The 21st party congress of the CPM in Visakhapatnam later this month will see a change of leadership, bringing to an end the decade-long tenure of Prakash Karat as general secretary. In this interview, Karat looks back at a term during which the party has dwindled in strength, and stresses the need to engage the youth and overhaul the organisation to adapt to changing times.
What is on the agenda of the upcoming congress?
The party congress is held every three years and this time the main focus will be to gear up the party to fight against the Narendra Modi government’s policies and the BJP. Also, how to strengthen the CPM and the Left so that we will be in a position to rally other democratic forces to present an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress. How do we counter the twin attack of neo-liberal policies of the government and Hindutva communal forces, and the role of CPM in that, will be the focus.
Do you agree with the view that the CPM and the CPI should merge to be more relevant in today’s politics?
Historically, we have been two separate parties since 1964 and what we have been striving for is closer cooperation, which we have made a lot of progress in, and strengthening the unity of all Left parties. We are not thinking of a merger.
Your term as general secretary has coincided with a decline for the Left; Lok Sabha seats have dropped drastically, you lost West Bengal. What went wrong?
Well, electoral successes and defeats have been there, we have had ups and downs. But what we are more concerned with is our failure to advance the party’s growth and to increase our mass base and influence. This we have not been able to do as we expected. We have self-critically looked at this, and responsibility for this failure lies with the central leadership, and I being the general secretary am also part of this. We have noted some of the shortcomings, which we will present in the party congress.
What could be the possible course correction?
We are going to have a special meeting, an organisational plenum, in a few months after the party congress where we will review our organisational work. What needs to change, what needs to be re-oriented, are we doing enough to reach out to the people — all these aspects have to be looked at. Then we will come out with a renovated organisational set-up. We will get detailed reports from all our states about the state of the party organisation, and then we will have the plenum.
Are there any regrets from your term as general secretary?
For a communist party, the most important thing is how it works out its political tactical line — what do we do to face the current political situation, how do we intervene to bring a change in the balance of forces in the country. We have not succeeded in that; in fact, the right has gained and there is a right-wing offensive in the country. One of the things we have already noted after the Lok Sabha elections is that the appeal of the party among the younger generation has declined, and now we will take the necessary measures on how to be able to communicate with and reach out to younger people.
Does it also mean there will be an infusion of youth in the leadership?
We have already begun the process of promoting younger people at different levels. One of the reasons why we brought this three-term limitation for party secretaries is to see that new leaders come up. In fact, more than 50 per cent of district secretaries have been changed during the conferences this time…We are trying to promote younger people in party committees.
With such low numbers in the Lok Sabha, does it mean there will be greater coordination with other parties like the Congress?
Already inside Parliament, faced with a number of policy issues, the opposition has established some sort of wider cooperation…We will work with all the parties in opposition on an issue-by-issue basis.
What should the primary focus of the new general secretary be?
The party congress will elect a new central committee, a new politburo and a new general secretary, who collectively have this very important responsibility of setting out the political line for the future. In order to transform that on the ground, we need to revamp our party organisation. We need to change our ways of functioning in many ways. The Communist Party has a very good organisation generally but over the years, sometimes the organisation tends to get into a stereotyped mould, so we have to break out of that. It is also a strength for us but sometimes it becomes a barrier for innovations and adopting new forms of struggles, movements and campaigns. That will be the very important task of the new leadership.
Is there a feeling that the Left has become stagnant to some extent?
It is partly due to the fact that we have not expanded sufficiently. This has given the impression that we are stagnant. But this stagnancy can be broken not just by organisational methods; the party has to think about how do we reach out to new sections of people. Traditional ways of organising are not sufficient. We see that in big cities; trade union work alone is not sufficient to organise the entire urban poor.
In a party so disciplined, doesn’t V S Achuthanandan’s walking out of the Kerala state party conference reflect open dissent?
There is a paradoxical situation. We have noticed that our party in Kerala is more united than ever and therefore there was this paradox we had of senior leaders of the party walking out and that was universally disapproved of in the party. The central committee has taken note of that.