At one point in the five-day meet, which marked the party's 70th anniversary, it seemed as though the historical baggage the CPI carries would bring it to its knees, if not take it under. Hanging over the gathering was the fact that the party had registered a sharp decline in membership since the 15th congress three years ago. And as greying leaders made half-hearted attempts to rouse a largely geriatric audience, even the much-vaunted tradition of self-criticism in communist circles sounded ominously like nails being driven into the coffin.
Yet the leviathan did show a last burst of speed. But did it breast the tape? Well, some of the important decisions taken by the 16th party congress would seem to suggest that at least the realisation that it was a now-or-never situation had struck root:
- The party reverted to a three-tier central leadership.
- The post of deputy general secretary was revived and the 'organisation man', A.B. Bardhan, nominated to it. Indrajit Gupta was asked to continue as general secretary.
- A sizeable number of fresh and comparatively young faces were inducted into various decision-making bodies, 33 in the National Council and seven in the National Executive.
- It was made mandatory for all party members holding elected posts (at all levels) and the leadership to declare their assets every three years.
"I have absolutely no problem in admitting that the ideal is a principled merger of the CPI and CPI(M). But then I realise that we have functioned as two distinct parties for over 30 years and we are unlikely to reunite in the near future," said Bardhan. A safe enough statement at first glance, but notable for the absence of any attempt to imply that the CPI(M) is against the idea of Left unity that had been the normal practice till now. A similar 'soft' approach is also discernible in Bardhan's attitude towards West Bengal's industrial policy though he toes the party line that the CPI(M) erred in not taking Left Front partners into confidence.
According to party sources, the CPI is likely to use this commitment to Left unity in its attempt to emerge as the umbrella communist party before engaging in any serious parleys with the CPI(M) on the merger issue.
While another likely upshot of Bardhan's induction will be greater coordination with the National Front, organisational matters will probably take up most of his time. A concerted drive to increase party membership is the need of the hour. Says party Secretary A.K. Anjaan: "Students, once the mainstay of the party, have been keeping away." For example, in Lucknow the CPI's student wing, the AISF, had a strength of over 20,000 between 1979 and 1985 but has now been reduced to about 3,000. In this regard, plans are being drawn up by the CPI to augment its traditional agenda by including environment related concerns to attract students.
Drives to increase membership in rural areas (rural workers and poor peasants constitute about 55 per cent of the CPI membership of over 4.5 lakh) and improve the procedure for recording membership data are also in the pipeline. On the agenda are mass movements on issues which affect the small farmer, like rising prices and patents on seeds and fertiliser.
Bardhan, who pushed hard for the mandatory declaration of assets by elected party members, says the issue of corruption was raised at the congress because "we are not immune to this trend Another trend that the CPI has to watch out for is internal bickering. With general elections round the corner, party sources believe that while leaders like Indrajit Gupta and Chaturanan Mishra will pull out all the stops to prevent the BJP from coming to power, Bardhan will oppose any move to support the Congress, even if only to keep the BJP out.
Says a senior party leader: "The danger is that the power struggle in the CPI may negate any good that has come out of the party congress." But whether the CPI has done enough to avoid the Marxist endgame of "one step forward and two steps backwards" is anybody's guess.