How CPI(M)'s Hyderabad Congress Managed to Save the Party from Splitting

By amending the central committee resolution on doing business with the Congress party, the Left party has shown its willingness to understand the objective reality and change its strategic line.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has managed to prevent a split despite intense inner-party churning at the Hyderabad party congress that concluded recently. The two political lines essentially centred around how much business the CPI(M) shall do with the Congress party, and did have the potential to effect a vertical split in the party. Recall in this context the split in 1964 when 32 members of the Communist Party of India’s Central Committee quit the parent party to launch a new one – the CPI(M). The very fact that the CPI(M) this time was able to resolve such a serious inner-party crisis reflects its seriousness in understanding the objective political reality and adopting the strategies needed to meet these.

The media, those who cared to follow and report the Hyderabad party congress, was busy presenting the serious debate as merely a clash of personalities – between Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury. In projecting the personality clash, they missed out the clarity that emerged in the political resolution finally adopted at the party congress. Lest it is missed out, let me add that most of those who reported from Hyderabad belong to a generation of journalists who hardly have any knowledge on the concept of ‘democratic centralism’ and hence shouted loud about the demand for ‘secret ballot’.

Let me put this small but important procedural aspect in context before taking up the substantive outcome of the party congress. The delegates to the party congress, as is the norm in the CPI(M), represent various state units. They attend the congress not just in their individual capacities, it is their job to endorse the political line that was clinched at the respective state party conferences. In this case, the political resolution, as adopted by the party’s central committee as well as the alternate resolution (owned up by Yechury) were debated and voted upon. In the event, the Kerala unit’s conference had accepted the majority line and even those there who voted for the alternate line, in their role as delegates to the Hyderabad congress, are bound to support that, if taken up for voting. Likewise, even those in the West Bengal unit who voted for the majority line (but were defeated) ought to support the alternate resolution at the party congress.

In other words, each delegate at the party congress was bound to stand by whatever the state unit had held and not whatever she/he had held while the drafts were debated and voted in their respective state units. Let me add that this applies to the conferences ahead of the respective state conferences at the district level and further down the hierarchy. The essential feature about democratic centralism is that the delegates are not just individuals but represent the members on whose behalf they attend the party congress. They, therefore, represent whatever their state units mandated them to represent. And lest it is misunderstood, they had their right to express their opinion in their own units and thereafter were bound by the majority’s stand. This being the case, there was no scope for a ‘secret ballot’ at the party congress on the political resolution.

Having said that, it’s pertinent to note that the communist party has split as and when the differences were of the nature that a resolution was not possible. We saw this process with the Communist Party of India (CPI) splitting up in 1964; the CPI(M) in 1969; and again the CPI when its leader S.A.Dange quit the party to form the All India Communist Party (AICP). All that is history. There was, indeed, a possibility of such a split taking place ahead of this party congress too.

In the normal course, the political resolution, as approved by the party’s central committee, stating that while the BJP ought to be confronted and all efforts made to defeat it, such efforts ought to be undertaken “without having an understanding or electoral alliances with the Congress party” would have been presented before the party congress. This political line, attributed to Karat, and the one that was supported by a majority in the central committee, was in effect a shift from the line adopted by the party since May 1996. When the CPI(M) agreed to play ball with the Congress party to prop up a government headed by H.D.Deve Gowda, it was at variance with the CPI(M)’s 1989 position when the party had lent itself to the making of the V.P.Singh government at the Centre. The shift, interestingly, was effected in 1991 at the CPI(M)’s Chandigarh congress with the election of H.K.S.Surjeet as general secretary, replacing E.M.S.Namboodiripad.

Interestingly, Karat taking over as general secretary from Surjeet in 2005, steered the party in the same direction as Surjeet and did business with the Congress party; and Yechury too was bound by the same line in the three years he has helmed the party as general secretary. However, the political line recently adopted by the central committee was to shift and return to the party’s line since its birth in 1964 and until 1991: not to have any truck with the Congress. That such a line would be ridiculous given the assessment of the same resolution in the political reality – the rise of the BJP to levels that is unprecedented – did not deter its authors from persisting with it.

In other words, the line taken by the central committee was to return to the party’s pre-1991 position. Yechury and his minority, however, held that it was necessary to stick to the shift adopted in 1991 and what was correct in 1991 (when the BJP was only gaining in strength as an alternative to the Congress) is all the more relevant in 2019, when the BJP has emerged as the ruling party on its own. The text of the political resolution, indeed, amplifies this objective condition with clarity. The only hitch in this line was about what to do with the Congress party.

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, CPI(M) politburo member Prakash Karat and other leaders at the 22nd party congress in Hyderabad. Credit: PTI

The question then was whether to keep the doors open and create a moment of confusion, as indeed was created in May 1996 when Jyoti Basu was in the reckoning as a Prime Minister candidate. Recall the flurry of activities within the CPI(M) over the next couple of days, when the committee repeatedly met to debate the issue and reject Basu’s candidacy. Among those rejecting the proposal of Basu’s candidature were Yechury and Karat. The amended resolution, as adopted at the Hyderabad party congress, however has left no ground for such confusion. The congress has adopted the line that the communist party will do everything to confront and defeat the BJP “without having a political alliance with the Congress party”.

The resolution of the conflict at Hyderabad, indeed, has ensured that the CPI(M) will not even consider being part of a government that may emerge in New Delhi after May 2019 even though the party will fight elections across the country where its cadre will even work for a candidate fielded by the Congress party (as for instance in Mangalore in Karnataka or Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu). At the same time, the party will tooth and nail oppose the Congress candidates in Palakkad and Kasargod in Kerala. It will campaign against the BJP in Tripura and have local arrangements with the Congress in West Bengal. Adopted in the past, these strategies will hold good in 2019 as well.

Such arrangements the party had entered with the Congress since 1991 were not etched in stone. There were ruptures and even parting of ways – as what happened in the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Such ruptures are bound to show in the future too. And that is where the CPI(M) ought to engage itself with some seriousness. The party could learn some lessons from the life of one of its prominent leaders – A.K.Gopalan.

The party need not desist from reaching out to people even if there is a Congress party-led government. In other words, this is what Mahatma Gandhi suggested to his followers post-independence. And the CPI(M) is known to have practiced such politics in the few years after 1969, when the party supported Indira Gandhi’s government, which was reduced to a minority after the Congress split that year. Yet, the Left did not abandon organising in the streets.

Meanwhile, it may be interesting to reflect on what the CPI-M would have done, if the resolution as commended by the central committee was not amended at the party congress? In other words, what would have happened if the party congress had decided to return to the pre-1991 line of opposing the Congress party? Well, it could have led the West Bengal unit of the party to chart a separate course. It could have led to a split in the party too with the majority in Tamil Nadu and Punjab charting its own course. In other words, something similar to 1964 and yet different from it. Those who revolted against the majority in 1964 were votaries of a line that empowered them to emerge as the more powerful communist party than the one they left.

The amendment to the resolution, coming as it did from the steering committee, saved the party from a split. The Hyderabad congress of the CPI(M) is indeed a significant event for that reason. It is also significant for another reason. The erstwhile central committee, it now turns out, did not reflect the mood in the party’s ranks adequately and, more importantly, seemed to ignore the political imperative for the times. The delegates at the party congress managed to convey this so very well by forcing the amendment to the resolution. It’s been historic in that sense and such course corrections at the party congress have been rare in the history of the communist movement as such.

V. Krishna Ananth is a professor in the Department of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati.