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Nothing Left to Chance, Karat Group Got Comrade from ICU to Vote Against Yechury

The issue at stake is whether the CPI(M) will forge an understanding with the Congress to try and defeat the BJP in 2019 or go it alone, as party hardliners prefer.

File photo of CPI(M) party flag in Kolkata. Credit: Flickr/ePi.Longo CC 2.0

Kolkata: Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), is not only peeved. He is also angry and frustrated. So much so, that during his party’s recent three-day central committee meeting in Kolkata, he threatened to quit his post.

At the party’s central committee meeting in Kolkata last week, Yechury’s draft political resolution identifying the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the main enemy – and advocating a tactical understanding with the Indian National Congress (INC) to defeat the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – was soundly defeated. Contrary to what the former party general secretary Prakash Karat has said in an interview, party sources say Yechury did offer to resign but his colleagues from Bengal prevailed upon him to stay on in the top post.

Has there been any precedent in the past when the communist party’s general secretary had offered to resign or was removed from his post?

During the 1948 party congress in Kolkata, B.T. Ranadive replaced P.C. Joshi as general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). Joshi advocated the strategic political line of closer ties with the the Congress, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, while Ranadive favoured a more radical approach based on the understanding that the independence India had won was incomplete as it came with no economic or social transformation. Within two years, however, Ranadive was accused of “left adventurism” and removed from the top post.

It is interesting to recall that the CPI was then in the midst of waging an armed struggle in Telangana, a struggle opposed by J.V. Stalin. Ranadive was replaced by C. Rajeshwara Rao and eventually Ajoy Ghosh, who oversaw the complete overhaul of the party’s programme and saw it contest the first Lok Sabha elections of 1951.

However, Ranadive returned to the central committee of the CPI during the 1956 Palghat party congress and remained a prominent leader of the CPI(M) after the party split in 1964.

A couple of decades later, in 1996, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, then general secretary of the CPI(M), offered to quit his post after losing the vote in the central committee on the question of allowing Jyoti Basu to become prime minister of India, as head of the Third front. Surjeet was outvoted by the Karat group, which felt the party would suffer if Basu became PM.

Once again the CPI-M has to contend with its general secretary and his minority resolution. The statements made by Yechury in the wake of the recent central committee meeting make it clear that he has no intentions of backing down.

Karat agreed with Yechury that the BJP was the “main enemy” but maintained that the class character of both the BJP and the INC was same and the Marxist party should maintain equidistance from both and oppose them equally.

The Karat group succeeded in winning the vote after only 31 CC members supported Yechury’s line; Karat’s position was endorsed by 55 members. This means that the two draft political resolutions would be placed at the CPI(M)’s next party congress from April 18 to 22 in Hyderabad.

Well-planned strategy

During the first two days of the CC meeting, those members who spoke against Yechury’s line did not give any indication that the draft political resolution would be put up for voting. As such, several Yechury supporters within the CC took his permission and left Kolkata. Among them were Yusuf Tarigami of Jammu and Kashmir, Ashok Dhawale of Maharashtra and Thomas Isaac of Kerala, who returned to their respective states as they had to attend political programmes there.

Before deliberations on the third day, Khagen Das, convenor of Tripura Left Front, died of a massive cardiac arrest in the early hours of Sunday. However, though there had been precedents, the CC meeting was not adjourned and postponed as supporters of the Karat line were by now keen to move for a vote.

Kerala state CITU president P.K. Gurudasan, a staunch Karat loyalist, who fainted during the CPI(M) Ernakulam district conference last week and was admitted in the ICU of one of Kochi’s private hospitals, was discharged and flown to Kolkata where he was admitted to a nursing home.

Gurudasan, 82, was unable to attend the first two days of the central committee meeting. By Sunday evening, when it was clear that the central committee was going to vote, the party’s Kerala unit, the majority of them Karat supporters, swung into action. Ignoring the advice of the doctors tending to Gurudasan, the comrades signed a bond to get him discharged from the nursing home, a party source told The Wire. He reached the party’s Alimuddin Street office to vote in favour of the Karat group.

During the press briefing on Sunday, Yechury was visibly grim and did not rule out his stepping down as general secretary of the party. “I will not comment about the internal matters of the party. The central committee has given me the responsibility to discharge my duties till the next party congress, which I will perform.”

However, he also made it clear that it was not a question of personal defeat or victory. Since democratic centralism existed within the CPI(M), members were free to air their thoughts and opinions.

In the 91-member central committee, Yechury has always remained in a minority.

