Can Sitaram Yechury Overcome the Challenges He Faces and Steer the CPI(M) in a New Direction?

01 June, 2015

On 9 May 2015, seven years after the Left parties had withdrawn support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the Indo-US nuclear deal, Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]), acknowledged that the party had made an error with the timing of the step and the manner in which it framed the issue. “In hindsight, we have said we could not make it a people’s issue (in the elections). It should have been a people’s issue like price rise and the UPA abandoning the ‘aam aadmi’ perspective,” said Yechury. This candid admission from the newly elected general secretary is one of the many ways in which the CPI(M) seems to be taking a departure from its earlier mode of functioning, under Yechury’s leadership.

As the media focuses on Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, notable changes in the CPI(M)—which continues to remain the only party other than the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to have a sizeable presence in at least two major states—have largely gone untracked.

However, a closer look at the party after Yechury’s appointment would reveal that there are significant changes underway, and these could have a crucial impact on the larger political landscape in India.

The most visible aspect of these modifications has been the shift in the party’s style of communication, as seen through Yechury’s willing acknowledgement of the CPI(M)’s mistake with the nuclear issue. It is a measure of the importance Yechury appears to accord to the media. His predecessor, Prakash Karat, seldom spoke to journalists and when he did, it was always at his party office. For those of us who reported on the CPI(M), it was always Yechury who was accessible and gave sound bites and stories to reporters.

Other changes may not be as easily spotted, but are consequential nonetheless. In March this year, Yechury successfully orchestrated an amendment to the president’s motion of thanks that had omitted “failure to curb corruption” and “bring back black money,” by rallying the entire opposition in the Rajya Sabha at the just concluded budget session of the Parliament.

Having served the party for the last 40 years, ten of them as member of Parliament, Yechury is probably hoping to repeat what his mentor, former party General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, had managed during his tenure from 1992 to 2005. Surjeet kept the CPI(M) relevant by forging wider political alliances, but a series of tactical errors during Karat’s tenure on issues such as the nuclear deal had hit the party hard, decimating it electorally and isolating it politically. However, what remains to be seen is whether internal issues within the party will allow Sitaram Yechury the leeway to do what Surjeet had done. While it is clear that fighting the BJP’s Hindutva and “neo-liberal” economic policies are at the core of the Vizag line, laid out at the 21st party Congress in Visakhapatnam, the tactics for doing so remain unclear.

In a recent interview, Yechury stated that he gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi credit for bringing the opposition in India together. “The way they [BJP] are going about bringing their policies, it is bringing all the opposition parties together against this brazen attack on livelihood of masses of our people, against the manner in which Parliamentary procedures, democratic norms and procedures are being tweaked," he said. Following a similar line in a series of post-election interviews, Yechury also indicated that the party would give “issue-based support” to the Congress depending on electoral considerations.

However, Yechury is not free to proceed as he wishes. In an article in the Indian Express, Brinda Karat, a Politburo member from the CPI(M) and a former member of the Rajya Sabha, criticised not just the BJP but also the Congress for pursuing neo-liberal policies. She further emphasised on the need for Left unity and the requirement to strengthen the party as the way forward. Crucially, she termed the Mandal parties in the Hindi heartland as parties of the “rural rich” with whom the CPI(M)’s earlier joint fronts were regretfully “unrealistic and erroneous,” although her party could still do business under certain conditions. She wrote:

These parties have not been willing to come to any joint platform against economic policies. Representing the rural rich nexus, their outlook on poor peasants and agricultural workers is also different. Despite this, efforts to rally them on a common set of alternative policies at the national level were unrealistic and erroneous. However the review noted, if in future they are prepared to come together on issues concerning the people, we should have no hesitation in being part of such joint action.

