AUSTRAL AFFAIRS: Communists of Telangana — Left of nowhere

Despite a compelling past of raising the awareness of the Telangana peasants to fight oppressive feudalism for the first time, the communist parties are today reduced to staying alive electorally

ByV V P Sharma

Published Oct 20, 2023 | 12:54 PMUpdatedOct 20, 2023 | 4:33 PM

Munugode

The two main communist parties, the CPI and the CPI(M), are in the final throes of electoral irrelevance in Telangana.

The run-up to the 2023 Assembly elections in the nascent state sees them an already demoralised lot, far removed from their heydays of political dominance.

Today, they run from party to party, seeking an electoral tie-up. They gave up on the ruling BRS after the party refused to spare them any seats. They are now dependent on the Congress for a couple of seats each.

The Congress may leave the seats for the two parties — not out of kindness, but the eagerness not to split the anti-BRS vote. The grand old party thinks it has the best chance to dethrone the ruling party if it plays its cards well.

Also read: Impasse continues over Congress-Left seat-sharing talks

Dependent for both seats and vote transfer

That is not all. Even if allotted Assembly seats, they would require a transfer of votes from the Congress and any like-minded parties to make it past the post.

Their vanity still allows them to seek at least five seats each, aware that the final figure will be much lower.
The two parties might have their eyes on specific seats in areas where they were once the most popular.

The CPI apparently has Munugode, Wyra, Kothagudem, Bellampalli, and Husnabad in its wish list. The CPI(M) might prefer Bhadrachalam, Paleru, Madhira, Miryalguda, and Ibrahimpatnam.

Their seat choices are based only on past performances in the undivided Andhra Pradesh, and certainly not on their unenviable electoral records since 2014.

To be fair to them, however, one must take into account the strong Telangana sentiment that drove the voters of the new state towards the then TRS, seen as the leader of the struggle for the new state. However, it is also true that the Left parties no longer had a committed vote bank to hold onto.

Here is a classic case of an influential Left leader whose electoral defeats became progressively ignominious over the last few elections.

Also read: BRS has no alliance plans with the communists

Electoral highs and lows of the Left

Take the case of the Bellampalli assembly constituency, which falls under the Peddapalli Lok Sabha seat in the Mancherial district.

In 2009, the last election held in undivided Andhra Pradesh, CPI candidate Gunda Mallesh won the seat, securing 41,957 votes or a 41.04 percent vote share. His margin of victory over his Congress rival was 8,892 votes.

In 2014, the first election in Telangana, Mallesh got only 21,251 votes, and his vote share was reduced to 17.79 percent.

Still, he came second, the winning TRS candidate getting a whopping share of 61.76. That translated into 73,779 votes. Incidentally, the Congress was nowhere in the picture.

In 2018, the TRS retained the seat, securing a reduced but still formidable 55,026 votes (43.16 percent). The CPI’s Mallesh managed a paltry 3,905 votes (3.06 percent), faring slightly better than the BJP and NOTA, and coming fourth in the election.

Remember, Mallesh is no sophomore in politics. The veteran CPI leader had earlier won thrice from the Asifabad constituency (1983, 1985, and 1994) and even served as the floor leader of his party in the state Assembly.

The Marxists were no less powerful. In the 1994 election, the CPI(M)’s Kunja Bojji secured a massive 62.55 percent vote share or 71,768 votes out of the turnout of 1,14,728 votes. The candidate’s margin of victory of 39,265 votes was more than the combined votes secured by the candidates in the second, third, and fourth spots.

Even the Telangana wave could not stop a CPI(M) victory from that constituency in 2014. The winning candidate polled 57,750 votes (34.78 percent). In 2018, the party came third with 14,228 votes, with a lowest-ever vote share of 12.88 percent.

The TRS, which came fourth in 2014 with 8,728 votes (5.26 percent), improved its situation and crept up to the second spot in 2018, securing 35,961 votes, increasing its vote share by more than six times to 32.56 percent.

Also read: Junior partners are dealt with in perfunctory manner

Why is the Left in such a pitiable state?

Journalist, poet and Editor of Veekshanam, N Venugopal, says wryly: “The parliamentary Communist parties have been done and out for some years now. They have lost their mass base. They have lost their credibility. They sacrificed their ideology for political and electoral opportunism.”

The communist watcher looks back at how, in the early 1950s, the CPI was an all-powerful party at the height of its glory and says that even today, they have purchasing power in some parts of Nalgonda, Karimnagar, and Warangal because they still have some collective memories of the Telangana struggle that they spearheaded decades ago.

Venugopal summarises how they worked their way to irrelevance:

*In the course of time, their rivalry (that led to the split) became more important to them than their collective struggle against other political parties and ideological opponents.

*In the post-1983 period, they started tying up with other political parties, beginning with the TDP. However, alliances with the ruling party began to weaken the cadre’s commitment and middle-level leaders started moving towards the ruling parties.

*A classic example of such desertion is of Chennamaneni Rajeswara Rao, a CPI stalwart and active participant in the Telangana armed struggle, long-time legislator and the man getting pensions for freedom fighters of the Telangana Rebellion. Despite his communist credentials, Rajeswara Rao sent shock waves by joining the TDP and even representing it in the Assembly.

*In subsequent years, the Left parties showed less interest in leading mass movements and taking up people’s causes. Recruitments to communist youth federations on university campuses slowed down, though the government stopping students’ union elections for the last 34 years is also a contributing factor.

*Communist leaders in the higher echelons allegedly faced charges of corruption along with political opportunism as they sought to have alliances with ruling parties.”

Also read: Jeevanandam, Communist leader and Tamil literary enthusiast

Telangana and communism: shared history

The roots of the Indian communist movement may have been in the North, but they fast percolated to the South.

