Lapse of Doctrine

After the collapse of its national challenge to the BJP, the Left is reduced to just another regional player

The CPI(M) under Prakash Karat has lost much of the political influence it wielded under Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Ravi S Sahani / The India Today Group / Getty Images
01 April, 2014

IT WAS NOT THE FIRST TIME that Mamata Banerjee was aiming to disrupt the plans of the Left, but by the time of her 6 March interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now, the third front that the Left parties had been working assiduously to cobble together since June 2013 had already displayed enough evidence of falling apart without any help from her. While the seat-sharing agreement with Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had come apart at the last minute, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Orissa had paid no heed to the possibility of an alliance, and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar had agreed to a tie-up only with the Communist Party of India, snubbing the principal Left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The failure of the Left parties—the CPI(M), the CPI, the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party—to partner with these regional leaders was made even more humiliating by the fact that many of them had supported the BJP in the past. Jayalalithaa, in particular, shares a strong rapport with the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Given that the regional parties could end up supporting the BJP again after the election, the Left was in effect willing to run the risk that its votes could eventually shore up Modi. But despite this climbdown, most regional figures had come to the conclusion that, for the present, what mattered was maximising their share of seats in parliament, and that there was no need to oblige the Left, which is no longer in a position to exert the kind of influence it once did in any alliance that involved the Congress. Under these circumstances, soon after Mamata chose to tell Goswami that she was willing to support Jayalalithaa as prime minister, Jayalalithaa reciprocated with a phone call, opening up the possibility that if the post-election scenario permits, a fourth front without the Left may have more chances of taking shape than the third front being shaped by the Left.

For the Left this is as bad as it gets—worse, even, than 2009, when the third front it had espoused alongside Mayawati had been marginalised. In contrast, in 2004, the Left parties had stitched together a series of tactical alliances that not only ensured the unexpected defeat of the Vajpayee-led NDA, but also made them key players in the subsequent UPA-I government. While a Marxist would undoubtedly claim that the contrasting scenarios were but the product of a difference in material conditions (if Mamata Banerjee can be so termed) it is difficult to avoid examining the role of the respective individuals guiding the Left under these different circumstances—Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Prakash Karat.

The Left’s 2004 success in stitching together a workable alliance owed much to Surjeet, the then general secretary of the CPI(M). One of the few communist leaders of significance from north of the Vindhyas, Surjeet also had a personal rapport with almost every important political leader outside the Hindu Right. The two failures, however, took place under the guidance of Prakash Karat, a Marxist theoretician with little experience of electoral politics, who does not even enjoy the goodwill of all his colleagues within the CPI(M) politburo.

Writing about Surjeet in the weekly Mainstream shortly after his death in 2008, his protégé Sitaram Yechury, who has always harboured ambitions of becoming the party’s general secretary, chose to end a piece, titled with some deliberation as ‘Comrade Surjeet—the True Marxist,’ thus:

At the Deoli concentration camp in the 1930s, Surjeet was there along with other legendary Communist figures like B.T. Ranadive, Dr G. Adhikari and P.C. Joshi. To keep themselves amused, they would take bets with each other. Surjeet boasted that he could consume a ser of ghee—a thought, which the others baulked at—the ghee was somehow smuggled in and Surjeet consumed it in one go, only to have the other three stay awake sitting by his side the whole night fearing that he would now meet his end.

Surjeet woke up in the morning, and with his lota went into the khet (field) and returned to tell his comrades, that “urban Communists will have to work very hard to understand real India”—a lesson that remains relevant even today.

Facetious though the anecdote may seem, words are weighed with great care within the CPI(M). Yechury may have included himself among the urban communists, but it was not lost on anyone within the party who the actual target of this veiled barb was.

This indirect criticism of Surjeet’s successor has considerable merit. The handover of power in the CPI(M) from Surjeet to Karat in 2005 was not just a transfer of power across generations, but also across attitudes. Karat enjoyed the support of the vast mass of the cadre in the CPI(M), a party that has always emphasised adherence to Marxist doctrine. But as subsequent events have shown, this doctrinaire approach is out of step with the requirements of electoral politics, which had shaped Surjeet’s vision.

Surjeet was largely able to force the party in directions not amenable to its own cadre because he was among the nine “navratanas” of the CPI(M), who formed the party’s politburo after a split from the CPI in 1964. His entry into active politics dated back to 1930, when he joined Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha—which even then required that its members not have anything to do with communal bodies, or parties which disseminated communal ideas—and took part in the independence movement. He subsequently fought and won two elections for the Punjab Assembly. By the time Indian politics began to fracture in the late 1980s, necessitating the formation of coalitions and alliances, Surjeet had the stature of an elder statesman both within the party and outside it. His worldview had been shaped by the partition of Punjab, and he abhorred communal politics—whether of a minority, such as the kind preached by the radical Sikh leader Bhindranwale, or of a majority, as espoused by the BJP. In national politics, as far as he was concerned, keeping the BJP out of power was the Left’s main objective.

