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What's next for India's Communist Party?

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“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.

How it happened

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.

Laveesh Bhandari, an economist who co-wrote a 2009 report on West Bengal’s economy, says widespread youth unemployment was a key factor that helped tip the scales against the CPI(M). “What brought the communists to power was widespread anger against exploitation,” he says. “What took them out was anger against unmet expectations.”

A 2007 government crackdown when police shot and killed at least 30 villagers who opposed a government plan to acquire land for a large chemical plant at Nandigram, in the Purba Medinipur District, solidified the downturn for the party. Footage of the crackdown was beamed across India. “The brutality of the police action in a left-ruled state shocked the country,” says Mr. Biswas. “The left lost its credibility as a pro-poor entity.”

New contender

West Bengal’s communists now have to contend with the powerful new Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a former railways minister who emerged trumpeting transparency from virtual obscurity to topple the CPI(M).

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