Lonely at the top

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He has a clear vision but that will have to battle with a hazy roadmap. Known for his ability to transcend apparent contradictions and effectively project his viewpoint, the savvy top boss of the CPM has a veritable mountain of problems ahead of him. Sitaram Yechury, 62, knows that from Alimuddin Street to AKG Bhavan the sense of euphoria over his elevation will perhaps evaporate sooner than the much-needed organisational revamp is in place.

As it is, the new CPM chief will have to immediately put his rather squabbling house in order — the departure of veteran VS Achuthanandan and several other senior comrades from party decision-making positions is too glaring to be ignored.

Be that as it may, for a man whose acumen and brilliance has been celebrated far and wide, and whose proximity to the pragmatic core in the Left has been also commented upon, Yechury has a real task on his hands: How does he translate his individual charisma into a more credible profile for his party? Can he learn from the Left’s experience in Greece and Latin America and lead accordingly?

Yechury’s people skills are legion. Old-timers recall a story as to how the venerable Jyoti Basu jocularly termed him a “dangerous” comrade because of the ease with which he could converse in various languages; he could be a proper Bangla-speaking man for his Bengal comrades and was similarly proficient in almost every Indian language! But as CPM chief, Yechury will have to speak a language that galvanises the atrophied rank and file and delivers it from the drudgery of its immediate past.

Can renegotiating a new roadmap for the Left become clearer under the stewardship of this sharp mind? Yechury himself exuded confidence that even in a very tough terrain, a “unified Left” and a positive attitude can spell a change for the CPM. It may be a stagnant, beleaguered party, but at least now it has a brand new chief at the helm. That leads to a basic question: How far can an individual (Yechury) go in changing the fortunes of the CPM? To that, an insider quipped: “The troublesome legacy of the Prakash Karat years is at last past us. We can at least look at a new horizon now.”

On such valiant hopes does the Left, which has singularly failed to articulate a different agenda from the prevailing cult of neoliberalism and crony capitalism, wish to ride out its chances in the immediate future. For the flamboyant general secretary who could put the NDA government in an embarrassing situation by pushing through an amendment to the motion of thanks to the President’s address to Parliament, the real test will be to persuade his uncompromising comrades in the politburo and central committee to come out of the shell of dogmatism to face the new and real political challenges.

A recap on the Visakhapatnam Congress is most essential. It was by no stretch a cakewalk for Yechury who faced the full negative fury of the formidable Kerala unit (except for Achuthanandan). But the fact that the party was in the doldrums and Karat’s personal stock was not particularly high eventually meant that pragmatism prevailed over dogmatism.


 

Sitaram Yechury | General Secretary, CPM
Sitaram Yechury | General Secretary, CPM

Sitaram Yechury

General Secretary, CPM

CHARISMATIC COMRADE

Can the author of Left Hand Drive take his party in the right direction? While several heroes and heroines of the Left movement across the globe have been known to have a distinct aura of their own, few in the picture frame have the kind of image that the CPM’s latest top boss has.

People attribute a kind of charisma to Sitaram Yechury, which is a rather rare thing in the hustle-and-bustle of contemporary Indian politics. Apart from his penchant for forever expanding his linguistic skills, the CPM’s brand new chief exudes the sort of image that few communists barring the likes of Jyoti Basu could. His suave and soft-spoken presence makes him a telegenic face of the beleaguered Left. Often seen intervening with panache in the Rajya Sabha, Yechury has been a member of the CPM’s central committee since 1984 and the politburo since 1992. He wears several hats: he is a politician, economist, author and columnist.

Yechury was born on 12 August 1952 to a Telugu family in then Madras state. His father Sarveswara Somayajula Yechury was an engineer with the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation. The younger Yechury did his schooling mostly in Andhra Pradesh and stood first in the CBSE higher secondary examination. He joined Nizam College, Hyderabad, but had to discontinue his stint there because of the mulki-non-mulki agitation.

Finally, Yechury graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, with Economics (Hons) and went on to do his masters in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Influenced by the communist movement, he joined the Student Federation of India (SFI) in 1974. The young student leader had to discontinue his research for a PhD because of his arrest during the Emergency. He was later elected the president of the JNU students’ union.

In 1978, Yechury became the national joint secretary of SFI and went on to become the national president of the students’ body. In 1984, he was invited to the central committee of the CPM and was elected to the party’s top decision-making body the very next year.

First elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2005, Yechury served on various parliamentary committees and was re-elected to the Upper House in 2011. The communist leader has been playing a key role in rallying the Opposition, which has a majority in the Upper House.

Apart from Left Hand Drive, Yechury has also authored What is this Hindu Rashtra?. Married to journalist Seema Chisti, some of his articles for a mainstream New Delhi daily have attracted a wide readership even when the party he leads is in decline. He has a daughter and two sons. A sports enthusiast, he was a fine tennis player during his student days.

