Red flag falls in India

In 1996, India's most prominent communist leader almost became prime minister. Fifteen years later, his party is teetering on the brink of political extinction.

The dramatic fall from national power-brokers to endangered species was confirmed last week when voters in West Bengal threw out the world's longest-serving democratically elected Communist government.

A Left Front coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI-M, had ruled the eastern Indian state for more than three decades without a break and the end, when it came, was brutal.

From 176 seats in 2006 state polls, the CPI-M share plunged to just 40, as the regional Trinamool Congress and its firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee stormed to power with 184 seats.

At the same time, the communist administration in the southern state of Kerala was thrown out and replaced by India's ruling Congress Party - albeit by a far slimmer margin.

The double blow was seen by many analysts as sounding the death knell for the Communist Party as a genuine political force in India.

"No one needs the communists any more," said Debraj Sen, a political science professor at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the West Bengal state capital.

"Their legacy is one of endless strikes, corrupt unions, and lethargy in introducing reforms."

Their language may have been taken straight from Marxist-Leninist textbooks, but India's communists always stood apart from their counterparts in Soviet-era Eastern Europe, China or Cuba.

While reflexively anti-capitalist and anti-American, their policies were inevitably tempered by operating in a parliamentary democracy rather than a totalitarian state.

As a result, the Indian Communist Party emerged largely unscathed from the global upheaval that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And in 1996, after an inconclusive general election, the late CPI-M leader Jyoti Basu came within a whisker of becoming prime minister at the head of a centre-left coalition - a prospect that prompted the headline "Red Star Over Delhi" in one national newspaper.

But the party's central committee decided not to participate in the government - a move that Basu later described as a "historic blunder".

Since first coming to power in West Bengal in 1977, the communists had relied largely on the support of farmers who feted the party for giving land to some 2.5 million rural poor under India's largest distribution scheme, breaking the hold of West Bengal's land-owning elite.

But as land shortages grew with farms being divided among families and unemployment climbed, the government shifted gear and sought to bring back factories to the region.

This brought them into direct conflict with their core supporters, as angry farmers protested efforts to buy up their land for industrial activity.

In 2008, the giant Tata group pulled out of a project to build the world's cheapest car in West Bengal, even though the plant it had been constructing near Kolkata was 90 percent complete.

The decision followed a month of violent demonstrations by activists and evicted farmers who complained they had been forced to give up their land for a pittance.

"They always made silly political mistakes, ignored public opinion and failed to find a middle ground between Marxism and capitalism," said D.K. Ray, an independent political analyst living in Kolkata.

Ray - who is researching material for his book "The Communists and Labour Movement in India" - says the Left stayed in power thanks to its historical record of labour movements and land reforms.

"But at the later stage they completely messed it up. They destroyed everything they had created. And they seem to have (had) no clue on how to chart their future policies," said Ray.

A CPI-M statement, issued shortly after the results of the West Bengal election were announced Friday, said the party's defeat had been "unexpected" - an assertion that was widely ridiculed given the numerous opinion polls that had predicted a Trinamool landslide.

Senior CPI-M official Niloptal Basu said that "accumulated problems" had led to the rout, and was non-committal on where the party would go from here.

"We have to go back to basics," he said.

But for many, the "basics" - in terms of the tenets of Marxism-Leninism - are what renders the Communists obsolete in what is now the word's second fastest-growing major economy.

"Terms like 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and 'class struggle' are outdated now," said Raghuram Chaudhari, an industrialist living in Kolkata for over four decades.

"It's time for the communists to shut up shop and let us get back to business."


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