The communists came to power in West Bengal in 1977 on the back of strong support from industrial workers and the rural poor. They are now struggling to come to grips with the magnitude of the elections in May, which have upended the political order, slashing the representation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), known as the CPI(M), in the 294-seat state assembly from 233 seats to just 62.
“We are still trying to get over the shock,” says Subrata Bose, a former member of parliament from the Forward Bloc, part of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. Mr. Bose, a nephew of India’s wartime hero Subhas Chandra Bose, says morale within the communist movement is now at an all-time low, with many young cadres jumping ship to share the spoils of the new government. “We are hated now. We are not getting new members…. People are trying to join the party that has come to power,” he says.
Along with Kerala and tiny Tripura, West Bengal is one of just three Indian states to have elected a communist government, but it has historically been communism’s largest supporter in India. After its initial victory in 1977, the CPI(M) won the next six elections by large margins on the back of strong support for its rural land reform program. Even when West Bengal’s economy took a downturn in the mid-1990s, hamstrung by the constant strikes and work disruptions of CPI(M)’s militant trade unions, it continued to win big at the ballot box.