Sitaram Yechury: The Secretary is Elsewhere

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Sitaram Yechury incurs the displeasure of party leaders who want action, not talk, as the new chief goes ahead with plans to hold a plenum in November, just months ahead of crucial polls in Kerala where it is battling against heavy odds to wrest power from the Congress and in West Bengal where it is struggling to retain its second position

When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) holds its plenum, a high-level meet, on organisational matters in Kolkata this November, the country’s biggest Left party will know how it fared in the panchayat elections in Kerala, one of its two last bastions where it is tottering from crisis to crisis in the face of a raft of challenges. These include energy-sapping factional feuds, the dwindling popularity of its luxury- obsessed, arrogant leaders, the growing appeal of Hindutva politics and the dismal failure of leaders at all levels to connect with the masses. The Kerala CPM, which is in the opposition in a state where two coalitions have alternated in power, has so far failed to generate the grassroots enthusiasm that is required to maintain the momentum of a campaign in the run-up to next year’s elections, though the ruling Congress alliance is corruption-ridden and riven with internecine wranglings.

The planned plenum, originally seen as CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s way to pin the responsibility of the Left party’s waning clout on his predecessor Prakash Karat, is now being seen as a ‘distraction’ or an “unnecessary event to waste resources” by several leaders who spoke to Open on the condition of anonymity from states such as Kerala and West Bengal. “After all, comrade Yechury has used the threat of holding a plenum as a stick to batter the Karat faction to submission and got himself named the new general secretary in the April Party Congress. Why a plenum now, when there are more pressing needs to address?” asks a senior CPM leader from West Bengal, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already kicked off the Trinamool Congress’ campaign at a massive rally in Kolkata, 10 months ahead of the Assembly polls. While in West Bengal the CPM would be struggling to retain its second position amid a likely strong challenge by the BJP, in Kerala, it is a “do or die campaign” for the CPM in the 2016 polls, notes a CPM Politburo member.

CPM leaders from Kerala admit that the message of the party’s campaign is muddled and shrill, despite what they call a “golden opportunity” at hand. A senior CPM leader from Thiruvananthapuram shares concerns that the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) is tainted by numerous scams involving even the Chief Minister’s office and various members of the cabinet. “Allies had shown inclination to leave the Congress-led coalition several times, but now it looks they may come back to power because our message is not sharp and disciplined,” he says. Even some CPM Politburo members from the state admit that “surprisingly, it is an uphill task”.

At a time when the central CPM leadership should worry about retaining power in its strongholds—the CPM is the single largest party in the Kerala Assembly, but Tripura is the only state where the Left is in power at the moment—the decision to hold a plenum in the same year the party held its typically triennial national conclave has raised eyebrows. “More than waste of money and resources at the disposal of states, what worries me is that all this brings to fore the unfortunate continuation of a clash of egos between two leaders who have no experience at grassroots politics,” says another leader from West Bengal, referring to Karat and Yechury. This leader, who says he has always favoured Yechury over Karat, doesn’t see things taking a turn for the better anytime soon, “despite comrade Sita becoming party chief”.

The biggest point of contention between the factions led by Karat and Yechury in the run-up to the party congress, besides who should be the next general secretary, was the cause of the party’s decline. Karat argued that the fault lay with the political-tactical line adopted by the party in 1978, while Yechury has argued, reasonably so perhaps, that it was the implementation of the party line that led to the electoral slump of the biggest Left constituent. The Jalandhar party congress of 1978 had put forth the concept of a national alliance with secular parties, a proposal first floated in the communist world in the 1930s by Bulgarian comrade Georgi Dimitrov in the form of a ‘popular front’, an anti-fascist coalition that he envisaged would go beyond working- class groups and draw centrists and social democrats into its fold. However, the political-tactical line adopted at this year’s conclave marks a departure from the stance taken by the CPM in 1978. The party decided not to work towards forming a ‘third front’, a grouping of non- Congress, non-BJP parties with which it had associated for long. The contention was that the Left Front lost its ‘credibility’ by associating with parties, regional or otherwise, that have embraced ‘neo- liberal’ economic policies and have earned a bad name for being corrupt.

“Yechury’s target was the general secretary’s post, and he was ready to go any length to get that. The idea of this plenum was born out of that determination. He wanted to discuss threadbare differences of opinion on organisational matters at a plenum. He was simply flexing his muscles. But how can he say, ‘Let’s not have a plenum’, now that he is general secretary?” reasons a Delhi-based member of the CPM”s central committee.

A group of senior Kerala CPM leaders are bitter about the timing of the plenum, calling it ‘untimely’. West Bengal CPM leaders who spoke to Open also expressed deep anguish at the timing of the event. “This is the time to work, not to discuss the incongruities in the political line. This is the time to launch the election campaign and interact with as many people as possible to rebuild the party machinery and win the goodwill of the people. This plenum can ideally wait,” says the Delhi-based leader.

Ironically, some of the questions sent to party state panels by the CPM Politburo got leaked to the media; and the questions included one on what they thought of the consistent leakage of details of party meetings to the media! Others touch upon the lifestyles of party leaders and their conduct in public. State committee members across the country were asked to submit answers to questions that ranged from ways to improve public perception of leaders among the people to tactics to tackle partisan forces within the party.

