Communists are in Trouble in West Bengal, Within and Outside the Party

After allowing indiscipline among its senior cadre due to electoral necessities, the CPI(M) in Bengal is losing its reputation of integrity.

CPI(M) supporters at a public rally in Bengal. Credit: Reuters

CPI(M) supporters at a public rally in Bengal. Credit: Reuters

Demoralised because of electoral defeats, with voters consistently showing a preference for other political parties since 2009, most recently the BJP, the Communist Party of India Marxist’s West Bengal unit is in trouble, outside and inside the party.

Its internal troubles and its inability to tackle those, because some of the problems are too distressing to be named, let alone mapped and dealt with, are what make the CPI(M) weaker than it probably is. Two events in a party that was famously disciplined to the point that it was perceived as running like a well-oiled machine, where instructions issued from the top – wherever that may be located, be it Kolkata’s party headquarters or the New Delhi one at A.K. Gopalan Bhavan or even in the districts – were faithfully followed and implemented. The structures of internal governance had worked effectively till 2008-2009, when the leadership from the bottom up was challenged by chief minister Mamata Banerjee to prove its credentials. It was this test of integrity that the CPI(M) failed at and it was this that saw its history-making uninterrupted rule in West Bengal go down the tube even in places like Burdwan district, where its presence was hegemonic.

The case of the young and obviously star-quality Rajya Sabha MP Ritabrata Bannerjee, whose life and style have disturbed the top brass enough to suspend him for three months, underscores the difficulties of the CPI(M). He is not the first and will not be the last leader whose ‘lavish’ lifestyle – he was apparently photographed with a Mont Blanc pen and an Apple watch – differs from the expectations of the party’s, as interpreted by the guardians of the code. There have been others like this in the past, including Saifuddin Chowdhury, also young and an MP when he was axed, Rezzak Molla, the peasant leader who switched to the Trinamool Congress and is now a minister, and of course Lakshman Seth, the humble man who became prince of Haldia and transformed the place into a destination fit to handle multinational investors.

While Ritabrata will no doubt go through the prescribed process of being investigated by the CPI(M)’s disciplinary unit, the Control Commission, and if he is considered valuable enough as an asset, the party will probably try to do a salvage job by putting him through the rigours of self-criticism and introspection, the problem of knowing when to draw the line remains. It is a judgement call and the CPI(M)’s minders have to make it. If they failed to do so when it was possible to discreetly rap him on the knuckles and contain the damage, instead of being pushed to publicly suspending him, and so clearly demonstrate serious disapproval, it may have been better. Because Ritabrata has reportedly said that he is a creature of the party; his life is dedicated to the party and he is subject to the discipline of the party. Therefore the responsibility of keeping to the code, he has implied, rests as much with the party as it does with him.

The abuse of position and the arrogant exercise of it, a certain surrender to the lures of hedonism, are risks for every rising star or even a minor functionary who uses the association to improve his or her life and style. The problem of corruption, in material and intangible, but manifest, terms is widespread. The difference is that the communists are required to abjure the soft life and its pleasures and live life austerely on the ideological level.

The CPI(M)’s troubles are not limited to disciplining its leaders. The problem is that having indulged the indisciplined in a majority of instances, because considerations of immediate political-electoral needs invariably overrode the potential damage to the party’s reputation and standing, the leadership is now confronting the leaching away of political capital accumulated on the reputation for integrity. The construction of integrity in public perception has been done through the simplified life and style of its comrades, especially the leadership and the capacity to hard work at the grassroots through a programme of continually reaching out into the community, or rather the population served by a single electoral booth.

The shifting modes of managing a communist party as it transitioned from movement to electoral politics and then ruling party have confused the West Bengal Marxists for a long time now. The position of being an alternative as well as within the system of parliamentary democracy, when it boiled down to winning elections, made nonsense of the slow process of nurturing a youngster into a matured comrade in the first place and then a leader in the second. The party’s priorities changed from developing leaders who served an apprenticeship in specific areas of work, like trade unions, or the peasant front, to fast tracking leaders to fill slots that opened up, panchayat to Rajya Sabha seats. In between in West Bengal, the obsession to fill every slot turned into a means for the CPI(M) to turn into patrons with a large clientele of hopefuls.

All of these shortcuts to making a pyramid of commissars produced the sort of abuses of position and power that contributed to the downfall of the CPI(M) in 2011 and explains why it is still not acceptable as an alternative and a party of opposition. The CPI(M), in public perception, though it pretends not to know this, is a ruling party that is out of office currently. It is not an “opposition”, but a ruling party waiting to be brought back to power by an electorate disgruntled by the present Trinamool Congress as the ruling regime.

Therefore there is a piquant twist to West Bengal’s push to make the central leadership of the CPI(M) do a rethink of nominating the party’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury for another term as Rajya Sabha member. Yechury’s is the quintessential voice of the opposition; its strength and presence is being critical of ruling parties – the Congress certainly but far more vehemently of the BJP, because there the ideological conflict is at a profound and also primordial level. To get Yechury into the Rajya Sabha, the CPI(M) will need the Congress to transfer votes to its candidate. This will make Yechury a symbol of a segment of the opposition’s unity against the BJP and also an opposition candidate vis-à-vis the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

In revisiting the idea of nominating Yechury, the West Bengal CPI(M) is twisting the code to make it accommodate the concrete conditions of Indian and also state politics. In the book of its rules, two terms is all that is permitted for being an MP. Clearly, the rulemakers figured that the rarified ecosystem of Delhi was not suitable as a long term habitat for communists. The rulemakers also figured that getting back to brass tacks and using the experience of parliament should be the priority.

The CPI(M)’s dilemma is therefore managing the, (mostly) men who serve the cause of progressing towards a people’s democracy. The risk of pollution and the need to maintain purity is not the real contradiction; the real humdinger is between managing the demands of power and proletarian transformations, since the CPI(M) has temporarily frozen the idea of revolution.

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  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Bereft of any ideological commitment and political integrity, the CPI(M) is fast withering away – even before the state `withers’ (as once envisaged by the proponents of Communism) ! It might as well come out with an official press statement announcing that it is officially winding itself up, to save further embarrassment to its followers and sympathizers. The ex-mandarins of JNU and Calcutta University, who run the party and have made enough damage to the ideology and image of Communism, can retire and spend the rest of their life in peace and comfort away from the humdrum of politics .