To Shake Hands or Not? CPI(M)’s Congress Dilemma

Prakash Karat calling the BJP ‘authoritarian’ and not ‘fascist’ is an attempt to assert himself and his group within the party, now considered to be firmly under the control of Sitaram Yechury

New Delhi: Not everything is well within the ranks of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Over the past two years, India’s biggest left-wing party has been debating how best to fight the revitalised onslaught of Hindutva forces, particularly with the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre. However, the question of whether the party should align with the Congress or not in this struggle seems to have divided its rank and file. A few months ago, the party found itself in a rather awkward situation when during the assembly poll in West Bengal it fought the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) in alliance with the Congress even while opposing the latter in the simultaneously-held Kerala election.

A Catch-22 situation

The CPI(M) has historically opposed the Congress, which introduced neo-liberal economic reforms in 1991 in India and champions its advance wholeheartedly. The party, accordingly, perceives the Congress as a ‘bourgeois party governed by the ruling classes’. But during the same period, it has offered tactical support many times to combat the growing influence of Bharatiya Janata Party which it considers communal and, thus, divisive. In broad terms, in its conjoined fight against capitalism and communalism, the party has been forced to give precedence to the latter over the last three decades, especially after the Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992 by Hindutva groups; which polarised the country’s political dynamic on religious lines.

The CPI(M)’s twin pursuits of preventing civil strife and gaining political power have often created schismatic situations within the the party, with one group inevitably opposed to any understanding with the Congress and the other in favour of tactical alliances with not just the Congress but also other identity-based parties opposed to the Sangh Parivar. Both these propositions were discussed in the Kolkata Plenum the party organised in December, 2015. After the five-day plenum, the party had decided that it should be open to ‘flexible tactics’ as response to ‘swift changes in the political situation’, hinting clearly that an understanding with the Congress party was imminent in the Bengal polls held in April 2016.

With the Left finishing as a junior partner to the Congress in the Bengal assembly, the party’s tactic came into question again, and since then has plagued the party. While the Bengal lobby in the party, also supported by the current general secretary Sitaram Yechury, wants to move forward with broader electoral and issue-based alliances with the Congress, a significant section of its cadres, led by the former general secretary Prakash Karat, known as an orthodox Marxist, is fiercely against any such move.

The party had to face a similar situation in 2008. One may recall that the Left Front under the leadership of CPI (M) had withdrawn support from the UPA-I government for its decision to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was supporting the Manmohan Singh government from outside until then. Karat, who was general secretary of the CPI (M) at the time, played the most significant role in consolidating the Left Front towards withdrawing support from the Congress-led government.

However, the move that Karat thought would give impetus to the Left movement in India backfired considerably. Following this decision, CPI (M) senior leader Somnath Chatterjee refused to step down as the speaker of the Lok Sabha, leading to his expulsion. The UPA-I saved its government with the support of Samajwadi Party, Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal and Janata Dal (Secular). The party has lost considerable base across India since then. The electoral fortunes of the Left Front too has been sliding downwards. From 50 members in the Lok Sabha, the Left Front’s numbers collapsed to a mere 24 in 2009 general elections. In 2014, it had to face it worst-ever defeat with only 12 MPs in its tally, out of which CPI (M) has only 9.

A tactical shift

With Sitaram Yechury replacing Karat as the general secretary, the party has indicated, in no vague terms, that there is a need to forge broad alliances with secular democratic groups. At a press conference during the Kolkata plenum, which was primarily held to decide upon the political-tactical line of the party in the context of party’s declining mass base, Yechury maintained that fighting communal forces in the country will be the party’s top agenda. “The agenda of the communal forces is to replace Indian history, it’s rich, syncretic history with Hindu mythology and Indian philosophy with Hindu theology…They are being able to do this because of state patronage,” he said, implying that the party will be open to forge alliances with other secular parties in future to keep the BJP at bay.

In the process, the group, a large section of which is from Kerala, that backs Karat and his advocacy of a militant leftist line within the party have been pushed to the corner.

Karat’s view on BJP and its repercussions

However, the Left Front’s dismal performance in Bengal, and a remarkable victory in Kerala against the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has re-energised the Karat group once again, as it wants to stick its neck out again. Karat’s recent article in the Indian Express stating that the fight against BJP cannot be conducted with other parties of the ruling classes, indirectly taking a dig at the Bengal group within the party, has polarised opinion on the matter once again.

