With Caste Back In Focus, CPM Leaders Reveal How The Party Is Revamping Itself

Posted on January 19, 2016 in Politics, Staff Picks

By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

“In war, offence and defence, advance and retreat, victory and defeat are all mutually contradictory phenomena. One cannot exist without the other.” – Mao Tse Tung, On Contradiction (Source: Four Essays on Philosophy, 1966)

From Strength To Debacle In The Electoral Arena

In 2008, the Communist Party of India broke its four-year-old alliance with the Congress over the Nuclear Deal with the US which the Grand Old Party was keen on. It was a pet project of the then PM Manmohan Singh, and he reportedly put his foot down when the Comrades threatened to break the alliance over the issue.

The Comrades stuck to their guns, regardless of the show of spine by the PM, often accused of having been nothing more than a puppet of the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi. Singh is King was the refrain next day on TV Channels, as Sanjay Baru, his press advisor wrote in his memoir, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister‘. The sentiment in Singh’s favour translated to the electoral arena as well. Despite jibes by L.K. Advani, his chief opponent, for being a “weak” PM, the Congress won for the second time in a row and came to power at the centre under Singh.

On the other hand, the CPM, and the Left Front it led suffered a reversal in fortunes (in 2015, at the Vishakhapatnam party Congress, the Comrades would reflect that it was indeed a mistake to break away then and that it should have happened earlier). From the 59 seats it had in the Lok Sabha following the General Elections in 2004, its tally plummeted to almost half of that number.

By the middle of 2011, it had lost Kerala in the assembly elections held that year and more importantly, West Bengal which it had ruled since 1977. The myth of Left invincibility in West Bengal was finally demolished by Mamata Banerjee, its longtime adversary in the state.

Since then, things have gone downhill, mostly, for CPM and the Left Front. Its performance in the 2014 General Elections was miserable, with even lesser number of seats than in 2009. In Kerala, the BJP is currently involved in breaking away its main support base, the Ezhava community. The pockets bordering Karnataka are also susceptible to right-wing influence, according to a party functionary belonging to the state. In West Bengal, it alleges that the ruling Trinamool Congress does not even let its supporters vote in the local elections, by scaring them with threats and violence.

In was under these circumstances that the CPM held its five-day Plenum in Kolkata recently. The last Plenum – different from a Party Congress held every three years to decide on the Political-Tactical line, among other things – was held in 1978 in Salkia, West Bengal. Clearly, the need was felt for the party to hold a Plenum so that organisational matters could be given due consideration. The need for a Plenum was also voiced, it is reliably learnt, by younger leaders like Vijoo Krishnan, who was inducted into the Central Committee in the last Party Congress held last year at Vishakhapatnam.

I spoke to several CPM leaders to make sense of what went on at the Plenum, and how the party plans to revive its fortunes, with elections due in both Kerala and West Bengal later this year. All of them said that the Plenum served its purpose, as it allowed for self-introspection and criticism of the ways in which the party had faltered lately. However, they also cautioned that while the way forward had been discussed and noted, the real test would lie in its implementation.

Organisational Weaknesses Discussed Threadbare At The Plenum

hannan mollah
Hannan Mollah. Source: Facebook

Hannan Mollah is a diminutive man but his political stature has risen lately, both within and outside the party. Despite having lost the Lok Sabha elections from West Bengal in 2014, from a seat he had won multiple times over the years, he was inducted into the party’s most exclusive and powerful grouping, the Politburo in 2015, during the Congress held in Vishakhapatnam. This was seen by political observers and commentators as a reward for the role he played in organising a movement against the NDA’s Land Bill which had to be abandoned subsequently by the government. In fact, in an unprecedented development, the CPM’s agricultural wing, All India Kisan Sabha allied with Non-Governmental Organisations working on similar issues, to force the government to take back the Land Bill. This effectively meant that Mollah, along with Medha Patkar, was in the forefront of the struggle against the Land Bill.

I met Mollah in the AIKS office which has shifted from Ashoka Road in Lutyens Delhi – opposite the 11, Ashoka Road national office of the ruling BJP – to a more spacious but less centrally located office on K.G.Marg, tucked away in the erstwhile Canning Lane. He had just returned from the Plenum and spoke candidly, in a marked departure from the guarded responses CPM leaders generally make.

