Yellow Card for Karat

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How Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee blew his top at a Politburo meeting, and how Prakash Karat was served an unprecedented warning by his party.

It was dramatic. On 4 July, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee staged a walkout. He walked out of a Politburo meeting of the CPM after a heated argument with General Secretary Prakash Karat. A walkout from a communist meeting is almost never heard of; it goes against the ‘democratic centralism’ by which comrades swear. The last time one happened was in 1964—when the Communist Party split. Yet, perhaps the most striking feature of the 4 July incident was its inevitability. In fact, the implosion of anger in the party’s highest decision-making body surprised nobody. Moments later, the rest settled down to finalise the draft document for the extended Central Committee (CC) meeting scheduled this August at Vijayawada. It will be the first of its kind for the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), and is being seen as a mini party congress. Its basic agenda: to decide the party’s political line.

According to sources, the renewed vigour with which the CPM’s West Bengal lobby—led by Bhattacharjee and backed by Politburo member Sitaram Yechury, the state’s Left Front chief Biman Bose, and industries minister Nirupam Sen—opened fire at Prakash Karat’s handling of political tactics, forced the central leadership to agree on a separate document reviewing its implementation of the political line endorsed by the Coimbatore Party Congress held in 2008. 

Karat had been trying to keep such a review off the agenda of the extended CC. But the West Bengal lobby is still in a rage over the CPM’s decision to dump the UPA-I in 2008 and set up an opposition third front for the Lok Sabha polls in 2009; this, they believe, overstepped the party’s political line and threw it into turmoil. By the assessment of many within the party, Karat fears that a discussion on these allegations at Vijayawada could nix his leadership. “Therefore,” says a senior CPM leader, “he had been trying to restrict the agenda for the extended CC to a political-tactical line to meet the current situation, instead of allowing a review of past decisions.”

A deadlock over the issue had marked a Politburo meeting in the first week of June. The difference in July was the presence of Bhattacharjee, and this proved to be a game-changer. With the West Bengal  unit mounting an all-out attack, Karat and other central leaders were left with no option but to concede a document reviewing the party’s adherence to the political line. One of the state’s leaders at the 4 July meeting, sources say, pointed out that the Congress party had gained rather than lost from its decision to withdraw support. On being countered by a pro-Karat member, the West Bengal leader was heard saying, “No one wants an alliance with the Congress, but what is our experience with the third front?”

Ties with the Congress had been snapped over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, anathema to the CPM. Says the senior party leader, “It was when the Politburo was reviewing the central leadership’s decision to allow the Government to go to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Association] that Karat and Bhattacharjee had a bitter debate, leading to the latter walking out in a huff.” 

The meeting’s eventual outcome would have delighted West Bengal’s CM, though. The draft review blames the central leadership for three failures. “The Politburo has identified three specific mistakes committed by the central leadership in handling the party’s political tactics,” says the senior leader, “First, the leadership erred in allowing the Government to go to the IAEA. Second, the leadership made a wrong assessment at the time of the Coimbatore Party Congress that the Indo-US Nuclear Deal was as good as dead. And third, the central leadership’s decision to go for a non-Congress, non-BJP third front was a clear overstepping of the party’s political line.”

So, what happens next? Another round of scrutiny. The two documents agreed upon at that meeting, including the draft review that Karat dreads, will now be vetted by the CPM’s Central Committee, which is to meet later this month. Then they will be discussed at the extended CC. Says a party communiqué issued on 4 July: ‘The Polit Bureau finalised the draft of the political resolution for the extended Central Committee meeting to be held in August. This draft along with the review of the implementation of the political tactical line will be placed before the next Central Committee meeting to be held on July 21-23, 2010.’ 

If Karat draws solace, it is from the draft of the political resolution, which upholds the party’s anti-Congress line. “The Politburo has found no reason to alter the party’s present approach towards the Congress, which has been vigorously pursuing neo-liberal and pro-US policies,” says a senior leader close to Karat, “The main thrust of the CPM will be to intensify its struggle against the Congress.” 

This endorsement didn’t come easy for Karat. Ahead of the Politburo meet, he had laid enough ground to ensure that his anti-Congress line faces few hurdles. An editorial in the latest issue of People’s Democracy says that if the imposition of internal emergency on 25 June 1975 was ‘political authoritarianism’ which was resisted by people and defeated in 1977, ‘this economic authoritarianism must be resisted and defeated’ as well.

Karat also draws succour from the party’s Kerala lobby. At the Politburo meeting, they hinted that their southern comrades would play Karat’s vanguard at the extended CC, say sources. “SR Pillai, Politburo member from Kerala, fiercely resisted West Bengal leaders’ attempt to corner Karat,” says another senior leader.

The Politburo’s okaying of Karat’s anti-Congressism, however, could be overshadowed by the other issue. On 4 July, he made a rare admission of failure over the political tactical line, a failure which led to an erosion of the party’s base, particularly in West Bengal. If Vijayawada turns aggressive, and even if the Kerala party unit moderates the severity of the censure, Karat may find it difficult to retain his position as the Indian Left’s conscience keeper. That may be nearly as bad as a red card send-off.