At a time of extreme despondency within the Left, a telltale casualty has been its intellectual core. Around three years after the CPM admitted to the menace of bourgeois distortions having crept into its rank and file, the leadership is clueless and the cadre acutely restive. And what lends a touch of the macabre to the whole scenario is the atrophy that has seized the vitals of its one-time sharp minds.
The unfolding of the existential dilemma was not sudden. The rot that was setting in had seized outgoing CPM general secretary Prakash Karat almost five years ago when he spoke to Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. In that famous interview in the redoubtable New Left Review, Karat, who rather unsuccessfully tried to dissociate himself from having made any pessimistic prophecies to Hobsbawm, did, however, admit to have felt “beleaguered and besieged” by the situation facing the party in general and its West Bengal unit in particular.
Much as Karat denied having given out a “grim forecast” for the party before the 2011 Assembly election in West Bengal, there were reports of how the party was expected “to do very badly” in the election, and that is what really happened.
Karat’s views of the situation in West Bengal, especially through such a credible voice as Hobsbawm, could not and did not please his coterie, already haunted by the spectre of electoral defeat. Things have become infinitely worse now. Karat’s own stock has suffered hugely, and the wages of compromise and dogma have correspondingly become harder to pay. Those with a sense of history reckon that some of the present-day woes of the CPM are directly traceable to a set of individuals, who have neither individual charisma nor mass appeal.
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Veteran Left watchers recall two contrasting types of walkout. In April 1964, VS Achuthanandan, then 40 years old, left the National Council of the Communist Party of India (CPI) for good, along with EMS Namboodiripad, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu and 28 others, and went on to create the CPM. Fifty-one years later, there was another walkout. Achuthanandan, the only living member of the original 32 who formed the CPM, told Karat, “I’m going” and boycotted the party’s state conference in Kerala on 21 February. He refused to return to the meeting in Alappuzha (Kerala) — his home ground, his political turf, “Ground zero of the Communist movement in the state” as a Kolkata daily perceptively pointed out. Achuthanandan’s defiant exit was part of the internecine battle between him and Pinarayi Vijayan, who stepped down as the state secretary of the party after 16 controversial years and made way for politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. The question that emerged was: the leader may have changed, but can the party do likewise?
Reports about the nonagenarian workhorse’s exit clearly rattled the leadership, especially Karat. The leadership was nervous that there would be a public wave in VS’s favour. Given the cussed ground realities in a moribund party, it did not happen.
There is widespread realisation that the party needs to do things differently to attract youngsters. However, the party has so far revealed an utter lack of imagination on how to go about it. The facts speak for themselves. “Many youngsters between 18 and 25 years are not members of the party. We have to look into that,” Balakrishnan said in a media interaction. Youngsters are not represented in the politburo either. “We have to rectify that,” said Sitaram Yechury, who is tipped to battle with Karat loyalist S Ramachandran Pillai to become the new general secretary of the party this month. “We have to recognise that 70 percent of Indians are below the age of 40 years, and 54 percent below the age of 25. They are the new India and have to find representation in the party.”
Yechury was part of the Central Committee when he was in his 30s. Now, Yechury and Balakrishnan, both in their early 60s, are still among the youngest politburo members.
The membership of the CPM’s youth front in Kerala and elsewhere is also sliding. There have been rather belated and, surprisingly, ham-handed gestures to reach out to the young, with district committees opening social media accounts last year. But is that enough? Not quite. As noted bureaucrat and frontline author NS Madhavan said recently, “The CPM in Kerala has taken up issues such as development of waste lands and palliative care. It is trying to do what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did, but none of this has caught the people’s, let alone the youngsters’, imagination.”
After the steep downfall to just two MPs from West Bengal, Kerala became the party’s biggest stronghold. “It is a tall order for the CPM to come back to power in West Bengal. That is why it has to be very surefooted in Kerala,” an insider said. The Kerala model has been the envy of many, and the social indicators are almost universally good. There is revenue from tourism and remittances. The problem is that all this does not account for the next step in Left politics. Kerala does have decent educational institutions, but no powerhouse higher education institute. It has educated people, but nobody is thinking of Kerala as the next manufacturing powerhouse.
Operating in a vacuum
Even diehard anti-communists will grant this one fact: the Left movement has always attracted the best and brightest of minds. It has generated an intellectual ballast that is unique in the annals of the society it has operated in. Considering the long lineage from DD Kosambi to Irfan Habib, the Left parties have never suffered from a lack of intellectual vigour, even when there may be different views about their political velocity.
Some top intellectuals who have been broadly identified with the Left:
DD Kosambi | Historian
By almost universal consent DD Kosambi is perhaps the greatest historian ever who rescued historiography from the clutches of myth and introduced an element of scientific enquiry into his chosen vocation. From Bipan Chandra down to historians of the contemporary era, every one recognises the distinguished work of this polymath.
Irfan Habib | Historian
The redoubtable Ashok Mitra once described Irfan Habib as an extraordinary phenomenon, who has few peers as a historian. His intellectual depth and clarity defies the uncertainty that has plagued the Left, and his towering scholarship cannot be ignored even by his ideological adversaries. The establishment recognised his worth by anointing him as the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research for more than a decade.
RS Sharma | Historian
An institution builder who broke several myths, Ram Sharan Sharma was a historian who defined the Leftist perspective in historiography at a time when radicalism was not so chic as it became later in the groves of academe. His work on the era of early feudalism and his clarity on sensitive issues such as beef eating made this veteran a true icon of his times.
Romila Thapar | Historian
Although not a doctrinaire Marxist by any stretch, Romila Thapar has represented a scientific and rational view of ancient Indian history, a facility that makes her count as among the foremost historians of the present era whose scholarship and commitment are unequalled. Her understanding of the past, not hampered by prejudice, may have drawn right-wing flak, yet she has been wonderfully consistent in her historical concerns.
Ashok Mitra | Economist
An iconoclast, who was perhaps too brilliant for his times, Ashok Mitra represents a defiant breed, which could engage the most diehard of right-wing economists in a dialogue that he could win. Consider his resolve in dismantling myths about centre-state relations and multilateral bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. The former West Bengal finance minister was truly exceptional in that his columns in academic journals were as celebrated as his intellectual wars with ideological adversaries