Winning back the people

Left is stuck with old issues. It must strike new conversations — with middle classes and youth.

Written by Prakash Karat | Published:January 7, 2016 12:04 am
kolkata, kolkata plenum, CPM, CPM plenum, CPM central committee, Prakash Karat, congress, kolkata latest news, india news General Secretary of the Communist Party of India Prakash Karat.

The organisational plenum held by the CPM in Kolkata focused on the organisational steps to be taken to build up the independent strength of the party and to expand its mass base. The plenum was a follow up to the 21st congress of the party held in April 2015. The congress, which is the party’s highest policymaking body, had set out a political line that emphasised the importance of expanding the strength of the party in order to forge a real political alternative — a left and democratic front.

The CPM, which is the largest left party in the country, had suffered electoral setbacks, particularly in West Bengal, and failed to register any worthwhile advance at the all-India level in terms of mass support. It was in order to rectify this failure that the party organisation was subjected to a critical examination at the plenum.

The political challenges before the CPM were spelt out in the party congress. There has been a rightward shift in the country’s polity. With the advent of the Modi government, a rightwing offensive has been unfolding through the aggressive pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the onslaught of communal forces. Fighting this twin offensive, projecting a left and democratic alternative platform, and building popular movements and struggles were the tasks set out.

The plenum, therefore, had to devise ways to revamp the organisational set-up and streamline structures at all levels of the party. One of the key themes was how to improve the quality of the party membership in political, ideological and organisational terms. For the CPM, party members and cadres are the backbone of the organisation. They have to be politically conscious, dedicated and self-sacrificing. The plenum broke new ground in insisting that quality can be enhanced only if the social composition, apart from the class composition, of the membership improves. Thus, for the first time, a decision was taken to set a target for recruiting more women members. At present, 15.5 per cent of members are women. This is to be increased to 25 per cent in three years.

The other way of improving quality is to ensure that cadres from the working class, poor peasants and agricultural workers get promoted into the leading committees of the party. Along with this, a planned effort has to be made to promote cadres from Dalit, Adivasi and other socially oppressed sections. There is no dearth of Dalit members — 20.3 per cent of the total membership — but their numbers in the middle and higher committees are comparatively low. So promoting cadres from socially disadvantaged sections needs conscious planning.

The CPM and the Left in general have fallen behind somewhat due to changes that have occurred in socio-economic conditions after more than two decades of liberalisation and globalisation. Two constituencies where the Left had a traditional appeal — the middle classes and the youth — have been most affected by these changes. In the pre-liberalisation era, the Left had an appeal for both the middle classes and young people. There is a decline in that appeal. This is due to two reasons. First, there is a differentiation within the middle classes, with an upper stratum having high incomes and a lifestyle closer to that of the affluent sections of society. They see benefits in neoliberal capitalism and can no longer relate to the Left programme. Second, the problems and concerns of the other strata of the middle classes have undergone changes, which have not been properly addressed by the Left. The Left organisations are still stuck with the old issues and have not innovated in ways to reach out to them and take their concerns on board.

In the case of the youth, the Left has to reorient its policies and programmes, making the concerns and aspirations of the young a central focus. Where it has done so, it has succeeded but, by and large, this is an area of neglect. The plenum dealt with both these issues of work among the middle classes and the youth. Concrete measures have been suggested to step up work among the urban middle classes. The party’s youthful component — the number of members below 31 years of age — is hovering just below 20 per cent and guidelines were drawn up to recruit more young men and women and to promote younger cadres at all levels of the party.

A key slogan that emerged from the plenum is to adopt the mass line to establish live links with the people. Mass contact with the people has increasingly become confined to times of elections and when election campaigns are conducted. The old communist style of always being with the people, learning from the people and then going to the people with the prescriptions for dealing with their problems has to be restored.

The quality of the party can improve only when there is vibrant inner-party democracy in place. This is important not only for the CPM but for the party-based parliamentary democratic system itself. Neoliberal politics has further stifled democracy, which was already getting narrowed, within parties. Many parties have a leader-centric organisation or have become family enterprises. There is a widespread perception that the communist party is disciplined but not democratic as far as its internal organisation is concerned. Actually, the CPM, which practices democratic centralism, has a better record of inner-party democracy. The plenum pinpointed certain trends that adversely affect inner-party democracy and suggested steps to remove these defects.

There is a common misconception that combating communalism means defeating the BJP in elections. The electoral struggle alone cannot weaken and isolate communal forces. The RSS and its various front organisations are working constantly amongst various sections of society. Electoral defeats do not necessarily weaken the influence of communal ideology. It is important to wage the battle of ideas to counter Hindutva forces and other brands of communalism. As a consistent force against communalism, the CPM has to have an organisation capable of conducting ideological struggle among the people. The plenum, therefore, discussed ways to mobilise intellectual and cultural resources for a broad platform against communalism and to step up interventions in the social, cultural and educational spheres to inculcate and strengthen secular, democratic values.

The success the CPM has in implementing the organisational tasks set out in the plenum will determine the advance towards building a viable left and democratic alternative in the country.

The writer is former general secretary of the CPM.