Buddha to Stay and Battle with Karat

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It’s all set for a showdown at Hyderabad on 11 June

Battle lines in the CPM are drawn. The two warring factions—one led by party general secretary Prakash Karat and the other spearheaded by former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—are facing off for what is likely to be a fratricidal war. Notwithstanding initial reports of Bhattacharjee offering to quit from the party’s leadership bodies, namely the Politburo and Central Committee (CC), the CPM’s unit in West Bengal is getting ready under its bhadralok satrap for a major showdown with Karat.

The war is set to break out on 11 June at Hyderabad when the party’s Central Committee meets to go into the reasons for the Left Front’s rout in West Bengal. If the two sides opt for an armistice, the confrontation will then spill over to the next Party Congress. The Party Congress is the highest decision making body of the CPM that meets once in three years. The next meeting is scheduled for early 2012.

The issue at stake is obvious and contentious: affixing responsibility for the loss of its traditional bastion.

According to sources, Bhattacharjee, who after the results were out had offered to quit from the Politburo and Central Committee taking moral responsibility for the debacle, has been successfully persuaded by state party leaders not to go ahead with the decision. “They (state leaders) have told him that his resignation will weaken their battle against the faulty political line of the central leadership (read Karat, the general secretary),” says a senior Central Committee member of the CPM. “Comrade Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been asked not to resign till the next Party Congress, when the issue will be finally decided if it is not conclusively decided in the next CC, and he has agreed to do so.”

The next Party Congress of the CPM is likely to be the final battleground for the two sides, as the charge against Karat is that of overstepping the mandate laid down by the last Party Congress at Coimbatore in 2008. Open skirmishes, however, are set to begin in the next central committee meeting. “It is certain that Buddhadeb will lead the charge against Karat in the CC meet, and then in the Party Congress. It is going to be a long-drawn battle,” says the CPM leader.

Ever since Karat steered the party to sever ties with the Congress at the Centre over the Indo-US nuclear deal and vote against the Government in 2008, he has come under attack particularly from the CPM unit in West Bengal, which has accused him of overstepping the political-strategic line adopted at the Coimbatore Party Congress. The Bengal lobby has been arguing that this decision of the central leadership, together with Karat’s third front adventurism ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, pushed the Congress towards Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, thus uniting the opposition in Bengal and ruining any chances that the Left Front may have had. Karat and his loyalists, on their part, have been arguing that the faulty industrialisation and land acquisition policies of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government have led to the crisis in West Bengal.

The strain in the relationship between Karat and the Bengal lobby came out in the open soon after the party’s drubbing in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. The widening gulf between Karat and the Bengal lobby forced the party to hold, for the first time in its history, a meeting of the Extended Central Committee—attended by CC members as well as party committee members of all states—in August 2010 to discuss the central leadership’s handling of the political-strategic line adopted in the last Party Congress. The need to hold a meeting of the extended CC had arisen as none of Karat’s predecessors—P Sundarayya (general secretary of the CPM from 1964 to 1978), EMS Namboodiripad (1978 to 1992) or Harkishan Singh Surjeet (1992 to 2005)—had ever been accused of treating the Party Congress’ decision with disdain and disregarding the mandate. The extended CC meet, however, remained inconclusive as the need to go the whole hog in defence of the party’s traditional bastion forced the two warring factions to cease hostilities and postpone the fratricidal war. Yet, in fact, the extended CC, instead of drawing Buddhadeb and Karat closer, only deepened the mistrust between the two. In particular, Bhattacharjee made it a point to not be seen sharing the dais with Karat in public on both the occasions that arose in the wake of the extended CC—the inaugural session as well as the public rally that the party had organised at the end of the meet.

Though the Bengal line has lost its sting following the massive election rout in the West Bengal Assembly polls, the party unit in the old bastion still believes that things would have been different had the central leadership played its cards well and prevented the Congress from drifting towards Mamata Banerjee. Once again, the two sides have their figures ready to put the other on the mat, in the next CC and in the next Party Congress. As per the Bengal lobby, compared to 19.8 million votes the Left Front received in the 2006 Assembly polls when it won 235 of 294 seats, this time it polled nearly 19.6 million votes, almost the same number, and yet ended up with 61 seats. The only difference, they argue, is that while in 2006 the opposition votes were split, as the Congress and Trinamool Congress had contested separately, in 2011, the opposition votes coalesced.

Karat loyalists, on the other hand, have their own figures ready for the upcoming crucial CC meet at Hyderabad. Their argument is based on new voters, the youth, who got registered during the intervening period. While the Left got the votes of nearly one-third of these new entrants, the Trinamool-led coalition attracted two-thirds of them. This, Karat loyalists maintain, is an indication of the failure on part of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government—a failure that proved detrimental to the Left Front government in the state.

The humiliating defeat in West Bengal first caused infighting in the state unit, leading Buddha to offer his resignation from the Politburo and Central Committee. The infighting, however, soon gave way to the consolidation of the party’s state unit leaders, once again behind Bhattacharjee. Thus on 17 May, when the CPM state committee descended on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata for a day-long emergency meet, not only was Bhattacharjee present but also party leader Abdur Rezzak Mollah was issued a warning. Mollah had lashed out at the former Chief Minister and Nirupam Sen following the poll debacle. Mollah, a Karat loyalist, had called Sen the “villain of the piece” and accused Bhattacharjee of trying to do things beyond his capacity. Merely a day before, Bhattacharjee had skipped the politburo meet at Delhi.

On his part, Karat, too, has started closing ranks with opponents in his own state: Kerala. On 16 May, after the brief Politburo meet, he praised the Kerala party unit for showing more unity in the latest elections than in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when VS Achuthanandan, protesting against the style of functioning of his arch-rival and state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, stayed away from the campaign until the Politburo intervened. On 17 May, Karat, talking to a TV channel, hailed Achuthanandan as a pre-eminent leader of the CPM in the state and stressed that the party never denied him a ticket to contest the Assembly elections this time round. “There was never a decision to deny him a ticket; it was merely one view expressed,” he told the TV channel. He also tried to be sarcastic about dissidents in West Bengal. Replying to a question on whether he would take moral responsibility for the poll setback, he told the TV channel: “I did not take credit for the 2006 electoral victories.” The implication of this remark is clear. Wasn’t it Bhattacharjee who was credited for the Left Front’s victory in 2006? Why, therefore, should the loss be shouldered by Karat and not Bhattacharjee?

The message is clear. It is not Karat, but the Bengal lobby that will have to take responsibility for the defeat, just like it had claimed credit for the victory in 2006. Everyone in the party can now hear the rumbling beneath.