ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The United Left Bloc in Bihar

Poor material conditions, the shifts in national politics and a common agenda against neoliberalism result in the formation of a new United Left Bloc featuring the three largest communist parties in Bihar.


The United Left Bloc in Bihar

Chirashree Dasgupta

West Bengal while the CPI’s base in Bhagalpur has declined. The ongoing agitation of flood victims led by the CPI-M in Supaul is a pointer to its organisational presence there.

Poor material conditions, the shifts in national politics and a common agenda against neoliberalism result in the formation of a new United Left Bloc featuring the three largest communist parties in Bihar.

Chirashree Dasgupta ( is an economist with the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 7, 2009

he announcement of the constitution of the United Left Bloc (ULB) by the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation – CPI-ML(L) – in Bihar on 12 January 2009 to conduct joint struggles on issues of common concern and contest the coming Lok Sabha election as a “bloc” is a historic first in the state. The electoral rationale for left unity had existed for over a decade. The splitting of the left vote had been one of the reasons why there was no left member of Parliament (MP) from Bihar in the Lok Sabha in 1998 and 2004. It was also an important reason for the dwindling number of left MPs from Bihar – from nine in 1991 to one in 1999 in a period marked by the rise of the CPI-ML(L) in Bihar.

Once the electoral alliance was agreed upon, the seat sharing exercise was seamless. There was contention only on one seat which both the CPI and CPI-ML(L) wanted to contest, but this was resolved in favour of the CPI-ML(L). Together, the ULB will contest in 33 out of the 40 parliamentary constituencies in Bihar. The CPI will contest in six seats, the CPI-M in five and the CPI-ML(L) will field candidates in 21 Lok Sabha seats.

Historically, the undivided CPI had an organisational presence all over prebifurcation Bihar. The CPI-ML(L) today has a similar statewide presence, but has a far wider reach in south and central Bihar compared to the north. Districts like Begusarai, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga and Madhubani in the north and Jahanabad, Buxar, Gaya and Bhagalpur in central Bihar had been CPI strongholds. After 1964, the CPI-M’s organisational base expanded in north Bihar contending with the CPI. The CPI-M has an organisational presence in pockets like Darbhanga in north Bihar and Bhagalpur and Nawada in central Bihar. In Muzaffarpur, all three parties have a significant organisational presence. The CPI-M has seen an erosion of its base in the district of Purnea which borders

vol xliv no 10

Seat sharing in north Bihar was the key issue where all three parties have a contending presence with similar social base. Champaran, the site of historical land struggles, has four parliamentary seats. The ULB has split the seats among itself such that all three parties are contesting one seat in Champaran. In south and central Bihar, the CPI lost its social base first to the Maoists and then to the CPI-ML(L). Thus, the CPI-ML(L) has built up a strong presence in Jahanabad, Buxar, and Gaya while the CPI still has a presence in Banka and Jamui. Maoists have an active presence in these areas which border Jharkhand. These are also areas with a higher concentration of dalits compared to north Bihar. Thus equitable seat sharing in north Bihar reflects the contending geographical and social base of the three left parties while the large share of the CPI-ML(L) in central and south Bihar seats points to its strength.

But it also reflects the difference in how the parties regard the purpose of electoral battles. The CPI and CPI-M have contended a few seats concentrating on either the probability of a win or the possibility of making a mark in altering the vote shares of the contestants. The CPI-ML(L) has always fielded a large number of candidates using elections as an opportunity to campaign and have been less concerned with winning or in playing a decisive role in the results. This reflects in vote shares of the three parties in constituencies that they have contested and the proportion of forfeited deposits in past elections. The CPI and CPI-M have a higher share of votes polled in the constituencies where they have contested and a much smaller proportion of forfeitures compared to the CPI-ML(L) in elections since 1996. This difference in strategy ruled out any possibility of conflict on a large number of seats.

The strategic pooling of left votes through an electoral alliance could reach fruition only in the run-up to the 2009 general elections in a decade where there has been a sharpening of political struggles in Bihar. One therefore needs to delve


into the specific political basis of the alliance in the materiality of Bihar’s polity within the overall national context.

