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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 20, May 9, 2015

Beginning Once Again — The CPI-M has a New Struggle Ahead

Saturday 9 May 2015, by Gopalkrishna Gandhi

In times when political parties are led by supremos for seemingly endless durations, what a welcome contrast the Communist Party of India-Marxist has provided us!

Prakash Karat’s being succeeded by Sitaram Yechury as the General Secretary of the party should tell all our parties something about the grace in relinquishing control and the solemnity of assuming responsible office within a democratic system. All formalities were gone through at the party Congress with due decorum and form as the stewardship passed from one distin-guished Marxist to another.

Karat’s stewardship of the party from 2005 to 2015 was just a decade long, though it seemed longer. His immediate predecessor, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, had held the office of the General Secretary for 13 years, and Surjeet’s predecessor, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, for 14. And EMS’s predecessor, the CPI-M’s founding General Secretary, P. Sundarayya, was at the helm for an identical period. PS was and remains an inspiration for the party as an exemplar of intellectual courage, personal daring and organisational acumen. I know Marxist friends speak of all the party’s greats with respect, affection. But when it comes to PS, the emotion is one of an almost un-Marxist reverence.

A generation has passed since then. All three—PS, EMS and HSS—were born in the high noon of empire. When EMS, the oldest of them, arrived in his Brahmin family in Malapuram, Kerala, Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, was on the throne. PS and HSS were born in the reign of King George V.

PS and EMS had joined the national movement for independence when Gandhi was its pivot. HSS, drawn by the example of Bhagat Singh, was a nationalist before he become a Communist, but by the mid-1930s all three went on via the peasant struggle route and the Kisan Sabha to become the party’s General Secretary. Karat is the first General Secretary of the party to have been born after Independence, the first to have joined the CPI-M without an incubation in the freedom movement.

Indeed, the year Karat was born—1948—was already one year into Independence, seeing India on the cusp of its post-Independence advance towards the becoming of a Republic. And more significantly, the Constituent Assembly being encouraged at that point, by the Chairman of its Drafting Committee, B.R. Ambedkar, to make social justice its goal.

I recall a talk at my college in Delhi, in the early 1960s, by V.K. Krishna Menon. Slashing the air four times in a Kathakali-like hand movement, Menon said: “Our Preamble has of course, Liberty (slash 1), Equality (slash 2) and Fraternity (slash 3). But it has also above these, something which for us is even more important—Justice (a sharp slash 4).That is the vision we have given to ourselves.” It was my privilege shortly thereafter to meet K. Prakash, as he was known then, in Madras through the kindness of a common friend—‘Kannan’ Tyagarajan—a contemporary of his in Madras Christian College. I had little of politics in me and even less of Marx, though I had been greatly drawn to Marxist friends in college, of whom Prabhat Patnaik was—and is—a figure of great height.

Listening to Prakash giving me a succinct account of the Marxist movements in Kerala for the re-distribution of land to help the landless and agricultural labour was more than an education; it was a revelation. I was three years older, but I heard him as a student would a teacher. There was something of a guru in Prakash already, a pedagogue, an explicator of the complex to the simple of mind and new of experience. I heard from him, for the first time, some altogether new phrases like ’michcha-bhumi’ (surplus land), and ’samaram’ (struggle’). At Prakash’s age, young students are generally preoccupied with their own career prospects, not samarams.

That initiation into a larger field of thought was hugely helpful as I trained in the paddy-rich Thanjavur district as an IAS probationer in 1969. That was one Tamil Nadu region where agrarian reforms were both difficult and crucial. A few months prior to my ’joining duty’, 44 Dalit peasants, including women and children, had been burnt alive in the Thanjavur village of Kizhavenmani. The peasants were demanding higher wages as paddy production had increased greatly following the Green Revolution. The paddy producers association staged this fiery orgy when the peasants withheld produce as a tactic. It is because of Prakash’s background ’teaching’ that I was able to see Kizhavenmani in proper light. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu at the time was the charismatic C.N. Annadurai. But he was grievously ill, dying barely six weeks later. I do not know if Sardar Ujjal Singh, the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, publicly condemned the massacre but am sure, had he done that, the CPI-M would have welcomed it.

Life plaits events together, it unravels what held fast before. Four decades later occurred the events at Nandigram, West Bengal, which are now part of recent agrarian history. Kizhaven-mani and Nandigram are not to be compared, the issues were different. The first was about wages, the second about land acquisition. And yet, there was something that was common between them: the death of innocent peasants. My condemnation, as the Governor of West Bengal, of the violence that took place in Nandigram under the watch of the Left Front Government led to many in the CPI-M feeling I had let the Left Front Government and the CPI-M down. This was natural. Without Prakash Karat’s endorsement, the Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, would not have requested the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to appoint me to that office. As I heard CPI-M stalwart after CPI-M stalwart in the State berate me over Nandigram, I wondered if they were doing what they were doing with the knowledge of General Secretary Karat. And I recalled ’K. Prakash’ and conversations that now seemed to belong to another planet.

Of the four General Secretaries of the CPI-M, Prakash Karat has held the office at its highest and its lowest ebbs. No General Secretary has been as close to mould decision-making in Delhi as he, given the CPI-M’s powerful presence in the Lok Sabha after 2004. And no General Secretary has presided over the reverses his party suffered in the five years that followed. Did power make the party of revolutionary struggle become a party of power stratagems? Did plain hubris cause its distancing from people’s struggles and its electoral collapse?

Time will answer those questions. Meanwhile, as Sitaram Yechury assumes responsibility for the party, struggle beckons it again. The CPI-M today is not now the party of power that it was for a while after 2004. It is a party of struggle once again, exactly as in the time of General Secretary P. Sundarayya, when movements, not doctrine, activated the party. The CPI-M today has ahead of it the struggle against a majoritarian party in power at the Centre, against a dilution of safeguards for those being dispossessed in the name of ’development’. It will have to struggle to keep the primacy of justice as a preamble goal. And for financial probity, administrative accountability, it will have to struggle against the tyranny of money.

Yechury’s speech in the Rajya Sabha on the Lok-pal Bill was powerful. As was his intervention, in 2013, on the Nalanda University Bill. Addressing the forces of sectarian hatred he said then: “Remember the final paragraph of Swami Vivekananda’s declaration at Chicago. (Interruptions) ’I take pity... on those who believe in the destruction of someone else’s religion for the purpose of his own religion.’” That struggle for safeguarding our pluralism will need to be redoubled now.

Destiny beckons Sitaram Yechury to intensify and enlarge that struggle to include those not in and of the CPI-M but in and of that way of


(Courtesy: The Telegraph)

The author is a former Governor of West Bengal. He is also the erstwhile High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.