In the article, Karat tries to define fascism by citing historical references and goes on to say that understanding the BJP as a fascist party would be theoretically wrong and it could at best be called ‘authoritarian’. Drawing similarities between the saffron party and the Turkey-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), he concludes that “The fight against the BJP and right-wing communal forces has to be conducted by combining the struggle against communalism with the struggle against neo-liberalism. Since the two major parties — the BJP and the Congress— are alternately managing the neo-liberal order for the ruling classes, the political struggle against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the other major party of the ruling classes.”

However, Yechury was quick to respond to Karat’s theory in an interview he gave to the party’s Bengali mouthpiece Ganashakti. Pointing out that the unlike the Vajpayee’s government (1998-2004), which had ‘coalition compulsions’, the Modi government is ‘brazenly going ahead with advancing the fascistic RSS project’. Regarding the party’s standpoint, he quoted from the party programme that said: “…the threat to the secular foundations has become menacing with the rise of the communal and fascistic RSS-combine and its assuming power at the Centre…the danger of fascist trends gaining ground, based on religious communalism, must be firmly fought at all levels…the BJP is a reactionary party with a divisive and communal platform, the reactionary content of which is based on hatred against other religions, intolerance, and ultra-nationalist chauvinism. The BJP is no ordinary bourgeois party as the fascistic RSS guides and dominates it.”

Asserting that Indian fascism can be categorised as ‘communal fascism’, he directly rebutted Karat who, borrowing from European history, premised the rise of fascism only within a capitalist society. Negating Karat’s assumption that BJP cannot be called ‘fascist,’ he quoted from Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov’s report to Communist International that said: “…before the establishment of the fascistic dictatorship, bourgeois governments pass through a number of preliminary stages and institute a number of reactionary measures, which directly facilitate the accession to power of fascism.”

By publicly placing his position against the party’s current stance on prospects of alliance with the Congress, Karat has asserted himself against Yechury, perhaps, to unsettle the party dynamic a little. However, Karat may have got his timing wrong. His opinion comes at a time when both the Congress and the Left Front have already joined hands in various political and cultural fronts and have organised demonstrations and protests against the Modi government together. At a time when the anti-BJP forces are looking to unite on different issues, keeping aside their ideological differences, Karat’s view may alienate the CPI(M) further from mainstream politics, according to political observers. The success of the Mahagathbandhan (an alliance of two traditional rivals Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) against the BJP) in Bihar has given a fair degree of confidence to the anti-BJP forces to think about such possibilities in other states too.

Recently, renowned historian Irfan Habib, a committed Leftist and CPI (M) member, too had talked about the need for the Left to enter into tactical alliances with other secular, democratic groups to resist the Hindutva forces. In an interview, he also said that the Left fighting alone and by pitching itself against the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar was a ‘great mistake.’

Karat’s intervention against this broad democratic consensus among secular political groups, thus, was seen by many as adversarial. Many leftists also commented that if Karat’s purpose was to rule out an alliance with the Congress, he should have said it directly instead of getting into the debate whether BJP is ‘fascist’ or ‘authoritarian’. The CPI(M) in many of its party documents have regularly mentioned BJP as a ‘fascist’ party, so there was no reason to rethink about the nature of BJP, party leaders told The Wire.

A misplaced analysis?

Leftists, liberal intellectuals, and most secular groups have condemned Karat’s intervention as ‘irresponsible’ at a time when there is ‘full-fledged attack on communal harmony of India.’ Most were of the opinion that Karat publicly locking horns with Yechury in such a context does not portend well for the party’s future prospects.

The former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student’s union president and Communist Party of India (CPI)-backed All India Students Federation leader Kanhaiya Kumar was the first one to directly attack Karat. “Ek bade purane comrade hain, JNU mein padhey hain. Kehte hain BJP authoritarian hai, fascist nahin hai. Comrade, agar aapko ladna nahin hai, retirement leke New York chale jaiye. Hum apni ladai lad lenge (There is a veteran comrade, who had studied in JNU. He says the BJP is authoritarian, not fascist. Comrade, if you don’t want to fight, retire and go to New York. We will fight our own battles),” Kanhaiya said at convention in Kolkata.

While declining to comment on CPI (M) internal machinations, CPI leader D Raja told The Wire: “BJP coming to power is not like any other party coming to power. It is not a usual change of government. One should understand it. It marks qualitative difference from other political situations. It is nothing but a political tool of RSS whose ideology is communal fascism. This is a serious challenge. While the political situation varies from state to state, there is possibility of bringing more and more secular democratic forces in our fight against communal forces.”

