In battle of ideas, CPI(M) is unusually split down the middle

Truth is, Yechury Vs Karat hides a much more fundamental manner in which the CPI(M) looks at national politics. Which is why the Hyderabad session will be a battleground not only of personalities between the two men on the top, but also of ideas.

Written by Esha Roy | Published: October 23, 2017 6:34 am
2019 lok sabha elections, 2019 elections, CPM, Congress, Sitaram yechury, CPI(M) Central Committee meeting, Congress, general elections, general elections 2019, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, Narendra Modi, Narendra Modi government, PM Modi, BJP, vs achuthanandan At a Central Committee (CC) meeting of the CPI(M) in the national capital, Delhi, about a week ago, the house was split 32-31 in favour of the Prakash Karat faction, former general secretary of the party who handed over charge to Sitaram Yechury in 2015. (File/Representational)

How relevant are the Left parties in national politics today? Put another way, does it matter at all if the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the largest Left party in terms of cadres, but tiny in terms of parliamentary numbers, a mere 9 in the Lok Sabha and 7 in the Rajya Sabha – is split down the middle on the question of opposing the mighty BJP?

Devoting newsprint and/or online attention to discussing the CPI(M)’s differences within may be one way of spending a lazy, impending winter afternoon. But if you’re in Kolkata and the inevitable “adda” creeps up, then be guaranteed that a debate between the “Sitaram Yechury faction” and the “Prakash Karat faction” could distract you from the ongoing drama that is the ruling Trinamool Congress.

For those who came late to the party, here are the nuts and bolts : At a Central Committee (CC) meeting of the CPI(M) in the national capital, Delhi, about a week ago, the house was split 32-31 in favour of the Prakash Karat faction, former general secretary of the party who handed over charge to Sitaram Yechury in 2015.

The ‘Indian Express’ reported that the Karat faction was solidly against cooperating with the Congress party in battling against the BJP in the 2019 elections, while the Sitaram Yechury faction, while against an alliance with the Congress, argued that all good people must come together to oppose the BJP in 2019. Meaning, some sort of cooperation with the Congress could not be ruled out.

Certainly, the very close call has regenerated interest in the CPI(M)’s goings-on as well as across the political spectrum at large – even if the general population is still stifling a yawn, wondering what the fuss is about.

The fact remains that over the next few months, until the Party Congress takes place in April in Hyderabad, a pitched battle of delicate maneuvering and persuasion will take place between the Karat and the Yechury camps.

There’s more. Which is why Kolkata is agog with these recent developments. It seems that the “Bengal party,” or at least several of those comrades who belong to a state which flew the hammer-and-sickle for 34 long respectable years until 2011, is siding with Sitaram Yechury, the current general secretary. Perhaps, the loss of power is enough to persuade them to seek out a common political enemy.

As for Kerala, it continues to support the more hardline positions taken by Prakash Karat, a much more puritanical approach, of going it alone. We will soldier on by ourselves, says the Kerala camp.

Truth is, Yechury Vs Karat hides a much more fundamental manner in which the CPI(M) looks at national politics. Which is why the Hyderabad session will be a battleground not only of personalities between the two men on the top, but also of ideas.

This debate isn’t new. It was fully out in the open during the 2016 assembly elections in West Bengal, when the state unit persuaded its central committee to allow, not a formal alliance, but what the state leaders called a “people’s alliance’’ between the Left parties and the Congress to take on the might of the Trinamool Congress. The TMC was already beleaguered by the Narada scam, which broke via released tapes of Narada TV, showing as many as 11 top Trinamool leaders taking cash bribes in exchange for favours. The “jote”, or coalition, as it was called in Bengal, started gaining electoral ground, much to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s alarm.

And then the Left’s political strategy unraveled. When the votes were counted, Mamata’s TMC had powered its way to an unprecedented victory, winning 211 seats out of 294. The Left-Congress coalition won 77 seats, but the Congress ironically won more seats than the Left parties, which then became the state’s main opposition. Sitaram Yechury’s line had just been handed a massive defeat.

But even as the rank and file in the CPI(M) dissolved into angerand chaos, the truth was that the Left vote share had actually increased significantly, even though the actual number of seats captured had been far fewer.

That is why the next few months promise to be interesting. A few weeks after the April party congress, West Bengal goes to panchayat polls in May. Fact is, the TMC is ever stronger and the BJP is nibbling at Mamata’s heels, trying to wean away a large chunk of the Left’s supporters in an effort to undermine the Trinamool. Under the circumstances, will the Congress woo the CPI(M), and more to the point, will the CPI(M) bite the invite?

In his letter to the Central Committee last week, Yechury stressed the need for an alliance between all the non-BJP players. Karat submitted two notes to the CC, emphasizing the need to create a Left Democratic Alliance. The draft resolution to be discussed at the Party Congress will now go back to the party’s Politburo, the highest decision-making body.

Bengal’s CPI(M) leaders concede that the Bengal party is also divided on the matter, but insist that the Kerala party is far from homogenous. With the rise of the RSS in Kerala, and
repeated attacks on Left party offices and cadres in the state, it is a matter of time that the BJP will replace its traditional rival, the Congress in Kerala, they say.

Even the extreme Left parties, like the CPI(ML), which drew its strength from the peasant movement that it sought to transform into a revolution in Naxalbari 50 years ago, now believes that it is not the moderate Left parties which sold out to parliamentary politics that are the enemy, but the BJP-RSS. On the walls of the CPI(ML)’s one-room headquarter in a small congested lane in Siliguri town, are spray-painted the words in red, “Resist the onslaught of BJP-RSS
combine”.

Party founder Charu Majumdar’s son Abhijeet Majumdar now heads this unit, and says that for the ML, which considers the CPI(M) as much of a rival as the TMC, the new enemy is the BJP and
rising right wing politics in  the state. That’s why, Majumdar said, it was important for BJP president Amit Shah to visit Naxalbari recently, because no other ideology threatens the BJP as much as the Left. Shah had, in fact, kicked off his country-wide tour from Naxalbari.

In Bengal, with the BJP standing at its doorstep, leaders feel that an alliance is no longer a luxury but a necessity. After the Assembly polls, there has been no formal Left-Congress alliance, in keeping with the Central Committee’s political tactical line (although there has been an informal cooperation between the two parties). In subsequent local elections, the Left parties have fared even worse.

So even though the Left parties performed dismally in the 2014 elections, falling to their worst-ever showing in Parliament, the fact remains that the Left’s influence in national politics has a peculiar hold on the national imagination. The remaining two years before the 2019 polls will be crucial, certainly, which is why the Yechury Vs Karat ideological argument will be watched with keenness.

Moreover, the fact that theirs is a battle of ideas, not only of personalities, uplifts all national politics. It accounts for the fact that the BJP may ride high, the TMC may rule the state and the Congress party may finally bring about a change in its top leadership – but some of the best minds continue to belong to the Left.

Esha Roy is the Bureau chief of the Indian Express in Kolkata. She tweets @esha_ie

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