The 17th congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) charts for the party a course that aims at creating a political alternative based on popular mobilisation against communalism and neoliberal economic policies.
THE Communist Party of India (Marxist), the biggest Left force in the country, held its 17th congress in Hyderabad between March 19 and 24. The event came in the background of the rising tide of communalism, marked by the violence against the minorities in Gujarat and the whipping up of communal passions on the Ayodhya issue at the national level. The congress evolved a political formulation that is, according to one delegate, "remarkable" for the degree of unanimity it reflected.
Nearly 700 delegates and observers from across the country attended. Held every three years as mandated by the constitution of the party, the congress formulates the party's political line for the next few years, reviews its performance in the preceding three years and assesses its strengths and weaknesses. The political formulation is laid down in the political resolution, which is adopted at the congress after deliberations by party members at all levels prior to the congress and by the delegates at the congress. This time, more than 5,000 amendments were proposed by party members prior to the congress and the delegates moved more than 200 amendments. Over 20 amendments were adopted. The draft political resolution was presented at the congress by Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat. Sitaram Yechury, also a Polit Bureau member, presented a report on pre-congress amendments.
The political formulation, adopted after more than nine hours of discussion at the congress, appears to be clear-cut. The CPI(M)'s first priority is to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power. In his inaugural address, party general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet pointed out that the party had warned at its 13th congress in Thiruvananthapuram in 1989 about the dangers that the rise of the BJP would pose even when the BJP was nowhere near winning power.
Secondly, the formulation is clear on the question of the attitude to be adopted towards the Congress(I). Briefing the media on the second day of the congress, Surjeet said: "The Congress(I) represents the interests of big business and the landlords, just as the BJP does. We cannot have a truck with the Congress(I)." This assessment was strengthened by the party's indictment of the Congress(I) as the main mover of the policy of economic liberalisation, which, it points out, has been aggressively promoted by the BJP-led government.
The third major feature of the political formulation was the question of evolving a "third alternative", which arises out of the CPI(M)'s decision to maintain a position equidistant from the BJP and the Congress(I). This involves the strengthening of the People's Front (P.F). This aspect of the political formulation is based on the party's perception that the polity is undergoing a process of "deep churning". Explaining the party's assessment, Sitaram Yechury told Frontline that this churning, evident in the recent Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, meant that not only political parties but the people at large were reassessing their preferences. Implied in this assessment is the understanding that people choose a non-BJP, non-Congress(I) platform whenever they see it as a viable alternative. The good performance of the Samajwadi Party, a constituent of the P.F., in the Uttar Pradesh elections gives credence to this assessment. In his presidential address at the inaugural, senior Polit Bureau member and former Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu said that the "people are impatient for change" and that they "need guidance and leadership".
While these three key points of the formulation are broadly in line with the party's assessment made in the last congress at Kolkata in 1998, the emphasis at this congress was on developing the "independent role and influence" of the party in pursuing its medium-term agenda of building a Left and democratic front. The importance given to this objective is reflected in two related aspects that the congress considered.
The first aspect is the CPI(M)'s assessment that the neoliberal economic policies of the government have not only imposed a mounting burden on the people but also undermined the political bases of parties that are not taking up economic issues. The second aspect is the party's assessment about its strengths and weaknesses, as contained in the political organisational report. It is here that the CPI(M) ties up the political resolution to the political organisational report. This review is crucial at a time when the emphasis is on mobilisational politics and not merely on electoral alliances and tactics.
While there is no serious dispute about the fact that the industrial sector has been going through a prolonged recession, the media have paid less attention to the impact of these policies on the peasantry. In a significant resolution adopted at the congress on the "grim agrarian situation", the congress observed that the World Trade Organisation (WTO)-charted policies in the realm of agriculture had caused a general slide in the prices of farm produce. It referred to the alarming increase in the incidence of suicide and the sale of kidneys by distressed agricultural workers and peasants in several parts of the country - even in relatively advanced States such as Punjab and Kerala. The lack of public investment in agriculture, the sharp increase in the prices of agricultural inputs, the curtailing of institutional credit for agriculture, and the removal of Quantitative Restrictions (QR) well before they were mandated by the WTO have imposed a serious and escalating burden on the peasantry and workers in the countryside.
The party observed that the "successive defeats" suffered by the BJP and its allies in 18 of the 22 States that went to the polls in the past four years were "a clear sign of the growing anger of the peasantry". The large-scale strikes in industries and in the banking, telecom, insurance and coal sectors were an indication of the mounting resistance by labour in the organised sector, it said. The party regarded these resistance movements against liberalisation as a key component of the larger battle against imperialism.
It is in this background that the CPI(M) has stressed the importance of taking the initiative to lead popular agitations and struggles against these policies. And from this understanding flows its emphasis on placing mobilisational politics ahead of mere electoral politics, which involves drawing up election strategies, forging political alliances and parleying with partners. This does not mean that electoral politics has lost its significance, but only that it has to be tied to the movements and struggles of the ordinary working people. Sitaram Yechury pointed out that this assessment was backed by the perception that through such activity the party could reach out to the "restive mass bases of many of the parties, which are exerting pressure on their leaderships to take up the basic livelihood issues".
