CPI, India’s oldest Left party, wrestles to be alive

April 6th, 2009 - 12:02 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, April 6 (IANS) More than 80 years after its birth, the Communist Party of India (CPI) is struggling to stay relevant, widely seen as a poor also-ran ahead of another general election.
For a party that once enjoyed support all the way from Peshawar in undivided India’s northwest to Chittagong in the east, the CPI today needs crutches to win Lok Sabha seats.

Party leaders admit they are faced with daunting problems, the most serious being the ballooning of caste-based outfits that have undercut the CPI’s mass base.

“We do face challenges in this new era,” CPI leader C.K. Chandrappan told IANS, adding that casteist political parties eroded the CPI’s base, particularly in the populous northern India.

The CPI’s vote share in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections was a pathetic 1.4 percent and it won a mere 10 seats of the 34 it contested. Whatever it won came thanks to support from friendly parties.

That would have taken away its status as a “national party” had the Election Commission not changed rules in 2005. Only recognised parties can afford fixed election symbols.

Chandrappan conceded that the CPI’s past glory meant nothing since it had virtually stopped growing. “It is a fact,” he said.

“The party could not grow after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report (in 1990),” he added, referring to then prime minister V.P. Singh’s decision to go for controversial caste-based job quotas that brought about a radical shift in Indian politics.

The importance attached to caste helped regional parties to grow, eating away the support of Left parties, including the CPI that always overlooked factors such as caste and religion.

“So many caste-based parties emerged in northern India after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. People were misled by the caste-based parties,” Chandrappan said.

According to CPI national secretary Shameem Faizee, it now has 642,000 members in a country of 1.2 billion people, slightly up from 550,000 three years ago.

He too admitted that the CPI was weak in most northern states.

This is the same CPI that was the second largest political party in India after the Congress at one point after its birth in 1925. The CPI was the main opposition in parliament after the 1952 general election.

In 1957, the CPI made history when it became the first Communist outfit in the world to take power through the ballot box. This happened in Kerala.

The CPI suffered a major blow in 1964 when it split, leading to the birth of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). The CPI’s fall was speeded up after it supported then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 Emergency rule when democratic rights were curbed and thousands jailed.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the CPI’s ideological parent, added to its crisis.

Eventually, the CPI began to play second fiddle to the CPI-M, which went on to form governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, with the former as a junior ally.

But it still has dozens of affiliated organisations, including the influential All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), a trade union that was once set up by the Congress but which the Communists seized control of during the British era.

In the staggered Lok Sabha elections beginning April 16, the CPI is contesting 50-55 seats across the country. Political analysts say it would be lucky to win 10 seats.

“Naturally, we want to improve our standing in parliament. And we will,” CPI national deputy general secretary Suravaram Sudhakar Reddy told IANS.

Most political pundits have their fingers crossed over that claim.

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