This brilliant parliamentarian with wide acceptability has the onerous duty of reviving a moribund party which has lost touch with its cadres. Will he succeed?
By Seema Guha
Sitaram Yechury has taken over as general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) at a time when it is facing an existentialist crisis. It is a do-or-die battle. The option before the CPM is simple. Change and become relevant or sink forever in the dustbin of history. The Indian Left is still caught up with ideas which fired the world after the Russian Revolution and Mao Zedong’s Long March. The world has changed dramatically since then. India itself has changed much in the last 50 years after the CPM was born in 1964.
But the Left appears not to have taken any cognizance of the massive changes that occurred. Unless Yechury and his comrades see the writing on the wall and transform their party, there is no chance of a Left revival. Is Yechury the man to bring the much-needed change in the party?
Many old faithfuls see Yechury, 62, as the man of the moment. He is an excellent speaker and a brilliant parliamentarian, as well as a multilingual networker with contacts and acceptability across the political spectrum. Being a pragmatist, he can work with most parties. He does not have the earlier general secretary Prakash Karat’s pathological aversion to the Congress. During Karat’s tenure, the CPM, which had lent outside support to the UPA, had walked out of the coalition over differences in the India-US civil nuclear deal. In the fall-out over this deal, Karat expelled veteran Communist leader Somnath Chatterjee, the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha. This is the level of intolerance the CPM projects even for a party stalwart like Chatterjee. Stalinist in approach, dissent is not tolerated and there is little inner-party democracy. People compare Yechury with the late general secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, a pragmatic tactician.
Prakash Karat stubbornly refused to ally with the Congress
The Left has joined hands with the dep-leted opposition in parliament to stall the NDA government on critical issues of land. The CPM is now working with all opposition parties in parliament. “Inside parliament, we have said we will unite on all these issues (like the land bill), which is an issue which we think is not in the interests of the country,’’ Yechury said in a recent interview.
But making its presence felt in parliament is not enough. The party has to be on the ground talking to people, rebuilding step-by-step. Apart from grabbing media attention, there is little the Left can garner from national politics at the moment. It has to begin the difficult task of reorganizing in West Bengal, where it is whining about terror tactics of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), exactly what Mamata Banerjee would say about the Left when she was on the losing side.
“The Left Front lost West Bengal because it wasn’t radical enough…. It compromised with rich and middle peasants.” —Praful Bidwai, political analyst
What is surprising is that the Communists, who should have cadres ready to fight back, have grown effete (after 34-years of cushioning by their government).
During more than three decades of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal, the rot had already set in. Communist leaders themselves privately admit that in the early days of the struggle, those who joined the CPM were dedicated and committed to the cause. But as the CPM soon became the establishment, the later entrants simply flocked to it to get the goods of office. Among them were plenty of goons, many of whom have now joined the ranks of the TMC. About 40,000 members have quit the CPM in the state since 2011.
The TMC under Mamata Banerjee has captured the ground ceded by a moribund CPM in West Bengal
The CPM in Bengal has never really recovered from the mauling it received at the hands of the Trinamool in the 2011 assembly elections. Shattered then, it now seems paralyzed. Since then, it has been a steady decline in parliamentary numbers. From a healthy 44 in 2004, it came down to 16 in 2009 and 9 in 2014. In Kerala too, it has lost state power. Today, the CPM just rules the tiny state of Tripura.
The CPM in Bengal has never really recovered from the mauling it received at the hands of the Trinamool in the 2011 assembly elections.
For the CPM to recover, it must start working first in West Bengal, where the organization still has a base. A new narrative is needed to enthuse cadres and inject fresh blood. Former chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and party supremo Biman Bose have done nothing so far on the ground. “I have seen no signs of grassroot work by the party. There are many issues they can take up, but the CPM appears completely rudderless at the moment,’’ says Kolkata-based analyst Rajat Roy. “The CPM is still unable to connect with the people or speak their idiom,’’ he adds.
The party membership is also ageing: one-half of it belongs to the 32-50 years age-group, 20 percent is under 31 years, while 27 percent is in the 50-70 age group. The CPM now has to ensure that it attracts young people. There is space for alternative political formations with fresh ideas as has been
evident with the rise of the AAP. It was able to stop the Modi wave in the national capital. If the AAP can defeat the BJP in Delhi just months after its stupendous victory in the 2014 general elections, there is hope for the CPM, but it needs to get out of its old mould.
From 2004 to 2014, the Left Front pulled much more weight in national politics than its actual strength of 61 seats, thanks to the compulsions of coalition politics. But the situation today is very different.
If the Left has to revive, it has to start in West Bengal. “The Left Front lost West Bengal because it wasn’t radical enough. Its modest land reform stopped at regis-tering/protecting tenant-sharecroppers, and didn’t transfer titles to them. It compromised with rich and middle peasants and failed to organize landless agricultural workers,’’ says analyst Praful Bidwai, who’s book on the Left in India will soon be published. “The CPM deradicalized the trade unions and lost its prime working class cadres. It pioneered panchayati raj, but turned it into a patronage-based system,’’ Bidwai adds.
“A good beginning would be to ask why it lost power in West Bengal, and take a honest self-critical view,’’he says.
In Kerala, the Left is better organized and well-entrenched despite the infighting.
In a country like India, there are many issues that it can take up seriously, but this cannot be done sitting in air-conditioned offices. They have to reach out to the masses. Journalist Monobina Gupta says: “My personal view is that the CPM cannot change.’’
It is for Sitaram Yechury to prove the cynics wrong.