During their interaction with the media, CPI(M) leaders asserted that the time had come for the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to pick up the political bills for the actions of the Hindutva brigade. Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the congress, Surjeet said that the BJP was "in a class of its own and is part and parcel of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)." "Its allies," he said, "have either to swallow the communal pill and die with the RSS or spit it out." Sitaram Yechury said that the BJP's allies in the NDA "are restive because they stand to lose their own political base at the expense of being with the BJP". He said that N. Chandrababu Naidu, who heads the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government in Andhra Pradesh, should also "assume responsibility" for the gruesome happenings in Gujarat by virtue of his continuing support to the NDA government.
Sitaram Yechury told Frontline that the CPI(M) was wary about many regional parties because, according to him, they were obsessed with their own compulsions and interests even in the face of the communal forces' threat to national unity. He said that the dynamics of the P.F. would be completely different from those of the United Front, which was born in a post-election situation in 1996. The P.F., he said, was based on a common minimum programme of action and not on electoral compulsions.
The first part of the political organisational report, an assessment of how far the party has fulfilled the tasks set out at the Kolkata congress, was presented by Surjeet. The second part, pertaining to the strengths and weaknesses of the party, was presented by S. Ramachandran Pillai, Polit Bureau member.
ALTHOUGH the membership of the CPI(M), at nearly eight lakhs, has increased by 11 per cent since the Kolkata congress, the growth is largely concentrated in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, States where the party has been traditionally strong, and, to some extent in Tamil Nadu. Kerala and West Bengal alone account for 68 per cent of the membership. One of the significant features of the party is that about two-thirds of its members are below 40 years of age. Members in this age group account for 50 per cent of the total membership in Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Tripura. Prakash Karat said that although this constituted a positive development, it had also exposed some weaknesses. According to him, the ideological training of the cadre had been insufficient and "not satisfactory". In order to overcome this weakness, he said, the party was considering the establishment of a permanent party school in some States. He admitted that the party leadership was responsible for the failure to impart ideological training to the members. The need for a "rectification campaign" to fight "wrong and alien tendencies" among the party workers was also emphasised at the congress.
Women members account for 8 per cent of the total. Prakash Karat said that although there had been an improvement on this front, more needed to be done.
The membership is drawn heavily from the working class and poor peasants. Their proportion is 85 per cent in Kerala, 52 per cent in West Bengal, 63 per cent in Tripura and above 70 per cent in most parts of the Hindi belt.
Dalits account for more than 20 per cent of the membership in party units in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh units of the party were commended at the congress for having launched movements against untouchability and other practices of caste discrimination. Such movements appear to have greatly enhanced the reach and influence of the party in the two States.
IN Andhra Pradesh, the CPI(M) has been campaigning against caste discrimination for the last three years. It conducted surveys to map the scale and extent of the practice of untouchability in the countryside. B.V. Raghavulu, State secretary, told Frontline that the leadership was surprised by the scale of discriminatory practices against Dalits - preventing them from entering temples, drawing water from village wells, taking out marriage processions, and so on. Raghavulu said that the party's initiative in mobilising Dalits to assert their rights had enabled them to gain self-respect and strength. As a result, the TDP government had to appoint a commission to study the practice of untouchability in Andhra Pradesh. The commission's report, which was submitted in May 2001, noted that the problem was widespread in the State and the government did not take any systematic measures to counter it. Raghavulu said that the campaign for the assertion of Dalit rights should be proactive and not reactive and that this would raise the consciousness of Dalits.
The Tamil Nadu unit conducted similar surveys in 1997-98. It campaigned against untouchability and other discriminatory practices in hundreds of villages across the State. G. Ramakrishnan, State secretariat member of the party, said that the campaign had brought about "an awakening among Dalits". The party's campaign yielded concrete results for the party: nearly one-third of its members in Tamil Nadu are Dalits. The need to undertake such social reform movements was highlighted at the congress because they have the potential to link the struggles against social oppression with those against economic exploitation.
The Andhra Pradesh unit of the CPI(M) also drew special mention for its efforts to undertake popular mobilisation independently. The party's line of keeping away from the two main parties in the State - the TDP and the Congress(I) - has enabled it to maintain its independence. At the same time, the party has taken the initiative to form a united front of nine Left parties in the State. This front has conducted several struggles. Its movements against the electricity tariff hikes and against the World Bank-dictated neoliberal policies of the Chandrababu Naidu government have attracted large sections of people towards it.
FRATERNAL delegates of Left parties from 21 countries participated in the congress. Significantly, it was for the first time that foreign delegates witnessed the proceedings of a CPI(M) congress. Usually they attend only the inaugural session. A rare event was the presence of Khaled El Sheikh, the Palestinian Ambassador to India, and a representative of the Communist Party of Israel were both on the same platform.
The congress proved that those who predicted a change of leadership and spoke about differences on the formulation of the political line were way off the mark. The unanimous adoption of the political resolution and the continuance of Surjeet as the general secretary of the party flew in the face of rumours in the media that Surjeet would be replaced by one of the "young turks". The only new addition to the Polit Bureau was that of Koratala Satyanarayana, a veteran leader from Andhra Pradesh. The new Central Committee has 77 members, and two members are to be co-opted later.
The streets of Hyderabad appeared to be draped in red on the final day of the congress when a massive rally was organised. Thousands of youth, women and children participated in it, singing songs and beating drums.