Reimagining strategy, returning to grassroots
The election of Sitaram Yechury as the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is noteworthy not least because the CPM, with one million members, is the world’s second largest Communist party (after the Chinese), but also because it comes at a make-or-break moment in the nine decade-long history of the Communist movement in India.
Whether and how ably Yechury is able to stem the decline of his crisis-ridden party and rejuvenate and energise it will greatly influence the fate of the Left in India, itself inseparable from the health of the country’s democracy.
Yechury (62), an articulate quick-witted leader, brilliant parliamentarian, and multilingual networker with contacts and acceptability across the political spectrum, was widely seen as the natural choice to succeed Prakash Karat, who has completed three terms as CPM general secretary, the maximum the party’s recently amended constitution permits (except in emergencies).
Yet, Yechury’s election became a battle of nerves with the relatively unknown S Ramachandran Pillai (77), who enjoyed majority support (albeit thin) in the politburo thanks to Karat and the party’s Kerala unit, especially its just-retired long-serving state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Yechury, strongly backed by the West Bengal and Tripura party units, won by threatening a secret ballot in the new central committee which elects the general secretary. His rivals didn’t want a ballot because it would probably have exposed divisions within the Kerala party, as well as between it and the West Bengal unit, much to Vijayan’s embarrassment.
Eventually, Yechury was elected “unanimously”. But the episode showed the CPM’s internal differences and its leadership’s anxiety to appear united and cohesive. It also proved that the Communists have far more democratic organisational structures than most Indian parties. Yechury takes the helm when the CPM’s Lok Sabha strength (nine seats) stands at its lowest since its formation in 1964. It was humiliatingly routed in West Bengal and lost power in Kerala in 2011. It now holds office only in tiny Tripura. In 2004, the CPM had legislators in 13 state Assemblies; today, it’s represented in just eight Assemblies, in four of them with one MLA each.
The CPM’s draft political-organisational report admits: “The party has been unable to advance… expand its political influence, increase its organisational strength and develop its mass base, especially among the basic classes.” It could only rally a small number of members, and didn’t make “enough effort” to reach out to “wider sections”. About 40,000 members have quit the CPM in West Bengal since 2011. Party membership is increasingly ageing: one-half of it belongs to the 32-50 age-group; only 20 percent of this group is under 31; but 27 percent of the rest is in the 50-70 range.
The CPM’s problems are part of the multiple crises that beset the Left as a whole: ideological, strategic, programmatic and organisational. The Left must address these issues candidly and in a self-critical spirit if it’s to stop its downward slide and regenerate itself as a force which stands for a clean, principled politics centred on the poor and underprivileged, who form a majority of India’s population, but whose interests are scarcely represented by the mainstream parties. Indian democracy desperately needs a force which advances an agenda of economic equality, expanded civic and political rights, and social emancipation across caste, gender and ethnic divisions. Only such an agenda can lead to a modern, pluralist, enlightened socialist order, which is ecologically sound and can ensure a life with human dignity for all—which capitalism can never do.
For long decades, the Left had such an enlightened vision and image which was way ahead of other political parties. This attracted to it the most talented, intelligent and dedicated of scholars, creative artists, writers, and film and theatre people. It also allowed the Left to survive many crises, including some rooted in its own mistakes, like its opposition to the Quit India movement, its denunciation of Independence as “fake”, and its plunge into armed struggle in 1948-50.
This unique attraction has recently faded. The Left, especially the CPM, has a lot of homework to do. It must ask what went wrong with its original strategic perspective of forming a Left and Democratic Front, and whether the programmes it championed were relevant to people’s needs and radical enough. A good beginning would be to ask why it lost power in West Bengal after an uninterrupted 34 years, a world record in itself.