Recent Political History

Nineteen seventy-seven marked the electoral resolution of a decade of social upheaval in Bihar with a distinct mandate for a shift away from the Congress. Bihar played an important role in the formation of the two landmark non-Congress governments at the centre in 1977 and in 1989. Each marked a culmination of social churning, one traced to the longer political history of land struggles in Bihar and the other to the aspirations for social justice that emerged out of caste oppression (Kumar 2004: 318). The two were not unrelated; but the socialists moved towards caste-based identity politics while the CPI remained mired in a mechanical economistic primacy of class at the cost of the “social”.

Table 1: Seats/Percentage Vote Shares of Left Parties in the ULB in General Elections

Year Seats (Bihar) Share of Votes in Bihar Total Vote Share of the All India Vote Share of the warned the Janata CPI CPI-M CPI-ML(L) Three Parties in Bihar Three Parties

Dal government led

1991 9 7.55 1.41 – 8.96 8.66

by Laloo Prasad

1996 3 5.08 0.84 2.11 8.03 8.09

Yadav of dire conse

1998 0 3.4 0.4 2.12 5.92 7.16

quences if it failed to

1999 1 2.69 0.98 2.47 6.14 7.21

check the struggles.

2004 0 1.17 0.77 2.41 4.35 7.4

Source: Election Commission, Statistical Reports, various years.

The Jayaprakash Narayan (JP)-led movement with its call for the “end of ideology” and the popular reaction to the intense repression of the Emergency sounded the death knell of Congress monopoly that had been challenged since the late 1960s in electoral politics at the centre and in Bihar (ibid). But the left, mainly represented by the CPI in Bihar became quite redundant in national electoral politics at a time when Bihar’s polity became crucial for political equations of the non-Congress governments at the centre. This was in keeping with the broader national pattern of the CPI paying the price for its alliance with the Congress between 1971 and 1977. It failed to return a single MP from Bihar in 1977 whereas it had sent three in both 1967 and 1971.

The decades of the 1980s were years of further decline with the rise of Maoism as a potent political movement eating into the traditional base of the left in Bihar. The intensification of caste and class c onfrontations with the rise of the private senas of upper-caste landlords, and a gradual democratisation embodied in the emergence of a new rank of political leaders in Bihar through the political assertion of “backward castes” on the plank of social justice, took the wind out of left mobilisation.

The early 1990s, however, led to a change in the situation. The material basis for left struggles had re-emerged in Bihar with a government that was a challenge to upper-caste hegemony and yet no visible empowerment of the small and marginal peasants who were mostly dalits and other “backwards”. The CPI, though still the largest left party, went back to mobilisations around land reform. So did the CPI-M and the newly formed CPI(ML) soon to split into CPI-ML(L). The land struggles were led separately by the three parties in different parts of Bihar. This led to an uproar in the state legislature when the Bharatiya

Janata Party (BJP)

The Congress sided

with the BJP. For the first time in several decades the floor was split on a class basis between the left and the right. Laloo Prasad Yadav gave an assurance that the police would not use bullets against peasants who were involved in the land kabza. But lathis and arrests did follow. This forged a tacit understanding among the three left p arties on land issues. However, it soon broke down when the CPI-ML(L) gave a call for nationalisation of land in contrast to the CPI and CPI-M’s call for implementation of existing legislation on land reforms based on “land to the tiller”. The movement then lost momentum but there are pockets in north and central Bihar even today where peasants have retained their kabza on the land acquired through the struggle.

