Sitaram Yechury has been chosen to helm the CPM at a time when the party faces an existential crisis even in its strongholds. Its presence in Parliament is the lowest since its formation in 1964 and party documents indicate membership is falling across the country, barring Kerala. This, even as the opposition space in India has opened up with the decline of the Congress. Parties like the Aam Aadmi Party have benefited from the churning, but the CPM seems unable or unwilling to leverage the political opportunity. Yechury’s is indeed a formidable challenge.
Stemming the CPM’s decline will call for a crucial rebalancing of the party’s stated ideological certitude with pragmatic electoral tactic. In West Bengal, for instance, where assembly elections are scheduled in 2016, and where the Trinamool Congress has weaned away significant chunks of erstwhile Left constituencies, like the Muslims, the CPM may have to look beyond its traditional allies to regain lost ground. The party could benefit from Yechury’s proven flexibility in such a situation, as it did in the 1990s when Harkishan Singh Surjeet was the party chief who energetically reached out to non-Left parties. It is expected that under Yechury the CPM will adapt a more pragmatic political line than it did under Prakash Karat, whose 10-year tenure at the top will be remembered for a more inflexible and doctrinaire approach, but greater clarity will come after a meet on organisational revamp, scheduled later this year. The party will need to rethink its mobilisational strategies to revive its traditional sources of cadres — peasants, trade unions and students — which have wilted and dried up in the heat of recent social, political, economic and technological changes. To expand and engage new constituencies, particularly the young, and especially in the country’s north, it will need to rethink old slogans. At Visakhapatnam, the party’s 21st congress could be said to have made a beginning by not shirking the hard questions — it asked itself if the social composition of its leadership at the higher levels is skewed against the disprivileged castes, and whether it has suffered and shrunk from not being flexible enough.
In his first address to the cadres as general secretary, Yechury described the Visakhapatnam party congress as the “congress of the future”. In a country like India, the space for a vibrant Left has existed in the past and will undeniably be there in the future as well. But the question that is becoming sharper is this: Are the communists inventive enough to reclaim it and hold on to it?