The CPM has weakened considerably as an electoral force over the past decade. In the past 10 years, the party’s strength in the Lok Sabha has fallen from 43 seats to nine. In West Bengal, the party is in dire straits, staring at the possibility of being reduced to third position after the Trinamool Congress and resurgent BJP there. In Kerala, the BJP made impressive gains in vote share in a recently held bypoll, which is expected to hurt the CPM, which has over time managed to pull in a large number of Hindu votes.

A few leaders from the CPM and CPI are of the view that the Left must appeal vigorously to Hindu-minded voters and distance itself from minority appeasement in order to stay afloat. “Otherwise, the BJP votes will eat into the CPM’s traditional vote base, the Hindus, just as it happened in the Aruvikkara bypoll in Thiruvananthapuram recently where the BJP’s O Rajagopal garnered votes from ‘pro-Left areas’ of the Assembly constituency,” says a CPM youth leader from Thiruvananthapuram.

To appeal to a large section of traditional Left voters among Hindus in the state, CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran has called for the Left positioning itself as a champion of the majority community. In a TV interview, he said the Left should shed its “minority appeasement” policies and warm up to its “age-old voters more”. He also claimed that as of now, a majority of Hindus seem to think the Left practises pro-minority secularism. “That a Left leader would float such a theory was unthinkable until a few years ago. But we have to change with the times,” says another CPI leader.

The Left’s Big Brother, the CPM, didn’t endorse Rajendran’s line, saying he was parroting an accusation levelled against Left parties by the RSS. “If the Left becomes pro-Hindu in all its activities, then the Left is not Left, but RSS,” says CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.

Many Left leaders concede secretly that “there is a perception among a section of Hindus” in Kerala—where “the CPM has not yet been thrown out unlike in West Bengal”—that minorities are gaining in political power, especially thanks to the Congress-led coalition in which the Muslim League is its most powerful ally. “If Hindus abandon the CPM, then the CPM has no future in Kerala. Which means it will remain a Tripura-centric party,” warns another CPI leader, referring to the growing political and financial clout of minorities in the southern state. Rajendran had argued that the Hindu population has fallen from 56 per cent of the state’s population in 2001 to 48 per cent now. Apart from the Muslim League, the Congress’ allies include the Church-backed Kerala Congress factions—which means the ruling UDF can be sure of securing most of the state’s non-Hindu votes.

Former CPM central committee member and Kisan Sabha leader Suneet Chopra concedes that the “job at hand is more difficult than a plenum”. He goes on, “So my point is that simply by holding a plenum, you don’t actually create the conditions for the revival and development of the [communist] movement. That will only be possible under a new leadership from those committed to class struggle, a simple lifestyle and alternative policies in society.” He is glad that Yechury’s elevation as general secretary proved that inner party democracy is still at work in the CPM. The outgoing general secretary had to endorse Yechury for the top post because the latter was determined to press for a vote, breaking tradition. Fearing defeat, the Karat-led faction withdrew its candidate S Ramachandran Pillai.

Chopra, however, warns that a mere change of leadership isn’t enough: “The party has to be organised in a disciplined manner, the committees should have enough links with the masses that are sufficient to bring information back from the grassroots—otherwise no plenum is going to help.” Chopra and several other non-Kerala leaders that Open spoke to do not expect Kerala to go the West Bengal way; the CPM in the eastern Indian state suffered a resounding defeat in 2011 after 34 years of being in power at the hands of the Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. He claims that the people of Kerala are more politically aware than those in West Bengal. “This is because West Bengal society is very differentiated. The zamindars and capitalists had kept the common man out of the political discourse. That is not the case with Kerala, where the intellectuals are far more democratic and the people more participatory in politics … As with the people of Kerala, there is a fundamental irreverence, unlike a society that is controlled by the Bhadralok (Bengali elites),” he says.

With a reversal of fortunes in West Bengal, the CPM’s dreams of being a force to reckon with in national politics are gone. Explains London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose: “Tripura is too tiny, and in Kerala the CPM has never achieved the kind of commanding dominance it enjoyed for so long in West Bengal. Besides, West Bengal has more than double the number of Lok Sabha seats—42 to Kerala’s 20.”

Now, a class of elites may not entirely dominate Kerala, but within the CPM, totalitarian ways are rampant. In its 24 April issue, Open had reported that one of the amendments to the political resolution presented at the party congress was the right to work without fear of party leaders. The amendment against the dictatorial ways of party leaders— moved by P Krishnaprasad from Kerala and aimed at his state unit, steered by the likes of former state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and the current one, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan— was rejected. His amendment had said, ‘The party shall fight authoritarian tendencies and [will] always [be] vigilant against [an] environment of fear psychosis within the party and consciously cultivate working class democracy to its full potential… the party will be always vigilant against, expose and rebuff the misuse of the principles of democratic centralism to shield individualistic, sectarian interests…’

Several state CPM leaders say they are not happy with the likely projection of Pinarayi Vijayan as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Rumours are rife that a small section of the state leadership wants to suggest former finance minister TM Thomas Isaac as the CM candidate so that the campaign doesn’t get off to a rockier-than-expected start. However, considering the brute power that Vijayan wields within the Stalinist confines of his party, such palace intrigues are unlikely to see the light of day. With Vijayan as likely campaign spearhead, the prospects of India’s largest Left party in its biggest battle yet at its last major outpost don’t look bright. The leader has been much maligned in the media following a long-drawn factional war with his highly popular former mentor and nonagenarian party veteran VS Achuthanandan.

Chopra is right. Certainly, it takes more than a plenum to steer clear of a shocking plunge into the political abyss.