January 19, 2020
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Power Without Responsibility?

The CPI(M) is willing to attack, but not wound the United Front

Power Without Responsibility?

THE CPI(M) seems to be slowly, but surely, digging itself into a hole. These days the party is busy fending off a series of embarrassments for the United Front government—most of them involving the Left. This only serves to bring home the arduous task of balancing the conflicting demands of a far-from-cohesive coalition, especially with the BJP and the Congress waiting to pick up the regional pieces when, rather than if, the UF Government crumbles. Amid growing allegations that the CPI(M) is trying to exercise power without responsibility, the party is now realistic enough to admit, at least in private, that it wields a clout disproportionate to its strength on the ground.

 Witness the alacrity with which senior leaders such as general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet came down on politburo member Sitaram Yechury’s comment to a television channel last week that it was desirable that the prime minister should come clean on the travel accounts of his entourage which accompanied him to Rome. "Nothing of the sort is required. The prime minister has already clarified that every paise will be paid by his family members," was Surjeet’s immediate reaction. Though Yechury has since told Outlook that what he said was "taken completely out of context", there is no doubt that he did make such a statement.

Slip of the tongue or not, the point is that it is just such questions of propriety—and the need for those in positions of power to be above suspicion—that Left stalwarts made such a meal of in the not-so-recent past. In Parliament and outside, especially during the Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao years. But that was before Surjeet became the key player in the formation, and continuation, of the Deve Gowda-led Government and before the CPI joined the coalition.

So, on the one hand there are a host of contentious economic issues, such as the proposed hike in petroleum prices, the delay in implementing the rice and wheat at half-price scheme for those below the poverty line and the reforms in the insurance sector about which the Left is agitated and has to oppose the government. But then political compulsions take them in quite another direction—after all, the survival of the UF Government is at stake. A fact best illustrated in the climbdown of both the CPI(M) and the CPI at the November 20 UF steering committee meet, when Surjeet came out of Gowda’s residence saying he was "satisfied" by the explanations of Union Ministers P. Chidambaram and Murasoli Maran on economic issues. He subsequently told Outlook that since the dispute was at end, "there is no point in raking up the past." 

This, when both the ministers did not say a thing at the meet which they had not spouted in public earlier. And both had been the target of a concerted attack by the CPI(M) over the past few months, to the point of being accused of trying to introduce economic reforms "through the back door". But the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and, of late, even the DMK, the parties to which these ministers belong, are not too pleased at the Leftists’ approach. With the Sitaram Kesri-led Congress waiting in the wings to welcome them "home", the CPI(M) cannot press the issue. Instead, Surjeet has been put into service to calm ruffled feathers. The pressure from within the CPI(M) is increasing as its leaders cannot possibly be seen letting down their constituencies or their ideology.

The rift between Telugu Desam (TDP) supremo Chandrababu Naidu and Deve Gowda over the Almatti dam issue and now the cyclone in Andhra Pradesh have only compounded matters. The CPI(M) is urging Gowda not to over-react and refrain from dropping obvious hints that the TDP can raise some resources on its own if it goes easy on some of its populist schemes and exhibits fiscal prudence. So it supports Naidu’s demands for more resources to alleviate the suffering of the victims—how can it not on such an issue? But the same CPI(M) sings a different tune to Gowda: that it takes his point about the politicisation of the tragedy by the TDP due to its own compulsions. In effect, Gowda’s style of functioning and his attempts to assert his independence, even at the cost of antagonising coalition partners, is beginning to worry the CPI(M).

And there are more problems on the horizon. The CPI(M)’s renewed attempts to get the Akali Dal (Badal) reach some sort of understanding with the UF before the Punjab assembly elections show no signs of bearing fruit. At another level, Gowda let the cat out of the bag during his recent visit to the North-east when he said that the Centre was considering a repeal of the Migrants’ Act, operative in Assam, which caused a great degree of consternation among the minorities. The CPI(M) was livid as it had worked assiduously for two years prior to the 1996 general elections to bring the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) back into the Third Force’s fold and give up its perceived anti-minorities stand. This contentious issue, in fact, had at one point nearly resulted in a deal between the AGP and the BJP before the CPI(M) stepped in.

