The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is at the crossroads. Not since the split of 1964, when it and the Communist Party of India (CPI) parted company has there been such a sharp divide between two contending groups within the party. Jousting over the CPI (M)’s electoral line has brought the present general secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat on a collision course and exposed the chinks in the party’s armour for all to see.
While it is essentially a manifestation of a clash of egos, it is also a sharp division between the Kerala faction of the party spearheaded by Karat and the West Bengal faction predominantly in Yechury’s grip. With Yechury’s draft on the ‘political tactical line’ for the next three years being defeated by 55 to 31 votes at the Kolkata meeting of the party’s central committee, which is a precursor to the party conclave in Hyderabad in April, the odds are stacked against Yechury. A final decision on the party’s strategy would be taken at the April meeting and that decision would hold for three years which would encompass the crucial 2019 general elections. The basic difference is that while Yechury favours flexibility in the party’s approach towards the Congress and the non-BJP opposition to keep the BJP at bay, Karat is clear that he wants the CPI (M) to maintain equi-distance from the BJP and the Congress.
While Karat and Yechury agree that the primary objective is to defeat the BJP, the difference is on how to achieve that goal. Yechury’s thinking is that the party should realise its objective “without entering into an electoral alliance or front with the ruling class parties”. The Karat draft said the party should maximise the anti-BJP vote “without entering into any understanding or alliance with the Congress party”. Since the alliance headed by the Congress is the only viable alternative to the CPI (M) in Kerala, Karat’s line of no truck with it makes perfect sense to Kerala legislators.
That explains the Kerala party unit’s opposition to Yechury. In West Bengal, the divide between the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee and the Congress is not so sharp with the CPI (M) being a key adversary for both. Therefore, the Yechury line of an informal arrangement with the Congress is less unacceptable there to fight Mamata, who is enemy number one. According to the party constitution, the political resolution draft will now be circulated among party units to study before the Hyderabad meet takes a call on the crucial issue that would determine the course of CPI(M) politics in future.
The Yechury group is hoping for a turnaround in Hyderabad. If the showdown does not lead to a compromise, there may be little option for Yechury but to step down as party general secretary. Yechury did offer his resignation at the central committee meeting but it was brushed off as premature. After another defeat for Yechury in Hyderabad, his position could well become untenable. The following month’s meeting of the party to revisit the issue of Yechury’s continuance or otherwise could seal his fate. The Congress too is watching the situation with bated breath.
It knows only too well that the anti-BJP forces in the Opposition would be considerably weakened if the CPI (M) severs whatever links it has with the Congress. The CPI (M) has been part of opposition conclaves against the ruling BJP during Yechury’s term of office. However, the Congress would be left twiddling its thumb if the Karat Line prevails in the CPI (M) as is expected.
Yechury supporters point out that in Tamil Nadu, the CPI (M) is an ally of the DMK which in turn is in electoral alliance with the Congress. If CPI(M) continues with the DMK, it will also need to ally with the Congress. Besides, the CPI(M) not only had an electoral understanding with the Congress in several states for the 2004 Lok Sabha poll but also supported the Congress-led government from outside between 2004 and 2008. It also had an electoral understanding with the Congress in the 2016 West Bengal assembly poll. It was during Karat’s term as general secretary that the CPI(M) suffered a drastic fall in its seat share in the Lok Sabha.
From a peak of 62 that it had touched in 2004, it fell to an abpysmal nine in 2014.While there were hopes from Yechury that he would revive its fortunes, the party seems no better off today under him. The national vote share of CPI(M) has also shrunk from 5.33 per cent in 2009 to 3.28 per cent in 2014. This is a 38.5 per cent reduction within a span of five years which is consistent with the overall decline of the Left in India. The CPI(M) did not win a single seat in Tamil Nadu and its seats went down from 9 to 2 in West Bengal where its support base is being heavily eroded. All eyes are now on the Hyderabad conclave.