The Communist Party of India (Marxist) believes in detailed documentation. It records its follies and prospects with great care, which are then discussed in committees. Way back in the 1940s, Jayaprakash Narayan quipped to Harkishen Singh Surjeet, a former CPI (M) general secretary, that the comrades would miss revolution altogether as they would be busy with committees when the revolution rolls in.
The 21st party congress of the CPI (M), just concluded in Vishakhapatnam, grappled yet again with the party’s future. The challenges are well known. The CPI(M)’s electoral fortunes have dwindled; it is struggling to expand its presence across India even though ‘neo-liberal economic policies’ have been pursued by successive Union governments. West Bengal has seen a considerable exodus of its cadre. The party is unable to innovate on campaign strategies, and as for the youth, the romanticism once associated with taking to the street, the revolutionary vigour of Fidel Castro, or the anti-imperialist rhetoric that the Leftist propagated in the past simply do not resonate anymore. The party, obsessed with class divides, struggles to address caste equations and the youth constitute only 6.5% of its total membership in a country where 51.8% of the population is below 35 years.
The Left parties, however, remain a moral force in the Indian polity. The CPI (M) has a cadre strength of 10.5 million and it has nine MPs in the Lok Sabha, down from 24 in 2009. The last Lok Sabha elections also saw the Left vote share slide from about 7% in 2009 to 4.5%. Among its present politburo members only the new general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, and Mohammed Salim are parliamentarians. With declining electoral strength the CPI (M) is no longer able to act as a glue for a third front. The Trinamool Congress, which beat the Left in West Bengal, has emerged as a key player in third front calculations. Despite its claims of working for Left unity for years, the party often finds itself subject to the compulsions of electoral politics and aligning with regional parties that it does not share ideological affinities with.
Forging Left unity is not easy. There are around 32 Left parties in the country, and each is convinced that its political and tactical line is correct. Getting the political tactical line is the foremost task for Left parties. “Today we are far from being either a mass party or a revolutionary party. Our mistakes are repeatedly recurring due to organisational weakness”, read a line in the note from Yechury to the Central Committee ahead of the congress. The Left influence in Indian public life is shrinking, too. The Left liberals and Left intellectuals seem too shocked to gather their wits after the BJP’s landslide victory. So a larger Left awakening has some way to go.
Drastic change is, however, risky for ideologically rigid, cadre-based parties. The Left paid dearly for the shift to a pro-industry line under the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government in West Bengal. A party that stood for land and peasantry, suddenly talking of industry after industries were made to flee was not the change voters expected.
The challenge for the CPI (M) lies also in packaging; getting rid of empty rhetoric that is no longer relevant in contemporary life, like anti-imperialism of the 1960s, militant trade unionism and seeing private capital as absolute evil. A country that has enough peasantry, poor, displaced and those left out of the liberalisation process always presents opportunities for the Left. The CPI (M) has to ensure that change goes beyond discussions in committees.
(The writer tweets at @jayanthjacob)