Relations between Karat and Yechury soured even more after the West Bengal elections in 2016. While the CPI-M allied with the Congress – a line advocated by the West Bengal state committee and Yechury – Karat remained opposed to it. The CPI-M’s abysmal performance in the polls provided further ammunition for Karat to target the Yechury line.

Final battle to take place at Hyderabad congress

Since then, Karat has been gaining ground among CC members in the South Indian states. Interestingly, at the Kolkata meeting, central committee members representing states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, with a dominant BJP presence, voted in Yechury’s favour. Members from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and even Haryana, on the other hand, sided with Karat. 

File photo of general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury with politburo member Brinda Karat at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan

Yechury’s last remarks at Kolkata were: “This is just a draft political resolution which stated that there would be no kind of understanding with the Congress. The final decision will be taken at the party congress.” However, a large section of CC members who came to attend the meeting felt that there was no reason to think that the CC’s decision would undergo a radical change at Hyderabad.

One party insider remarked: “Sita [Yechury] is fed up and so are several comrades from Bengal and Tripura. If his draft political resolution is defeated at the Hyderabad party congress, he will certainly step down.”

If that happens, who will succeed Yechury to the top party post? There are two names doing the rounds within the CPI-M – politburo members V.B. Raghavulu and Brinda Karat, wife of Prakash Karat, one of the two women in the party’s apex body.

If Brinda Karat succeeds Yechury, she will create history not just in India but also abroad as a woman general secretary of a major communist party.  

Arup Chanda is a Calcutta-based journalist.

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A.K. Padmanabhan, politburo member of CPI(M) responds:

The Editor,
The Wire,

The report by Arup Chanda that has appeared in The Wire on January 24 about the Central Committee meeting in Kolkata is tendentious and based on false facts. The whole purpose seems to be to portray a factional division.

Here are some of the inaccuracies and distortions: It is true that a senior member of the CC, P.K. Gurudasan was unwell when he reached Kolkata. But it is false to say that he was in a nursing home and had to be brought out by giving a bond to the nursing home to be released to attend the meeting. Throughout, Gurudasan stayed in the hotel where all the CC members were put up. It is derogatory of a senior working class leader to be portrayed as being carted around for some factional maneuvering.

The report claims that many CC members were unaware that a vote would be taken, that is why three of them left the meeting before that. This is an absurd claim. It is elementary knowledge for CC members that the draft political resolution is adopted by a vote. This is mandatory. Moreover, amendments moved by CC members are circulated in advance so that they can decide if they want to press them for vote. All that the writer wishes to do is to establish that the voting was done by stealth. Even one of the members who Chanda says had left the meeting, was very much present and voted.

It is also unfortunate that he raises the question of the passing away of senior Tripura leader Khagen Das on the last day of the meeting as if there was a departure from the way homage should have been paid to him.

Such reportage has appeared in the congenital anti-communist media in West Bengal, but I am surprised that it has found a place in The Wire, which should normally appreciate healthy inner-party democracy in a political party.

A.K. Padmanabhan
Member, Politbureau
CPI(M)

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Arup Chanda responds:

I stand by my story.

1. The Kerala CITU president, P.K. Gurudasan was admitted to Nightingale Hospital in Shakespeare Sarani though a room might have been booked for him in one of the several hotels in which the majority of the CPI(M) central committee members were accommodated. Is it not strange from Padmanabhan’s own admission that a man can be brought straight from an ICU all the way from Kerala to Kolkata and then put up in a hotel? Which doctor in the world would advise and allow that? Is there any precedent within the CPI(M) or for that matter any party in India that an ailing man was airlifted from an ICU and taken to a faraway city just for the sake of casting his vote within a party committee?

2. The majority of the CC members stayed at Hotel Heaven near the state party headquarters, and Hotel Sefali Delux, near Sealdah in central Kolkata, while Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his cabinet colleagues who had come stayed at Hotel Hindustan International and some CC members from Tripura at Tripura Bhavan at 1, Pretoria Street.

3. Adopting draft political resolutions by vote in the CC is certainly not mandatory and there are innumerable precedents when they were not put to vote. It is put to vote only when a member asks for it.

4. There are precedents too that CC meetings were postponed following the death of a member and in this case it was not done after the demise of Khagen Das. I am not disputing the homage paid but the fact that a certain section was in a hurry for the vote on the draft resolution.

5. Not only the three CC members I mentioned but a few others did not attend the last day of the CC meeting and had left. They did not vote at all. Let Padmanabhan, if the CPI(M) is transparent, show their attendance signatures or records of their presence.

6. The fact that there is a division within the CPI(M) about aligning with the Congress is evident as there have been many controversial Facebook posts by many leaders from West Bengal and also statements given. The Bengal CPI(M) did not contradict them at all.

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