West Bengal’s dominant political force until not very long ago, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is haemorrhaging to death, senior leaders say.

Veteran comrades concede that their party is reeling from a crisis of credibility and loss of public faith. There is even threat of a split over the Central Committee’s decision to bar General Secretary Sitaram Yechury from a third term in the Rajya Sabha. The party’s rules do not allow for more than two Rajya Sabha terms for any of its leaders, but a large section of Bengal’s communists wanted an exception made for Yechury. Although the party did not possess the numbers to ensure Yechury’s victory, the dissatisfied section argued for taking the Congress’s support to see him through. The party leadership did not relent, and Bikash Bhattacharya was fielded instead. His nomination, however, was rejected by the Election Commission for being incomplete. As a result, the Bengal CPI(M) failed to sent anyone to the Rajya Sabha for the first time in nearly 60 years.

The ruling Trinamool Congress seized the opportunity, getting its legislators to vote for the Congress nominee Pradip Bhattacharya, who won. The move is seen to have firmed up the possibility of an understanding, if not alliance, between the two parties for the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal in 2019. The communists, who had contested last year’s Assembly election in the state in partnership with the Congress, were thus left in the lurch.

Predictably, knives came out for the central leadership, particularly the party’s former general secretary Prakash Karat. At a meeting of the West Bengal State Committee on August 7-8, leaders of the disgruntled section exploded: “It is high time we start thinking differently and independently [of the central leadership].” A section of leaders from Burdwan district supported the Central Committee’s decision, however.

Yechury attended the meeting in Kolkata. “Internal fight is plaguing the CPI(M),” he told the media afterwards, referring to his party.

Somnath Chatterjee, a veteran communist leader who was expelled from the CPI(M) in 2008 for rejecting the party’s diktat to resign as Speaker of the Lok Sabha, could barely hide his ire at the turn of events.

“As a firm believer in communism and as an ordinary citizen, I can only say that the denial of nomination to Sitaram was the greatest anti-people step the CPI(M) could have taken,” he said. “Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha are the best forums in our democracy to espouse the cause of the people whom we all claim to represent, but by denying Sitaram the opportunity, the CPM showed that it is not interested in participating in this democratic process.”

Chatterjee added: “It is a lost opportunity, and people are losing faith. The party is losing friends in national politics. All this is due to manipulation of the majority in the Central Committee, where Prakash Karat calls the shots. I am deeply upset and concerned about the future of the party. Did we ever imagine that the Left’s candidates would lose security deposits in elections in Bengal as happened in the recent polls? An important state like West Bengal has lost its national representation and voice for the communists.”

People have lost interest’

Chatterjee’s sentiments were echoed by a member of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal State Secretariat. “Look at the state of our affairs: the membership has dipped from 3,30,000 cardholders in 2010 to less than 2,00,000 in 2017,” said the member who asked not to be named. “All India Krishak Sabha, once the country’s largest peasant front with 1.5 crore enrolled members, has shrunk to less than half. The number of the party’s full-timers is down from about 3,600 to less than 2,000. Of those who are still there, many are inactive. People have lost interest in our party.”

Piling on the misery, the CPI(M) drew a blank in this month’s municipal polls. The ruling Trinamool Congress swept the polls, winning all but six of the 148 wards that went to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP was also a distant second in over 70 wards, ahead of the communists. North Bengal’s Dhupguri was once a Left bastion, but in the recent polls, the CPI(M) was wiped out while the BJP won four wards for the first time. In Haldia, the communist party lost all wards to the Trinamool, with the BJP coming second in 24 of the 29 wards. In Durgapur, too, the BJP stood second in 17 of the 43 wards.

The result is widely seen to represent a shift in electoral support to the Hindutva party, particularly among the Hindu middle class, at the expense of the Left, which ruled the state uninterruptedly from 1977 to 2011. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee observed this shift well before the polls. Addressing a rally on July 21, she said voter allegiances in the state were shifting from the Left to the BJP. “But, at best, it is a fight for second and third positions between them,” she quickly added.

Mohammad Salim, a member of the CPI(M)’s apex decision-making body, the Politburo, does not agree that voters have rejected his party. “The elections did not take place,” he said. “There was no police, no Election Commission. The Trinamool and the BJP have a common goal of dismantling the Left in its biggest constituency in the country. Our last-mile party supporters in Bengal are indeed in severe hardship. Should they vote freely and independently, they would be dislodged from their livelihoods by the ruling party.”