The October Revolution stirred political sentiments in restive India, and the 1920s dawned, bringing with them a slew of actions and decisions that would make communism take firm roots on the subcontinent.

So many things happened in that decade. MN Roy, Shaukat Usmani, and others were busy founding the émigré Communist Party of India in Tashkent. Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement. Malayapuram Singaravelu, a Madras-based lawyer who would become one of the CPI’s founding fathers, founded the Labour Kishan Paty of Hindusthan and on 1 May, 1923, where, reportedly for the first time, the red flag was used in India.

To the north of Madras, in Andhra, the communist movement took root rapidly among the peasantry in the Godavari-Krishna delta in the early 1930s. Peasant organisations like the All India Kisan Sabha began to spread communist principles.

Also read: Paradip port and the borderlands of 2026

The Telangana peasants’ rebellion

The Andhra communists entered the Telangana region in the Madhira-Khammam area. Small communist bodies were established in Nalgonda and Warangal. In 1941, the Regional Committee of the CPI in Telangana was established.

Communists in Telangaa

A group of communists during the Telangana rebellion. (Wikimedia Commons)

The situation of peasants in Telangana was dire at that time. The Nizams ruled Hyderabad, which was a feudal monarchy. The Zamindars, the Nizami royalty and their vassals owned much of the land. It was pretty easy for the communists to assess the magnitude of the oppression of the peasants and organise them to fight for their rights.

What was subsequently called the “insurrection” of peasants was called the Telangana Rebellion, or Telangana Sayudha Poratam, waged between 1946 and 1951.

The rural areas would never be the same again as the movement sought to reduce caste and gender animosities, redistribute land and, importantly, led to the setting up of a parallel administration in thousands of villages. These were called the Grama Rajyams, too, looking after the daily problems of the peasants.

The movement became popular and spread across the Telangana countryside, covering Nalgonda, Warangal, Karimnagar, and Khammam, and influencing people in Mahbubnagar, Nizamabad, Hyderabad, Medak and Adilabad.

Meanwhile, India attained independence, and in late 1947, and the government launched a military operation to annexe Hyderabad. The state forces and the Razakars were subdued within a week. The agitating peasants never expected the military to turn on them next, and the Grama Rajyams were targeted one by one.

The armed communist struggle was seen as a threat. Several communist leaders were arrested. In October 1951, the CPI’s Central Committee formally ended the rebellion.

Then began the parliamentary path the communists adopted by taking part in state and national elections, riding on a wave of growing people’s support and performing unexpectedly well at the hustings.

Also read: Pagideru, one of the most brutal encounters in erstwhile AP

Assessment of the communists’ role

Much has been written since then on the role of the communists in the rebellion and its outcome. Historian Inukonda Thirumali, also an activist for separate statehood for Telangana, writes in an article, The Political Pragmatism of the Communists in Telangana, 1938-1948 (Social Scientist; 1996) that the movement was also a failure due to the party’s semi-abandonment of the labour castes.

He has to say this: “The Party moved primarily according to the pressures and evolved and was shaped by the understanding and perspectives of the dominant participants, i.e., rich peasant castes. The Communists ignored the underlying caste solidarities in a tradition-bound and caste-ridden Telangana society, which caused dissensions in the movement, particularly during the Indian Union’s military action.

“The labour caste groups resented and disassociated themselves from the party, dominated by the upper caste peasants and either became inactive or organized themselves separately.”

Analysing how the Grama Rajyams functioned under the communists, Thirumali writes that the political leadership “did not understand and believe in developing the political perspectives of the labour communities/castes”.

As a result, and in the name of the anti-feudal programme, “the entire movement, the party and the mass organisation passed into the hands of upper caste peasants”. In documents and books, the entire movement was shown “only as the peasant movement, undermining the political role the labourers played during the struggle”.

Examining the gradual decline of the Left parties in Telangana, academics Ravi Kumar and Devulapally Kotesh, in their book, Struggling Against and Struggling Within: A Historical View of Left Politics in Telangana Region (working paper series, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, 2017) note that the Left “failed to consider regional specificities and determined its local politics through the national lens”.

While splits occurred in the Left and new parties sprung up as a result, none was successful in attaining the heights of popularity before. “…none have been entirely successful in appealing to the masses because, as we have seen, they failed to understand the complex social realities.

“Despite the rise of the lower social groups within the party and out in the society through educational exposure, the parties have consistently refused to engage with these questions of social reality, imagining a pure ‘class’ structure in Telangana, which was already hierarchically divided into different caste groups.”

Also read: Who killed Gopi Rajanna, civil rights activist in erstwhile Andhra?

Future of communist parties in Telangana

Senior journalist Venugopal draws from his political experience to explain why the communists find themselves where they are today: “They could not understand the Indian social structure properly. For many decades, they did not understand the role of caste in Indian society. Their unholy alliances with the ruling parties, according to the convenience of the leaders, that opportunism, percolated down to the cadres and the entire party structure got affected.”

He is clear that even today, communist ideology “is not lost”. The “if-only-Anna-were-here” sentiment continues to exist.

But “the way the parliamentary parties ran the show, that has become a big issue. It is not a question of ideological moorings but the way they handled the situation, the way they handled the parties, the struggles. Basically, opportunism and corruption, both these issues have dented their support base”.

In sum, his understanding, having examined the communist movement in the state, is: “The objectives which they (communists) have propagated, have not lost. The credibility of these people delivering the objective is lost.”

Can they reinvent themselves? Venugopal is categorical: “Unless a young and new leadership comes into the fray and they have the power to change the direction, that cannot happen. The leadership is now entrenched. They will not give it to the young generation.”