NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Once seen as vital for any national coalition building, India’s communist parties were left badly bruised in a general election on Saturday, losing even in an eastern state they have ruled for more than three decades.
The communists, who for years drew power from the strongholds of West Bengal in the east and the southern Kerala state, lost to Congress party alliances in the two provinces and faced potential political wilderness, their traditional support base eroding.
If trends from final stages of vote count are proved true, the communists, who propped up the national coalition for four years before quitting over a nuclear deal with Washington last year, were set to see their parliamentary seats half from around 60 they won in 2004.
According to vote counting trends, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s left-of-center coalition was heading for a second term after a clear victory over the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance.
“This election is a rejection of both the right and left in favor of a centrist ideology that can walk the tightrope between capitalism and socialism,” political commentator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told Reuters.
The 2009 election was always going to be the toughest vote for the communists in years — the writing on the wall nowhere clearer than in West Bengal, home to the world’s longest-serving, democratically-elected communist government.
A domination of the state’s 42 parliamentary seats and support in Kerala had allowed the communists to hold the balance of power after the 2004 general election. They were spearheading a loose coalition of smaller parties this time which was billed by many as a potential king-maker combination.
But an aggressive land acquisition drive for industry in West Bengal saw the left alienate rural voters — the backbone of its support for decades — and send them into the folds of opposition Trinamool Congress, an ally of Congress.
In Kerala, party infighting led to the downfall of the left.
But analysts say the fate of the communists was unlikely to prompt other state governments to slow down on industrialization.
“West Bengal is a state where land holding is small and most of the land is cultivable. In other states like Maharashtra it is not so,” said political analyst Tarun Ganguly.
The absence of any communist influence on a ruling coalition brightens the prospects of crucial economic reforms in the insurance, pension and banking sectors, apart from stake sales in some state-run firms, moves once blocked by the left.
Their popularity on a downhill, the communists face a state election in West Bengal in 2011, which many say they could now lose after controlling it for three decades.
“These reverses are an opportunity for the communists to reinvent themselves as a communist party instead of looking at a profile in parliament,” said Krishna Ananth, a scholar of communist movement in India.
Additional reporting by Sujoy Dhar; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani