Caught in a deep bind

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Comrades in armsThe chances of Sitaram Yechury (right) becoming Prakash Karat’s successor may not fructify given the Kerala unit’s predominance in the party
Comrades in arms The chances of Sitaram Yechury (right) becoming Prakash Karat’s successor may not fructify given the Kerala unit’s predominance in the party, Photo: AP

Forty years after he joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury, 62, faces his moment of truth: can the party that has determined his life survive an acute existential dilemma and rediscover its fast-fading élan? What Yechury has himself told the party’s central committee amounts to a trenchant critique of the manner in which the tactical line has been implemented in recent years.

In fact, as the CPM central committee met in New Delhi on 27-29 October and debated the uncertain times ahead of its crucial party congress, the incoherence in its highest echelons surfaced more strongly than ever before.

Yechury argued that the tactical alliances that the party broached since the Jalandhar plenum of 1978 were not wrong per se but their implementation was at the root of the crisis that has gripped the predominant formation of the traditional Left.

He reportedly tried to convince his comrades to agree that the failure was not so much with the political line that the CPM has adopted but with the way it was followed. However, that line of argument had few openly active takers in a committee dominated by loyalists of the party general secretary, Prakash Karat.

While committee members tried to suggest that the ideological differences were not personalised in character and the issue went beyond individual angularities, it is an open question whether that indeed is the case.

For one, the sharp decline in the party’s electoral fortunes has put out fresh question marks over the CPM’s existence since that was supposed to signify its heft nationally. The party failed to reach even double figures in the Lok Sabha polls, which is in striking contrast to the 40- odd members it had managed in 2004. There is a gut feeling in the party that the incumbent leadership has failed to evolve over the past decade or so.

Moreover, Yechury’s (and the CPM’s) dilemma epitomises a kind of eventual freefall that cannot be checked by even the kind of spirited rearguard exercise that Yechury represents. For all his sophistication and people skills, he is likely to find it extremely difficult to cling on to the hope that the CPM’s growing irrelevance can be checked. There are sharp pointers that neither ideological puritanism nor smart rhetoric can actually bail out the CPM from its deep morass.

Things could not have been more problematic, and the script could not have gone as wrong as it has, for the party that no longer holds the kind of attraction for the young as it used to during its halcyon days. A hugely pigeonholed leadership and continued stagnation in the ranks seem to be the two most palpable signs that have emerged to illustrate the CPM’s profile.

This dilemma came into sharp focus just a few months ago when Alimuddin Street, where the CPM’s West Bengal unit has its headquarters, saw disenchanted cadre carrying telltale placards that said: “The party is as much mine as it is yours. It is not anyone’s private, paternal property.” At one end of the spectrum, the party leadership that is mulling the adoption of an alternative political line has seen increased dissidence over the past two years. At another level, differences at the top leadership level have raised their head at a highly inopportune time, what with the leadership almost clueless and the ranks almost completely alienated.

In the past few decades, the CPM’s political line of building Left and democratic fronts in the states had succeeded in papering over many of the contradictions that are now raising their head.

“The party has now discovered that the wages of blunders like Nandigram and the pressures of coercive globalisation are too palpable and real for the CPM to pay,” a central committee member told TEHELKA on the sidelines of the New Delhi brainstorming session.

The political line has been marked by telltale inconsistencies. While the leadership has extended uncritical support to the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party in spite of the latter’s unspeakable failures in Muzaffarnagar and elsewhere, it has at the same time thought it fit to virtually ignore any political value in humouring the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav duo in Bihar and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. It is a matter that intrigues the party ranks no end as to how Mulayam can be considered secular in spite of his track record while Nitish, Lalu and Mayawati are considered virtual untouchables.

There are other signs of decay that manifest themselves starkly. The CPM has consistently failed to spearhead trade union or human and civil rights’ movements across the country — it has had practically no role to play as multinationals such as POSCO have gained more than a toehold in the country. The party and its trade union wing (CITU) were virtually silent and helpless spectators when the highly violent and important industrial actions, such as the one witnessed at Maruti’s Manesar plant, took place in recent years. The party’s trade union profile has suffered deep damage, and its women and student wings have also not been getting the kind of support they used to in earlier years. Three years ago, the leadership had made a huge din about ridding itself of the bourgeois afflictions that had gripped it, but course correction in these areas has been virtually absent.

Endemic as the signs are, the party congress too is unlikely to come as a morale booster of a decisive kind. The once-in-three years event could see a change of guard with Karat stepping down, but the likely successor, S Ramachandran Pillai, does not evoke the kind of image that the party needs right now: of having a more broadly acceptable face at the helm who could negotiate across the political spectrum. While Karat signified ideological puritanism to many, the chances of Yechury gaining traction as the likely successor may not fructify given the Kerala unit’s predominance in the party. The party cannot wish away these niggling worries that have combined to create a very serious credibility gap.

While it was the ‘Jalandhar line’ that helped hoist Third Front governments in 1989 and 1996, it also helped the CPM grow into a strong force in West Bengal. But the end of the Jyoti Basu-Harkishen Singh Surjeet era has altered the picture quite completely, and the party has ceased to grow even in its limited spheres of influence. While a leader such as Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has managed to stave off inroads into his domain, his example is limited in reach and influence to matter at the larger level.

The feeling in party circles is that the party’s reversal of fortunes is too real in West Bengal to be considered a temporary phenomenon. As a matter of fact, even as the Narendra Modi phenomenon rearranges the national political scene, the saffron party may make significant gains given the CPM’s dilemma in the crucial state. The CPM is hardly in a position to take any advantage of the fact that the Trinamool Congress’ honeymoon period has turned out to be short-lived.

If the Lok Sabha results in May signified that the sunset had arrived a shade too red for the CPM’s comfort, subsequent developments have done nothing to enthuse the party, which cannot even have the luxury of repenting at leisure.

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