Guarded hope

Print edition : May 15, 2015

The new CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addressing a public meeting organised to mark the conclusion of the 21st party congress in Visakhapatnam on April 19. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Members of the newly elected Polit Bureau at the congress. The delegates expressed the hope that the leading organisation of Indian’s mainstream Left was on the path of revival which would once again underscore the relevance and importance of Left ideology and politics. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Outgoing CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat addressing delegates at the party congress. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

The 21st party congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) emphasises the strengthening of the party’s independent identity.

ONE phrase that Sitaram Yechury used in his opening remarks as the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was avidly discussed among a sizable number of delegates and supporters as the 21st congress of the party held at Visakhapatnam came to a close with a massive rally on April 19. It was as follows: “This is the congress of the future for the party and it will form the basis for strengthening our independent identity.” Making a reference to this phrase, a group of delegates who interacted with Frontline stated that the manner in which the discussions and developments had unfolded during the six-day congress had indeed generated a new guarded hope and palpable enthusiasm that this encapsulation would reflect in organisational and political initiatives. Those dozen-odd delegates were drawn from different parts of the country and included those from West Bengal and Kerala, where the CPI(M) has a considerable mass following, and also Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the party organisation is weak. The delegates expressed the hope that the leading organisation of India’s mainstream Left was on the path of revival which would once again underscore the relevance and importance of Left ideology and politics as a whole.

Yechury followed up the “congress of the future” phrase in his opening remarks by addressing a number of political, organisational and ideological issues before the CPI(M). He also held out the assurance that there would be concerted efforts to correct the mistakes and their consequences that had manifested themselves at different levels of the party. Analysing this speech as well as the deliberations and developments at the congress, the delegates who interacted with Frontline also added that in all this there was an inherent promise of overcoming the long-phase reverses that the CPI(M) and the Indian Left have been through over the past few years.

Indeed, the past three congresses of the CPI(M), held in Delhi, Coimbatore and Kozhikode in 2005, 2008 and 2012 respectively, had distinctive qualitative dimensions within the broad framework of Left and democratic politics. The 2005 conference was preceded by the rise of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to power at the Centre with the support of the Left parties and there were hopes that the common minimum programme (CMP) for governance that had been worked out between the two entities would help charter new paths and paradigms for people-oriented development. Three years later, when CPI(M) delegates gathered in Coimbatore, the assessment was that the CMP had indeed helped make some key advancement in certain vital areas but the party had parted ways with the UPA over the India-United States nuclear deal and was getting ready for a long-drawn agitation against the Congress-led government over a range of issues.

By the time the 2012 Congress took place in Kozhikode, the Left, led by the CPI(M), had suffered major reverses in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This downslide aggravated in the period between 2009 and 2014, when the CPI(M) and its allies lost both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in their erstwhile bastions of West Bengal and Kerala. The CPI(M) got reduced to its lowest ever tally in Parliament following the 2014 elections. Along with the electoral reverses, the CPI(M)’s political influence in terms of policy and governance interventions had also depleted considerably during this period.

Over and above all this, the CPI(M) leadership was compelled to admit intermittently during this period that negative tendencies such as factionalism, individualism, financial irregularities and moral turpitude had become notable features of the party in various parts of the country. Thus, when selected senior activists of the CPI(M) from across the country gathered at Visakhapatnam between April 14 and 19, the challenges before the party were multidimensional: electoral, political and organisational. And on every single count, the CPI(M) was, arguably, at a historic low.

As is the wont of all Communist parties, the CPI(M) too sought to address these challenges by employing the time-tested instruments of discourse on specific aspects of them. Normally, these instruments are in the form of the political resolution, the resolution on the political-tactical line, and the organisational report. At Visakhapatnam, however, the organisational report was not a full report prepared by the central leadership but merely reports from the States. This was so because it had been decided by the CPI(M) Central Committee during the run-up to the congress that a special plenum would be organised before the end of 2015 to address organisational issues separately. Thus, the major deliberations at the congress were on the political resolution and the resolution on the political-tactical line.

Critical assessment

Both these resolutions contained several segments of plainspeak and self-critical assessment. It stated clearly that there was no way to avoid the fact that the electoral setbacks had brought down the party’s political influence and mass base. It was also pointed out in the resolutions that the party had failed to identify urgent and local issues to which people reacted collectively and that it had not organised campaigns to mobilise people.

More critically, it stated that the party leaderships in many States were averse to taking up the problems of the socially oppressed people. It also stated that there was a serious discrepancy in the social composition of party members, the composition of leaders in the top committees, and proportional representation of women in the top committees. The inability of the party to attract youngsters and add them to feeder organisations was also highlighted in these reports. Over and above these, it stated that though the last party congress and an interim review report had called for course correction, the situation had remained unchanged.

