THE 16th CPI(M) party congress last week in Calcutta began with the rendition of a Tagore song. Nothing extraordinary in Bengal but for the fact that a CPI(M) spokesman had dubbed Tagore as one who had "pursued a political line close to the Congress" and that "communists naturally have reservations about him" in the party mouthpiece. If this was the Left's attitude towards pre-independence Congress, party general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet's offer of issue-based support to the Sonia-led Congress only added to the confusion.
But apart from a call to the faithful to regard the BJP rather than the Congress as enemy number one, a major tactical shift, the party congress did not elucidate any effective strategy for the future.
For instance, the party should have taken up the key question of survival, if only because an ideological stagnation has set in. Ironically, it took a foreign delegate, Andrej Reder, representing the Democratic Socialists of Germany, to underscore this. He referred to the struggle launched by Indian communists 50 years ago against "the RSS, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and Hindu communalists". The party had pledged to strive for working class unity, he said. But Reder, a Bengali-speaking former diplomat, was too polite to point out that five decades later, the communists are parroting the same sentiments, while having nothing to show for themselves.
A party congress is stock-taking time. Numerically, the grassroots is intact, with the membership of the CPI(M) pegged at 7,17,525 in 1997, a great leap forward from around 60,000 or so when the party was born in 1964. Its mass organisations account for another 2 million supporters. Yet, this quantitative growth has not necessarily meant an "improvement in cadre quality, rather the reverse". In part, explains one functionary, this stems from the concept of 'democratic centralism' that prevails in the party.
So, how representative is the CPI(M) party congress at its biggest general body meeting? The following figures tell the story. In the 1948 Calcutta congress, there were 632 delegates representing around 60,000 members, with 1.32 delegate for every 100 members. In 1964, the breakaway CPI(M) claimed a membership of around 60,000 with 136 delegates which meant 0.22 per cent of members were represented by each delegate. A year
, ago, the party membership was 4,65,277, which meant the delegate\membership ratio was 0.11 only. In 1998, with the party's membership soaring, there were only 683 delegates, which means only 0.095 per cent of members were represented by each delegate.
There were over 4,324 proposed amendments, of which around 2,500 were considered, the rest couldn't be taken up because of time constraints. This shows just how keenly the political draft is scrutinised and how seriously the leadership responds to views of members. Earlier, party congress sessions used to be held over 10 days or so. Nowadays the sessions last barely a week. Says a senior central committee member from Bengal: "During the last four central committee meets, I could not put in a word."
But even if the ground support is intact, it remains restricted to Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, after decades of Left struggle—this should be a major cause for worry. The party is heir to the unfortunate legacy of Indian communists who made mistakes at crucial junctures. Recent history is full of examples—the most glaring being its refusal to nominate Jyoti Basu as prime minister.
Now the focus is the BJP. Barely nine years ago, at the 13th party congress in Thiruvananthapuram, the CPI(M) draft political resolution had referred to the BJP by name only four times. In 1995 at the 15th party congress at Chandigarh, the rhetoric was only marginally more alarming. Three years later, in the draft political resolution for the '98 congress, leaders hit all panic buttons vis-a-vis the BJP.
The draft resolution, instead of admitting obvious political failure, seeks to support an obviously inept leadership. The only response of the CPI(M)—and the CPI—to the shift to the right is the call for a third alternative, a front of Left and democratic forces committed to fight communalism, though the United Front concept, according to Surjeet himself, "has lost credibility". Politburo member Sitaram Yechuri, till now a strong votary of the Third Front, told the media that if the government falls the party would back the Congress without joining any front with it because nobody wanted elections.
After hobnobbing with the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, even Surjeet was forced to concede that "we are fighting Laloo in Bihar, but in anti-BJP struggles they do have a role, for all their weaknesses". Observers point out that the proclivity to welcome all and sundry, no matter how corrupt, purely on a BJP-bashing mission, has not helped the two communist parties in increasing their strength either in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.
What the 16th congress has achieved, if that is the word, is to spell out the party's electoral strategy for the period ahead. Leaders succeeded in weathering vociferous protests against the proposed soft line against the Congress from Kerala, Karnataka and even West Bengal delegates. Basu even indicated that in the coming assembly polls in four states, the party would support the Congress if necessary to defeat the BJP: a dramatic turnaround for a man who always described the Congress as 'a party of goondas, of scoundrels,' in the state assembly.