“Alliances should not be merely understood as electoral tactics. When we fight the menace of fascism, there is a need to mobilise a large number of secular democratic forces, individuals, social organisations not only to build public opinion but also for public campaigns,” he added clearly refuting Karat’s arguments.

CPI(M) former central committee member and senior leader Suneet Chopra was overtly critical of Karat’s standpoint. Speaking to The Wire, he said: “I am not concerned at the moment what agreements or disagreements you may have but you can’t give them (the RSS and the BJP) a clean chit on your own. Everyone knows the link between Mussolini, Moonje and the RSS. The interconnections between the RSS and fascist organisations are not secret.”

Pointing out that BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, are nothing but fascist organisations, he added: “The cult of violence they believe in, systematic targeting of minorities that they practice, its dream of Hindu Rashtra and its Hindutva politics are clearly fascistic programmes. It is well documented. The party programme clearly states clearly that BJP is not a party like other bourgeois parties because it is under the control of a fascistic organisation, the RSS. There is no ambiguity”.

Responding to Karat’s opinion that fascism is patronised by the bourgeois ruling classes only when capitalism is in a crisis and Indian conditions have not yet reached that level of threat, he said: “Fascism has evolved under different circumstances in different countries. The fascism of Italy was not the same as that of Japan. To discount this understanding and have a fixed opinion on how fascism should be understood (as explained by Karat in his article) is wrong. One must understand that ‘authoritarian’ is not fascistic.”

Similarly left-liberal intellectuals, too, pointed out that the debate within the CPI(M) neglects the present political context.

Anil Bhatti, former professor at JNU and an expert in the history of Fascism, told The Wire: “We are passing through a period of transition where BJP as a party, and the Sangh parivar as whole, with a clear ideology called Hindutva is rising. People who are outside this framework of Hindutva are constantly under attack. Secondly, such formations give rise to irrationality. They do not encourage a scientific temper in society. The BJP is going back on the fundamental promises of Indian constitution based on the principles of an inclusive and a just society.”

“The combined danger of communalism and irrationality has foregrounded a situation where all secular forces should come together with an inclusive political strategy. We have to go back to the times when nationalist forces joined hands against the British rule. It is a fight between the Sangh parivar’s aggressive nationalism, now patronised officially, and secular nationalism. The left has to follow a flexible strategy. You must be aware of the signals and forge as wide alliances as possible. I don’t think a formula is necessary at this stage. What is needed is a perspective.”

The debate may only add to the confusion that the party cadres are struggling with regarding its political-tactical line at the moment. This has a direct bearing in the way the party functions on the ground. Under these circumstances, the party needs to clear the haze it has surrounded itself with. The strong opinions against Karat gives some advantage to the Yechury and the Bengal lobby at the moment. However, in a different political context, the tables may turn again. And that may lead to another avoidable theoretical debate unless the party actively engages with present political realities.

Summing up the problems of the current debate within the CPI (M), the noted political theorist Rajeev Bhargava told The Wire: “The whole approach of looking for definitions and drawing certain political and strategic conclusions from abstract theorisation of this kind is mistaken. Marxist analysis should be based upon ‘a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.’ Definitions will not solve the problem. The whole approach is mistaken. You have already got a fixed line. If it is fascist, we will do this! If it is authoritarian, we will do that!”

“The party has to take into account the emergent political factors of 21st century. In India, we are witnessing globalisation, a different kind of neo-liberalisation, exclusionary nationalism, also tremendous improvement in the material conditions of a very large section of Indian people; there is a such a huge kind of demand for growth among a large number of people although growth itself is controlled by a small elite; our horizons have changed. Under these conditions, what does it mean to discuss whether BJP is fascist or not? One cannot use 20th century ideas to derive possibilities in the 21st century. After all, we are not living in 19th and early 20th century Germany. Yes, the ideas can help us in analysing but we have to free ourselves from dogmas. The debate is inane and completely pointless,” he added.

“I would say think like Sitaram Yechury who seems to be thinking in these broad categories.  You can’t demand purity from others (Congress) while you are pure only theoretically while on the ground you have to do a lot of dirty things. The party needs to think pragmatically and weigh its options accordingly to take forward the politics of equality, freedom and justice in the best way possible,” he said.

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