Left and Right in Indian Politics – A Contrasting Story of Rise and Fall

The French Revolution of 1789 was a landmark moment in the world history. For the first time it brought to the surface the ideas of republicanism and democracy. It talked about rights as well as the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, which went on to become fundamentals of governance across the world. Much in line with these timeless political terminologies it also gave us the political scale of Left and Right.

In a largely two party system, it’s quite easy to brand the left and the right based on their relative social and political stand and therefore are at times equated with the terms liberals and conservatives. However, in a multiparty democracy, there are too many formations with often contrary social and economic aims , so it becomes quite difficult to mark them clearly as left , right or centre. And so emerges the political positions of centre-left, centre-right, far left, far right, liberal left, liberal right etc.

Unlike the western democracies, which until the recent times lacked any strong electoral communist party and any far right communal party, India has been witness of both of them. Both had their own unique and I would better contend , contrasting political trajectories and electoral fortunes. The rise and fall of the two opposite trends of politics can better be understood by dividing India’s post-independence electoral history in four phases. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. From 1951 to 1977

The two extremes of this phase mark the first general elections of independent India (1951-52) and formation of first non Congress govt at the Union level(1977). In the first decade of independent India, right wing was completely missing from the political scene and it was largely the contest between Congress and the radical CPI.

CPI with the legacy of recent Telangana and Tebhaga movements coupled with the communist euphoria across the world, was the only political formation to pose any significant threat to the Congress. Although quite less as compared to Congress, it steadily increased its seats in Lok Sabha in the first three general elections. Besides this, CPI became the first democratically elected govt across the globe in the province of Kerala in 1957.

The Indian Communists suffered a severe backlash in 1962 for their soft attitude towards the Chinese invaders and subsequently suffered a split in 1964, much on the lines of global Sino-Soviet split. It suffered further divisions with the rise of Naxalbari uprising in 1967. Clearly the Indian left was battling within itself instead of Congress or the rising Swantrata Party.

The deeply divided comrades were further divided when Congress lured CPI faction into governance. Clearly this situation was later to lead into disillusionment with the left. Left wing extremism , too, played it’s own part, in creating a sense of fear among the public.

Although the left was able to hold on to its decent no. of seats in Lok Sabha and govts in Bengal and Kerala, the idea of a Communist revolution was now a forgone conclusion which was once considered inevitable.

The Indian right gained significant importance much later than Left, with the formation of Swatantra Party by ex – congressmen like C Rajgopalchari, KM Munshi and others. It was a classical right party, with market oriented ideology, which sought to counter the command economy model of Nehru. The founding leaders were visionary and themselves a product of national movement. Though conservative in approach they were not communal and were open to liberal ideas. They could rightly be labelled as centre-right party, which India has been missing since its decline

It won fairly decent 18 seats in its first elections of 1962 and went on to become largest opposition with 44 seats by 1967. It even became principal opposition party in the states of Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Unfortunately, it went into oblivion with the death of Rajaji in 1972. I consider it a lost opportunity of the rational, principled and articulate right.

The other right party Jana Sangh, although with bits and pieces of electoral success couldn’t make much impact on the Indian political scene and merged with the Janta agglomeration in the post emergency elections. Failure of Janta experiment and disbandment of Jan Sangh , created a void in Indian right for some time.

2. From 1977 to 1989

The foundation of left politics was further jolted in this phase when it lost ground in the heartland states of UP and Bihar to the proponents of Social Justice by the second half of 80s. The Left was now only to be visible in the pockets of Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. However, the left continued its dominance among the intelligensia , media, literature etc, which were still a dream for the right.

The right, too, was shunted in the national arena for about a decade, BJP being reduced to just 2 seats in 1984 elections. However, it was provided Oxygen by Rajeev govt itself with the Shah Bano misadventure and subsequent opening up of temple doors. The growing anti incumbency (of Rajeev govt) and the renewed interest in Ram, helped BJP to find foothold in electoral map of India with 86 seats in 1989.

3. From 1989 to 2004

This period was to see a contrast between hesitant left and the growing power hungry BJP. Both started by supporting JD govt of VP Singh, but the Mandal came in between. While left struggled to find answer to Mandal brahmastra, the BJP , under Advani, ventured upon risky Rath Yatra.

Having realised its politically “untouchable” position , Advani did bow down to allow more accommodative Vajypee for PM post. Contrast it with left, which yet again deeply divided stopped Jyoti Basu from becoming PM in 1996. Although CPM still doesn’t admit this mistske, Jyoti Basu himself called this a historical blunder.

While Vajypee established a 22 party coalition running it successfully for a term, and tried to give BJP a pan India character, left on the other hand inspite of getting it’s best ever result in 2004, went for “outside support”. If played wisely it could have got several important ministries in Manmohan govt and thus could have shown their ability to the nation. Unfortunately, our comrades lived in a Utopian world.

4. 2004 and beyond

The Left , now under Karat camp was to learn no lessons from its previous mistakes and ventured upon new misadventures. The most infamous being withdrawing support from UPA govt over Civil Nuclear deal. Further, it was beaten in it’s own game in the battleground of Singur by Mamata “didi”. Having, lost Bengal in 2011, the left moved towards irrelevancy in the growing market oriented 21st century India.

The hardliner Karat camp , seemed in no mood of revising there classical Marxist strands, were reduced to just above double digit in the phenomenal elections of 2014. Their fort of Tripura was further crumbled in 2018, and this general elections may be the last nail in the coffin for the left.

The BJP on the other hand did everything what left did not. They worked hard at grassroot level with RSS support, enhanced their media and social media presence and most importantly came up with a narrative which was appealing to the growing middle class. Riding on the huge anti- incumbency of the Manmohan govt, BJP under Modi came to power with a thumping majority. Inspite of getting majority at centre, BJP unlike the left did not rest. They continously tried to expand beyond the heartland, deep in the South as well as in the Northeast.

With five years of Modi govt , left not only lost its electoral grip but also the socio – intellectual group, with RSS-BJP making inroads in the varied domains of Media, Cinema, Universities etc. Looking at the state of affairs of the left, the question obviously needs to be asked , “what’s left for the left ?”

7 thoughts on “Left and Right in Indian Politics – A Contrasting Story of Rise and Fall

  1. I find this question “what left for the left? ” very interesting one.
    A possible answer – Only Kanhaiya! Also I think if he wins the battle of Begusarai, then in future, he might left the left . The reason behind it, what I think is, he will not repeat those mistakes what the left did !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah. And I think maybe the classical left has outlived its utility in India. The neo left both in form of parties and individuals are occupying their space. Besides Kanhiya, you may see such trend in the likes of Jignesh Mevani, AAP, Mamata di Naveen Patnaik etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Of course, I don’t have the background. So it was interesting to get a sense of the trajectory of both left and right. And I really like how you mentioned the subtle varieties within left and right like centre right because more often than not people are labeled left or right which make things seem black and white. From whatever I have read during the campaign trail and the elections in India as well as afterwards, there is an argument that BJP was more systematic and more organized, right? Do you think the left or the opposition lacked organization? And hence was perceived weak?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, BJP was obviously more systematic and organized. Their caders continously work on the ground using every possible means to tap the potential votebank, much unlike the Congress whose many of the leaders are just part time politicians.


    2. When we talk about classical left parties, they are almost dead after the 2019 elections. I think in the 21st century India classical left has rapidly become irrelevant.
      Space for left politics however remains, which will in due course of time will be filled by any new neo -left party.


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