KERALA AND WEST BENGAL states have been pillars of the parliamentary left in India, regional bastions that held out against the erosion of strength elsewhere. Both states recently went to the polls to elect legislative assemblies, which have significant powers under the Indian Constitution.
In both states, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), leads the parliamentary left. Varying alliances have formed around them, especially in Kerala where the influence of confessional politics has always been substantial. In West Bengal, the CPI(M) opted for an alliance strategy that befuddled its dwindling supporters. Since being wiped out in the 2009 elections to the national Parliament and routed in state assembly elections in 2011, the CPI(M), which had an uninterrupted run of over three decades in power in West Bengal, has been disoriented. A breakaway faction of the Congress party had successfully made off with both its voter base and the techniques it had perfected over decades in fixing elections.
In despair at this outcome and with full knowledge that it couldn’t improve its marginal profile in national politics without a strong showing in West Bengal, the CPI(M) opted in 2016 for an alliance with the mainstream Congress, which it was sworn to opposing both in Kerala and at national level. There was considerable discord over this in the leadership, but ultimately, the perceived survival imperative of the West Bengal unit took precedence over principle.
The result was a rout of even greater dimensions than 2011.
Kerala, though, did not disappoint. This state’s diversity in terms of faith has been a key feature of its politics. About a fifth of the population identifies itself as Christian and a quarter as Muslim. Kerala also has a powerful current of rebellion within the mainstream faith, which has given those traditionally disadvantaged under the Hindu caste hierarchy a powerful political voice. Kerala’s religious diversity is a strong insurance against the Hindu chauvinism that captured power at national level in 2014.
The chauvinist right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules at national level has had little influence within Kerala. Politics in the state has evolved into a strongly bipolar mode, with the CPI(M) alliance on one side and confessional groups of both the Christian and Muslim faiths usually aligned with the rival front, headed by the Congress.
The return of the left in Kerala was consistent with a pattern established since 1980, since when it has alternated in power with the rival Congress-led front. Incumbency has always been a disadvantage in this highly politicised state.
Since earning the distinction of bringing to power the world’s first Communist government through the ballot box, Kerala has registered significant progress in all social indicators, setting a baseline in providing social services that both fronts have been obliged to honour. This contributed to a degree of social cohesion in Kerala and its relative freedom from the contagion of communal violence.
The Kerala model has lost some of its sheen in recent years because of weaknesses in the economic foundations. Agriculture and industry have stagnated and growth has increasingly been sought in the service sector, particularly tourism and real estate. The two main fronts seem jaded, unable to deal with the revolution of rising middle class aspirations in the state.
This has opened a crack which the BJP has energetically sought to widen. The party found it difficult to line up electoral allies in the past, but for 2016 managed to conjure up a new federation of so-called indigenous faiths of India. The ‘faith federation’ drew its identity from a loud differentiation from Islam and Christianity, which in the BJP theology are regarded as alien intruders. Its main sponsor and financier was once Kerala’s largest distributor of spirits and alcohol, who ironically identifies himself with the community that led the rebellion against Hindu orthodoxy and subsequently became the principal base of the left.
The BJP has created a political alliance between this rising force and disgruntled upper caste elements that have since 2001 never had an incumbent in the chief minister’s office, after having made it their virtual monopoly since the state of Kerala came into existence. The BJP and the “faith federation” secured a substantial 15% of the vote, though they came third in most seats and won only one. Their successes were mostly achieved at the expense of the Congress, giving the left advantages that it translated into a near two-thirds share of seats in the assembly with only 44% of the vote. Though the left vote has not been as badly dented as the Congress’s, the 2016 elections are a wake-up call that even Kerala, with its ethos of peaceful co-existence between faiths, is not immune to the chauvinist menace.