Neither politics nor policies are made, unmade or even substantively amended anymore in parliament; that is, assuming it ever was so. If functioning as the opposition in a parliament dominated by a brute majority that is dismissive of conventions and precedent is difficult, it is even more so on the outside. Without the magnification of messaging that parliament as a system offers, it may be harder for Sitaram Yechury to make his party’s views known in the public sphere, but it does offer a hitherto less-explored opportunity to tackle a lot of leftover ideological and organisational problems within the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
As general secretary since April 2015, or more accurately from the time of the 1996 political-existential crisis of the CPI(M), Yechury has been invariably on the wrong side of the majority that finally determines what the party should do. Now that he does not have to handle the duties of leading the party in parliament, Yechury can use the time to tackle the long-festering sores within the organisation. And he has just about one year to get this done; the 22nd Congress of the CPI(M )is scheduled for 2018, where his role as general secretary will be reviewed and his fitness for the job could be openly debated.
The division within the party over the question of his third term in the Rajya Sabha says it all. Leaders of the the party from West Bengal were in favour of sending Yechury back to parliament. Since the CPI(M) has less than the 42 seats in the state legislature, help was needed to get him re-elected. The Congress was willing to pitch in to help see him through, but the CPI(M)’s politburo and the central committee rejected the idea – not once, but twice. Three reasons were advanced to arrive at the decision: party practice of no more than two terms in the Rajya Sabha; the general secretary should hold no other office; and the political line that “precludes having any understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress.”
The boundary between purity and pollution in the CPI(M) has been as disputed as the Line of Actual Control between China and India and the LoC between Pakistan and India. Incursions from the side that favours a less rigid strategy in collaborating with the Congress or making friends of more than a few regional parties have invariably lost out. Defenders of “giving maximum importance to developing and building the independent strength of the organisation” have ensured that the CPI(M) is rarely allowed to cross the line; every time it has strayed, it has been brought back into the comfort zone of ‘purity’.
Internal democracy within the CPI(M) has enabled the debate to be reopened even after it was declared a closed chapter. But the noticeable defeat of the side that favours a broader platform in which the Congress is a big party is a recurrent pattern. In 1996, the rejection of the offer of prime ministership to Jyoti Basu was described as a “historical blunder” on the one hand and defended as the correct interpretation of the political line on the other. Having been told even then that the debate over the matter was a “closed chapter”, Basu opened it up all over again it by taking the issue to the people. By 2002, he had convinced the CPI(M)’s puritans to amend the political line.
The context of the change in 2002 was similar to the political context now. The BJP was in power at the Centre and it was hoping to win second term in office. For the CPI(M), the political reality was: “In the present situation, where the BJP is the main target, the Party should adopt tactics which will enable all the secular and democratic forces to effectively thwart the gameplan of the BJP-RSS combine. While doing so, efforts must be made to appeal and reach out to the mass base of the Congress as their mobilisation is essential for strengthening the fight against communalism.” The difference is that in 2002, the Congress was winning in the state elections, whereas it is now poised to lose a few more of the states where it is currently in power. This makes fighting the BJP a collective responsibility of the democratic-secular opposition, of which the CPI(M) considers itself a part.
By effectively branding the Congress as politically untouchable, the CPI(M) has reverted to its positions of 1996 and 2008. The difference is that it has lost so much ground in the last ten years that it is no longer able to work as an anchor to a non-Congress coalition of regional parties. That role, piquantly, seems to have shifted to its arch enemy in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress. Less squeamish about who she befriends when circumstances seem appropriate, Mamata Banerjee is now friends again with the Congress as much as she is a leader of the regional anti-BJP parties.
For Yechury, now that he is the general secretary of the party, the role of leader is a list of challenges. How liberal should the CPI(M) be in ‘having an understanding’ with, among others, the Congress, is the spectre that haunts the party. Dissent and bad blood has become part of the internal debate and its re-emergence in 2017 is not surprising – and nor is the outcome. But the question that the CPI(M) needs to answer is what will it do and how far will it go to fulfil its principal commitment to fight the right-wing offensive by the BJP and the RSS?
Clearly Yechury is willing to meet, strategise and work with the Congress and others inside and outside parliament. He joined Sonia Gandhi as well as Banerjee in a meeting of opposition parties that discussed next steps post the Rajya Sabha, presidential and vice presidential elections. He has been allowed to do so by the party. But it remains uncertain how far he can commit the party to confronting the BJP, unless Yechury decides that he will use the next year till his re-election as general secretary to go back to the 2002 resolution at the 17th party Congress of the CPI(M) in the context of the current political situation.
But for the CPI(M), there are big differences between 2002 and now. In 2004, it became the largest party in opposition and it was instrumental in building the United Progressive Alliance coalition that came to power. It was so big and important that contrary to Karl Marx’s oracular pronouncement that history does not usually repeat itself and when it does, it is as a farce, the CPI(M) was offered another stab at joining the government by the Congress, which offered it a deputy prime ministership.
In the internal debate that followed, people like Basu and to an extent Yechury lost out. The offer was renegotiated and converted into an offer for the speaker of the Lok Sabha. The rest is history; Somnath Chatterjee held the job, but the CPI(M) expelled him for defying its instructions to quit after the party withdrew support from the UPA. Chatterjee’s rehabilitation as a stalwart took time. By 2015, Yechury as general secretary shared a dais with him, closing the breach and healing the wound.
If Yechury represents a less orthodox and more pragmatic position in politically-difficult times, the ex-general secretary Prakash Karat is seen, within and outside the party, as the epitome of orthodoxy, more aligned to the position of the majority faction of the party in Kerala and less so with many, though not all, leaders from West Bengal. Given the history of the CPI(M), conflicting interpretations of the political needs of the moment are business as usual. The difference between the past and the present is the decline of the CPI(M)’s stature in national politics.
The crisis of India’s democracy, diversity and secularism is also the challenge that Yechury faces and the opportunity he has is to begin addressing the incoherence within the CPI(M), however carefully covered it is, because it invariably reveals itself in its inconsistencies. Otherwise, the CPI(M) is as much in danger of imploding, at least in West Bengal, as Yechury fears the country is likely to do, unless India’s diversity is strongly defended.