“The Calcutta Plenum was (a step) in the right direction. The Political-Tactical Line was decided in the last party Congress held eight months ago. It said that the party would work towards building a Left Democratic Front. But this was not new. In the tenth party Congress in Jalandhar too (held in 1978), the same thing was decided. We started working on that but gradually that direction was lost. It was conceived at the Jalandhar Congress that the LDF would be formed through the struggles of workers, peasants, and common people. This was supposed to lead to a People’s Democratic Front which was to lead the People’s Democratic Revolution. The LDF was a step before the PDF. But we diverted from there. We tried to utilise the LDF for election purpose,” he told me. He added that the understanding reached at the Vishakhapatnam Congress was that the mistakes committed were to be rectified and the position adopted at Jalandhar Congress was to be restored. “You know, an organisation geared towards the revolution can help you win elections. But not the other way round,” Mollah said.

Mollah linked the necessity to hold the Plenum, last held over thirty years ago, to the new P-T line. “Our organisation is not strong enough to ensure successful implementation of the new P-T line. Hence, to overcome organisational weaknesses, we decided to hold the Plenum,” he averred.

When asked about the weaknesses, Mollah was forthcoming. “The quality of our members has deteriorated. More than half of them do not even read the party’s programme or constitution. And they do not follow the party’s rules, in terms of discipline. For example, there are rules for renewal of membership: whether the person attended more than 75 percent of the meetings, whether he paid regular levy, whether he participated in a mass struggle, whether he worked in a mass organisation; at least these four-five issues should be taken into account. If the cadre doesn’t comply with these rules, they should be dropped. This was decided many years back but this is not implemented. We are responsible for this. For vote-bank reasons, we have to bring many people together and we do not want to make anyone unhappy,” Mollah admitted.

He also repeated what others in the party have been saying, that the party had become aged and younger leaders needed to be promoted to positions of responsibility in different party fora and organisations.

“Thirdly, you have to understand that while thousands join a party, lakhs join a mass organisation. Without mass organisations, a party is nothing. We have come to realise that although we have had some increase in numbers in our mass organisations since the Salkia Plenum, it was not enough. There are 30 crore farmers in the country but our membership is only one and a half crore. Similar for the youth. Among trade unions, we are fifth (despite) being a working class party,” Mollah pointed out.

However, Vijoo Krishnan, one of the party’s most promising young leaders who was inducted into the Central Committee last year, differed. “Others have more numbers as they count agricultural workers as part of their trade unions. We have a separate organisation for that,” Krishnan, joint secretary of the AIKS, told me. A former JNUSU president, Krishnan was also instrumental in the movement against the Land Bill and coordinated with the NGOs on behalf of the CPM.

Renewed Emphasis On Caste Along With Class

vijoo krishnan
Vijoo Krishnan. Source: Facebook

The CPM has also lately realised that its unrelenting focus on class has alienated it from a large group of lower and backward castes. Usually, CPM has kept away from mobilising the masses on the basis of caste and has criticised such tendencies as “identity politics.” There was a lot of talk last year that the CPM had no Dalits in its higher echelons in the party and former general secretary Prakash Karat admitted as much and vowed to rectify it. During the Plenum as well, the press reported general secretary Sitaram Yechury as saying that there should be a red flag over every well from which a Dalit can’t drink.

“In India, we have to struggle on two fronts: social and economic. This is unlike European countries (where the struggle is primarily economic). Large number of people, Dalits, backward castes, women, tribals have been socially oppressed. The social struggle was neglected (by the Left). We ignored the caste issue,” Mollah admitted.

When asked why the Dalits would come to the Left, considering they already had other options, Mollah reflected that it would certainly have been easier if the Left had made efforts in the direction a few decades ago, when “identity politics” had not put down its roots so strongly. “It will be difficult (now). But we have to do it,” Mollah asserted.

However, Krishnan differed. “Issues related to caste oppression have been taken up in certain states. For example, on the temple entry issue in Kerala. A.K.Gopalan, E.M.S. Namboodaripad, and other leaders of the CPM were involved in the movement. In terms of caste oppression, Kerala was the worst. Swami Vivekananda called it a mental asylum. In Andhra Pradesh also, we fought against the issue of forced labour (involving Dalits). During the Telangana armed peasants revolt also land under the feudal landlords was distributed (including many lower castes),” averred Krishnan.

Mollah traced the matter to the lack of a social reform movement, especially in north India. “Unlike in West Bengal or Kerala, north India never had such a movement. The Arya Samaj worked in the direction but from a religious point of view. Feudalism remained very strong in the region and they never allowed the suppressed classes to come up, leading to the perpetuation of social ills like untouchability. We, the communists also could not contribute much in the north Indian social reform movement. If we take up the issue of caste now, it will give fresh impetus to the cadre and their thinking. These things we discussed (at the Plenum),” Mollah pointed out.

Need For Inner-Party Democracy And Younger Leadership

Mollah added that at the Plenum, the need for inner-party democracy was also strengthened. “Democratic Centralism is the principle on which a communist party works. According to the Leninist principle, democracy and discipline, both are required. Without democracy, it will become fascist. Without discipline, it will turn into anarchism,” Mollah explained.

Krishnan said that the Plenum itself was a democratic exercise because even those critical of the party’s functioning in the past were given an opportunity to make suggestions to improve it.

“One of the suggestions which was approved was bringing in more youth in the leadership positions from top to bottom,” Krishnan told me, also at the AIKS office. Later, at his 29, Ferozeshah Road residence, which also doubles up as the office of SAHMAT, he told me that the decision taken in 2012 to restrict anyone from holding a leadership position in the party’s hierarchy for more than three terms had also resulted in more youth taking up leadership positions. “In Rajasthan, for example, leadership positions in many districts are occupied by people between 35 to 45,” he emphasised.

Possibility Of An Alliance With Congress In The West Bengal Assembly Elections

Both Mollah and Krishnan complained that the media was completely obsessed with speculation regarding the possibility of an alliance between the CPM and Congress to dethrone the TMC and stave off the BJP in assembly elections in West Bengal and did not interest itself in the goings-on at the Plenum.

However, when quizzed on the matter, they did not rule out the possibility of the Siliguri model replicating itself. (The Congress and Left allied in the local polls held in Siliguri last year to defeat the TMC).

“The common understanding in West Bengal is that the fascist misrule of TMC should end. So the political parties need to take that into account,” Mollah told me. He was also candid enough to admit that although people were “fed up” with Mamata Banerjee’s rule, they hadn’t decided to bring the Left back to power this time.

However, Mollah mentioned that in 1967, the Congress had split. “We were fighting the Congress back then. But a section of Congress was unhappy with its functioning and it split. The new faction was led by Ajoy Mukherjee. We had a joint front with them and we defeated Congress. At present, we cannot say whether there will be a split in the Congress,” he said.

A party functionary, who did not wish to be named, told me that in Siliguri, the alliance between the CPM and Congress was struck up after the polls were held, thus hinting that this was also a possibility.

Implementation Of Decisions Taken At Plenum Key To Revival

Suneet Chopra. Source: Facebook
Suneet Chopra. Source: Facebook

Suneet Chopra was in the party’s Central Committee till last year. However, he was dropped from the prestigious body at the last Congress. In general, this was attributed to his trenchant criticism of the alleged Prakash Karat-led coterie during the latter’s term as the general secretary. He has since focused on building up the All India Agricultural Workers’ Association, a CPM-backed association.

He told me that the main benefit of the Plenum was that it gave those critical of the last leadership’s functioning an opportunity to make their views known. “My feeling is that it should not be like Salkia Plenum and (the decisions taken) should be implemented. In the Salkia Plenum, we were on the upswing. Today, we are on the downswing. This requires a much more modest approach in dealing with other parties,” Chopra told me.

When asked if the “modest” approach would include allying with the Congress, Chopra told me that Sitaram Yechury had already stressed on flexibility and he agreed with that.

Right after Prakash Karat, considered to be the hardliner in the party hinted in an interview that the party was not opposed to allying with the Congress, Prasenjit Bose, former CPM leader, wrote in a Facebook post that the party was going back on its P-T line. When I mentioned that to Chopra, he told me that “a party Congress and party committees are like drops in the ocean of India. The relevance of a political line cannot be in isolation to the reality of the situation. You may have passed something in the Congress but it could be wrong as well. Only time will tell.”

While Chopra denied that a possible alliance with Congress was discussed at the Plenum, a party functionary told me that it was indeed discussed and defended by saying that the party had to consider what the people cared for and could not ignore it. “The possibility of an alliance with Congress was on the mind of most delegates which is why it was discussed,” he told me on the condition of anonymity.

A Leaf Out Of Mao’s Book

Much will depend on the assembly elections in West Bengal as far as the revival of the Left Front, and the CPM is concerned. In Kerala, the party has always returned to power after every term being out of it. But West Bengal will test their mettle as they had ruled it for over three decades and an improved performance, if not an outright win will definitely boost the morale of the cadre. It is in this light that the party’s recent inclination to ally with the Congress needs to be seen. As far as technicalities are concerned, the party’s P-T line had indeed stressed the need for flexibility.

Mao Tse Tung had noted in the essay On Contradiction, that the Chinese Communist Party had allied with the Kuomintang (the Nationalists who ruled China from 1928 to 1949) and disassociated from it, based on the prevailing situation. It appears that the CPM needs to take a left out of Mao’s book and make up their minds on which way to take as it seeks a revival.

Update: Comments made by Bhaskar Chatterjee were removed following further verification of the story.