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Explained: What is the problem with CPM, and what does it plan to do about it?

Electorally, the Left in India at its lowest ebb. The CPM faces political extinction everywhere except Kerala, which remains its last stronghold. It has in effect ceased to be a force in 27 of India's 28 states.

CPI(M) leaders S. Ramachandran Pillai and Sitaram Yechury during the flag hoisting ceremony of the 23rd CPI(M) Party Congress, at E.K. Nayanar Academy in Kannur. (PTI)

The CPI(M)’s triennial national conclave — the Party Congress — began in Kannur, Kerala on Wednesday (April 6) with a call from General Secretary Sitaram Yechury to all secular democratic forces to unite to fight the BJP.

The Party Congress comes at a time when the CPM is fast losing national relevance. Pushed to the margins over several years now, the party has ceased to be an influential political voice that once played a key role in determining the national agenda and discourse.

Electorally, the Left in India at its lowest ebb. The CPM faces political extinction everywhere except Kerala, which remains its last stronghold. It has in effect ceased to be a force in 27 of India’s 28 states.

In West Bengal, which the CPM and its Left allies ruled for 34 years from 1977 to 2011, the party is reduced to a mere signage, with no MLAs in the current Assembly and no MPs from the state in Lok Sabha. (In Rajya Sabha there is only Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya.)

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In Tripura, which it ruled for a decade from 1978 to 1988 and then for a quarter century from 1993 to 2018, the CPM is struggling to retain lost political ground.

In the rest of the country, the red flags of the party flutter only outside factories.

Indeed, the challenges before the apparatchiks of AKG Bhavan and the delegates from across the country assembled in Kannur — a district that has gained notoriety over the years for bloody political violence — are formidable and daunting. The party has been unable to attract fresh blood, failed to get across its message to its targeted audience of the poor, and the working and middle classes, and has lacked effective speakers in Parliament to influence policy debates.

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Even in the face of these challenges, the party leadership has ironically sought to recycle a four-decade old strategy, tweaking it to meet present-day political demands.

Electoral challenges

Numerically, the CPM — or the Left as a whole — was never a big force in Parliament. Given its intellectual heft, however, the Left block of 30 to 50 MPs often punched above its weight.

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In the era of coalitions from 1989 to 2004, the CPM was a key force behind the throne, providing outside support to non-Congress and non-BJP governments. Stalwarts like Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu strode the national political scene, and Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury called the shots. The CPM’s political base was in West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala where it came to power every five years.

All that changed in the last decade in a sudden and dramatic collapse. The CPM’s best Lok Sabha performance was in 2004, when it won 44 seats, 26 of them from Bengal, and emerged as a major political force and the architect of the UPA-I government. It went steadily downhill after that, slumping to 16 seats in 2009, and 9 seats in 2014.

The party has just three MPs in the current Lok Sabha — one from Kerala (A M Ariff) and two from Tamil Nadu (P R Natarajan and S Venkatesan) courtesy an alliance with the DMK. In Rajya Sabha, it has five members — besides Bhattacharyya, the other four MPs are from Kerala.

While the party leadership uses the precedent-breaking victory in Kerala in 2021 (for the first time in the state the Left Front came back to power after completing a full term) to deflect from its massive defeat in Bengal, the truth is stark. Its vote share in Bengal last year crashed to 4.71 per cent from the 19.75 per cent it had won in 2016.

A view of the entrance of the main venue hosting the 23rd Communist Party of India (Marxist) Party Congress from April 6 to 10, at EK Nayanar Academy in Kannur. (PTI)

And the vote share of the BJP, which has emerged as the main challenger to the Trinamool Congress, was 37.97 per cent, up from 10.16 per cent in 2016.

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The wipeout in Bengal, a large state with a 294-member Assembly and which sends 42 MPs to Lok Sabha, lies at the heart of the CPM’s electoral crisis. In the Assembly election in Tripura in 2018, the party won 16 seats compared to the BJP’s 35, but its vote share (42.22 per cent) was only a shade lower than the BJP’s (43.59 per cent). The Trinamool Congress is making a determined bid for the state, which has a large Bengali population, in elections due next year.

