If personality was the key to that question, then the answer is an unequivocal yes. No two men could be more different. Surjeet, more sociable peasant leader than revolutionary thinker, enjoys an excellent relationship with the Congress as also its coalition partners. He's also someone who has never stood on ceremony just to prove his seniority. A typical example: his insistence on taking the SP's Amar Singh—who wasn't invited—to Sonia Gandhi's pre-UPA dinner in the hope that the party would be accommodated in the coalition. It's a move the cerebral Karat is unlikely to emulate. Known as a party theoretician and organisational guru, Karat's introvertish charm is often cloaked in his hardliner image. Not surprising then that the Congress' initial response to his elevation has been jittery.
So does the change of guard mean the CPI(M) may set limits for its continued support to the UPA? Karat's answer holds the clues: "The Congress itself will determine the longevity of the government. Maintaining political equations within the coalition, as in Bihar, is not our job—it is theirs. If the government doesn't deliver and discontent among the people grows.... The BJP, be assured, won't benefit because of us...it may because of the UPA government. We'll support the government while constantly demarcating our position by opposition to the UPA's economic policies."
Of course, Karat and his younger colleagues (especially from Kerala and West Bengal) are more stridently anti-Congress than many in the older generation. So even as a senior West Bengal MP says "the debate over support to the UPA is already a settled one", Karat himself adds, "We will step up our struggles to reverse the current economic policies as well as put in place alternate ones in line with the 2004 verdict."
Still, for the moment, the Congress is confident of its position vis-a-vis the CPI(M), feeling the leadership change will mean more a change of style than of substance. pmo sources say "Dr Manmohan Singh finds it easy dealing with Karat, whom he sees as straightforward. Karat never minces his words, the PM knows where he stands with him." Indeed, Karat's "inflexibility" is seen as a positive trait by some. As a senior Congressman who worked with the Left on the Common Minimum Programme says, "In some ways, it's better. With Karat, you know what's non-negotiable immediately."
A UPA cabinet minister familiar with the Left's working says: "The CPI(M) works through an institutional mechanism. Karat will reflect the collective thinking of the party. In the coming months though, the anti-UPA rhetoric, especially on economic issues, is likely to sharpen as assembly polls near in West Bengal and Kerala (where the Congress is the principal opposition to the CPI(M)." In an added aside, he said: "The UPA's expenses on dinner diplomacy are likely to mount though. Instead of one meeting a month, there could be three with Left leaders now!" Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, on his part, feels the "division of labour" in the CPI(M) will sort out any intra-coalition tension: "Sitaram Yechury's role as pointsman in dealing with coalition partners will increase."
The Congress may be confident but within the CPI(M) itself, Yechury's future role is "undefined". A pointer is an incident from about eight months back. Yechury had made known his desire to become a Rajya Sabha MP but was thwarted, some say by Karat who convinced the politburo that his services were required more in the party organisation.This could cast a shadow on what seems from the outside like an ideal partnership. The flamboyant Yechury, who shares a good equation with top UPA leaders—including Sonia Gandhi—would appear to be the perfect foil to Karat as general secretary. Another pointer to Yechury's future role, insiders say, would be whether Karat's wife, Brinda, is also elevated to the politburo this time.
For the CPI(M) now, carving out an independent path is still top priority. At the 18th congress, the political resolution as well as speeches by "living legends" Jyoti Basu and Surjeet all stressed the fact. It sees the current UPA scenario as not more than a temporary phenomenon, especially with the Congress "following" on the nda track in economic matters. The ultimate goal is still the Third Alternative, based on more 'people-oriented' policies.
But the party also knows that economic issues alone will not increase its strength on the ground. The buzzword now: social reform. Whether it's nine-time MP Hannan Mollah from West Bengal or aidwa functionary and ex-MP Subhashini Ali, they're all agreed that the party has to mobilise the Dalits, tribals and women. Says Mollah: "Unless we embark on a social reform movement in north India, we can't create a new political space for ourselves. We failed to take on Mandalisation which emphasised the negative aspects of caste at the expense of democratic forces."
Karat says the party will now focus on tribal areas in Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan—areas where both the BJP and Naxalism has grown. In the Hindi belt, it will attempt to replicate work done in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, launching campaigns against "caste oppression". Indeed, the fact that the party congress was held in Delhi was also not without import: "In the new political situation, we wanted to project the party nationally," says Karat.
Clearly, with such an ambitious two-pronged strategy—fighting the Congress' economic policies and the communal parties as well—the party's anti-UPA rhetoric has been pre-determined. The new leadership, though, has a tough act to live up to—given the weight of history and the track record of Surjeet and Basu, the only two living members of the party's 'original navratna'.