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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
India's communists shun national stage

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Communist party supporter in Calcutta
The Communists now have something to shout about

The more things change, the more India's Communists remain the same.

They seek to "independently apply Marxism-Leninism to Indian conditions," and insist "world capitalism is incapable of solving the basic problems affecting humanity". That is not all.

The 40-year-old programme of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - or CPM - updated just once four years ago, tellingly, says: "Global mobile finance capital is assaulting the sovereignty of nations, seeking unimpeded access to their economies in pursuit of super profits."

Analysts say it is not surprising that foreign investors began selling heavily leading to India's share market crash on Monday because the Communists are supporting the newly-elected Congress party central government.

'Equitable' economic reforms

India's Communists also vow to halt privatisation of profit-making state-owned companies, reject any moves to strengthen employers' rights to fire workers, back higher import duties to protect domestic agriculture, and want to annul a Supreme Court order prohibiting strikes.

These days, they claim to have an ideal model of economic development in West Bengal, the eastern state they have ruled uninterruptedly for the past 26 years.

The Communists claim that they are pursuing "equitable and evenly distributed" economic reforms in West Bengal, where half a dozen multinational companies have set up operations.

They remain popular in the state for implementing reforms where land was appropriated from big landlords and distributed among small peasants.

Communists in West Bengal
The main Communist parties say they want to remain regional forces

But West Bengal is still largely an industrial wasteland and joblessness is endemic.

India's Communists steadfastly refuse to participate in the central government, even when presented with an opportunity.

In 1996, the CPM spurned an invitation to participate in a 'third front' government - a move which India's best known communist and former chief minister of eastern West Bengal state Jyoti Basu famously bemoaned as a "historic blunder".

This time, the CPM has again decided not to participate in the central government and has relinquished an opportunity to influence national policy.

This, despite a stellar showing in the elections, where the party won 43 seats and emerged as the third single largest party in the parliament.

Today neither of India's main Communist parties has evolved into a national party.

They have a presence in only three states - West Bengal, Tripura and southern Kerala.

Communists in West Bengal
The hammer and sickle are commonplace only in parts of India

The fact that the two parties - the CPM and the smaller Communist Party of India (CPI) only contested 103 of the 543 parliamentary seats between them proves that they have been reduced to a small, regional force.

Senior CPM leader Sitaram Yechury uses this logic to justify his party keeping out of the government.

"This is not a mandate for us," he says, alluding to the results of the general elections. "If it had been, we would have got 272 seats."

The other, more compelling logic of staying out is that there is a conflict of interest in participating in a Congress-led federal government, and contesting against the same party in the states.


CPM leaders say that West Bengal, for example, will have state elections in 2006, and the Congress party will be their main rivals.

Analysts like Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury feel that the Communists, by refusing to join the central government, are giving up a good opportunity to reinvent themselves as a modern social democrat party with a left of centre ideology.

"It is almost a colonial mindset which hobbles them," he says. "They used to depend heavily on the Soviet and the Chinese leadership for direction in the past.

"Now that direction is not forthcoming, and Indian Communists do not seem to have the capability to assess the situation by themselves," he said.

Being in government would have allowed the Communists to lobby for the states in which they rule and make a new effort to evolve into a national party.

A.B. Bardhan, Secretary General of the Communist Party of India
Communist leaders are accused of not adjusting

"But they are escapists," says Mr Chowdhury. "Why are they supporting a Congress government which they have always said is one which represents big industrialists and landlords?"

The Communists reason that they are doing this to strengthen a so-called secular coalition of forces, and keep out the arch common-enemy, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from returning to power.

In forging a coalition against what they call Hindu fundamentalist forces, the Communists are willing to support and ally themselves with caste-based, controversial parties like RJD, which has ruled over India's most lawless and corrupt state of Bihar.

That may seem strange, because Communist leaders are still largely known for their commitment, spartan lifestyles and ability to run relatively less corrupt governments than other parties in India.

It is almost a colonial mindset which hobbles them
Political Analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury

Other analysts like Professor Prasanta Roy, who teaches sociology at Calcutta's famous Presidency College, says the Communists are staying away from government as they feel unsure about influencing policy.

"They are not quite sure how much they can influence policy if they join the government. There is no guarantee that they can.

"The Communists are counting their personal long term goals, like keeping their bastions intact, and saying that the political costs are too high in joining the government," he says.

In a way, it is a sorry state of affairs for a party like CPM which claims that the number of members has grown nearly sevenfold since its inception in 1964.

A party which once swore by a workers revolution to replace bourgeois government is now reconciled to functioning within a parliamentary democracy and not being able to reap the benefits when handed an opportunity.

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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Gandhi family loyalists back in from the cold, but no fresh blood in cabinet.




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