It’s lucky that Prakash Karat has a wry sense of humour and a ready smile. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) — whose presence in the Lok Sabha has shrunk under his watch — is heading into an election with far more questions than answers on its plate.
He took over as general secretary in 2005 from 89-year-old Harkishen Singh Surjeet. The difference in approach was immediate. While Surjeet was a practical leader open to making deals with politicians of different stripes, Karat, often seen as an accidental politician with an academic touch, brought a certain ideological rigidity to the job.
At that point the CPM had been supporting the Congress-led UPA for a year, but for a generation of leaders like Karat, who cut their political teeth in the anti-war student movements of the late 1960s and 1970s opposing the India-US nuclear deal came naturally.
But though the Left parties withdrew support to the government, the nuclear deal went through. The Left failed miserably in selling its opposition to the deal to the electorate.
Now the 66-year-old Karat – whose party lost West Bengal in 2011 after 34 years in the saddle there — runs a party whose writ runs only in tiny Tripura. The party has yet to regroup in Bengal and its Third Front plans have proved to be a non-starter.
But Marxist leaders traditionally don’t like to measure the success of their politics in electoral terms. Karat’s predicament is possibly captured by this passage from his favourite author Ian Rankin —“Reeve was like a man trapped in limbo, believing in a lack of belief, but not necessarily lacking the belief to believe”.
Karat embraced Marxism while studying in Edinburgh, incidentally the locale of many Rankin novels.
Even his rivals concede he is a pleasant man. During the days supporting UPA-1, Karat made light of questions posed to him about the clout his party, as a key ally, enjoyed over the Centre.
“You see the next budget. They are not going to include any of our demands,” he once predicted confidently when asked about the Left’s wish-list for the Union Budget.
He stands by his convictions: The recently released manifesto bears his stamp. After the failure in stopping the India-US nuclear deal, he has been consistent in demanding all international treaties should be ratified by Parliament. And his firm advocacy for federalism finds a place in the party poll document.