The debate brewing in the CPM over the party’s draft political-tactical line comes at a moment when it faces what can only be described as an existential crisis. Prepared by general secretary Prakash Karat and approved by the politburo, the draft blames a 1978 party-line that supported building alliances with non-Left parties for the CPM’s decline. The revised position, presumably, calls for a “pure” approach to electoral politics and, on the ground, this could be read to mean the CPM would henceforth ally only with other Left outfits and not with “bourgeois-landlord” parties — that label could fit former allies including the DMK, AIADMK, RJD and SP. Sitaram Yechury, a politburo member, has questioned the move to blame the tactical line for the party’s free fall and has reportedly found fault with its implementation.
Yet, take a look at the CPM’s electoral strength and it isn’t clear what the debate is about. The “united front” tactic conceived in 1978 helped the party increase its presence in Parliament, gave it heft nationally. It peaked in the 2004 general election, when under the stewardship of Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the party won 44 seats, its highest ever tally in the Lok Sabha and propped up the first UPA government. On the other hand, in 2014, with Karat at the helm, the CPM’s tally fell to nine. Surjeet had become the pivot of a Third Front politics that sought a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative at the Centre and the CPM even got a “historic opportunity” to head the government, which, however, was denied by hardliners led by Karat.
Can Karat’s Leftism now counter the rise of Narendra Modi’s BJP, including in West Bengal? By all accounts, the CPM lacks organisational and leadership skills and also the ideological appeal to turn the tide on its own. If it wishes to remain relevant and stay in the game in a polity that is being rearranged by BJP dominance, there appears to be little or no alternative to building tactical alliances with non-BJP parties, maybe even the Congress. Rather than quarantining itself, or embarking on a mission of ideological puritanism, the CPM leadership needs to become more open and inventive to meet the new challenges of the changing political moment.