Even while making these self-critical assertions, the political resolution and the resolution on the political line pointed towards the larger social, economic and political climate in the country and highlighted the potential inherent in this for the advancement of people-oriented Left politics. The resolutions pointed out that the last congress held in April 2012 had itself noted that the pursuit of the neoliberal agenda by the Congress-led UPA government in its second term had resulted in massive corruption, relentless price rise and growing unemployment.

It also stated that the assessment even then was that this was alienating a large section of the people from the Congress-led government.

The CPI(M) congress underscored that this alienation was one of the major factors that led to the rise of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with an absolute majority, although the party got only 31 per cent of the vote share. The congress also noted that this electoral victory had set the stage for a right-wing offensive, including an aggressive pursuit of neoliberal policies and a full-scale attempt by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Hindutva forces to advance their communal agenda. The congress also pointed out that this conjuncture presaged growing authoritarianism.

Issue-based joint initiatives

The Visakhapatnam congress also concluded that the right way to counter the growing political dangers and their social and economic repercussions would be to first strengthen the CPI(M) itself politically and organisationally and follow this up by forging a strong unity of Left parties. It was concluded that only such reinvention and reorganisation of the party and its Left allies would result in the future development of a broad-based secular and democratic movement bringing in various likeminded forces that would fight neoliberal economic policies, communalism, authoritarian tendencies and global imperialism. Yechury himself put this concept succinctly in an interview with Frontline as follows: “Without strengthening ourselves independently we cannot achieve the objective of forging broad alliances among secular forces. In fact, such alliances will not even materialise if we do not acquire greater presence and strength”(Interview on page 35). He further elaborated the concept by stating that “joint initiatives with secular formations in general are possible from issue to issue” and that these would include not only political organisations but also civil society groups.

The congress deliberated on the international experience of contemporary political movements such as the Bolivarian movements in Latin America and the success of movements against neoliberal economic reforms in countries such as Greece. It was asserted that the tactics and strategies drawn from these international experiences would be adopted keeping in mind specific Indian conditions in terms of demography, social attitudes and political exigencies.

These formulations were arrived at after intense deliberations, which led to the initiation of several amendments to the political resolution and the resolution on the political-tactical line. As many as 473 amendments were proposed to the draft political resolution, and of these 55 were accepted.

Similarly, the selection of the new leadership, including the new members of the Polit Bureau as well as the general secretary, was marked by intense and animated discussions. Several delegates were of the view that the new 89-member Central Committee of the party comprising 14 new members and the new Polit Bureau comprising four new members—Hanan Mollah, Mohammed Salim, Subhashini Ali and G. Ramakrishnan—reflected both the diversity of views and opinions that marked the congress as well as the resolve to move ahead with the nuanced political and tactical line towards the revival of the Indian Left.

A refrain following every major conference of the Indian Left, including the CPI(M), is that these parties are good at deliberations and come up with rational conclusions but they fall short when it comes to implementation. The special plenum of the CPI(M) scheduled to be held before 2015 is of critical importance against this background. According to the introduction of the “Reports from States” presented at Visakhapatnam, the plenum will take up this issue systematically.

“The Polit Bureau would prepare a questionnaire on the basis of which State Committees will prepare reports on the state of organisation of the party and mass fronts, the specific problems connected thereto, the ways in which these problems are proposed to be tackled and the task of rallying the Left and democratic forces in each State. The PB [Polit Bureau] will study these State reports and prepare a draft report and present it before the Central Committee [CC] for its consideration. After necessary amendments by the CC, the draft report will be sent to the State Committees. The State Committees will then send their views on the draft report to the PB and CC on the basis of which a revised report will be presented to the Plenum,” says a note circulated at Visakhapatnam.

The last major organisational plenum, held in December 1978 at Salkia in West Bengal, had given specific directives for the expansion of the CPI(M). However, the evaluation of the CPI(M) as recently as this year is that while some aspects of the Salkia recommendations have been implemented, concrete steps have not been taken with regard to many sectors, including key ones such as expanding the party in north Indian States.

The comments that Yechury himself made in an alternative note to the Central Committee in the run-up to the Visakhapatnam congress are also of importance in this context. He emphasised the concrete steps that needed to be taken to correct organisational weaknesses and deviations. The biggest question before the CPI(M) as it moves on from Visakhapatnam with new, guarded hope and palpable enthusiasm continues to revolve around the gap between formulations and implementation. If this gap minimises, the Indian Left can once again recreate itself and revive its relevance and reach in the national polity, heralding many positives to the larger society.