LEFT TURN AHEAD
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.
“APPROPRIATE ELECTORAL TACTICS WILL BE ADOPTED TO MAXIMISE POOLING OF THE ANTI-BJP VOTE,” SAYS YECHURY
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Sitaram Yechury