The expansion of the social base of the CPI-ML(L), and the consolidation of the CPI and the CPI-M in pockets were partly reflected in the total vote shares of the three parties in elections between 1991

march 7, 2009

and 1996 where it was marginally higher than the national average. The vote share of the CPI and the CPI-M however continued to diminish in each successive general election in this period except in 1999 when the CPI-M won in Nawada for the second time after 1989. This decline of the two parties while the CPI-ML(L) held on to its electoral share led to a much faster decline in share of left votes in Bihar compared to the national share of the left (Table 1). This decline was also visible in the two state elections between 1995 and 2000. The CPI, the CPI-M, the CPI (ML) and the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) won 40 seats in 1995 but in 2000 their collective tally fell to 13 with both the CPI and the CPI-M facing an overall decline. The CPI contesting without an ally in a long time won only five seats in 2000 compared to 21 in 1995. The CPI-ML(L), which contested fewer seats than the CPI, won six while the CPI-M though it held on to its vote share in alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), won two compared to four in 1995. The MCC drew a blank (Kumar 2000).

Thus, the pooling of the left electoral base emerged as a point of discussion among the left in Bihar in successive elections since 1999. However, there were two major obstacles to emergence of such an alliance.

Programmatic Differences

First, the national priorities since 1998 had significantly diverged for the CPI/ CPI-M which were aligned nationally and the CPI-ML(L). While formulations on imperialism, neoliberalism and communalism were paramount in the formulation of national strategies for all three parties, there was and still is a gulf between the CPI-ML(L)’s assessment and the CPI and CPI-M’s as left allies, of national priorities reflected in electoral strategies in each successive election since 1996. Second, programmatic differences of the three parties were important in how each looked at the class character of Bihar’s “regional parties” that had gained national stature like the RJD, the Samata Party and later the Janata Dal (United)-JD(U) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and their r elationship with the two major parties of the ruling class – the Congress and the

vol xliv no 10


BJP. While all three parties have a history of alliances with the different contending factions of what Gupta (2007) terms the “cockney elite” in Bihar, the disagreement on the question of non-left allies stood in the way of a left alliance. This is reflected in the CPI-ML(L)’s assessment of the prepoll situation in the 2005 state elections that dislodged the RJD and brought the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and with it the BJP to power in Bihar for the first time:

The debate surrounding the formation of a third front was one of the central features of the run-up to the fresh elections in Bihar. Within Left ranks – not just the CPI(ML) which emerged as the largest Left force in the last polls, but inside the CPI too – the aspiration for a Left unity was strong. The disastrous consequences of a continued alliance with Laloo was quite clear, and though the CPI-M refused to entertain any possibility of breaking with the Congress-RJD combine, the urge for a third alternative could no longer be suppressed within the ranks of the CPI. The CPI(ML) maintained all along that any third force could not be a mere remake of the UPA-model with a slightly different cast; a meaningful and effective third camp could only be forged with a resurgent Left at its centre (CPI-ML(L) 2005).

The CPI-ML(L) held the CPI-M responsible for the failure of a third front in 2005 with the collapse of its hopes on the LJP, but, there clearly lies a difference in the assessment of the class character of the RJD and the LJP that defined the CPI-M’s alliance with the RJD and the CPI-ML(L)’s attempted alliance with the LJP.

Easing of National Compulsions

Since then, all three parties have reviewed their alliances at the state level and separately come to the conclusion that the respective alliances have only led to political loss. With the left’s withdrawal of support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the centre, the national compulsions that existed on the CPI-M in Bihar have also eased. Further, the CPI-M’s adoption of the third front as political strategy for the 2009 elections has also led to convergence with the CPI-ML(L) in Bihar.

Moreover, beyond electoral equations, the strong emphasis on neoliberalism in the successive governments at the centre created a material basis for joint struggles

Economic & Political Weekly

march 7, 2009

at the state level. Nationally, this had g athered force in the trade union movement led by the left since the 1990s in the series of joint actions and strikes since 1991. The trade unions affiliated to the three left parties in Bihar had been part of these struggles with state-specific d imensions.

