Shed­ding its ide­o­log­i­cal rigid­ity, the CPI(M) de­clares it­self open to elec­toral ‘un­der­stand­ing’ with the Congress and other par­ties to keep the BJP in check


On April 22, about 5,000 ac­tivists in red shirts and berets, some wav­ing red flags, marched 5 km through the streets of Hy­der­abad to a rally mark­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of the 22nd Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist) congress, sig­nalling clearly that the Marx­ists, though down, are not out. After hem­ming and haw­ing over whether or not to join hands with other po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the CPI(M) an­nounced that it is open to reach­ing an un­der­stand­ing with oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Congress, for prospec­tive gains in the gen­eral elec­tions next year. The party would first con­sider the poli­cies of the ‘sec­u­lar and demo­cratic par­ties’ that wish to be­come part of an al­ter­na­tive and then de­cide on al­liances at an ap­pro­pri­ate time.

“If there is any sin­gle mes­sage that should go from this 22nd CPI(M) congress to the rank and file, to the coun­try, and par­tic­u­larly to our class en­e­mies, it is that the party has emerged united and is de­ter­mined to put for­ward an al­ter­na­tive pol­icy frame­work against the BJP,” said Si­taram Yechury, who was re-elected as party gen­eral sec­re­tary. It was a pyrrhic tri­umph for Yechury who had, in Jan­uary, lost his ar­gu­ment to keep the door open for co­or­di­na­tion with the prin­ci­pal op­po­si­tion party, the Congress. The pro­posal was re­jected 55-31 by the party’s cen­tral com­mit­tee in Kolkata, forc­ing him to of­fer to step down. But the cen­tral com­mit­tee asked Yechury to con­tinue till his ten­ure ends in April.

At the party congress in Hy­der­abad, Yechury had his way, with the draft po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion be­ing re­phrased (‘with­out hav­ing an un­der­stand­ing or elec­toral al­liance with the Congress party’ was changed to ‘with­out hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal al­liance with the Congress party’). It was a happy com­pro­mise of sorts with­out putting the is­sue to se­cret bal­lot, as was de­manded by many.

To those who don’t iden­tify with the Left, this re­flects how re­alpoli­tik has started to weigh over dog­ma­tism within the CPI(M), paving the way for pop­u­lar fronts with left-of-cen­tre forces in or­der to de­feat the ‘greater

en­emy’, the BJP. Yechury’s mi­nor­ity view of ‘an open ap­proach to sec­u­lar, demo­cratic forces’ found strong res­o­nance among mem­bers from Ma­ha­rash­tra and West Ben­gal. It sig­nals a re-think on the broad po­si­tion adopted by the CPI(M) since 1964, with the rank and file vir­tu­ally de­fy­ing the party’s elite to adopt a more con­cil­ia­tory ‘tac­ti­cal line’ on other po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Some 390 of the 786 del­e­gates at­tend­ing the party congress were push­ing the Yechury line. At one stage, the Ma­ha­rash­tra and Ben­gal groups even sug­gested a se­cret bal­lot to de­cide on the party’s line. While the Ben­gal lobby had all along treated the BJP as a po­lit­i­cal pariah and, there­fore, un­der­scored the need to get sec­u­lar par­ties, in­clud­ing the Congress, on board against the ‘threat of com­mu­nal­ism’, the Ma­ha­rash­tra lobby has re­cently wo­ken up to the need for a united re­sis­tance against the BJP. But for them, the hard­line ap­proach of gen­eral sec­re­tary Yechury’s pre­de­ces­sor Prakash Karat, who en­joys the back­ing of Ker­ala chief min­is­ter Pi­narayi Vi­jayan, may have pre­vailed.

Be­yond word play, what is much more than a de­bat­ing con­flict is rooted in elec­toral reality. It is the chal­lenge of fight­ing the Congress, which leads the United Demo­cratic Front, in Ker­ala while al­ly­ing with the party else­where, with the pos­si­ble ex­clu­sion of Ben­gal. “When it comes

to elec­tions, we have made it very clear that ap­pro­pri­ate elec­toral tac­tics will be adopted to maximise pooling of the anti-BJP vote,” said Yechury.

The en­dorse­ment of Yechury’s line by the CPI(M) as well as his re-elec­tion should boost the op­po­si­tion’s ef­forts to forge an anti-BJP front for the Lok Sabha elec­tions. With his cross-coun­try ap­peal and ac­cep­tance as a me­di­a­tor be­tween par­ties, Yechury may per­haps emerge as the real in­her­i­tor of Hark­is­han Singh Sur­jeet’s legacy, es­say­ing the role his men­tor played dur­ing the 1996 and 2004 Lok Sabha elec­tions. “We will have no po­lit­i­cal al­liance with the Congress. But we will have an un­der­stand­ing with it both in­side and out­side (Par­lia­ment) to check com­mu­nal­ism,” ex­plained Yechury. “A myth is be­ing gen­er­ated whether or not there will be a Congress-led al­liance. In 1996, the United Front was formed after the elec­tions, and in 2004, the UPA (United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance) was formed after the elec­tions. These things de­pend on spe­cific po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions in each state.”

