There used to be a time when the proceedings of a Communist Party Congress used to be dissected for hidden meanings, nuances and possible shifts in approach. The exercise, popular among intellectuals in India’s Left-dominated academia and to a lesser extent in the media, was an extension of Kremlin-watching or China-peering that was an integral feature of the Cold War. Old timers will recall, for example, the hair-splitting over terms such as ‘Left unity’ and ‘Left and democratic unity’ or debates over the relative merits of the Popular Front and United Front.
I think it would be fair to say that it is sad that the internal debates of Communist parties no longer excite the intellectual imagination in the way they did before the Berlin Wall collapsed and before China embraced market capitalism with frenzied enthusiasm. In today’s world, China remains at the centre of any discussion on global politics but the prism of Marxian assumption through which people peeked inside the Bamboo Curtain has been well and truly discarded. At best, the rise of a populist Left in parts of southern Europe and Latin America is characterised as post-Marxian.
Given the changing mood and fashion, it is not surprising that the substantive deliberations of the CPI(M) Party Congress at Vishakapatnam were ignored by a media that finds the language and assumptions of the old-style Stalinists both archaic and incomprehensible. What was, however, a subject of interest was the passing of the General Secretary baton from Prakash Karat to Sitaram Yechuri. In ‘class’ terms, a category favoured by the Left, the change doesn’t really amount to very much. Both Karat and Yechuri are middle class Marxists who were intellectually radicalised through campus politics.
Karat is temperamentally more reserved and perhaps a little more doctrinaire than Yechuri who is more affable, media-friendly and a great deal more receptive to the political class as a whole. Within the ‘progressive’ middle classes—the Left’s enduring catchment area—Yechuri enjoys a far greater of acceptability than does Karat.
But these are superficialities. During his term as General Secretary, which followed the term of the ever-slippery Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Karat tried to establish the CPI(M) as a distinctive ideological force. Yes, the party did flirt with the non-starter called Third Front and punched above its weight in first term of Manmohan Singh but it was always clear that instincts of the party were a few paces apart from ‘bourgeois’ politics, both of the non-Congress and the anti-BJP varieties. That Karat’s term also saw the most dramatic shrinkage of the CPI(M) had less to do with the adherence to doctrinaire politics and more to do with the growing staleness of the Left Front in West Bengal.
The pathetic showing of the Left in general and the CPI(M) in particular can’t be blamed on the machinations in Delhi’s AKG Bhavan but on the troubled state of the units in West Bengal and Kerala which conducted themselves quite autonomously from the Centre.
Arguably, Karat’s real folly was in not being sufficiently mindful of the eroding appeal of class politics. Over the years, Communist parties in democratic societies have come to embrace variants of Left-wing social democracy. In a historical sense, the split that distinguished parties of the Second International from the Communist outfits of the Third International are no longer all that relevant. In the second decade of the 21st century, the battle for the Left mind has been quite conclusively won by the ideological descendants of the man Lenin berated as the ‘renegade’ Kautsky. Lenin and Luxembourg are history while ‘revisionist’ social democracy—aimed at conferring capitalism with a human face—still remains relevant.
The CPI(M), which continues to glorify Stalin and which could never understand the fierce backlash against Communism in Eastern Europe, still clings to political beliefs that should, ideally, be confined to museums. Odd individuals such as Jyoti Basu, Buddhdeb Bhattacharya and, even Surjeet, tried to redefine the consensus but failed. It now falls on Yechuri to pick up the threads and revive the CPI(M) through means other than the class struggle.
It’s not going to be easy. In programmatic terms, the CPI(M) is still in denial. The same impulses that made the party leadership turn down the Prime Ministership offered to Jyoti Basu in 1996 and 1997 still prevails. At that time, and despite being at the organisational helm, Surjeet had failed to ensure a structured acceptance of reformism. Yechuri will face exactly the same problems as he tries to cobble
together working relationships with the Congress. But this time the chances of the CPI(M) eschewing the Left ghetto are much greater. Certainly, the prospect of being in the complete wilderness and losing the emotional battles to either the Aam Aadmi Party or splinter Maoist factions may force the CPI (M) hand. The alternative to a failure to discard old certitudes is complete irrelevance.
For most evolving institutions, ‘revisionism’ is a must; for the CPI (M) it remains heresy. Now that they have chosen a man who is more ‘revisionist’ than doctrinaire, the party will probably give change a chance. But it won’t happen without many more internal fissures. At the risk of being proved horribly wrong, I would suggest that with Yechuri as captain, the CPI(M) will be to the Gandhi-led, Left-wing Congress, what the Soviet-approved CPI was to the ‘progressive’ regime of Indira Gandhi. It would be a great victory for the likes of S.A. Dange and Mohit Sen who always saw Communists as an appendage of a ‘progressive’ Congress, in national politics at least.