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

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Theory and Evidence from West Bengal

How Hegemonic Parties Decline

This article examines the electoral disintegration of the Left Front, which governed West Bengal for a record three and a half decades. Contrary to previous research on the fate of erstwhile hegemonic parties, which has emphasised the importance of pragmatism in reviving defeated hegemonic parties, it is argued that the case of West Bengal illustrates a different dynamic. Specifically, it was too much pragmatism, not less, that led to the LF’s rapid demise. The coalition’s inability to pursue a programmatic strategy of industrialisation to tackle West Bengal’s agrarian crisis resulted in massive preference falsification among voters, and subsequently, a swift electoral decline.

On 20 May 2011, Mamata Banerjee, leader of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), created history when she became the chief minister of West Bengal. Prior to the TMC’s accession to power, West Bengal had been ruled continuously for three and half decades by the Left Front (LF), a coalition of moderate left-wing parties dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M). The long reign of the LF was remarkable because no other political formation had ruled for such a length of time in any Indian state. Moreover, throughout its long stay in power, the LF was “hegemonic,” that is, opposition parties did not have a realistic chance of winning elections.

The core instrument of this hegemony was the extraordinarily dense party organisation of the CPI(M), which penetrated into each and every aspect of life in rural West Bengal, where the majority of the population of the state lives.1 This point is important because it is this attribute that not only distinguished the LF regime from other state-level party regimes in India, but also from subnational party regimes in other democracies—the Christian Democratic Party’s lengthy dominance in southern Italy being a rare exception. Though less rare, hegemonic party regimes are also infrequent at the national level in countries that are not formally one-party states—the Republican People’s Party (RPP) in Turkey, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico, the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan, the People’s Action Party in Singapore, and the Barisan Nasional in Malaysia—are a handful of past and present examples. Indeed, the very idea of party hegemony, whether at the national or subnational level, is an anathema for even the most minimalist definitions of democracy as a system that allows for alternation in power(Przeworski 1999).

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