Other than Marxist ideology, Prakash Karat takes pride in his academic record. Like many other Communist leaders, he too was a brilliant student. From the Madras Christian College where he fetched a medal for best outgoing student to the University of Edingburgh where he went to study Politics at the post-graduate level, Karat studied on merit scholarships. That was decades ago. Yet, after all these years, Karat's approach to politics remains academic.
Karat has never won an election, except within the party or as a student leader — a subject of criticism even from some quarters within the party. Though, as the JNU student’s union president in the early 1970s, Karat played a vital role and set up the Students Federation of India chapter on campus. But the national political arena is not a students’ union.
The right choice
For years, Karat has been part of a duo, but the less flamboyant one vis-à-vis the younger and more suave Sitaram Yechury. But within the party it was always known that he would be the one to replace Harkishen Singh Surjeet as party general secretary. And, replace he did, becoming the party’s youngest general secretary at 56 in April 2005. It was dubbed a generational shift. Yet, it was clear that the shift from Surjeet in his late eighties to a Karat in his late fifties only meant that the CPM was shifting back to the less accommodating ways of the Stalinist hardliner.
Karat has moulded himself on AK Gopalan with whom he worked for two years as an aide after joining the party in 1970. Like his mentor, who headed the CPM parliamentary groups for two years, Karat too believes in the idea of revolution. He still does. He is less pragmatic compared to a Surjeet, Jyoti Basu or a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Those for him say Karat is unflinching. Some others within the party and the Left feel he is inflexible.
No doubt, Karat has carved a niche for himself in this short span as party general secretary. This year, two politburo members — VS Achutanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan — were suspended for indiscipline. Karat led the Left parties’ opposition that forced the government to retreat on issues like BHEL disinvestment and imposing President’s Rule in UP.
A big deal
In the stern stance that he has taken against the UPA inking the nuclear deal with the US, Karat is taking a big risk. There is the moderate line within the party, particularly the in the Bengal unit, that doesn’t want to force elections on the country or on itself, owing to Nandigram and Singur. By the afternoon of August 23, when the CPM Central Committee wrapped up its meeting in New Delhi and came out with a resolution that showed softening, it was clear Comrade Karat may not have entirely had his way.
The fear within the Left is that if, for some reason, the BJP comes back to power then the Left’s raison d’etre — supporting the Congress to keep communal forces out of power — is lost. And it will be seen as lost to Karat’s rigidity and his ego tussle with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At the party congress in Coimbatore next year, he would owe many answers to his comrades who put him in the general secretary’s seat just three years ago. This ‘political crisis’ for which Karat has blamed the UPA government in the latest issue of the party organ People’s Democracy, may be his biggest challenge ever. Opinion within the Left and the CPM itself is divided on pulling the government down. Karat who has never fought an election is criticised for his cut and dried approach to realpolitik.
Like Surjeet, Karat too went to jail but only for eight days. He was underground during the Emergency and that is when he married Brinda Karat, who is also a politburo member. Surjeet was there at the wedding. And now with the latter’s health failing, Karat visits him regularly in hospital. But the similarity ends there.
Surjeet is called the grand old man of Indian politics. He played the kingmaker’s role in bringing the Janata Dal-led United Front government to power and keeping the BJP out of power. And then again in 2004, the Left supported the Congress-led UPA government. That is something only Surjeet could have achieved. Karat is short on pragmatic skills required to practise the art of the possible. West Bengal transport minister Subhash Chakraborty’s statement coming on the eve of the central committee meeting, reflects the anti-Karat mood within the CPM. “Those who are in responsible positions in the party say big things but don’t take any responsibility. Election is something that should be understood. Had the Communists fathomed it, the history of Communist movement would have been different,” Chakraborty said.
Karat is a hardcore communist. In 1996, he did not stop at criticising Basu and Surjeet for wanting to accept the prime minister’s post for the former. Spurred by Karat, the hardliners in the party ensured that Basu never got a chance to realise his dream of leading the country. When Basu called the politburo’s decision a ‘historical blunder’, Karat questioned him in the politburo meetings that followed. In 2004, when the Congress offered ministerial berths to the CPM, Yechury, like Basu and Surjeet, was keen that the Leftists become a part of the government, Karat as usual was adamant.
On the nuclear deal, Karat has the party’s support but with the proviso that elections happen at a time convenient to the party. The CPM Central Committee’s resolution shows a softening in stance. Once again questions are being raised on whether his stand is pragmatic or sustainable. “Whatever his stance is, he needs to be clear,” says Revolutionary Socialist Party MP Abani Roy.