The CPM Has Split in All but Name

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Prakash Karat is openly aligned with the party’s Kerala faction while the Bengal unit is headed its own way

NEW DELHI ~ Blame it on the leadership’s inept handling of the party or a sea-change in politics, but the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) is two units now. Though the party may not call it a split, it is riding two horses moving in different directions. Prakash Karat, who has just started his third term as the CPM’s general secretary, rides one, while the other trots off independent of him.

“The general secretary won endorsement for his third term by aligning himself openly with the official faction from Kerala,” says a senior CPM leader. “Never in the past has the general secretary been a leader of one faction in the party.” This charge is serious, and in that sense, the CPM’s 20th congress—the highest decision making body of the party that concluded its six-day-long deliberations in Kozhikode on 9 April this year—has left the Marxist political outfit more bitterly divided than it has ever been since its inception in 1964.

That also explains why former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, the party’s popular face in Kerala, was left in the lurch. For all his goodwill among Malayalee masses, VS, as he is popularly called, remains at loggerheads with Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM’s Kerala strongman and state unit secretary. The unofficial deal that Karat forged with the state unit was, therefore, simple and straight: the Kerala unit would support Karat in return for VS’s exclusion from the Politburo. Ignoring Vijayan’s terms would have harmed Karat’s own leadership of the party. The general secretary knew this right from the beginning, as did most other party leaders. It was thus a foregone conclusion even before the party congress began discussions on 4 April that Vijayan’s bete noire had no chance of joining the Politburo.

On his part, Karat did not dither in placating Vijayan. It is another matter, though, that on 9 April, while addressing a public meeting at the end of the party congress, the only time Karat got rousing applause from the audience was when he mentioned the name of VS, the octogenarian Marxist who failed to retain power only by a whisker in Kerala’s Assembly polls last year.

That, however, reflects only a small schism within the CPM. A far more serious fallout of his bid to secure his position might soon be visible in the party’s other traditional bastion of West Bengal. No doubt, the official Kerala unit won the day for Karat at the end of the party congress, but the method he employed to stay at the helm also reduced his sway over West Bengal, where former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee remains confidently in the saddle despite his habit of tugging his horse’s reins in exactly the way he so pleases.

Bhattacharjee brazenly boycotted the party congress, since it was obvious right at the start that the gathering would be a Karat show. And while Karat set about shoring up support for his leadership in Kozhikode, West Bengal’s ex-CM kept himself busy with routine activities at the party’s Alimuddin Street headquarters in Kolkata, reading suggestions from Left sympathisers and touring the state to address party workers. That is how he has been working ever since he cut himself off from the party headquarters in Delhi after the party’s Lok Sabha debacle in 2009 and West Bengal Assembly election loss in 2011. “Not that Bhattacharjee does not accept mistakes of his own government as being responsible for the Left regime’s fall in the state, [it’s just that] he also considers Karat greatly responsible for the mess,” says a senior party leader. “[Bhattacharjee’s] sole mission, therefore, is to recapture power in the state, even if it means taking a line against the one that suits the Kerala party [unit] and, therefore, the general secretary.”

All these years, Bhattacharjee and Karat have had divergent views of the party’s crisis. The ex-CM and many other party leaders in West Bengal have pointed fingers at decisions of the central leadership such as the Left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA Government over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the sacking of Somnath Chatterjee from the party, and hobnobbing with the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. These leaders, it is widely known, have held Karat’s decision to snap ties with the Congress as a blunder that cost the party its most secure state. They have been in favour of retaining some ties with the Congress, instead of pushing it towards Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and suffering the electoral onslaught of a united opposition in the state.

Karat’s analysis of the party’s defeat in West Bengal has been different. He has held the state government’s overdrive on industrialisation and objectionable methods of land acquisition responsible for the poll reverses. ‘It was clear from the results of the Panchayat elections held in 2008 that the fear of land being taken away for industrial projects had alienated sections of the peasantry. The Lok Sabha election results have further confirmed this trend. Errors were committed in dealing with land acquisition. The police firing in Nandigram was a serious mistake, which led to the very unfortunate loss of lives of poor villagers,’ wrote Karat’s close aide and the CPM’s Research Unit Convenor Prasenjit Bose in an article that appeared in a ‘bourgeois’ weekly in the first week of October 2009—that is, as disagreements over the loss peaked.

That Bhattacharjee is raring to adopt a line independent of Karat and the Kerala unit is no secret in the party anymore. Indeed, in Kerala, the Congress remains the party’s Enemy No 1, but in West Bengal, its fight is against the Trinamool, to effectively counter which it needs the aid of the grand old party. The West Bengal unit’s desire to go soft on the Congress in an attempt to drive a wedge between it and the Trinamool, however, is not shared by the Kerala unit. And Karat, still rankled by his run-in with the Congress over the Nuclear Deal, is in no mood to listen to the Bengal unit either.

Earlier, these were mere differences of perspective between the two state party units. After the Kozhikode party congress, however, they are threatening to cleave the party apart beyond all reconciliation.

In the CPM’s 48-year-old history, the two state units have mostly functioned as autonomous entities, with each taking utmost care not to interfere in the other’s affairs. Karat’s predecessors, too, found it convenient to let this federal arrangement within the party be. The party’s first three general secretaries--P Sundaraiyya, EMS Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet—were pragmatists on this score, and always kept themselves above both the party units. This helped guide the party through many difficulties and allowed it to nurture regional bases while also taking an all-India approach. But now, since Karat is so dependent on the party’s Kerala faction, his all-India leadership is looking shaky.

Sources say Karat’s attempt to create a counterweight to Bhattacharjee in West Bengal has failed, and he had no choice but to induct the ex-CM in the Politburo, despite the latter’s defiance. The ‘health reasons’ cited by Bhattacharjee for his ‘inability’ to attend the Kozhikode congress would have had some credibility had he displayed a lack of energy in moving on his own agenda in West Bengal. He did not display any such thing. He did not even need to. He went boldly about his work in West Bengal.

Karat could do little. As with VS, the general secretary had little leeway in Bhattacharjee’s case too. For, any move to keep the latter out of the Politburo would have precipitated an inner-party crisis, perhaps even an outright split.

So where does Karat go from here? Many party leaders feel that even if the official Kerala unit has secured Karat the crown of general secretaryship once again, his days of potency may now be in the past. Gaining the top position of a party through factional politics is easier than leading a party as a composite whole. For the CPM, this is especially so under the circumstances—with the party on a slide in the electoral arena. Karat, as he starts his third term at the top of the CPM, will not be able to face down a couple of deafening silences: one of VS and the other of Bhattacharjee. Their strategies may differ, but their target is common.