But as long as the RJD was in power, the full thrust of neoliberal policy implementation at the state level had been held at bay. Ironically, this had very little to do with the RJD’s “non-policies” itself at the state level that led to its “failure to govern”. It had much more to do with the centre’s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism. The RJD government bore the brunt of the fiscal crisis at the state level unleashed by central policies of the 1990s. While the impact on all state governments had been severe (Chandrasekhar and Ghosh 2000), Bihar’s crisis was compounded by its historically high fiscal dependence on the centre and a mismatch between post-bifurcation shares of assets and liabilities. The neoliberal assault on the state’s fiscal structure reinforced the conditions of backwardness traceable to the pre- and post-independence history of the state being at the receiving end of policies that deepened regional inequality (Guruswamy 2007), central policies before and after liberalisation that reinforced undermining of state-level institutions (Ghosh 2007) and the structural features of Bihar’s primarily feudal agrarian society (Das 1983). The RJD government in its last tenure after presiding over the bifurcation of the state remained trapped in fiscal crisis in a period of overall low economic growth and the check on expenditure after the fodder scam.

NDA and Neoliberalism

The NDA government in contrast came to power at a time of buoyant central revenues and easing of the fiscal crisis of the states in a high economic growth scenario that again had very little to do with the state government’s policies. However, with the BJP holding key ministries like finance it has been pushing through neoliberal policies systematically at the state level. From the abolition of the agricultural marketing societies to the hurried adoption of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act immediately

vol xliv no 10

after coming to power and cutting of stamp duties as part of the conditional ties of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the government has fallen in line with neoliberal wisdom.

This ideological shift is reflected in inten sified casualisation of state government employees and moves towards privatisation starting with the Bihar State Electricity Board. The implementation of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) based on a rationale of ensuring service delivery without employing regular w orkers has led to a demonstration by accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers in Patna in November 2007 for proper wages and work conditions. They were met with water cannons and lathis. Below poverty line listing, the rural employment guarantee programme implementation, the operation of the restructured public distribution system have all added to newer modes of primitive accumulation while the so-called “targeted beneficiaries” have been left in the lurch. In a period of high inflation, livelihood insecurity has been compounded by the massive floods in 2007 and 2008 in which more than half of Bihar’s 38 districts were submerged. On top of this came intensive destruction of the Kosi in six districts in August 2008. The agitation of flood v ictims was once again met with rampant arrests and force.

The NDA government soon after coming to power instituted a Land Reforms Commission which submitted its report in early 2008. The government has not formally accepted and released this report. Under these circumstances, the demands from the early 1990s to allot land to the landless (largely the section of people accor ded Mahadalit status by the NDA government through another commission) and give parchadharis the actual kabza of their lands has been resurrected by the ULB.

Power Tussles

Meanwhile, the power tussle within the ruling class has been reconciled between the traditional upper-caste landed ruling class and the emerging sections of the “backward” nouveau elite through the power-sharing arrangements reached by the Congress and the RJD and LJP in the


UPA, and the BJP and the JD(U) in the NDA in the last five years.

The BJP as a junior partner in the state government is facilitating the reassertion of the traditional ruling class constituted by the upper caste big landowners along with the appeasement of the nouveau-rich urban upper class that derives its wealth from the financial market and real estate. While using the state for primitive accumulation through rentier means had accelerated in urban areas powered by real estate and finance, the class logic of “good governance” has become clear under the NDA. Most types of crime in Bihar have decli ned since the NDA came to power, but, rape, the traditional instrument of display of upper class might, has increased significantly during the NDA rule. Castebased organisations of the upper castes are being actively promoted by the Hindu right. Organi sations of the Kayastha samaj, Brahman samaj, and the Vaishya samaj have been formed in the last one year. The Sangh parivar made a further neo-fascist political assertion through its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leading an abhiyan against alle ged “B angladeshi infiltrators” in Kishan ganj, Bihar’s only Muslim majority district in September 2008.

The RJD, LJP and the JD(U) with their wider social support base have also carved out on caste lines and are now faced with the challenge of single-leader led parties that when in power are dependent on the bureaucracy and when out of it on the parallel mechanisms of money and muscle power. This puts a limit on their political manoeuvrability. Both the RJD and the LJP are implicated in the Congress’ overt strategic tie with imperialism sanctified by the Indo-US nuclear deal and the de facto neoliberalism of the UPA. The JD(U) is actively implementing neoliberal policies in alliance with the BJP. Thus the RJD, LJP and the JD(U) have foreclosed any room for the three left parties to consider possibilities of alliances.

