The largest communist organisation in the country—the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—is as secretive as they come. Debates and discussions within a party with a cadre strength of 10,42,287 registered members are rarely carried out in the public domain. But if one has to go by the ongoing debate between its two stalwarts—general secretary Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, a member of the party’s politburo and its representative in the Rajya Sabha—then that tradition seems to have been chucked into ‘the dustbin of history’. Significant details (rather, ‘selective leaks’) of the closed-door, four-day central committee meeting of the CPI(M) that ended on Wednesday regularly found their way out in the media, informing all about the prevailing mood in the party.
At one level, one may argue that on the 50th year of its birth, the CPI(M) has finally become truly democratic and like many other ‘bourgeois’ parties, has little qualms in washing its dirty linen in public.
Traditionally, parties temper their golden jubilee celebrations by doing serious introspection. For the CPI(M), which not only marks its 50th year but also the birth centenary of Jyoti Basu, the occasion seems to have belched forth the simmering tension within the party in the open.
“Debates and discussions are an integral part of any communist organisation. I don’t understand what the song and dance is all about,” says former party MP and West Bengal state leader Sujan Chakrabarty. Except that the nature and manner in which it was conducted mark out this debate from previous deliberations over the years.
Some think Karat is raising the 1978 party congress to divert attention from the mistakes the CPI(M) made under him.
The debate, sparked by the politburo’s official document initiated by Karat, has raised questions about the ‘political-tactical’ line adopted by the party since the 1978 Jalandhar Congress—according to which it was to aim at forming an anti-Congress platform of secular, democratic forces. But that was at a post-Emergency period when the Indira Gandhi-led Congress was totally discredited, and building alliances with a broad range of non-Congress parties seems to be a natural political choice. Further, the fact that the Communist Party of India (CPI)—at the time India’s biggest communist outfit—was on the defensive for supporting the Congress during Emergency had also allowed the CPI(M) the space to grow. However, the relevance of going back to that decision has surprised many CPI(M) leaders, who think the reasons for the party’s series of electoral debacles stem more from recent faulty policies. Yechury not only contested the official document by presenting an alternative document that put the blame on the organisational weakness of the party for stunting its growth beyond Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, he also hinted that the current leadership of Karat is responsible for the electoral misfortunes of the CPI(M).
But the nub of the problem lies elsewhere. It stems from their ongoing rivalry and has to be seen in the light of the forthcoming party congress in April 2015 that will elect a new general secretary. Both Yechury and Karat are contenders for the post, though neither is willing to make his candidature public. Instead, both are engaged in a tactical game to outmanoeuvre the other.
Their personalities and style of functioning differ sharply. Karat, the more traditionalist of the two, is a typical ‘behind-the-scenes’ man. Though his party has heavily depended on its strength and presence in the Indian Parliament for its national image and clout, Karat has tried to find ways of staying away from the institution once famously described by Lenin as a ‘pig sty’. By contrast, Yechury is more outgoing and has mixed with leaders of other parties with ease. And regular sound bites to TV channels have established him as the best-known face of the CPI(M).
Notwithstanding their rivalry, the two leaders have joined hands in the past to marginalise party rivals to ensure they remain the CPI(M)’s dominant face. Some insiders blame Yechury as much as Karat for supporting policies that have ravaged the party. Like when the two, with other politburo members, decided to expel veteran leader Somnath Chatterjee after the CPI(M)’s decision to withdraw support from the UPA government on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. Chatterjee, then the Lok Sabha Speaker, had refused to vote with the party to uphold the prestige of the chair he occupied. Karat and the others felt he had betrayed the party.
Though rivals, Karat and Yechury have joined hands in the past to sideline other rivals for continued dominance.
Interestingly, that decision of Karat’s—withdrawing support at the Centre—almost coincided with the party’s downslide in Bengal and other states. Not only did it lose power in a citadel that it held firm for 34 years, the fact that large numbers of its Bengal cadres have now defected either to the Trinamool Congress or, alarmingly, to the BJP, has shaken both the leadership and the remaining rank-and-file.
Insiders feel that Karat’s attempt at harking back to the 1978 Jalandhar party congress as a ploy to divert attention from mistakes made by the party under his stewardship. In the impending April party congress, say sources, Karat is likely to float the names of S.R. Pillai of Kerala or B.V. Raghuvulu of Andhra Pradesh as likely candidates for the next general secretary. Neither leader is known outside his state and does not have the required strength to be considered as a national leader. This, sources say, works in Karat’s favour as it would allow him to emerge as the consensus candidate and continue as general secretary for another term.
Since Yechury is aware of this gameplan, he wants to challenge Karat’s authority by raising questions about policies pursued by the party under his watch that led to such disastrous results.
Political observers and party insiders feel that the real issues that led the party to lose touch with the poor and the oppressed and turn it into a party of realtors and corrupt speculators in West Bengal and elsewhere have not yet been addressed by either of the two leaders. They say things may have come to such a pass that if the CPI(M) doesn’t repair its internal wiring in the impending party congress, it may again lead to a split in the party. In the 50th year of its parting of ways with the CPI, the party would surely not fancy another fission.