— PRADYOT LAL


 

The party congress has turned out to be a watershed in the history of the CPM, since for the first time the politburo could not reach a consensus on who should lead the party at a time of extreme crisis. The warring group led by the formidable Kerala unit desperately tried for S Ramachandran Pillai even as the Bengal unit threatened to demand voting if Yechury was not proposed as the next general secretary.

The differences between the Kerala and Bengal units cannot be overemphasised: Yechury faced the unalloyed opposition of the Kerala unit but his personal popularity prevailed in the end. Even as the Bengal unit is delighted at Yechury’s elevation, reviving the party in that state will be his biggest challenge. He knows how dispirited and divided the unit is even when the state goes to polls next year. In fact, when everybody used to blame Karat and his intransigent approach for the Left’s debacle, it was Yechury who was in charge of West Bengal when the CPM was routed. Yechury and the Bengal unit were quick to blame the timing of the decision to withdraw support to the UPA-I because in the election that followed, the Congress could ally with the Trinamool Congress and ensure the CPM-led Left Front’s defeat.

Now, with the situation in West Bengal at its worst for the party and its mass base largely eroded coupled with the BJP’s growing presence threatening its very existence, what is Yechury up to? Will the lessons he learnt from the redoubtable Harkishen Singh Surjeet help him to chart out a political strategy to win back Bengal, which is a prerequisite for the reinvention of the party?

Considering the quagmire the Left finds itself in, this is easier said than done. Despite being rendered a marginal force in national politics, the CPM has in its 21st congress decided to have no truck with either the Congress or the regional parties that embrace neoliberal policies. Going back to the old textbooks of Marxism-Leninism, the party believes it can expand its base by mobilising the people against the neoliberal policies. But for a party that is finding it difficult even to mobilise people for political strikes in its stronghold, can this puritan approach help in breaking out of the crisis?

In Bengal, many in the CPM would like to have an electoral understanding with the Congress. The Bengal unit’s soft corner towards the Congress after the electoral drubbing is no secret. For Yechury, it’s going to be a lonely and tricky tightrope walk. Any sort of alliance with the Congress in West Bengal is sure to enrage the Kerala unit and invite resistance. After all, in Kerala, the grand old party is the CPM’s arch rival.

However, the CPM already has the experience of supporting the Congress at the Centre in 2004. If the party could fight the Congress in Kerala and Bengal and support it at the Centre, then many ask why the same logic should not be applied to Bengal this time. But Yechury is no Surjeet, and with persons like Jyoti Basu not there anymore, the intelligent and shrewd pragmatism that put the party in focus in the past would be difficult to replicate now.

With the resistance against the land acquisition ordinance producing at least a modicum of united opposition, it will be important for the CPM to engage with the Congress and other bourgeois parties in order to play a bigger role. With Yechury leading the CPM in the Rajya Sabha, he can continue to play a catalyst in the otherwise disparate opposition groups, like he has done during the debate on the President’s address to Parliament. But taking this beyond the floor of Parliament is the challenge Yechury faces as the leader of the predominant mainstream Left party and the key to this would be the CPM’s engagement with secular parties such as the Congress.

Though the CPM has decided to address the organisational challenges in the special plenum to be held in West Bengal later this year, Yechury doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until then for dealing with some crucial issues that plague the organisation. The reaction of veteran party leader Suneet Chopra when he was left out of the party central committee is a reflection of how the once strict and disciplined cadre system of the CPM is crumbling. Chopra, who was in the central committee for the past two decades, alleged that he was omitted because he was not Karat’s sycophant and questioned the stand taken by the leadership several times.

The rebellion of popular leader Achuthanandan in Kerala is bound to take new shape since the veteran is considered to be close to Yechury. How the Kerala unit would react if the new general secretary tries to accommodate the nonagenarian leader remains to be seen. With Yechury at the helm, the buzz is that the Kerala unit will be forced to include Achuthanandan in the state committee. At the same time, Yechury cannot ignore the wishes of the Kerala unit that has four politburo and 14 central committee members. How neatly Yechury is able to maintain a balance between the two major units — Bengal and Kerala — will be a key determinant of his ultimate success. For now, however, the rank and file would want Yechury’s pragmatism to prevail.


 

Subhashini Ali, Politburo member, CPM
Subhashini Ali, Politburo member, CPM

Subhashini Ali

Politburo member, CPM

WOMAN POWER

Subhashini Ali is only the second ­woman to be made a member of the CPM ­politburo. Daughter of Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, who was in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, she dwells on issues close to her heart and the challenges before the party that is in a revival mode. The former Kanpur MP had unsuccessfully contested the general elections in 1996 and 2004, and again in 2014 when she was fielded from Barrackpore constituency in West Bengal.

ON BEING THE SECOND WOMAN IN THE POLITBURO

One could look at it like that, but that isn’t the only way to look at it. No doubt, it is important that all sections of the ­society be represented in the party’s decision-making body, but the party per se doesn’t have a policy on quotas. Also, we realise the need to strengthen the party from top to bottom; from the cadres to the leaders.

