The Left Front’s humiliating defeat in the Tripura assembly election will inevitably cast a long shadow over the CPI(M)’s Party Congress, scheduled to be held between April 18-22 in Hyderabad. While a post-mortem of the electoral debacle will be in order, many Left leaders expect key issues to figure prominently at the meet. These include formalising a plan to reinvent and revive the party, adapt a new approach relevant to the changing times and actively consider forging alliances with the Congress party and like-minded formations to counter the BJP threat.
“With Bengal and Tripura gone, we are left with only Kerala. You could say we are in the ICU and the time has come for the party to seriously think of how it can revive and re-invent itself,” a senior central committee member from West Bengal told SouthWord. on the day the results came in. “We must begin to think pragmatically and not in theories. The results in Tripura conclusively prove that our main threat comes from the BJP. Can we fight it alone at this point is the big question? Everyone knows we can’t.”
Almost echoing this view are other voices from the party. Veteran leader and former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achutanandan has urged the CPI(M) to join hands with
secular forces to fight the BJP. “The Left is moving towards the final battle with the fascist forces. But the Left does not have the strength to fight the battle alone. That is a reality,” he said in a statement issued in Thiruvananthapuram. In Kolkata, CPI(M) politburo member from Bengal, Hannan Mollah, said that the time had come for the party to “rethink” on alliances. “We had said we don’t want an understanding with the Congress. But now, after the defeat in Tripura, it is a completely new situation where we have to rethink our strategies and political line,” he said.
Given the harsh existential crisis that confronts the party, many in the CPI(M) are hopeful that the Hyderabad Congress will revisit and approve the draft political resolution put forward by Party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury at the Central Committee meeting on January 21. It is pertinent to recall that the meet had rejected, by a 55-31 vote, his proposal advocating forging an electoral understanding at the national level with the Congress.
It was then widely reported, and not denied, that the result of the vote exposed fissures in the party and its top leadership. The Kerala party unit, which supports former General Secretary Prakash Karat, was opposed to the resolution. It felt that any arrangement with the Congress would undermine its position in the state where that party was its principal rival. Incidentally, the Kerala unit is also bitterly opposed to Sitaram Yechury who enjoys the backing of the comrades from West Bengal and Tripura.
Many would say it was an ego battle between Bengal and Kerala at one level and between Yechury and Karat at another, that influenced the Central Committee's decision. Moreover, Bengal, which hitherto dictated terms at the Central Committee meetings, was already on the backfoot ever since the Left lost Bengal to Mamata Banerjee in 2011. The latest defeat in Tripura will further alienate the eastern lobby and could lead to the comrades from Kerala trying to dictate terms.
To align or not to align with the Congress
It is not as if Yechury is the only one in the CPI(M) advocating a tie-up with the Congress. There have been voices from within the party which have in the past pushed this line post the Babri Masjid demolition. Leaders of the CPI—the parent party of the CPI(M)—have long been suggesting that secular forces pool resources to fight the BJP. In fact, in 1964 when there was a split in the Communist movement which led to the formation of the CPI(M), the division was over whether to join forces with other democratic forces like the Congress.
Many Left insiders point out that joining hands with the Congress or, for that matter, any political party at the national level must be viewed separately from fighting state elections. They point out that a tie -up with the Congress in Kerala, for example, is not possible but having a larger understanding at the national level at this point is essential. “We have to admit that the party has to counter the BJP and we have to join forces in that effort. In the past too, the Left has supported the Congress in New Delhi while fighting elections in the states. So that cannot be seen as a problem,” says a CPI leader.
To align or not to align with the Congress is not the only question that the CPI(M) conclave in Hyderabad has to resolve. There are several crucial political and organisational issues that have to be addressed. According to a party insider, chief among them is the strategy to be adopted to re-build and reinvent the CPI(M), not only in West Bengal and Tripura but also in other states.
Post-Tripura, there is a much broader consensus that the party has to jettison its old jargon of ushering in a socialist revolution and think more pragmatically of preserving what many hardline Marxists would dismiss as a “bourgeois democracy.” According to a CPI(M) leader wishing anonymity, the threat from the BJP has to be recognised. “Leaders like comrade Karat may think that Narendra Modi does not fit the classic definition of a fascist and therefore we need not unite with democratic forces and fight. But after Tripura, the reality is now staring us in the face. We cannot afford to waste time. The way things are going, there will be no democracy as we know it, and no Left (left),” he rues.
According to the leader, the party has to come to terms with the reality that it cannot function in isolation and has be inclusive. It must be accommodative towards new Left-of-Centre social movements and young leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mewani and Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army. Only working with those who swear by the CPI(M)’s rule book may be limiting and counter-productive. “Standing together with those who agree with us on key issues is essential for our survival and our growth. We have to recognise the fact that the party has not grown. It has only declined and we have to arrest the decline,” says the leader.
Time to do more than just introspect
It was at the 1978 Jalandhar Congress that the CPI(M) had resolved to look beyond the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and strike fresh roots in the South and North. It was noted that the CPI(M)’s trade unions were active in most key states but the party had yet to make itself politically relevant in electoral terms. Nothing was ,done however, to expand the party footprint. Instead, 40 years later, the CPI(M) and its Left partners have been reduced to a one-state party and further face the threat of being marginalised.
In fact, the decline of the Left Front at the national level is telling. It commanded 62 MPs in 2004. Today that figure is down to 12. The CPI(M) in 2004 was well-placed with 43 members in the Lower House. In the current Lok Sabha, it has nine members. Many Left sympathisers have been reiterating that to make itself relevant, the CPI(M) has to revive itself and in doing so, it needs to set aside political bickering and ego tussles.
They feel the Tripura result calls for more than introspection. The Left failed to enthuse voters despite having a Chief Minister with a squeaky clean image. He was also an able administrator. But governance was not the issue in this election. The Left campaign simply did not connect with the people and failed to address the growing problem of unemployment. Neither did it offer any new solutions to match the aspirations of the younger generation. The BJP, on the other hand, with the help of social media, managed to woo the first-time voter who felt he/she had a brighter prospect under a new government. It was the 19 per cent vote of the youngsters that swung the election the Saffron way. The party’s vote share shot up from 1.4 per cent last time to over 40 per cent this election.
Very clearly, the CPI(M) has to go back to the drawing board and evolve strategies that match the info-tech age we live in. The old paradigms have changed. But no honest reinvention can take place if the party’s head honchos pit themselves against each other. Divided, the CPI(M) cannot stand. Neither can secular forces in the country.