Organisational weaknesses

Prices and unemployment rates are both high and the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in significant job losses — and yet the CPM, despite making the right noises, has failed to attract youth to its fold. This perhaps more than anything else underlines the crisis that the party is facing.

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The CPM believes that price rise is breaking the back of the middle class and the poor, and the working class is restive because of what it calls anti-worker labour laws. And yet, the red flag is not an option for any of these classes riven by caste divisions and attracted to the appeal of the BJP’s Hindutva.

While the rift in the central leadership — the tussle between Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury — always makes headlines, the fact is the leaders of the CPM have been unable to refashion the party’s pro-poor message and slogans, or to find a new political idiom and language to reach out to the masses. Sources said the political organisational report that will be presented at the Party Congress faults the central leadership for failing to ensure that the state units took up local agitations.

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In terms of membership, the party’s growth is confined to just Kerala. In West Bengal, the CPM had 2.08 lakh members in 2017, a number that came down to 1.60 lakh in 2021. In Tripura, the party’s membership in 2021 was 50,612, down from 97,990 in 2017. In most other states, the party’s membership has remained stagnant.

Yechury with delegates at the 23rd CPI(M) Party Congress. (PTI Photo)

Kerala is an exception — from 4.63 lakh in 2017 the CPM’s membership went up to 5.27 lakh in 2021. But even in Kerala, only 9.42 per cent of members are below the age of 25, which is a concern.

The draft political resolution that will be presented before the Party Congress notes: “In this period when the BJP emerged as the dominant political party in the country and the RSS network expanded rapidly, there has been a further erosion of our Party’s independent strength and our political intervention capacity.”

None of the CPM’s three Lok Sabha MPs are known for their ability to make speeches. The inability to make meaningful interventions in Rajya Sabha is in part due to its rigid rules, under which no leader can have more than two terms in the House. In the absence of powerful speakers like Yechury or Brinda Karat, the CPM’s parliamentary performance has been impacted.

The way forward for the party

The roadmap that the party leadership will propose at the Party Congress is neither radical nor innovative. It is, in fact, old wine in a new bottle.

The “party must prioritise the efforts for the formation of the Left and Democratic Front,” the leadership has proposed in the draft political resolution. The idea of Left and Democratic Front was first proposed in 1978 at the Jalandhar Party Congress. At the time it was intended to counter the Congress. The “main enemy” now — BJP — is very different, but the CPM’s strategy remains the same.

The Jalandhar line was to work towards formation of a Left and Democratic Front including other Left parties, “left and democratic forces in the Janata Party which consist of the former young Turks, radicals from the Congress, members of the Socialist Party”, and parties like the AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Akalis in Punjab, and the Republican parties. Many of the regional parties of today were not in existence then. The idea was to collaborate with regional forces.

Since 1978, the idea of Left and Democratic Front has been proposed ad nauseam in the Party Congress. The difference this time is in the articulation of a concrete programme.

General Secretary Yechury had famously clashed with the Karat faction in 2014 over the Jalandhar line. The Karat faction had then argued that the political-tactical line of joining hands with the regional forces followed since the Jalandhar Congress of 1978 had backfired. Yechury had then circulated a counter paper arguing that it was not the tactic but the way it was implemented, which was responsible for the party’s decline.

The Left and Democratic Programme which the party leadership (read Yechury) proposes now provides the outline of a set of principles on which the Front can be formed.

In the CPM’s language, the outline of the alternative to bourgeois landlord policies in the Left and Democratic Programme must be based on these issues: safeguarding economic sovereignty, defence of the Indian Constitution and the secular democratic character of the Republic, safeguarding democratic rights and civil liberties, social justice, safeguarding federalism, fighting for the working class and peasantry, protecting culture and media, and the people’s welfare. All these are elaborated in the draft political resolution.

First published on: 06-04-2022 at 08:28:07 pm
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