Can Sitaram Yechury Stop the Left From Disintegrating?

The Left may have entered electoral politics with the revolutionary intent of changing the system, but are now part of the system itself.

Sitaram Yechury’s re-election as general secretary of the Left front’s largest constituent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), at the recently-held 22nd party congress, has set off speculations about the Left parties’ future strategies. Similar conjectures were aired after the Left Front governments collapsed in West Bengal (2011) and Tripura (2018).

The primary question is, why has the Left Front lost the political ability to win elections? Leveraging this opportunity, the Left’s opponents have mocked the parties for being on the verge of extinction or simply confined to spaces like Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Importantly, why has the Left not managed to register even symbolic presence in the entire Hindi heartland? One may recall a time when the Left considered this sprawling belt to be a favourable and fertile ground for their politics and its sustainability. Now, the governments run by the Left Front have collapsed, and there is little hope that the Left will be able to spread its political influence in the rest of the country. Against this background, the question that comes to mind is: why is the CPI(M) not treating its lack of political expansion as a life and death issue?

During his first tenure as party general secretary, Yechury, despite his sincerity, was not able to prevent the Left’s support base from disintegrating. The signs were clear during the tenure of his predecessor, Prakash Karat. Yechury’s second term too may not be able to stem the disintegration process.

These are difficult questions for the Left to tackle. After all, they had entered electoral politics with the revolutionary intent of changing the system. But over time, they became part of the system itself. Besides, they have failed to safeguard their post-independence image of being the most committed ideological opponents of not only the ruling Congress party but most other middle-class political parties as well.

In the following decades marked by power struggles, ideologies were forsaken by a range of parties which mobilised along lines of caste, religion and region. At that time, the Left parties could not display the courage to risk separation from these political parties. They moved back and forth between major political parties, carrying them on their shoulders like palanquin bearers, offering external support to the government of the day. The Left justified this support by citing political circumstances prevailing at that time.

At a broader level, throughout its political history, the Left is known to have committed such mistakes. For instance, instead of following the directive of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party before India became independent to fight the British imperialists head on, the undivided Communist Party of India followed the line of the British communist party, thereby fulfilling its role in the freedom struggle. In this process, the Left also delayed objective evaluation of prominent leaders of the freedom struggle like Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. After independence, when the CPI(M) got the opportunity to offer the country its first communist prime minister in Jyoti Basu, the party outright rejected the proposal. It was then that the opponents of the Left as well as well-wishers were forced to say that the Left had lost the plot. Even Basu later confessed that it was a “historic blunder”.

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addresses mediapersons as part of the 22nd Party National Congress in Hyderabad. Credit: PTI

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addresses mediapersons as part of the 22nd Party National Congress in Hyderabad. Credit: PTI

It may be argued that the Left failed to read domestic political realities. For instance, instead of putting up a fight against the new economic policies of Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, they invested all their strength in fighting communalism, which was born out of those very anti-people policies. Given the context, its not surprising then that despite the Left’s struggle, both neoliberal economics as well as communalism have become invincible. The Left ruined its own prospects when it withdrew support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, protesting the civil nuclear deal with the US.

Had the Left not made such mistakes, the middle classes losing faith in the Congress, BJP and other parties representing middle class interest may have profited the Left. Had the Left done course correction in time, it could have been in a position to provide leadership to these disillusioned sections. But instead, we find the Left caught in its own factional fights, even as the party has lost control in its former bastions. Instead of actively resisting neoliberal policies, the Left is only indulging in ritualistic acts. The result of this is the disintegration of the Left camp.

In such a scenario, Left parties desperately need new political formulations and strategies to renew their politics. They will not be able to make a difference unless old communist theses are assessed in the present changed context. The question remains whether Yechury will be able to play any significant role in this regard. One, he cannot afford to function like any other middle-class party supremo. Despite the downfall, the organisational structure of the Left does not have space for such heroes – even the party general secretary does not have unbridled powers.

It is absurd that in today’s political context, the CPI(M) is debating whether the Narendra Modi government can theoretically qualify as fascist, or whether or not to join hands with the Congress to combat the BJP – and if so, how to advance such a strategy.

This attitude has resulted in vast differences in the political outcomes of the Right and the Left. The RSS, while staying away from politics and working only on the ‘cultural’ front, has gained strong footing across the entire country, with the help of its political wing. The Left, on the other hand, which has avoided the cultural domain, and devoted its time to pro-people politics, is now marginalised.

Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist based in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.

This is an abridged version of the Hindi original. You can read the Hindi version here.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.