Second to none in terms of intellect, but somewhat lacking in terms of realpolitik, the man who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Victor Kiernan and Eric Hobsbawm may be disappointed with how his decade-long stint as the CPM general secretary ultimately panned out.
As Prakash Karat bid adieu to the supreme seat of power in the party he has occupied for an extremely eventful decade, there were many who were not too sure whether all his first-rate commitment and resolve got translated into genuine gains for the foremost party of the traditional Left. “He was there in both the best of times and the worst of times for the CPM. The party rose to a major parliamentary presence as well as a rather timid variant under his leadership,” is how Soumyajit Saha, an academic, analysed the Karat years.
When he took over as the general secretary in 2005, the party still had the felicity to determine the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) agenda and it did make an impact in certain key areas of the country’s political economy. However, his and Sitaram Yechury’s studied refusal to support Jyoti Basu as the prime ministerial choice, when the opportunity presented itself in the late 1990s, still rankles with a lot of seasoned Left watchers. That strategic failure (Jyoti Basu himself called it “a historic blunder”) was followed by the failure to change the UPA’s stand on economic reforms, which were completely neoliberal. And when the Left actually withdrew support to the UPA, it was on the Indo-American civil nuclear deal, an issue that hardly had an echo at the popular level. The failure to sell the
party’s politics at the popular level came into sharp focus then, and continues to be central to its decline even now.
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Endemic dissidence in West Bengal and serious personality clashes in Kerala have gone virtually unchecked. The party’s trade union wing has been virtually dormant; such glaring anti-worker reprisals as at the Maruti plant in Haryana a couple of years ago saw spontaneous reaction even as the ‘wise’ and experienced Left unions were conspicuous by their absence. The bleak scenario in other mass organisations and even such strongholds as the Jawaharlal Nehru University speak of a general decline in the credibility of the Left. The CPM leadership during the Karat years has neither been pragmatic nor ideologically consistent, a failing that has got reflected in almost all aspects of its functioning. The need for rectification and self-criticism that the leadership talked about in a party document three years ago remained only a wish rather than becoming a reality.
The way out, according to seasoned Left watchers, is for the party to learn lessons in political mobilisation from the social democratic parties of Europe, which have exceedingly co-operated with the Left in political terms. At a time when caste and class distinctions are getting accentuated and identity politics is also raising its head, the Left’s atrophy is disturbing to its supporters, and so Karat could not have walked out on a triumphant note. He will, of course, remain a senior and respected party leader, but whether his stewardship will be similarly valued is not particularly certain.