Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently warned that all the extreme rightist and leftist groups are joining forces with the opposition BNP to try to oust her government. “Now they [BNP] are saying they will forge movement from the 11th (January)…they got their companions from the extreme leftists and rightists. All extremists are gathering in one place to topple us from power,” she said.
To add a little noise to the chaos, some leftist parties join hands with the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and far-right Bangladesh Jamaat E Islami aiming to topple the elected government.
You can also read: Part One: BNP’s Brutal Politics vs Role of EC
Unlike their past glorious contribution to the Liberation War, the anti-British movement, Tebhaga movement, and others, leftist politics have now been unable to promote the niche political dynamism needed to attract citizens toward their agendas. Leftist leaders in our country remain at the periphery of TV talk shows, and candlelight vigils at Dhaka University limiting their reach low and unconvincing.
Once mighty left-leaning political parties in Bangladesh now struggle to delay the final nail in their coffin as the theories of the Red Revolution proved an illusion in our society and they failed to adopt new strategies given the backdrop of our political landscape.
Heroes Once Lived Here
In the 1960s, Bhashani, known as the Red Maulana, led the resistance against Ayyub Khan’s military rule in East Pakistan. Fast forward to the 1971 Liberation War, where the Awami League led the fight for freedom while left-leaning student leaders, including ASM Abdur Rab, Shahjahan Siraj, and Nur-e-Alam Siddique, orchestrated armed opposition against the Pakistani forces.
The exploited masses in Bangladesh consistently supported these left-leaning fighters, engaged in an unwavering battle across ideological, cultural, political, economic, and organizational fronts. Despite facing deviations, delusions, flaws, and failures, the fragmented Bangladesh left stood united under the banner of liberation.
Firebrand leftist leader Moni Sing writes: “The Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), National Awami Party, and Bangladesh Students Union organized a guerrilla force with 5,000 members to join the war for liberation. Moreover, the two political parties and the student organization organized 12,000 youths and sent them to the Liberation Force under the provisional government of Bangladesh. (‘Muktijuddha o Communist Party’, pp 15–30”
The small proportion of the left continues to exert influence in the country’s politics. Firebrand leaders like Rashed Khan Menon and Hasanul Haq Inu play key roles in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Cabinet, while Matia Chowdhury, a passionate follower of Maulana Bhashani, holds a prominent position as one of Sheikh Hasina’s closest advisers.
Although the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) is described as a declining organization, it is led by the widely respected Mujahidul Islam Selim, who remains a voice of reason and anti-establishment politics. Over the last two decades, the CPB has voiced its commitment to protecting labor rights and ensuring environmental conservation.
Having previously played such an active role in our politics, what then explains the state of the Left in our politics today?
The Current Situation
When left-leaning parties, platforms, and individuals started to move away from the very principles of their ideologies that they historically cherished, Bangladesh slowly moved towards the era of power politics or block politics.
Today, we observe a political scenario characterized by extensive compromise and pursuit of power, leading to a paradox where renowned leftist leaders find themselves incorporating into the very party they vehemently criticized during their political journeys.
Grouping with bigger parties and leaving ideology sadly reveal their organizational bankruptcy as they, individually, are alienated from the masses.
The collapse of left wings in Bangladesh seems practical because the leftist groups split into many variations of ideologies and parties. These parties had variations not only as a party but also in individuals even in the same party. They appear to have so many subgroups even after. The small groups that are left are now nothing but theorists. They are far from the people and even don’t know well about their ideology.
Politicking Through Bigger Parties: Erosion of Party Power
Leftist parties in Bangladesh lack a distinguishable voice compared to their center-right or far-right counterparts. Historically, leftist parties avoided the wrath of authoritarian rulers by politicking through more mainstream parties. Dictatorial rule and legal barriers necessitated their collaboration with mainstream parties to achieve common goals—such as independence from Pakistan and the end of military dictatorship—but this strategy also meant leftist parties operated under the shadow of their mainstream counterparts.
