Quiz question — what do Aishe Ghosh, Priha Tah, Meenakshi Mukherjee and Srijan Bhattacharya have in common?
Yes, for one, they are all Bengalis, as their names suggest. But there is one more crucial commonality between them. They were all candidates for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) in the ongoing elections for the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.
So what, you would say? What marked this group out from the other candidates? One thing — their age. All of the above are in their late 20s and early 30s.
This strategy by the CPM is rather uncommon in terms of the current trends in contemporary Indian politics, where nepotism, cronyism, celebrity worship seem to have held for the last several decades. Furthermore, as criminalisation of politics has steadily given way to politicisation of criminals, these young faces brought in a breath of fresh air to the political scenario in West Bengal.
It is also worthy to note that this move, although passed off as a gimmick by the ruling Trinamul Congress and the rising Bharatiya Janata Party, is actually quite an astute long-term political strategy. As expected, these newbies did not win create any upsets in the elections. However, the very act of putting them in the field speaks volumes of the CPM’s plans.
For old-time observers of Bengal politics, it wouldn’t seem so long ago — just about four decades — that the likes of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Subhas Chakrabarty, Biman Bose, Anil Biswas and Suryakant Mishra took the field when they were in their 30s too. This group, as we know, went on to become the top leaders of the party in the 1990s and 2000s.
Then, of course, came the great fall. To understand how this happened, one has to look back through the pages of history.
Left politics in India traces its roots back to as old as India’s GOP — the Indian National Congress — has existed. The earliest revolutionary, Manabendra Nath Roy, was direct protégé of Lenin and a delegate at the Communist International. At the time of independence, the Communist Party of India was the second-largest party after the Congress, and made its first significant inroads into parliamentary democracy with its victory in the Kerala assembly polls in 1957.
Bengal, having suffered some of the worst effects of Partition immediately after independence, also proved to be a fertile ground for the Left. The CPI in those days did seminal work among the landless labourers, thereby steadily building a strong support base that helped the Left Front, led by the CPM, storm the Congress bastion in 1977, leading to the world’s longest-serving democratically elected provincial government.
The groundwork that the Left Front did during the 1950s and 1960s thus paid well in their first two decades of power in West Bengal, where it spearheaded land reforms, most notably Operation Barga, the landmark measure that gave sharecroppers a right to part of the farm produce and forbade their evictions by the landlords. This agrarian measure, to a great extent, resulted in mitigation of poverty in the Bengal countryside.
Unfortunately for the Left, the party could not move further. The militant trade unionism that characterised its identity in the 1960s and 1970s still held sway when it came to power, resulting in a shutdown and flight of industry from the state. As industrial and tertiary jobs dried up, educated young minds started the long march towards greener pastures.
At this point, when there was virtually no political opposition to the CPM’s power in the state, the party fell victim to the politics of nepotism and cronyism that characterised may of the other parties in the country. If you needed anything done, you did not go to the government — you went to the party. The party became all-powerful, pervading every aspect of life.
And this gave birth to a new group of leaders, who never witnessed the struggle that the party members of the previous generation did to get the party to this summit of power. All they knew was that association with the Left equated to power and prosperity. It is this same group that switched sides and joined the Trinamul Congress when the winds of change heralded the Left’s downfall a decade ago. And it is this same group that has now largely again switched its colours to join the saffron camp.
Thus, now the Left forces in West Bengal are left with only those who truly believe in that ideology. We will not enter into a debate of how relevant that ideology is in the current political context, with liberalisation and private capitalism being the torchbearers of the modern economy. However, it must also be pointed out that even in the heavily capitalist societies of the West, which our champions of liberal democracy so proudly espouse, the element of the state taking care of the people has never left, a policy that itself came about due to the influence of Marxism in the early 20th century.
Back to West Bengal then. So we see this new group of young politicians, who have witnessed the rise of the liberal Indian economy since their birth, turning to an ideology that they believe, however disparaged in today’s world, still holds the key to the upliftment of the impoverished millions. They also know that there is no hope for electoral success in the ongoing polls, but their sticking to their guns at least speaks volumes of their faith in that ideology.
Thus Left politics in West Bengal has finally come full circle. From the days of initial struggle to mass contact, rise to power and finally falling, the signing up of these newbies show that the Left parties are willing to start from scratch again. These young people come without the baggage of those who were in power before them, and being short on years, can speak to the millennial generation in their language. Whether this will mark a new dawn in Left politics, is of course, a question that the future will answer.