The coming collapse of India's communists
Voters in the world's largest democracy may finally be ridding it of an ideology that helped keep India backward.

Reuters

Supporters of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) take part in a rally ahead of the 2014 general elections, in Kolkata February 9, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • For the first time in their history, India's communists are staring at the prospect of extinction.

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  • A weak communist showing sharply reduces the chances that India will be saddled with a so-called Third Front government.

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  • There are many reasons for the communists' rapid slide into irrelevance.

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India finally appears on the brink of rejecting an ideology that most of the world junked a generation ago. For the first time in their history, India's communists are staring at the prospect of extinction. Several polls show the two main parties–Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India–headed for their worst ever performance in ongoing national elections.

Just how badly are the communists doing? According to Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the vote share of the so-called Left Front communist alliance—which hovered near 10% for much of the 1970s and '80s and was a respectable 8% in 2004—appears likely to fall below 5% this time. This would give the Left Front only 14 to 20 seats in India's 543-member lower house of Parliament, about a third of the 59 they snagged 10 years ago.

Media attention is understandably focused on the frontrunner, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, predicted to win upward of 200 Parliament seats and lead the next government. But over time the demise of Indian communism may end up mattering as much as the BJP's rise.

A weak communist showing sharply reduces the chances that India will be saddled with a so-called Third Front government. This ragtag coalition of regional parties is united only by their desire for power and their opposition to both the BJP and the ruling Congress Party. Since 1989, no Third Front coalition has managed to form a government without the communists winning at least 50 seats in Parliament.

The communist decline also means the country's most strident foes of economic liberalization and mutually beneficial ties with the United States will be muted, making it easier for India to choose sensible economic and foreign policies.

Of course, an electoral drubbing for the communists won't by itself turn India into a haven for market economics or give its foreign policy a pro-Western tilt. Leftist ideas still resonate among Indian politicians and intellectuals. In West Bengal, for instance, the ostensibly anticommunist Trinamool Congress Party won power using the communist playbook: protesting against private industry and pandering to Islamist sentiment. The rise to prominence of the new anticorruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), even as the party appears unlikely to win more than a handful of seats this election, signals the continued appeal of suspicion toward business and faith in reckless populism.

But while newer parties like AAP and Trinamool may have borrowed some of communism's worst instincts and ideas, they're not quite as harmful as the entrenched communist parties. New leftist parties are less reliant on dogma, at least in theory, and more likely to evolve in a positive direction. For instance, AAP, stung by criticism, has attempted to shore up its middle-class support by claiming it isn't opposed to all capitalism, only the crony kind. And neither AAP nor Trinamool enjoy the communists' links with China, their global network of sympathizers, or their entrenched supporters in academia and the arts.

Historically, India's communist movement was long used to controlling two major states and the third-largest bloc in Parliament. Yet at the state level, the Left Front has already been knocked off its feet. The communists' sole state government, Tripura, presides over just 0.3% of India's population. Looking ahead, defeats in state elections in communist strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal in 2016–not certain, but by no means unlikely–would further dry up funding and patronage networks, making a comeback all but impossible.

There are many reasons for the communists' rapid slide into irrelevance. Over the years, West Bengal and Kerala have become bywords for militant labor unions and hostility to investment. Their brightest people head overseas or to other parts of India for employment. Two decades into liberalization, the manifesto of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) reads like a parody cooked up in the Soviet Union circa 1974.

While most Indians are anxious for jobs amidst a sharp economic slowdown, the CPI (M) frets about workers being "the main target of exploitation by the neo-liberal regime." In foreign policy, it calls for "South-South cooperation and multipolarity," and complains that India has tilted toward the U.S. and Israel. When it comes to terrorism, the communists seem to think the biggest problem facing India isn't Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Indian Mujahideen but "the bias and targeting of innocent Muslim youth."

With views like this, the most surprising thing for India's communists shouldn't be the historic defeat they face, but that it's taken this long for Indians to reject them.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is on Twitter @dhume.

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