Partners once, rivals now. There is a deep split within the CPM that threatens to surface if the party loses Bengal.
Had Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury not worked in unison in 1996 to stop Jyoti Basu from becoming the Prime Minister, India would have got its first communist-led government. And the course of the country’s history, many still argue, would have been different. Such was their united resistance then, that despite the backing of old-guard leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) like EMS Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu had to bow down to the Young Turks—only to express his frustration some years later by calling it “a historic blunder”. Almost 14 years since, with Jyoti Basu gone forever, the bond between CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat and Politburo member Sitaram Yechury—who are now at the helm of the party—has come apart.
The two are locked in an intense cold war that has crossed the limits of personal rivalry and has started spreading out in the party. “If Comrade Basu gave them (Karat and Yechury) a reason to jointly leave their first real impression on the party in 1996, it was Comrade Basu again whose death and its aftermath have aggravated the dormant ego war between the two,” says a central committee member of the CPM. “Now the relationship has become extremely bitter between the two,” he adds, “each being full of suspicion about the other.”
At the source of the fresh trouble lies the Karat camp’s suspicion that Yechury used the occasion of Basu’s death to unleash a media blitz to tarnish the image of the party general secretary. Indeed, most obituaries that appeared in the media after Basu’s death ended up attacking Karat for pursuing a political line—in contrast to the ‘pragmatic visionary approach’ of the departed communist leader—that proved detrimental for the party not only in West Bengal and Kerala but also at the Centre.
“Comrade Karat was made a victim of invariably every obituary on Comrade Basu. Everyone knows who is behind all this. What was the need to rake up the already settled issue of 1996 on the day Comrade Basu died, and that too, before the bourgeois press? Even the depiction of the process that led the party to decide against Comrade Basu accepting the post of Prime Minister was biased and motivated, and was obviously aimed at creating an impression as if it was Comrade Karat alone who came in the way of the party leading the Government in 1996,” says the central committee member. “This kind of use of media to settle scores within the party is a bad practice,” he adds, “and the party leadership is aware of these happenings.”
Sources say Karat’s camp suspects Yechury’s hand in all this. In particular, they allege that the latter has deliberately been twisting facts to his advantage in media interactions. For example, they point out, Yechury was with Karat in stalling Basu’s move to 7 Race Course Road, but upon the veteran communist’s death, he made it look as if he played no part in reining back Basu’s prime ministerial bid in 1996.
This is largely why Yechury’s informal interaction with a select group of media persons at AKG Bhavan, merely a few hours after Basu’s death on 17 January, has come under severe criticism by a section of the CPM’s leaders.
On the face of it, the reason that has precipitated this leadership crisis within the CPM might look frivolous. But given the long history of personal rivalry between Karat and Yechury, and their vastly different visions on the politico-tactical line that is best adopted by the party, even a frivolous reason is enough to create misgivings and increase tension between the two. This is more so because for the last one year or so, Karat’s detractors have been growing in number, both in the central leadership and Left bastions of Kerala and West Bengal.
Some of Karat’s detractors content themselves with arguing that he is “academically sound but a political novice”, a leader who is much too obsessed with his own image and who always speaks as if addressing a crowd at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Others go further in their criticism. “A majority in the West Bengal unit of the party,” says a senior CPM leader, “believe that Karat’s decision to snap ties with the Congress was a blunder that might ultimately cost the party its most secure state and perhaps the most significant source of its strength.”
This also helps explain the urgent need of the CPM general secretary, who has been enduring severe media criticism ever since he led his party to its debacle in the Lok Sabha polls of 2009, for some friendly headlines for a change.
Incidentally, on most crucial issues that have earned criticism for Karat over the past year or so, Yechury is learned to have differed drastically from the party general secretary. Yechury, for instance, was against the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement but was not supportive of Karat’s clumsy handling of the Congress. Like Jyoti Basu and other West Bengal leaders of the CPM, he too was in favour of retaining some form of ties with the Congress, instead of pushing the grand old party towards Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and thus putting at stake the very existence of the state’s Left Front government. Similarly, Yechury never supported Karat in expelling senior Communist leader Somnath Chatterjee, who had defied the party command to resign from the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post once the CPM withdrew support to the UPA-1 Government in July 2008. Even when Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan was being suspended from the Politburo in July 2009, Yechury is said to have tried hard to prevent it.
Given all that, there are plenty of reasons for Karat to consider Yechury a trouble maker. The alleged misuse of media by Yechury in the wake of Jyoti Basu’s death is, therefore, likely to be used by Karat’s camp to the hilt. The issue may come up, directly or indirectly, in the CPM central committee’s next meeting scheduled in the first week of February. What helps Karat further in his bid to tame Yechury is the directive in the party’s ‘rectification document’ that party leaders should refrain from interacting too much with the bourgeois press, sources say.
“Presently, none of Karat’s detractors can be said to have ganged up with Yechury, but one never knows what happens if the party loses West Bengal (in the Assembly election of 2011),” says a senior party leader.
The threat is all too palpable, and Karat cannot be unaware of it. For, steps are already being taken to fix things. Noises, for example, are emerging that the rectification document, approved by the central committee in October last year, is being used by the general secretary and his loyalists more as a tool to marginalise their detractors than a mechanism to cleanse the party of ‘bourgeois deviations and traits’. Sources say that in Kerala, Achuthanandan’s supporters are being purged silently by the men of state party secretary and Karat loyalist Pinarayi Vijayan. Such an eventuality cannot be ruled out in West Bengal too, sources say.
The ruthlessness of the rectification campaign, they add, shows that Karat has trumped his best card—that of the puritanical communist leader. And without that card, Karat’s hand looks weak, a weakness that comes mainly from a series of political blunders committed by the CPM in the last two years of his tenure as general secretary.
And herein lies the danger of detractors forging an extraordinary group within the party and Yechury playing the role of catalyst, especially in the likely event of the party losing West Bengal to the Congress-Trinamool combine in 2011. That’s still a while away. For the moment, the deep, slow and subterranean flow of politics within the CPM is unlikely to blow its cover and acquire sudden momentum.