Alimuddin Street, Kolkata, had not seen a sight like this before — not once in the 50 years of the CPM’s existence had hundreds of its cadres gathered at the West Bengal unit’s headquarters and raised slogans against state and national leaders of the party. Many of them carried tell-tale placards that said: “The party is as much mine as it is yours. It is not anyone’s private, paternal property.” This happened barely days after the stunning 2014 Lok Sabha poll results were announced, when sidelined CPM leaders Subhonil Chowdhury, Prasenjit Bose and outspoken senior state leader Abdur Razzak Molla formalised their revolt against the leadership and hit the road, ostensibly to revive a party that had shown them the door for voicing dissent.
In a predetermined reaction, the CPM leadership immediately discounted the rebellion and dismissed the protest as one that had been mounted by “outsiders”. However, three days after the game-changing 22 May rally, the party brass were forced to acknowledge the need to introspect, and convened a state committee meeting that was attended by general secretary Prakash Karat, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and politburo member Sitaram Yechury, among others. The party leadership could no longer pretend that the problem did not exist. At the meeting, several insiders are understood to have voiced similar misgivings. The series of poll debacles and acute political crises, which hit the lowest point in the General Election, has led sections of the party to seek a change in leadership. Karat, along with West Bengal state secretary Biman Bose and former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, were at the receiving end of fierce criticism from many district leaders.
The buzz in informed circles is that state party leaders such as Amal Halder, Mainul Hasan and Manab Mukhopadhay have also raised their voice and sought a complete overhaul in the party on the organisational front, as well as a change in the top leadership. The thinking is that the top leadership has been at a complete loss even as the party has steadily lost the plot post-Nandigram and Singur.
In his official utterances, Karat has consistently shot down any possibility of a change of guard or leadership, saying, “Communist parties are not governed by panic, and poll debacles causing a change in leadership was a trend among ‘bourgeois’ parties.” Biman Bose, too, echoes similar sentiments. When Karat and Bose said this at the state unit meeting, they were supported by a section of district leaders such as Abhas Chowdhury, Ramchandra Dom and Pulinbihari Baske. When a TV channel asked CPM MP Mohammad Salim about the call for a leadership change during the state committee meeting, he said: “Those who know the functioning of the communist party are aware that issues such as change of leadership do not figure in state committee meetings.”
Though Karat and Bose might have put up a brave face, sources say Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has remained silent on the issue. He was not only the target of a section of the district-level party leadership; several central committee and politburo members, too, questioned his public comments ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Bhattacharjee had said that in order to stop the communal forces, the CPM should be ready to do business with the Congress.
Bhattacharjee was deeply saddened by the subterranean campaign against him and is understood to have offered to quit all party posts, including those in the politburo and the state and central committees. However, the party leadership ‘reminded’ him that quitting posts could not be his personal prerogative but a collective decision.
What is significant here, apart from an increasingly disaffected rank and file getting restive, is the earnestness of the demand for leadership change, which perhaps points to the single biggest challenge the party is facing — a crisis at the very top. It is indeed a catch-22 situation because even an ailing and somewhat hesitant Bhattacharjee happens to be the only mass leader who has appeal across West Bengal. The party has not been able to produce another mass leader in the state after Jyoti Basu.
As it usually happens in the CPM, though many voices demanded a leadership change, hardly anyone proposed replacements in the Kolkata meeting on 25 May. And since the last high-level meeting, things have only gone further out of control, and the situation has become far more complicated now. Rumour has it that the party’s South 24-Parganas secretary Sujan Chakraborty could be replacing the 74-year-old Biman Bose as the party’s organisational head in Bengal.
The CPM is in dire need of a leader to pose a challenge to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in the state. Given Bhattacharjee’s age, poor health and reluctance, the party would rather bank on someone else. However, a leadership crisis is not something the party can address overnight, and that is causing disquiet in the party politburo.
To make matters worse for the CPM, the BJP is making strong inroads into West Bengal. Compared to the 2009 General Election, the BJP tripled its vote share in the state to about 17 percent in the 2014 polls. The Left’s vote share not only dropped from 43 percent in 2009 to 29 percent, the party also stood third in six of the 42 constituencies in the state.
