Comrade Karat prevails. But what price victory?

CPI(M) endorses Karat’s ‘no-truck-with-Congress’ line. But it has divided the party yet more

Sickle rattling by two senior party leaders is the last thing that a party in revival mode would want. But that was exactly the drama that unfolded at the Central Committee meeting of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) last week as Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat fought another round in what many would say is a long-standing personal feud. The battle lines between the two were drawn over whether the party should tactically ally with the Congress in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The Karat faction, which was opposed to any such alliance, won. Fifty-five members of the 91-member Central Committee voted with him while only 31 endorsed the “tactical understanding with the Congress” line that Yechury, the general secretary of the party was pushing. There would be some who will argue that the issue should not have been put to vote and left undecided.

The outcome, everyone is agreed, is one that has a political fallout not only in Kerala and West Bengal – two states where the CPI(M) interests are deep rooted – but also at the national level where the party is struggling to find relevance and currently stands marginalised and isolated. More importantly, it has further corroded party cohesion with the emergence of two factions – the one from Kerala backing Karat’s go-it-alone policy and the other from Bengal supporting Yechury.

The contentious alliance issue will be taken up in April 2018 at the three-yearly party congress in Hyderabad. But with two of its seniormost leaders at loggerheads, there is utter confusion within the party. CPI(M) leaders from Bengal would like to describe what transpired at the Central Committee meeting as a “historic blunder”.

Kerala CPI(M)’s concerns

The Kerala contingent sees it otherwise. It feels the party would have committed political hara-kiri if it endorsed an electoral understanding with the Congress which is its main rival in Kerala. They also point to the “Bengal blunder” of 2016 when the CPI(M) tied up with the Congress and not only lost but also helped the Congress gain ground.

One senior party leader from Kerala even went so far as to informally tell reporters on the sidelines of the Central Committee meeting in Kolkata that “Kerala could not be sacrificed because Yechury is soft on the Congress”. That got back to the beleaguered CPI(M) general secretary Yechury who responded cryptically with this counter: “If you charge me as being pro-Congress, I can counter-charge others as being pro-BJP.”

Though Yechury did not elaborate on what he meant, some Left watchers in Kerala suggest that he may have been referring to the Supreme Court recently admitting the CBI appeal against the Kerala High Court’s discharge of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and two others in the SNC Lavalin electricity contract corruption case.

The Central Committee’s decision has a political fallout not only in Kerala and West Bengal but also at the national level where the party is struggling to find relevance. It has also corroded party cohesion with the emergence of two factions – the one from Kerala backing Karat and the other from Bengal supporting Yechury

A party insider from the Yechury camp said: “With the CBI involved in the case, it always helps to be on the right side of the government. The party endorsing an alliance with the Congress would not have helped.” Vijayanm enjoys the backing of Karat. Even when factions within the state unit of the CPI(M) bitterly opposed his candidature as CM, it was Karat who supported Vijayan.

There is also the case involving the CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s son Binoy which is a cause for concern. The latter has been accused of swindling a Dubai-based firm of Rs 13 crore and an investigation by central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate is likely soon. The state BJP is seeking a probe against Balakrishnan and his family for amassing wealth disproportionate to their known source of income.

Fissures in the Marxist party

While there is no evidence to link the two cases with the Karat line on the Congress, the fact that it is being informally talked about reflects the fissures within the CPI(M). This divide within the party over the issue also found voice in the statement made by senior Bengal leader Biman Bose to a Mathrubhumi journalist, “Please check with AKG Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, as party decisions are being taken there of late.”

Those critical of Karat’s isolationist position point to a newspaper article he wrote last September in which he articulated why the fight against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the other party of the ruling classes (read Congress). In it, he stressed that there was no threat of fascism to warrant such an alliance.

To quote: “In India today, neither has fascism been established, nor are the conditions present – in political, economic and class terms – for a fascist regime to be established. There is no crisis that threatens a collapse of the capitalist system; the ruling classes of India face no threat to their class rule. No section of the ruling class is currently working for the overthrow of the bourgeois parliamentary system. What the ruling classes seek to do is to use forms of authoritarianism to serve their class interests.”

This is in sharp contrast to the line taken by Left leaders following the Babri Masjid demolition and the rise of the majoritarian party like the BJP. It was then decided that the Left must align with anti-Saffron forces including the Congress. And the Left did offer outside support to non-BJP governments at the centre. It extended outside support to the Narasimha Rao-led coalition government from 1991-1995. It backed the United Front government in 1996 and the Manmohan Singh government in 2004.

And this it did even as it fought the Congress at the state level in Kerala and West Bengal without losing ground. This subtle balancing act is what Karat is opposed to. His position is that the CPI(M) must fight the BJP on its own – a proposition that many believe is bound to fail given the rise and spread of the BJP.

Meanwhile, the comrades in Kerala are happy that the Karat line has prevailed and the Bengal lobby has been sidelined. Now it’s over to the party Congress in Hyderabad. There is one view that the line on the Congress will once again be put to test and it will be a tough and evenly matched contest since delegates from all over the country will be attending the meet. The other view is that Yechury might be further sidelined. The doomsayers, of course, see fissures within the party widening. That would indeed be good news for the BJP.

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