The remarks of former general secretary Prakash Karat, made in an interview to this newspaper, assume significance as the CPM central leadership gets ready to decide whether or not to ally with the Congress in West Bengal. Karat told this newspaper that the CPM follows “a central, all-India political line” and state-specific decisions are not “divorced from the overall political line”. The CPM political line adopted at the recent Visakhapatnam party conference, according to Karat, opposes alliances with both the BJP and the Congress. That is, it is against the BJP government, but without envisaging any understanding with the Congress. Karat’s position, implicit in his interpretation of the line, speaks for a section of the CPM, especially its Kerala unit, which is opposed to the Congress tie-up proposed by the party’s West Bengal unit.
Karat’s severe reading of the political line, however, has implications that travel beyond the West Bengal elections. It suggests a political positioning which has not helped the CPM’s prospects in a time when the federal character of Indian politics necessitates flexibility of tactics and astute coalition-building. An earlier generation of communist leaders knew this and built broadbased political and social alliances that helped the party grow and gain office in some states. In recent years, the CPM has repeatedly let go of opportunities that could have helped the party grow, in the name of ideological purity. In 1996, the United Front chose CPM leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to head the Central government. Hardliners led by Karat opposed and won the argument in the party. Eight years later, it repeated the “historic blunder”, as Basu described the 1996 decision, and stayed out of the first UPA government. It sought to influence the government from the outside than take responsibility for running it from within. In the event, the Congress got the credit for implementing the social welfare agenda the CPM had advocated. In the 2009 general elections that followed, the UPA got re-elected while the CPM lost miserably. The breakdown in UPA-Left relations helped the Trinamool win West Bengal two years later.
The West Bengal predicament is another test of the CPM’s ability to turn its ear to the ground and adapt its tactics accordingly. Smug confidence in the wisdom of the leadership has been its undoing in West Bengal, where the party ignored popular discontent against certain industrial projects. A little humility vis-a-vis voters and a less doctrinaire view on alliances may help rescue the party from further marginalisation.