The answer lies neither in the loss of Muslim support after the Sachar report’s publication, nor the Singur-Nandigram incidents. The Left Front lost West Bengal because it wasn’t radical enough. Its modest land reform stopped at registering/protecting tenant-sharecroppers, and didn’t transfer land titles to them. It compromised with rich and middle class peasants and failed to organise landless agricultural workers. The CPM deradicalised the trade unions and lost its prime working class cadres. It pioneered panchayati raj, but turned it into a patronage-based system. It politicised and degraded educational and cultural institutions. It created an urban nightmare out of Kolkata and around new townships like Rajarhat. It was gender-and caste-insensitive. It often practised violence against its opponents. It adopted elitist development approaches including “beautifying” cities by evicting hawkers.
In the 1990s, the CPM embraced industrialisation-at-any-cost by appeasing Big Business and inviting predatory multinationals like Wal-Mart in the naïve belief that this would advance “productive forces”. It forcibly acquired land, deeply antagonising peasants. The Singur-Nandigram fiascoes weren’t causes but rather effects/symptoms of a deeper malaise: pursuit of neoliberalism, which the party’s central leadership assails. The CPM, with a strong upper-caste bhadralok leadership, failed to combat caste, gender and anti-Muslim discrimination. It became a party of careerists bereft of imagination, yet complacent and arrogant towards its smaller political partners.
In Kerala, the Left parties were always more deeply entrenched among the poor. Their base although depleted somewhat thanks to Vijayan’s conservatism and to CPM factionalism, remains fairly solid. They adopted some imaginative programmes like the People’s Plan which allotted 40 percent of the state budget to grassroots-driven development, but didn’t persist with them. The Kerala Left recently suffered setbacks because of the CPM-instigated murder of political rival TP Chandrasekharan, neglect of social and gender issues, and outright opposition to Western Ghats conservation and support for encroachers. The Left can still make a comeback in Kerala if it mobilises people on radical agendas—unlike in Bengal where it seems to have lost that capacity under the Buddhdeb Bhattacharjee-Biman Bose leadership.
The lesson from all this is that the Left has still to fashion and refine its strategic line of march. Nationally, it didn’t develop a sharp analysis of capitalism or bourgeois democracy “with Indian characteristics”. It didn’t strategise a transition towards socialism; nor did it prudently combine parliamentary and militant non-parliamentary activity. It continued to make Third Front-style alliances even after their bankruptcy became evident in 2009. In 2004, the Left with its 61 Lok Sabha seats had a huge advantage vis-à-vis the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. It could have formulated a radical common programme and driven a hard bargain with the UPA, but didn’t. It withdrew support to the UPA on a narrow, esoteric issue (the US-India nuclear deal) which had no popular resonance. It abjectly lost the 2008 confidence vote.
The Left must revisit the Soviet Union’s collapse, which stemmed from a lack of democracy, extreme bureaucratisation, and poor economic planning. It should draw the right lessons and abandon the flawed Soviet/Chinese model of socialism, and develop a new model based on radical democracy and a novel, transformed relationship between nature, production and consumption.
The Left must pay more attention to affirmative action on caste, gender and ethnic-linguistic issues without succumbing to identity politics. It would do well to stop seeing itself as the “natural” vanguard of the working class movement, and to build a balanced relationship with it, based on mutual learning. The CPM should stop playing Big Brother to other Left parties. The Left must repudiate Democratic Centralism, the organisational doctrine that says members are free to debate views at party congresses, but must strictly abide by collective decisions, expressing no differences in public. The Left should permit formation of inner-party tendencies and free debate on strategy and tactics. Stifling debate in the name of unity only covers up and perpetuates mistakes. Above all, the Left must return to grassroots work on popular welfare agendas, including healthcare, food and water security, employment, decent wages, common schools-based education, pro-poor housing, urban transport, police accountability, and so on. It must also learn to work on equal terms with autonomous people’s movements on land, forest and water issues. If the Aam Aadmi Party could occupy a part of the space that exists for unconventional politics in India, so can the Left—even more radically.