Will Left again support Congress to keep out BJP?

When the country is on the cusp of seminal changes, the irrelevance of one of India's previously important political groups - the communists - is noteworthy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the influence of the comrades was confined mainly to the states, theirs was still a significant voice because of widely admired personalities like S.A. Dange, A.K. Gopalan, Hiren Mukherjee, Jyoti Basu and E.M.S. Namboodiripad.

Even after the split of the mainstream communists into two parties - the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) - the Left's clout did not diminish because of its stints in power, first, in Kerala in the 1957-59 period and then, briefly, in West Bengal in 1967 and subsequently for a three-decade-long reignthere starting from 1977.

Now, however, the comrades are fading away. Their decline began in 2008 when they broke with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the centre on the Indo-US nuclear deal, although the Left-inclined Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, had warned that the rupture would make the communists lose their voice.

This is exactly what has happened, with the commissars falling into a state of silent torpor when neither their views nor their political tactics are deemed of any importance.

Their current inertia follows a brief period of frenetic activity prior to the 2009 general election when they not only played a leading role in the formation of a Third Front comprising parties affiliated to neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but also harboured illusions of one of the Third Front leaders - then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - becoming prime minister.

But it proved to be a pipedream. After the crash-landing of those hopes, the Left has spent the last five years in a political wilderness, especially after it lost power in West Bengal and Kerala.

Its lack of consequence is all the more noticeable at present when virtually all the other parties are busy repositioning themselves. The UPA is engaged in a desperate rearguard action to stave off the anti-incumbency factor which threatens to dethrone it next year.

The BJP's awareness that it has a fair chance to win has made it nominate one of its most combative leaders, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, as the prime ministerial candidate despite the anti-minority image that has haunted him since the 2002 riots in the state.

As the Congress and the BJP confront eachother, some of the regional parties are weighing the options of joining either the UPA or the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). While the Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh appears to have made up its mind to go with the NDA, which it left after the 2002 outbreak, the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu is widely expected to back the NDA if only because its arch-enemy in the state, the DMK, is with the UPA.

It is against this backdrop of careful calculations that the CPI-M has made its first move to revive the Third Front even if the Marxists have denied any such intention. But their parleys with a former ally, the Samajwadi Party, and with the Janata Dal- United, an erstwhile constituent of the NDA, show that the CPI-M is testing the waters.

But the tentative move is unlikely to amount to much. One reason why it may be a non-starter is the Left's current weak position where its strength in parliament has been reduced from 59 in 2004 to 24 in 2009. Besides, it has suffered a loss of power in Kerala and West Bengal, which it used to regard as its strongholds.

Another reason is that the Samajwadi Party, which switched its allegiance from the Left to the Congress in 2008, is unlikely to venture into uncharted waters at a time when it has a better chance of being the kingmaker if a weakened Congress needs it at the centre to keep the BJP at bay.

The Samajwadi Party may prefer such a role instead of being part of an inchoate Third Front, especially if it sees its main adversary in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP, edging closer to the Congress after the 2014 general election.

The Janata Dal-United, too, is likely to align with the Congress since there is half a chance that it will replace the Rashtriya Janata Dal as a supporter of the UPA in the aftermath of RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav's incarceration.

Moreover, the communists themselves may finally decide to support the Congress, as in the 2004-08 period, to keep the BJP out of the corridors of power.

The communists have suffered not only because their ideology no longer attracts young people in numbers that it once did but also because the affluent "great Indian middle class", in CPI leader A.B. Bardhan's sarcastic words, prefers either the Congress or the BJP.

In addition, their years in office in West Bengal and Kerala have shown that the champions of the proletariat are not very different from the "bourgeois" political class where misuse of power is concerned.

(12-10-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached atamulyaganguli@gmail.com)