The story we heard back in the late 1950s was that Gamal Abdel Nasser, legendary president of Egypt, was visiting India, and Jawaharlal Nehru held a reception for him. Nehru was personally introducing Nasser to several invitees, Hiren Mukherjee among them. Nehru introduced him too, as the communist MP. He saw the unasked question in Nasser’s eyes — “Communist MP?” — and answered it: “Mr President, you have put your communists in prison, I have put them in Parliament.” Implied in the answer was that there are different ways of making communists irrelevant to a functioning democracy.
Not quite, though. Both Indian democracy and Indian communists have shown remarkable resilience to survive and flourish, with all the ups and downs inherent in the process. Their adaptability to the conditions of what the communists still classify almost derisively as bourgeois democracy is testimony enough, even for those not quite their sympathisers. Yet, the fact that a crisis of existence stares them in the face is one of the most important and honest admissions of the CPM’s just-concluded party congress. The party is seeking a way out in the leadership of one of its most promising leaders, Sitaram Yechury.
As president of the JNUSU in 1977-78, Yechury was quite a terror for members of the university’s Academic Council (AC). He never raised his voice, never uttered one word that could be objected to and was, in fact, polite to a fault. The terror was the AC meetings in which he raised and argued on issues relating to students for 10 hours; all other issues of would be disposed of in a half-hour!
The ability to present his argument with cogency, clarity and force has served him and his party well. Once in a while when one gets to hear him intervene in the Rajya Sabha debates, the affection and admiration for him comes back. It came back when he opened his acceptance of the general secretary’s post with the statement: “This [party] congress is the congress of the future.” He has also assured the audience of the party’s turnaround.
Is this mere rhetoric, or is there substance to the assertions? It remains an open question, even though Yechury does have a vision. His emphasis on countering neoliberal economic policies, rather than taking on capitalism itself, the threat of social cleavages being followed as a well-thought-out strategy by the Narendra Modi government, and his concern for the declining support for his party and its ideals, especially among the youth, underline his vision. He is aware that on one hand, the world today lives under the supreme dominance of capitalism with its alternative decimated; on the other, the world is in ferment as seldom before. If the neoliberal economic regime is increasingly spiralling all wealth to the top 1 per cent around the world, theoretical as well as political challenges to it are also growing in all corners. Besides the basic questions being raised by Noam Chomsky, Thomas Piketty, Slavoj Zizek and others, and the massive protests staged in the Western world over the years, alternative regimes have been experimented with in Iceland, Venezuela, Uruguay and more recently in Greece, with Spain threatening to follow.
Clearly, ever evolving modes of thought, strategies and forms of mobilisation to gain political space in India is the chief challenge before the new team in the party’s politburo. The AAP has demonstrated that staging huge rallies at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi is not always the best way of mobilisation; dedicated volunteers’ close and constant contact with the people is a more telling form. In some ways, the BJP also invented, under Modi’s leadership, massive mobilisation through a deluge of publicity never seen before. Two alternatives to the existing practices of political parties, both extremely successful, because some different thinking was invoked. The situation calls for new modes of thought and planning.
But the CPM’s target is not and should not merely be mobilisation to win elections; much more is at stake, for itself and for the nation. Yechury has rightly laid equal stress on keeping the social fabric of India alive, which is being ripped apart by the present regime. Ask a school child what characterised the British colonial regime and pat would come the answer, “divide and rule”. Thinking back, the colonialists seemed to have been utter novices in this arena; the real masters are the Sangh Parivar, with diverse roles assigned to all its constituents in the government and outside. The communists have the great advantage over other parties in that caste or religious identities are not central to their mode of thinking and social and political operations. They can and do operate outside of either the “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” or “Hindu-Muslim enemies” syndrome.
There seems to be promise in Yechury’s early response to his election that the time has come to go beyond making intelligent statements and passing resolutions on issues of grave importance to the nation. It is time to truly connect with the people who matter to it. The AAP has shown that it is possible to do so within an amazingly short period of time and practically without organisational backing. The CPM would be ill-advised to imitate the AAP mode. But it must realise that the future Yechury talked about demands hard rethinking and even harder ground work. We, sitting on the fences, can only hope for the best — a hope that is not untouched by some apprehension.
The writer taught history at JNU from 1971 to 2004.