India 2014 Elections: Communists Thriving In One Remote Corner Of Subcontinent As Marxism Wanes Globally

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Voters in Agartala, Tripura
Voters in Agartala, Tripura

The tiny northeastern Indian state of Tripura is voting for parliamentary candidates in the country’s general election – but what makes this province of less than 4 million people who primarily engage in rice production so unique is that it has been dominated by Communists for more than 60 years. Indeed, landlocked Tripura, which borders Bangladesh on its north, west and south, may be considered the last haven in India for Marxism, a political doctrine that has been largely discredited across much of the world. Moreover, given the long-term domination of Communists in the state, the mainstream center-left Congress Party and the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold little influence there.

In India’s last general election in 2009, the Left Front (an umbrella term for various far-left parties) grabbed more than 60 percent of the vote in Tripura, despite high-profile figures like Congress scion Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee campaigning in the state. For the remainder of India, Communists remain a force only in the southwestern state of Kerala (where they share power with Congress); and still have a significant (but diminishing) presence in West Bengal, where they ruled for more than thirty years until 2011. Overall, the outgoing Indian parliament, elected in 2009, has 24 Communist MPs out of a total of 543 members. In the current election, AEG India reported, Marxists are projected to win a total of 27 seats, hailing solely from the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and, of course, Tripura.

Due to its small size, Tripura has only two seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament in New Delhi – and both seats are currently occupied by Communists. Indeed, since the first Indian general election in 1952, Communists have won the East Tripura constituency eleven times, versus only four for Congress. In West Tripura, the Marxists were victorious ten times, compared to only three triumphs for Congress. Media reports strongly suggest that in the 2014 election, Tripura will again send two Marxist MPs to Delhi. Communists also dominate Tripura’s local legislature --in the last assembly elections held in February 2013, the Left Front alliance gained an impressive 50 out of 60 seats, with the remaining ten going to Congress. The BJP is virtually invisible in Tripura, while Congress -- which has formed shaky alliances with local tribal politicians -- remains a modest opposition force far behind the extreme left in power and influence.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the largest of India’s various far-left parties, has controlled Tripura’s local government for the past 21 consecutive years. Indeed, images of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and the hammer-and-sickle symbol are festooned on walls and billboards across the state.

The most powerful Communist politician in Tripura is Manik Sarkar, who has served as the state’s chief minister since 1998 (four straight terms, one of the longest such tenures in India) and prides himself on the being the “poorest chief minister” in the country. According to a report in India.com, during the last assembly election, Sarkar disclosed that his bank balance totaled some 9,720 Rupees (about $162) and the only property he owned comprised a small tin-shed home that he inherited from his deceased mother. Sarkar also reportedly donates his small salary as chief minister to the Communist party’s treasury.

In terms of policy, Sarkar has aggressively promoted The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a Congress-backed ‘right-to-work’ law that guarantees at least 100 days of paid employment every year to rural families who perform unskilled labor. Such a program is extremely popular in a state like Tripura where at least 75 percent of the total workforce toils in agriculture, primarily in rice paddies. Communists have found support among both the tribals and Bengali farm laborers who have historically opposed the interests of landowners and influence from the central government of India. According to Indian government data, the poverty rate in Tripura has been declining the past two decades (all under Communist rule), from 40 percent in 1994 to less than 20 percent today.

Bijan Dhar, a senior Communist official in Tripura, explained to The Independent newspaper of Britain that the party has succeeded in the state because it has efficiently delivered welfare programs to the residents. The far-left has also been credited for instituting a mass literacy program that has led to 95 percent of people in the state being able to read and write, one of the highest such figures in India. Thus, in a country that is apparently moving decidedly rightward towards the BJP and Narendra Modi, Tripura remains stubbornly leftist.

When casting his own ballot in the capital city of Agartala, Tripura chief minister Sarkar dismissed Modi, the man who is widely expected to become India’s next prime minister. "There is no Narendra Modi wave [of popularity]. This [was] created by the corporate media because he represents corporate interests," Sarkar said, according to The Independent. Regarding the decline of Communism in the rest of India, Sarkar insisted Marxism remains a viable political force in the country. "We are still relevant because we are still working for the interests of the peasants, the lower middle-class and the people who have been suffering a lot," he said. In a recent speech in the city of Khowai, Sarkar condemned the corruption of both Congress and BJP and called for Indians to elect a “Third Front” government – that is, a third option to the two mainstream parties. "Tripura has been the torch-bearer of the Third Front. We are an example to the rest of the nation," he told the crowd.

However, due to its relatively remote and isolated location, Tripura remains underdeveloped, with few transportation links to the rest of India. Many Tripura youths must migrate to other parts of India to find work, while government jobs are generally reserved for Communist party members or their allies. As of 2012, Tripura had a 14 percent unemployment rate. Moreover, while overall poverty rates have fallen in the state they remain high for the tribal-indigenous peoples, who account for about one-third of the population. However, the Calcutta Telegraph reported that Communists enjoy widespread support from tribals, despite alliances made between tribal parties and Congress. An indigenous man named Ashok Debbarma told the paper that the Left Front is popular among his people, rejecting the notion that tribals are engaged in conflict with the majority ethnic Bengali community of Tripura. “The Bengali-tribal conflict belongs to the past,” he said. “The Left [Front] government has given us rights over land and jobs, so we have no reason to blame anybody in racial terms.”