ON THE NEW-LOOK POLITBURO

The politburo has some new faces, including those from the minorities. But it must be pointed out that no one has been made a member of the politburo on account of any quota.

ON THE WAY AHEAD FOR CPM

All of us have been vested with various responsibilities, but we will collectively decide our priorities and how to go about fulfilling them. The party needs to be strengthened across the country and to that extent north India will figure on the agenda, too.

ON ALLIANCES

We will be guided by the documents adopted at the party congress. A strong Left and a strong CPM are the need of the hour to combat neoliberal economic policies and the communal and regressive agenda. Left unity is important. There is not much to choose between the Congress and the BJP; their economic policies are the same. Similarly, the anti-communal violence Bill was not passed. The regional parties have a disappointing record, too. Take for example, the Hashimpura case. Over the past 28 years, successive governments in UP have taken an identical stand and parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the BSP have done precious little in this regard.

ON THE LAND ACQUISITION BILL

Why is the BJP, which had said that the 2013 Bill was inadequate and needed more safeguards, now speaking in a different voice? Why is no one asking this question? What has changed between then and now that the BJP has taken a completely different stand?

ON THE AGRARIAN CRISIS

Agriculture is becoming unviable. Moreover, farmers now have to contend with the threat of their land being acquired. The amendments to the land Bill leave out consent and returning the land to its rightful owner if the purpose or project for which it was acquired doesn’t make progress in five years since the acquisition. Therefore, it is getting more and more difficult for farmers, which is a tragic situation. The recommendations of the Shanta Kumar committee have further applied the squeeze on them.

— RAMESH RAMACHANDRAN

 


 

Barring Surjeet, all CPM general secretaries have been drawn from the south, but Yechury got his Rajya Sabha ticket from West Bengal and is known to be more accessible and ideologically open than his immediate predecessor, who tried his best to prevent him from getting the top slot. Having got there now, the cherubic Yechury will have a free run, but his success will depend on how well he handles the expansion of the CPM’s base and its relations with other parties. Can he do the impossible and deliver the CPM from the morass? If he succeeds even partially, that would be a tremendous achievement.


 

VS Achuthanandan, Leader of the Opposition, Kerala
VS Achuthanandan, Leader of the Opposition, Kerala

VS Achuthanandan

Leader of the Opposition, Kerala

Back with a smile

Just when all the waiting media expected a belligerent and tense VS Achuthanandan coming out of the central committee meeting of the CPM in Visakhapatnam, there appeared a relieved and smiling VS, full of enthusiasm. He was pleased that his blue-eyed boy, Sitaram Yechury, was anointed as the new general secretary overcoming the pulls and pressures exerted by his bête noire Pinarayi Vijayan and his camp. He could at least put up a brave face despite the party’s decision to form its next central committee without him — the only living founder-leader of the party. That is the quintessential VS, a man who turns setbacks into opportunity.

VS, who controlled the Kerala unit of the CPM even when the legendary EMS Namboodiripad was alive, has been waging a lonely battle ever since his one-time close associate Pinarayi bulldozed all his opponents many years ago. It is an irony that VS, who used the principle of “democratic centralism” to trump his rivals when he was at the helm, turned out to be the first communist leader who challenged the party leadership and yet managed to stay, winning almost all the battles that mattered.

VS’s biggest victory was when the politburo of the CPM was forced to change its position and decided to field him as a candidate in the 2006 Assembly election, which eventually led to his becoming chief minister. Owing to stiff opposition from the state leadership, the politburo had earlier decided not to field him. What followed was unprecedented in the history of Kerala. People from different sections thronged the streets demanding VS be made the chief ministerial candidate. Thousands of SMSs were sent to the party’s central leaders asking them to change their decision. Defying the state leadership, several district committees of the CPM passed resolutions in favour of VS. This forced the central leadership to change their earlier decision. This proved his popularity beyond doubt.

VS’s critics claim that his is a manufactured form of popularity; the man who was once seen as a die-hard Stalinist was portrayed as a popular rebel once he started moving away from the party line. They say VS used the media to the hilt for his image makeover. No doubt VS was the poster boy of the mainstream media ever since he started challenging the party leadership, but it is also true that he rushed in to take up those issues that the CPM leadership feared to touch. Marginalised sections waging daily battles for survival found in VS a saviour. Though his image as a fighter for social justice took a beating after he became CM, VS remains Kerala’s most popular leader.

Ironically, the man who had walked out of the national council meeting of the undivided Communist Party protesting against the “revisionist”’ attitude of the leadership along with 31 of his comrades in 1964 could not find even a single party leader to follow him when he boycotted the CPM’s state conference in his hometown Alapuzha this February. But the uncompromising communist shows no sign of faltering in his stance.

— NK BHOOPESH


 

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