doomsday for them at the moment.”

Still, in a 2009 diplomatic cable, US diplomats expressed skepticism about Banerjee’s populist message of “change West Bengal can believe in.”

And so do many holdouts in the Communist Party. Narayan Datta, the editor of the CPI(M) Party mouthpiece Ganashakti, insists mismanagement and the “complacency” of party cadres were responsible for the communist downfall. Mr. Datta, who joined the CPI(M)’s student wing during the 1960s, says, “If communism was dead, if Marxism was dead, communism wouldn’t have gained the support of the people.”

Banerjee’s populism, he says, is nothing more than a “gimmick,” something that will become clear once the communists reconnect with their core rural constituencies. “We have to work with the people. We have to gain the confidence that we lost. This is a long process, but we are determined we can regain their confidence,” Datta says.

Biswas says the setback in West Bengal hints at a wider crisis for India’s communists. Most worryingly, he said, the national decline of the parliamentary left in a country with such gaping disparities between rich and poor could easily open up a vacuum for the radical Maoist insurgency currently garnering support in large swaths of the Indian countryside.

“The defeat of the CPI(M) signals a major change in Indian politics,” Biswas says.

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