Now a minority in their own homeland, largely due to large-scale migration into the state from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), some tribals insist that Communists have defended their interests and helped them gain some political autonomy. “The communists fought for our rights through the ’50s and ’60s when the indigenous population was being swamped by refugees from East Pakistan,” said Manoranjan Debbarma, an indigenous Marxist assemblyman in Tripura, told the Telegraph.

But why has Marxism vanished as an important political force in the majority of India? Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies in Bloomington, commented in an interview that Communist politicians have simply lost their way. “They did, in their initial years, seek to improve the lot of the poor and the dispossessed. However, once they were in office for a number of years they became ossified, they were more interested in enjoying the perquisites of power and they were not above resorting to high-handed tactics to achieve the same,” he stated. Indeed, several high-ranking Communist lawmakers in Tripura, and especially West Bengal, have been accused of corruption over the years – quite a strong violation of Marxist ethics and ideology.

“They are also viciously and reflexively anti-American, anti-liberalization and have little or no understanding of or regard for hard budget constraints,” Ganguly added. “Their appeal stems mostly from their populist policies which do not differ much from those of Congress.” Ganguly also indicated that what distinguishes Indian Communists from the BJP, and to a lesser degree the Congress party, is their “pretty serious” commitment to secularism.

Interestingly, another analyst, Jonah Blank of the RAND Corp., pointed out that some Indian Communists have actually been pro-business, citing Jyoti Basu, the long-time Communist leader and former chief minister of West Bengal as an example. "Some of India's Communist leaders have been very effective capitalists,” he said. “Basu… drew a lot of big businesses to West Bengal and helped revitalize the state's economy." But Blank conceded that Indian voters have grown tired of “empty slogans” left over from the last century. “That's hurting Congress, and also hurting the Communist parties,” he noted. “Both can revive themselves-- but only if they come up with ideas that look to the future rather than the past. Most Indian voters don't care about Marxism, capitalism, or any other -ism: They care about results."

An op-ed in OneIndia commented that the “Left” has declined due to its own “dogmatic insistence” of not seeing the “writing on the wall,” referring to the dramatic changes Indian society has witnessed over the past 20 years. “Over the last two decades, there has been phenomenal metamorphosis of India happening, especially with the unshackling of the economic restrictions, the rise of [the] Indian private sector as well as the aspirations of young India striving to break impediments, unleash their creativity and taking [a] plunge into the realm of entrepreneurship by discarding the concerns of job security,” OneIndia explained. “For the youth of today, it is the entrepreneurs who defied odds to create world-class Indian companies, who are bigger idols than some ubiquitous Marxist-Leninist leaders of the past.”

Indeed, when economic liberalization has improved the lot of hundreds of millions of poor and lower-class Indians, the very notion of “class struggle” has lost all meaning. “The Left's aversion to cultural nationalism or spirituality, be it [Hindu] Vedic Spirituality or [Islamic] Sufism, too has lost most of its appeal as India's rich cultural traditions have thrived and survived and today has more appeal even globally than ever before,” OneIndia noted.

Still, it is important to recall that Communists remain a presence in West Bengal, a state of some 90 million people, which they ruled from 1977 to 2011, an unprecedented duration of power for a democratically-elected Marxist government anywhere in the world. Over those 34 years, the Left Front won seven straight state elections, and never had less than two-thirds majority in the state’s legislative assembly. “[Communist] hegemony in West Bengal was rooted in… a sizeable element of the Bengali intelligentsia to communist and socialist ideas after India's independence,” wrote Sumantra Bose, professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, in Al Jazeera. “The mass base came primarily from strong party organizations developed among the peasantry, particularly poorer peasants… including Muslims and low-caste and tribal communities. The 'pro-poor' image was the [Left Front's] greatest asset.”

Echoing comments from Ganguly, Bose lamented that the Communist government’s electoral success in West Bengal failed to translate into policymaking that improved the lives of its biggest constituency, the state’s masses of poor. “After implementing a modest land reform program during its first decade in power, the [Left Front] lapsed into a pattern of governance marked by lethargy and ineptitude,” he said.

T. J. S. George, a columnist for The New Indian Express, wrote that the fall of Indian communism is a complex matter but can boil down to these items: they were never united, they frequently supported policies that contradicted Marxist ideology and they failed to establish roots in states with strong trade union movements (which would have made for natural allies). George attributed the success of Communists in West Bengal and Kerala to charismatic political leaders who were also shrewd strategists. He further lamented that in a country that still needs a “third option” to Congress and BJP, the Marxists can no longer fill the void.

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