The ambiguous nature of the CPM central committee communiqué released after two days of intense discussions reveal the party’s predicament on its approach towards the Congress in the upcoming assembly elections. While the single-sentence introduction says that the central committee has worked out tactics in accordance with the political-tactical line adopted at the recent Visakhapatnam party congress, the paragraph on the West Bengal line does not mention the Congress at all. It reads: “In West Bengal, the main task is to restore democracy and foil the aggressive efforts by the communal forces to polarise the people in the state by ousting the present Trinamool Congress government. The CPI(M) will seek the cooperation of all democratic forces in the state to strengthen people’s unity in West Bengal to defeat the Trinamool Congress, isolate the BJP and their machinations.” Since the CPM does consider the Congress a democratic force — with caveats, of course — it is reasonable to expect a covert understanding between the two in the West Bengal elections. The alliance that the West Bengal unit sought was not sanctioned by the party’s highest decision-making body with due deference to the concerns of its influential Kerala unit, which has to face elections with the Congress as the main adversary, but one can expect tactical understanding at the grassroots to avoid a fragmentation of the anti-Trinamool vote.
The extended debate at the party’s highest forums to arrive at this seemingly pragmatic decision reveals a historical burden of Indian parliamentary communists. Any alliance with the Congress continues to be contentious in ideological terms though both parties have weakened significantly. Since its beginnings in the 1920s, the spectre of the Congress has haunted the communist movement. One of the early and influential communists was M N Roy, who was attached to Communist International and based in Berlin and Moscow in the 1920s. His critical views of the national movement, the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi — he saw them as bourgeois obstacles to true Indian social revolution, in the words of the Roy scholar, Kris Manjapra — were not in sync with activists in Bombay, Kanpur etc, many of whom had close links to the Independence struggle. For instance, S A Dange, one of the founding leaders of the CPI, began his political career as a follower of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. When communist activists were jailed in the Meerut conspiracy case in 1929, a defence committee was formed under Motilal Nehru.
In the 1930s, many Left-leaning political activists joined the Congress Socialist Party, a group formed within the Congress under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. Leaders including P Krishna Pillai, A K Gopalan and E M S Namboodiripad were Congress workers who held leadership positions in the CSP, which morphed into the CPI in Kerala in 1937. Under the leadership of P C Joshi, the party engaged with the national movement and the leadership of Gandhi and grew, despite its flip-flops on the Second World War and the Pakistan demand and opposition to the Quit India movement.
The Congress started to loom large on the CPI immediately after Independence. Under B T Ranadive, the CPI dismissed the Congress and the Indian state as puppets of imperialist forces. Though the party revised its view of both entities in the 1950s and participated in elections, the Congress continued to be a beast the party was unsure about. While leaders like Ajoy Ghosh and Joshi held a positive view of the Nehru government and warned against the emerging Hindu right-wing, others remained critical of Nehruvian Congress. The difference of opinion was one of the reasons that led to the split in the CPI in 1964.
Thereafter, the CPI and the CPM argued endlessly on who was right throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The CPI supported Indira Gandhi and the Emergency whereas the CPM had a critical view of her tenure. Then CPM general secretary P Sundarayya took the view that the party must not align with Hindu right-wing groups like the Jana Sangh, but must go underground to fight the Emergency.
The CPI revised its line in 1978 and ended its alliance with the Congress for Left unity. The Left Front, born in the late 1970s, has since been a stable coalition, winning office in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Though the CPM and the CPI have had tactical alliances with the Congress at the state level, it has held the view that nationally the party needs to oppose the Congress and the BJP. This political line influenced the CPM central committee to refuse the United Front’s invitation to Jyoti Basu to become prime minister in 1996 and the Congress’s invite to join the government in 2004.
The political ground has shifted dramatically since, with the BJP emerging as the main pole of national politics. The CPM’s political line, however, does not differentiate between the challenges from the BJP and the Congress. While the party unmistakably singles out Hindutva as a grave threat, the official document does not allow any leeway for an overt electoral tie-up with the Congress. The West Bengal state committee, facing an existential threat, dared to challenge the premise when it proposed an electoral understanding last week.
The emerging national situation may force the CPM to abandon a dogmatic approach to the question of working with the Congress. The social left has closed ranks and is likely to pressurise the political left to set aside differences over the economic question — the Congress itself may adapt a social democratic agenda — and associate with the Congress to preserve liberal values and freedoms. The political climate is resembling the Vajpayee years when the Congress and the Left found common ground in secularism and other constitutional values. As in 2004, the parties may have no choice but to collaborate to resist the onslaught of the Hindutva forces.
Time and office have transformed both parties, but they are increasingly discovering a shared heritage. It is often argued that the communists are the legatees of Nehru’s vision of secularism and social democracy. Communist leaders like EMS in the past have claimed they are the true inheritors of Gandhian ethics and values of probity in public life and commitment to the poor. The challenge for the two parties will be to build a critical relationship that respects their differences while joining hands against a common adversary.