Brinda Karat was only reiterating the position Yechury had chosen to take while outflanking her husband Prakash Karat during the Vizag conference. Although Prakash Karat had argued for scrapping of the Jalandhar party Congress tactical line (1978) that favoured the building of a non-Congress coalition, Yechury refuted the demand by saying that proposed attempt had never been implemented properly in the first place. In doing so, Yechury had to move away from his mentor Surjeet’s pro-Congress line, a line he is actually believed to be in sympathy with. This position helped him gather the support of ideologues within the party and lay claim to the general secretary’s post, but it has left him with limited elbow room in dealing with the Congress.

The long-standing schism, which is also a representative of the rift between the supposedly more flexible Bengal line as opposed to the hard line of the party’s Kerala unit, with reference to the Congress party, is an old trope that rears its head every now and then. As a former editor of the Kerala CPI(M) mouthpiece Deshabhimani, Appukuttan Vallikunnu wrote in the current affairs magazine Mainstream Weekly:

The elevation of Yechury instead of SRP (S Ramachandran Pillai, senior Kerala leader in the party Politburo) has dealt a severe blow to the Kerala party leadership. The party mouthpiece has reflected this quite truly. There is no edit page article this time introducing the new General Secretary who is taking charge after a couple of years. ...Hours before the election of the secretary, a Malyalam TV channel announced on Sunday (April 19) early morning that it is SRP who is the new General Secretary. The Consulting Editor of the Party daily who joined the panel discussion giving up his sleep, could hardly conceal his glee. A more suitable candidate cannot be found, he declared.

If Yechury is in a bind with the Congress, he is constrained even more by the fact that despite the CPI(M)’s willingness to ally with parties of the “rural rich” in certain conditions, there appears to be a complete lack of enthusiasm among the Janata Parivar—comprising the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD[S]), the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD)—about his elevation. Neither the Samajwadi Party chief, Mulayam Singh, nor Lalu Prasad Yadav who leads the RJD or Nitish Kumar Yadav from the JDU, have said a word on the new general secretary, even though the CPI(M) is a part of the anti-BJP front in Bihar. This may suggest the Parivar is hedging its bets on teaming up with Mamata Banerjee and the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). She currently appears to be much a better bet for the Janata Parivar. Not only is Mamata virulently anti-BJP, she is also expected to bring in a relatively high number of seats in West Bengal.

It was the numbers in the Parliament supplied by West Bengal along with Surjeet’s alliance building skills that had earlier given the party both clout as well as credibility, and pitch forked it to the national centre-stage. That does not appear to be a possibility for the CPI(M) in the foreseeable future. In fact, according to a recent statement by the West Bengal state secretary there has been a drop of nearly 40,000 members in the party’s cadre.

The call for Left Unity as the political line to fight the BJP has to be seen in this light. All five Left ‘fraternal’ parties—Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party(RSP), Socialist Unity Centre of India(Communist) (SUSI[C])which is largely Bengal and Kerala based, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI-ML], a Maoist faction active in Bihar that pursues the parliamentary route to power—were showcased at Vizag. It is not clear how Maoists, even of the parliamentary variety, will align with the CPI(M) given their wide programmatic and other differences. The CPI(M) and the CPI have also not seen to eye on a range of issues, especially with regard to the Congress party. The CPI backed the Congress during emergency, whereas the CPI(M) backed the Janata Party that came to power in 1978. They went their separate ways, even in the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar last year—the CPI with JD(U) and the CPI(M) with Lalu while the Maoists fought independently.

Yechury’s problems do not end with the limited options for a political-tactical line. The CPI(M)’s mass organisations are also on the retreat. Its trade union arm, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) is ranked the fifth largest in the country, with both the Congress’ Indian National Trade Union Congress and the BJP’s and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh taking the top two positions. The third and fourth positions are occupied by friendly unions—the CPI’s All India Trade Union Congress and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha of the socialists. The CPI(M)’s programme is 51 years old, whereas its organisational frame dates back to the pre-1917 Bolshevik party. Before he looks to the future and adopts a dynamic approach towards change, Yechury has a lot of catching up to do just to reach the present.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.