There have been reports of mass exodus of the party’s local leaders and cadre in rural Bengal after the Lok Sabha election results were announced; many of them have defected to the BJP. In a major setback, many top leaders in the East Midnapore district unit, led by expelled leader Lakshman Seth’s wife Tamalika Panda Seth, quit the party on 27 July. Besides Tamalika, six CPM district secretariat members, 11 district committee members and eight zonal committee members also resigned, dealing a body blow to any chance of rejuvenation of the unit. There are reports that the disaffected cadre is adrift, and complains of the party leadership having completely failed to provide protection to them when they were facing persecution at the hands of ruling Trinamool Congress workers. It is speculated that some leaders along with the two Seths could even join the BJP. Lakshman Seth, however, denied it and said that they would first float a new political forum.
Ironically, while Tamalika Seth and other disgruntled elements were announcing their decision to quit the party, some leaders were holding a meeting at the party office in Nimtori where politburo member Surjya Kant Mishra was also present. Tamalika said that the party had ceased to be receptive to criticism a long time ago. Her husband Lakshman, who was the CPM’s strongman in East Midnapore and the party’s Nandigram ‘hero’, claimed that the party would be reduced to a skeleton soon. Seth was expelled for anti-party activities before the General Election.
Those who have walked out of the CPM include heavyweight names such as Ashok Guria, Nityananda Bera, Ashok Bera, Amiya Sahoo and Sudarshan Manna. “I have been associated with the party for the past 45 years. But the way a few people are running the party, it would do more harm than good,” Guria said soon after he quit in disgust.
Seth became disillusioned because the party leadership treated him like a ‘pariah’ after he was arrested in a case related to the disappearance of six persons during the Nandigram movement. Early this year, he hobnobbed with another rebel leader, Abdur Razzak Molla. “The CPM is being run by managers and not leaders. It is clear that they (read Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee) are unable to control the party,” said Molla.
While both the dominant state units of the CPM — in Bengal and Kerala — are caught up in internecine warfare, it’s only Manik Sarkar in tiny Tripura who gives the appearance of respectability to the premier Left party. His upright credentials have made many liken him to a potential dark horse in the leadership sweepstakes. But Karat, who as general secretary has fashioned the composition of the politburo and central committee, is keen on projecting S Ramachandran Pillai as his successor.
Pillai, 77, is said to be No. 2 in the politburo, deriving his strength from Karat, who it is believed will quit after the next party congress in another nine months from now. Yechury is said to be a more liberal, credible and less dogmatic choice among the potential claimants to the top party post, but he does not seem to have the required level of support either in the central committee or the politburo.
The CPM, however, is far too rooted in a denial mode to accept that there is dissidence and disaffection in the ranks. Sources at AK Gopalan Bhawan, the party headquarters in New Delhi, were unwilling to say anything about taking action against a thousand-odd workers, mainly drawn from Bengal, who have defied the party line. “We are unwilling to give credence to any such rumour” is all that a senior central committee member was willing to say. However, many of the rebels are trying hard to disabuse the impression that they are making overtures to the BJP to insulate themselves from persecution by the Trinamool Congress in Bengal.
Losing out in Bengal, though, is more than just symbolic for a party that ruled the state for 34 years and draws its main cadre from there. The disastrous trail for the Left, which manifested itself most starkly in the Nandigram episode seven years ago, continues to abide even now, and is haunting the party leadership and cadre alike. If the evening of 11 May three years ago, when they were routed in the West Bengal Assembly polls, meant that the sunset had arrived for the CPM a shade too ‘red’ for comfort, the party has now discovered that the wages of Nandigram are proving impossible to pay. Call it the pressure of coercive globalisation or misguided priorities, but the future of the party and its cadre were sealed by pursuing that suicidal course. Rectification of bourgeois afflictions is a difficult proposition, but instead of the downright refusal by the Alimuddin satraps to spruce up their act, another set of leaders at the state and national level could have negotiated the crisis in a more even-handed manner. For now, the party cannot even have the luxury of repenting at leisure.