It is these and similar incidents that have led to the two key allegations against the CPI(M): that to have a say in the policymaking, it doesn’t mind compromising on the way. And that it is willing to latch on to anybody in return for a few parliamentary and assembly seats. Retorts Yechury, rubbishing the charges: "That is nonsense. We did not have the power to implement what we wanted and that is why we took the responsible decision of staying out of the Government." 

The CPI(M)’s efforts to make the UF steering committee a "super executive" would seem to contradict such claims. And some in the party realise this. Others, however, admit that it would be naive for the party not to accept an influential position if it can help shape policy. "If we can do so without having to compromise ourselves by joining the Government, it makes perfect political sense to do so. And anyway, half our problem is that despite staying out of the Government we have been taking the flak. If our intentions were to emerge holier-than-thou, we wouldn’t have taken the initiative in helping form the UF alliance in the first place," adds a senior leader.

The CPI(M) and CPI leadership do admit that their parties "do not have a significant presence in many parts of the country and we have to align with those with whom we agree broadly to ensure our political and organisational growth." Yechury puts it a little differently: "There is no hesitancy in the party to admit that these alliances are good for us. But also for the country, as we see it, because it will help implement the policies we believe are needed. It is not sheer opportunism as some of our opponents allege. And all our alliance partners in various states do share our views on most major issues."

But the root of the CPI(M)’s trouble can be traced to their 1995 party congress in Chandigarh. It was here that General Secretary Surjeet’s "political-tactical line" was validated and the past 18 months have only seen the CPI(M) acting on it.

According to a politburo member, "the line endorsed was that it was possible for an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress to emerge and we should play our part in its formation. And this flows from the assessment that there is a great churning within the political system at present which is leading to a polarisation of forces. Between those who believe in the economic sovereignty of a self-reliant nation against those who don’t—the Congress. And between the believers in a multi-cultural, multi-religious secular and democratic India and its opponents—the BJP. That is why both the BJP and the Congress were seen as the opponents in equal measure." 

But as a senior Left leader points out, "it is one thing to make a political assessment; quite another to think that everything will run according to plan." As the CPI(M) is finding out for itself. There are a range of specific problems, but the crux of the CPI(M)’s dilemma arises from the fact that while most of the UF constituents are more or less committed to "secularism", the polarisation envisaged by the Left on the economic issue does not naturally follow. The CPI(M)’s differences with Chidambaram and Maran are the best examples.

So, when L.K. Advani singled out the CPI(M) for criticism in his speech to the BJP national executive earlier this month, it was an admission of the fact that the main party of the Indian Left has come to be identified as both the key ideological and political opponent. And its desire to dominate the political discourse. For many, it was an over-reaction on the part of a veteran politician and ideologue.

BUT in the CPI(M), it evoked mixed reactions. While it proved that it had drawn blood, it also meant that the CPI(M) could expect a concerted political attack singling it out, rather than the ‘third force’ it played a crucial part in putting together a few months ago.

That the attempt of the CPI(M) to isolate the BJP has succeeded to an extent is clear. At the time of the formation of the UF Government at the Centre and now in Uttar Pradesh. Advani’s polemics only proves the point. The question being asked in the CPI(M) is: at what cost? Sources in the party point out that the opposition to Surjeet’s tactics is concentrated on this point. What seems to worry many leaders is that the CPI(M)’s agenda is in danger of being subverted. The retreat on the key issue of economic reforms, whether perceived or otherwise, is, for them, an unhappy indicator. And just preventing the BJP from coming to power cannot, as many in the party are aware, be an end in itself. The CPI(M), feels a Janata Dal ideologue, is "concentrating on secularism instead of socialism" for the moment because realistically speaking, it doesn’t have a choice. "But unless it continues asserting its differences and airing its protests, this could well become its epitaph," he adds. Something a significant section of the CPI(M) is getting increasingly wary about. 

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