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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

CPM Plenum

Saturday 30 January 2016, by Amitava Mukherjee

Initially the CPM Plenum in Kolkata had raised some expectations and a section of the media had even described it as the one which would provide the much needed guidance to the Left politics of the country. In the end, however, the Plenum turned out to be a damp squib and an exercise in nothingness. Instead of providing the beacon-light, the Plenum has shown all the potentialities of pulling the Left to a muddy swirl. But this was expected as the Indian Left is yet to get over its decades-long immaturity and shortsightedness. In a word, the Plenum was an exercise in futility.

There were several sidelights but the two principal postulates revolved around the question of tying up the party’s knots with other secular democratic forces of the country which in effect means an alliance with the Congress and bringing younger elements to the forefront of the party’s leadership. About the latter objective, the less said the better. Till at least the mid-1970s, the leadership of both the Communist Parties—the CPI and CPI-M—carried the legacy of the freedom struggle. The first generational change in the leadership structure of the CPI-M in West Bengal took place in the first half of the 1980s when under direct supervision of the late Pramod Dasgupta younger leaders like Biman Bose, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Anil Biswas and Subhas Chakraborty were given more responsibilities. Whether the result has been beneficial for the party is open to question.

It will not be an overstatement to say that the Plenum was in fact an example in self-deception as the party shied away from serious socio-economic issues and concentrated only on shallow electoral considerations on the pretext of countering the ‘misrule of the Trinamul Congress’. There was no attempt to self-introspect or evaluate the quality of leadership that the party was burdened with at the national as well as State levels. The last parliamentary election has proved beyond doubt that not only the CPM but the Left bloc as a whole stands totally alienated from the common people. There was virtually no attempt to get at the root of the decay.

How would the CPM leaders explain their sudden love for the Congress while their 21st Party Congress held at Vishakhapatnam in April last had decided to maintain equidistance from the Congress and BJP? From April to December it is only a span of nine months. How did the CPM’s long-standing estimate about the Congress as a major component of the national bourgeoisie take such a sudden turn that an electoral understanding with it becomes no more unthinkable? Most of all, the CPM now needs to explain its decades-long vituperative attacks on the CPI for the latter’s estimate of the Congress as an important ally in fighting the communal forces.

There is, however, substance in the CPM’s call for removal of the Trinamul Congress-led government in West Bengal as the TMC has given a very bad account of itself in almost every area of administration save agriculture and rural development. However, any alliance with the Congress will be an act of opportunism and the party will find it difficult to explain it to the common people. This was perhaps the result of the internal bickering that had taken place in the last party Congress of the CPM.

Although Prakash Karat has finally given his nod to securing alliance with secular democratic forces (read the Congress), yet his heart is known to be resting in a different place. The Kerala lobby was opposed to the election of Sitaram Yechury as the party General Secretary and had in fact pitched for S. Ramachandran Pillai who was, till a certain point of time, widely floated as the inevitable choice because “there was no other candidate”. In the Congress Sitaram had submitted a different set of programmes and policies and this had earned him wide support in the Central Committee where a large number of delegates from West Bengal had spoken in his favour. The Kerala lobby had no way out and Yechury’s election became a smooth affair.

Instead of providing a guidance to the party which is now in deep crisis, the CPI-M Plenum has in fact resulted in enhanced confusion among the party rank-and-file. For example, it has left no answer to the confusion which the Kerala unit is bound to face in the event of an alliance with the Congress as the CPM-led LDF now stands a good chance of wresting power in Thiruvananthapuram from the Congress-led UDF. Or consider the embarrassment of the party leadership when questions are raised about the pathetic plight of the CPM in other States of the country barring Kerala,West Bengal and Tripura. Then why is the CPM leadership so mad about West Bengal?

The answer is simple although Left leaders might have chosen to look the other way. It is because not only the CPM but the Left as a whole has completely lost connections with the common people and has developed a taste for power politics. There cannot be any other explanation for the CPM’s sudden love for the Congress. But if Left leaders do some self-introspection then they will find that the picture is horrible for them. In the 2014 parliamentary poll the Left as a whole won 12 Lok Sabha seats but secured only 4.8 per cent of the country’s vote. In 1989 this figure was 10.6 per cent. Since 2004, when the Left had won 62 Lok Sabha seats, its share of votes has come down by more than half in 2014. Most of all there is no more any sign of Left influence in States like Bihar, Maharashtra, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh where the Left used to have a good support-base previously.

As the second biggest Communist Party in the world after the Communist Party of China in terms of number of members, the CPM must be held principally responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Before the Plenum some front-ranking CPM leaders like P. Karunakaran, the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, exhibited childish ignorance about the political situation by wondering why his party is unable to fill up the space being created by continuous weakening of the Congress or why the BJP at the Centre and the regional parties at the States are pushing the CPM towards irrelevance.

Obviously Karunakaran had not done his homework. At the all-India level, other than the three States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the Left is constantly on the retreat. From 13 Lok Sabha seats and 3.6 per cent votes in 1989 it slumped to 9 seats and 2.6 per cent votes in 1996, 7 seats and 1.5 per cent votes in 2004 and no seat with 0.6 per cent votes in 2014. So the Left has all along enjoyed a space in national politics which it does not deserve.

It is not known whether the CPM Plenum deliberated upon these uncomfortable aspects. Perhaps it did not. Otherwise the points would have been touched upon in official and unofficial briefings. But the future may be bleak for the CPM. The Left vote-share outside West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura was less than one per cent in 2014 when less than five per cent of skilled and service workers voted for the Left bloc. Less than three per cent of agricultural labourers supported the Left in the 2014 parliamentary poll and the Trinamul Congress enjoyed a 10 per cent lead over the Left among skilled and semi-skilled urban workers and agricultural labourers, a grave news for the CPM.

According to a reliable survey before the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, there was no Left leader among the 10 most preferred choices for the post of the Prime Minister. So far the Left enjoyed 7 to 10 per cent of total national level votes as its traditional vote-base. But in 2014 it came down to 4.8 per cent. According to another study, it was even less—around three per cent.

Did the CPM Plenum dissect all these dangerous portents? However, the slide was inevitable. Its beginning was made in the theoretically disastrous Salkia Plenum of 1979 which opened the floodgate of entry of riff-raff elements into the CPM. On several occasions the CPM leaders talked of purges but nothing worthwhile came out of it. On the contrary the CPM-led administration in West Bengal was once described by Benoy Chowdhury, a doyen of the communist movement in India and one of the most respectable Left politicians, as “a government of contractors”.

All these questions will come to the fore the moment the CPM-Congress alliance takes shape. Interestingly the CPI has already apprised the CPM about its reservation in regard to the Congress-Left bloc alliance and the Forward Bloc has also expressed itself in the same vein.

The author is a senior journalist and commentator based in West Bangal.