Left in­tel­lec­tual Jay­ati Ghose feels it’s point­less to “be rigid and ob­sessed about party line” when the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is so fluid. “The time has come to ex­plore ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity from ev­ery pos­si­ble an­gle—be it le­gal, po­lit­i­cal, ju­di­cial—and try and take like-minded peo­ple and forces along,” she says. “Join­ing or not join­ing the Congress is ba­si­cally a re­flec­tion of the ego bat­tle and shows lack of gen­uine po­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing.”

Be­yond poll pacts with other par­ties, the CPI(M) has deeper wor­ries about its own ex­is­tence. The party has nine mem­bers in the Lok Sabha, down from 16 in the pre­vi­ous House, while its na­tional vote share has shrunk from 5.33 per cent in 2009 to 3.28 per cent in 2014. Yechury’s im­me­di­ate chal­lenge is to stop this steady ero­sion of sup­port and re­fur­bish the party. To this end, the strength of the polit­buro, the CPI(M)’s high­est de­ci­sion­mak­ing body, is up from 16 to 17. While oc­to­ge­nar­ian S. Ra­machan­dran Pil­lai was given a special ex­emp­tion and re­tained, A.K. Pad­man­ab­han was dropped. Ta­pan Sen, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the party’s trade union CITU, and for­mer MP Nilot­pal Basu are the new­com­ers.

The cen­tral com­mit­tee, whose strength has risen to 95 from 91, is now a tad younger than the av­er­age of 72 years in Yechury’s first term. This is even after 16 vet­er­ans were re­placed and 19 new faces in­ducted. The search for a woman leader to oc­cupy the va­cant seat in the com­mit­tee con­tin­ues, but it now has more Dalit and tribal rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The com­mit­tee is dom­i­nated by the Karat group.

The rift be­tween the purists and prag­ma­tists apart, the CPI(M) mem­ber­ship is on the de­cline, drop­ping, ac­cord­ing to the party’s or­gan­i­sa­tional report, by 6 per­cent­age points be­tween 2014 and 2017—the sharpest fall in its his­tory. The de­cline is sharpest among the youth and women—a grow­ing trend since its bas­tion West Ben­gal fell in 2011. And this year’s de­feat in Tripura, after a reign of about 25 years, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

That de­ba­cle and peo­ple’s dis­en­chant­ment with the same old faces is per­haps prompt­ing the CPI(M) to ap­point younger mem­bers to its area, district and state com­mit­tees. At the state con­fer­ence in West Ben­gal, 12 lead­ers, ap­proach­ing 70 or past it, were dropped, the ex­cep­tion be­ing 76-year-old Left Front chair­man Bi­man Bose. In Ma­ha­rash­tra, 16 in­duc­tions into the state com­mit­tee are from the 40-45 age group. In Tamil Nadu, 11 new state com­mit­tee mem­bers are un­der 50 while 10 in­vi­tees to the com­mit­tee are un­der 40. In Ker­ala, seven new state com­mit­tee mem­bers are be­low 45.

There are other pos­i­tive signs. Loss of seats in a state assem­bly or Par­lia­ment is a weak al­ibi, claim sev­eral se­nior party lead­ers. “Even with just one MLA, the Left, with the weak­est foun­da­tion in the Ma­ha­rash­tra assem­bly, has proven it can mo­bilise peo­ple if it com­pre­hends the is­sues plagu­ing the peo­ple,” says Ashok Dhawale, cen­tral com­mit­tee mem­ber and ar­chi­tect of the March 2018 Long March by farm­ers from Nashik to Mum­bai. “The un­stinted and spon­ta­neous sup­port from other par­ties, in­clud­ing the Congress and Na­tion­al­ist Congress Party, can­not be un­der­mined.” Dhawale, how­ever, ad­mits that trans­lat­ing the high turnouts in ral­lies into votes is a chal­lenge.

An­a­lysts say the CPI(M) needs to rein­vent it­self in or­der to re­main rel­e­vant. There were no os­ten­si­ble signs of it at the Hy­der­abad event, ex­cept Yechury’s call to de­feat the BJPRSS. Draw­ing par­al­lels with Dury­o­d­hana and Dushasana from the Ma­hab­harata, he said the BJP was dom­i­nated by only Naren­dra Modi and Amit Shah al­though it has many big­wigs, while the Marx­ists were like the Pan­davas, few in num­ber but firm on oust­ing the Kau­ravas from power. An­a­lysts ar­gue that the CPI(M)’s dis­con­nect with the as­pi­ra­tional mid­dle class, es­pe­cially the young, is also con­tribut­ing to its de­cline. The party congress did not ad­dress this vexed is­sue. “The Left needs to re­cast it­self in the­ory as well as in prac­tice,” says psephol­o­gist-turned-politi­cian Yo­gen­dra Ya­dav. “It needs to un­bur­den much of its past and start afresh. That will be pos­si­ble if it can stop look­ing at In­dia and its prob­lems through its Euro­pean spec­ta­cles.” Per­haps its ‘tac­ti­cal line’ too. But, as of now, it’s easier said than done.


FRIENDS WITH BEN­E­FITS Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi with Si­taram Yechury


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