In contrast, Karat was a theoretician, a student of the Marxist academic Victor Kiernan in Edinburgh. He returned to India in 1970 to join the party, where he became closely associated with another “navaratna,” the then general secretary of the party P Sundaraiyya, who resigned from his post in 1975 because of the CPI(M)’s “revisionist” tendencies. Sundaraiyya was forced to go underground after the CPI(M) split from the CPI in 1964, and then again in 1975 after the imposition of the Emergency.

Tasked with setting up the party’s Delhi unit in the early 1970s, Karat participated in student politics while studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University, before being elected to the CPI(M)’s Central Committee in 1985, and then to its politburo in 1992. These roles confined him to working within the party, and he was mostly uninvolved with the larger politics of the country till he took over from Surjeet in 2005. He had inherited Sundaraiyya’s view that the party needed to maintain an equidistance from the BJP and the Congress. This view had led him, in 1996, into marshalling the party’s young guard to block Jyoti Basu’s ascension to prime ministership when a coalition government came to power with outside support from the Congress. First HD Deve Gowda and then IK Gujral took over as prime minister for brief periods, before the BJP came to power in 1997.

Perhaps it is only the experience of UPA-I that allows us to see what was lost in 1995 from the Left’s point of view. In 2004, with Surjeet still in charge, while the CPI(M) and, to a lesser extent, the CPI were considerably strengthened by strong showings in their home turfs of West Bengal and Kerala, they also made a number of tactical alliances with regional parties such as the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which added to their tally of seats. The influence of the resulting Left Front on the UPA government was visible in a number of ways, including the passing of the legislation that resulted in the NREGA.

As in 1995, Karat did not pay much heed to the practical necessities of politics after he took over as general secretary of the CPI(M) in 2005. By the time the Left’s alliance with the Congress broke down in 2008, over the Indo–American nuclear deal, personal relations between Karat and the UPA leadership had deteriorated to the extent that their only communication was taking place through newspaper interviews—a situation that would have been inconceivable when Surjeet was in charge. Equally inconceivable would have been the fact that the Left was eventually marginalised because Mulayam Singh Yadav came to the rescue of UPA-I, something he would have never done if Surjeet was in command, given their personal relationship.

Karat did not see the breakdown of the alliance as a setback. For the 2009 elections the Left managed to stitch together another alliance, which included Mayawati. This alliance seemed certain of being an influential factor in any government that would be formed, but the Left had not taken into account Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Her party won 19 seats and, in alliance with the Congress, was able to oust the CPI(M) from West Bengal in the ensuing assembly polls in 2011.

Not only did the electoral defeat leave Karat with no say in UPA-II, it also saddled him with fresh problems within the party. Faced with economic challenges within the state, the Bengal unit of the CPI(M), under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had in the mid 2000s already adopted an industrial policy that was far more pro-market than had ever been envisaged before by the party. While Karat and the Left’s hardline elements, which hail largely from Kerala, blamed those policies for the defeat, the Bengal unit took the line that the doctrinaire stand over the nuclear deal had pushed the Congress into an alliance with Mamata, which eventually led to the Left’s defeat in the state. Unlike Surjeet, Karat was seen as an interested party in this war, given his support within the Kerala unit. As a result of this internal strife, the CPI(M) increasingly resembles two regional parties with very different economic visions, held together by a central authority that is getting weaker.

In this climate, keen to improve the electoral tally of the Left parties, which together won 24 seats in 2009, the CPI(M) and the CPI had sought state-specific alliances with several regional parties. All of these alliances have come undone. In Tamil Nadu the Left asked the AIADMK for two seats each for the CPI(M) and the CPI, a comedown from the three each offered to them by the DMK in 2004. But given that there was little the Left was bringing to the table, Jayalalithaa, much like Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, seems to have calculated that the best strategy for each party in the forthcoming elections is to fight for seats independently and await the poll results, which could throw up any number of possibilities.

Now, forced to fight these elections on its own, the Left faces another unexpected challenge. In past elections, it regularly picked up a number of isolated seats outside Kerala and West Bengal through the very sort of tactical alliances that have now fallen through. In these other states, the rise of the AAP provides an alternative choice for many voters who desire a liberal, left-of-centre option. Unclear though the AAP’s stance is on so many issues of concern to such voters, the party at least brings with it new hope and the prospect of change.

Under such circumstances, many in the CPI(M) expect that a debacle in the forthcoming polls, which seems increasingly likely now, will pave the way for the party to elect a new general secretary at its next congress, due in 2015. But the end of Karat’s term does not mean his hold over the party will come to an end—in all likelihood his successor will be someone who meets with his approval. Though they are much weakened, the conditions that brought Karat to the fore still exist, given that the Kerala unit still wields more support within the organisation than the West Bengal unit. In some ways the very strength of doctrine that keeps the organisation together is largely responsible for its decreasing electoral relevance. As a result, if the party chooses another urban, doctrinaire leader in the mould of Karat to be its next general secretary, as seems likely, there will be no one happier than the BJP, which would then have truly put the ghost of comrade Surjeet—and others like him who understood the “real India”—behind it.