Few visitors to Kolkata’s Wellington Square know what the flame-shaped monument there stands for. It is a homage to those killed during the 1959 Food Movement, a mass protest against food scarcity organised by the Communist Party of India that gripped the city for five days, with the people and the police fighting pitched battles in the streets. The protest first announced to the world that the communists were a major force in West Bengal.

That was then. In 2019, the communists were wiped out from Bengal. The Left Front failed to win a single seat since the first general election in 1952 and wound up with just about 7.5% of the vote. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the pivot of the coalition, accounted for a little over 6% of that.

BJP gained votes from the Left, not Trinamool

To rub salt into the Left Front’s wounds, their voters not only deserted them, they moved en masse to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. While the BJP’s Hindutva pitch and communal polarisation on the ground played their part, it would not have won an incredible 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats without this unusual red to saffron shift.

To make this point clearer: while the Trinamool Congress lost seats in this election, it actually gained in vote share. From 39% in 2014, the party now has 43%. This means that as loud as the BJP’s campaign was and no matter the polarisation on the ground, the Trinamool’s Hindu voter base did not abandon it. Thus, while polarisation was a necessary condition for the BJP to grow in Bengal, it was not sufficient without being accompanied by the collapse of the Left.

Between 2009 and 2019, the BJP and the CPI(M) have roughly swapped positions in terms of vote share. Note that while the BJP's vote share shot up in 2019, it did not come at the expense of the Trinamool Congress, which actually increased its own vote share. Graphic by Nithya Subramanian

Ideological pole vault?

What explains this ideological shift from communism to Hindutva? The explanation largely is that there was no shift.

The communists ruled Bengal for 34 years but failed to ensure their socialist ideas took hold among their workers, who served for more prosaic reasons such as local power. It can be argued that the Left failed to persuade even its leadership, as the 2006 controversy over CPI(M) minister Subhas Chakraborty offering puja showed. “Given my name, wherever I go in India, I am first a Hindu and then a Brahmin” he had said at the time to explain how an atheist could be praying to a god. “This is the truth, how can I deny it?”

Once the Trinamool took power in 2011, the communist cadre lost local power. Worse, the aggressive tactics of the Trinamool workers meant that the communists were often unable to even operate on the ground. In 2018, for example, Trinamool’s toughs prevented many Opposition candidates from even filing nominations for the panchayat elections, leading to an incredible 34% of the seats going uncontested.

The Food Movement Martyrs' monument in Kolkata's Wellington Square. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

In the face of such political oppression, the communist cadres saw the BJP as being more capable than their own party of resisting the Trinamool. The reasons for this included the BJP’s deeper coffers and its national presence, which, for one, allowed it to generate media attention when its workers were attacked, whereas assaults on the Left’s workers went largely unnoticed.

Given that many communist workers were more interested in getting back at their local Trinamool rivals than any vision of socialism, large numbers switched over to the BJP for this tactical reason.

Remaining oblivious

This red to saffron shift is so widespread that a number of communist leaders acknowledged it to Scroll.in. In an interview published on May 6, former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya even wondered if “it was wise to jump from the Trinamool’s frying pan into the BJP’s fire”.

Inexplicably, the CPI(M) never officially acknowledged this shift. In its messaging, the party continued to paint the BJP and the Trinamool as co-equal evils. In fact, communist leaders even floated a conspiracy theory that the Trinamool and BJP were working together to oust the Left.

The allegation is outlandish. If it was accurate, though, the plan has been a wild success. For the first time in six decades, the communists are no longer a major player anymore in West Bengal.

Also read: Amar saffron Bangla: Five reasons for the BJP’s surge in Bengal

Strange shift: Bengal’s Left Front is melting away – into the BJP