In a state where government jobs are the only source of livelihood security, the JD(U) reneged on its electoral promise and previous agreement of the government with trade unions on implementing central pay scales for non-gazetted employees since 1 January 2006. It institutionalised recruitment of teachers and health workers on consolidated pay and contractual employment services. After the first round of recruitment to fill vacancies under contractual employment, it has stopped further recruitment of teachers. Fourth grade employees, daily rated workers, ASHAs and anganwadi workers came together with all other trade unionised non-gazetted employees over a seven-point charter of demands based on these issues. The state government refused to negotiate with the unions on the charter. This led to a 34-day strike that started on 7 January 2009. The government still refused to negotiate. Instead, a covert BJP-affiliated citizens’ forum filed a public interest litigation against the strike. The strike ended after a high court intervention directed the government to go to the negotiating table. This strike followed by a joint dharna by the three left parties on common issues for joint struggles formed the material basis of the ULB.

The dichotomy between the “social justice” agenda and the economic struggle has blurred in a conjuncture in which the electoral battle and the political struggles of the three left parties have finally found a meeting point to cement the material basis of the ULB in Bihar – a scenario that had been impossible less than four years ago.


Chandrasekhar, C P and J Ghosh (2000): “Fiscal Devolution in the Era of Globalisation”, Macroscan, aug00/fis220 800Fiscal_Devolution_1.htm, Viewed on 9 February 2009.

Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation) (2005): “Bihar Polls: Towards a Powerful Left Assertion”, Liberation, October.

Das, A N (1983): Agrarian Unrest and Socio-economic Change 1900-1980 (New Delhi: Manohar).

Ghosh, P P (2007): “Change from the Middle”, S eminar, 580, December, pp 34-37.

Gupta, S (2006): “Nine Months of Nitish”, Bihar Times, http://www.bihartimes. com/ articles/ shaibal/ ninemonthsofnitish.html, viewed on 9 February 2009.

Guruswamy, M (2007): “Centrally Planned Inequality”, Seminar, 580, December, pp 41-44.

Kumar, S (2000): “The Return of the RJD”, Frontline, 17 (6), 18-31 March, http://www. hinduonnet. com/fline/fl1706/1706 0270.htm, viewed on 9 February 2009.

– (2004): “New Phase in Backward Caste Politics in Bihar, 1990-2000” in Shah G (ed.), Caste and Democratic Politics in India (New Delhi: Permanent Black), pp 315-55.

Krishna Raj Memorial Scholarships 2008-09

The third annual Krishna Raj Memorial Scholarships instituted in memory of the weekly’s distinguished editor of 35 years have been awarded.

The Sameeksha Trust has established three sets of scholarships at different levels of education – at a school, undergraduate college and postgraduate institution. The scholarships have been designed for award in either the educational institutions Krishna Raj attended or in the city (Mumbai) where he spent all his professional life.

NSSKPT High School, Ottappalam, Kerala

Four scholarships, for two girls and two boys have been awarded in the school where Krishna Raj studied for a few years. The scholarships cover tuition fees, uniforms, books and special coaching. In 2008-09, the scholarships have been awarded to Vishnu C K and Bhageeshma K D (VIIIth standard) and Sarika P A, Sreejith P S (Xth standard).

SNDT College for Women, Mumbai

Two scholarships have been awarded to adivasi students in the social sciences stream of the BA course. The scholarship cover tuition and examination fees and boarding and lodging expenses in the college hostel. In 2008-09 the scholarships have been awarded to Ruke Veena Vijayanand (Second Year BA Geography) and Sneha Ramesh Yadav (Third Year BA Economics).

Delhi School of Economics

The aim of the Krishna Raj Summer/Internship Programme is to enable university students to participate in field surveys and related activities around issues that have social relevance.

Four teams of 25 university students led by the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics conducted a field survey in December 2008 in collaboration with the Ministry of Rural Development, in Allahabad (UP) and Ranchi (Jharkhand) districts on bank payments of NREGA wages reaching the workers in various panchayats.

march 7, 2009 vol xliv no 10

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top