Following the end of military rule in 1991, coalition politics exacerbated this dependency, further compromising leftists’ ability to push their agenda. There are some benefits and profits of coalition politics. In fear of losing those benefits and profits, [leftists] sometime take a softer approach in speaking against oppression and unfairness and in favor of changing laws.
Because of this opportunism, sometimes they do not come off as active in the field, inside and outside the parliament, or on the street as one expects them to.
These explanations demonstrate that leftist parties in a coalition often become less able to hold centrist parties accountable and push for alternative policy proposals. The leading parties, too, take advantage of this dependency by not taking leftist policy proposals into consideration.
Reputational Damage: The “Elitist” And “Atheist” Image
Leftist politicians in the Indian subcontinent are often seen as belonging to the elite class. In nineteenth-century Bengal, Marxism gained popularity among a select and influential group of educated, young Hindus called Bhadraloks or gentlemen. While this enlightened group played a significant role in the Bengali Renaissance, they were also viewed as elitist and disconnected from the practical realities of the world.
This perception intensified following the 1947 partition when a small group of Hindu communists opted to remain in East Pakistan instead of migrating to West Bengal, India, due to concerns about communal violence. Those who chose to stay were predominantly educators, constraining the leftists’ ability to advocate for communist ideas within the “petty-bourgeoisie or lower-middle classes, and among students,” thereby reinforcing their elitist image. Additionally, legal constraints hindered the free operation of these parties under the military dictatorship of united Pakistan, further diminishing their opportunities to broaden their influence beyond these specific social classes.
For this elitist comfort zone, the tendency to talk about revolution from the comfortable urban setting is one of the biggest reasons behind the leftists’ failure to emerge as an alternative political force.
Leftists in Bangladesh also have a reputation for being atheists. The label complicates the establishment of robust grassroots connections and a loyal support base due to the prevalent anti-atheist stigma in the country. In Bangladesh, openly declaring oneself as an atheist, especially in rural areas, often elicits strong negative reactions, with Bengali Muslims expressing fear and discomfort at the mention of atheism.
Mobilizational Limitations: Lack of Issue and Organizational Linkages
Leftist parties in Greece, Portugal, and Spain have found success in the past decade by forging connections with like-minded groups and civil society organizations. Such alliances provide legitimacy, positioning these parties as integral components of the political landscape and strengthening their messages. Establishing, infiltrating, or cooperating with civil society organizations enhances credibility and encourages grassroots support.
In contrast, historical ties between leftist parties and trade unions have weakened, limiting access to this vital support. In East Pakistan, leftist dominance in unions declined after General Ayub Khan’s anti-communist campaign in the 1960s. Subsequent regimes further eroded leftist influence, with mandatory labor fronts dividing unions during Ziaur Rahman’s rule.
By the time of Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s regime, leftist parties were organizationally weak, losing ground to the dominance of BNP and Awami League fronts in unions. Despite a commitment to working-class issues in official documents, leftist parties faced challenges in championing labor rights due to constraints on trade union activities. The historical shift highlights the struggle of leftist parties to maintain influence over their core constituency amid changing political landscapes and constraints on traditional alliances.
Intraparty feuds and a lack of internal democracy as two of the biggest weaknesses of leftist parties. During the 1971 fight for an independent Bangladesh, divisions emerged within leftist support for the liberation war, a historical event that contemporary leftist politicians now regret for the missed opportunity of unity in a critical moment of national politics. Following Bangladesh’s independence, ongoing debates regarding the ideal form of social revolution and interpersonal conflicts among party leaders have further solidified these divisions.
Leftist parties continued the tradition of factional politics into post-authoritarian Bangladesh. Disagreements within the party predominantly stem from personal conflicts disguised as ideological rivalries. The persistence of personal disputes is attributed to a lack of internal democracy, an incapacity to embrace diverse perspectives within the party, and the absence of rigorously enforced party discipline. These factors contribute to the intractability of personal disputes, further deepening divisions among leftist parties.
Fractionalization has affected leftist politics in three ways: it fragmented their voter base, reduced their organizational strength, and diminished leftist parties’ individual and collective bargaining power vis-à-vis the centrist parties in power.