The year was 1948. A frail woman, in her 70s, showed up with a calf at a fund-raising function organised by the mouthpiece of the undivided CPI, Deshabhimani, in a village of Kannur district in northern Kerala.
The woman, Palora Mata, had come to donate the only calf she had to the party, the Communist Party of India (CPI). The gesture brought tears to the eyes of senior communist leader EMS Namboodiripad.
Frugality and sacrifice, the absence of which is often deplored in political life, are values not central to communist parties alone. In fact, they are more germane to a party like the Congress, which is built round personalities who are or were expected to lead by example.
On the other hand, communist parties claim they have history behind them. They believe in historical inevitability, that is the formation of classless society. Individuals matter little in their materialist interpretation of history, where the central factor is growth in productive forces.
If this is so, why should communist parties bother if the lifestyles of some of their members are like those of the affluent? Herein enters middle-class morality, which the middle-class is often the first to debunk. The communists fight on behalf of peasants and workers, the expropriated. And hence they too must live like them – this is the demand of the socially articulate. And the party, under compulsion to expand its appeal, feels bound to give concession to that point of view.
After the electoral debacle in the Lok Sabha polls this year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo admitted that some leaders weren’t leading the life required by the party and “corruption, nepotism and the influence of money have crept into the party mechanism badly”. Now the party is busy herding its comrades to schools in the hope that those who strayed can be made to fall in line.
Recently at the central committee meeting of the party it transpired that the party was considering ways to cap at three the number of terms a state secretary can hold. What is certain in this is that the party is taking cognizance of the fact that power can be misused.
Up to a point communists remained idealistic as far as their personal lives were concerned.
A cynic can say they did so because they were not yet in power. But it is true that communists in the early days of independence were known more for the motto “simple living and high thinking”. But things are different now, which even party insiders admit. It’s hardly surprising to hear of party workers driving sport utility vehicles and indulging in land deals.
The late CPI leader Biswanath Mukherjee once said for a communist there is no such thing as ‘truth’ or ‘falsehood’. The party is the only truth. However, now the gap between leaders and the cadre has widened. So much so, the leadership is slowly loosening its grip on the rank and file.
“Leaders have become a class themselves. So it is natural for the cadre to go wayward. Even the lowest functionary is turning into a careerist. So why do you blame the cadre alone,” asked Berlin Kunananthan Nair, a party ideologue (still a member of the German Communist Party) expelled two years ago for questioning the party’s neo-liberal policies.
Old-timers say the marked shift in cadre behaviour started after the exit of Namboodiripad. “After EMS the party lost its moorings. It had an ideological framework then. Now nobody is talking about socialism and revolution,” said poet Umesh Babu, a party follower for more than 40 years.
Party Central Committee member EP Jayarajan said bluntly that if comrades continued to sip kattan chaya (black tea) and gobble crunchy parippu vada (fried delicacies made of pulses), nobody would follow them.
“There are party members who commit mistakes and violate discipline but when punished, they become vindictive. A large section of the state (West Bengal) CPI(M) members are ignorant about the party’s policies and organisational setup and do not even know how to follow the principle of democratic centralism,” a party report said. It described in great detail how rules are bent and ignored by leaders.
The state (West Bengal) committee has been asked by the politburo to identify and remove the rotten apples. But ironically it is not easy for the West Bengal unit of the party to find people who are willing to bell the cat.
“We cannot spare a handful and endanger many,” Left Front Chairman Biman Bose told members of the North 24 Parganas (north of Kolkata) district committee of the CPI(M) last week. He was talking about land scams that came to light at a posh holiday resort. But Bose found it tough to get volunteers for an inquiry commission against two powerful district leaders.
Opponents of communists smirk and snigger at the sight of comrades eating chicken legs or taking scotch whisky. A communist straying from the supposed path of abstemiousness is often used by their detractors as an excuse to justify all kinds of misdeeds. This exposes their weakness. But it is also now time for communists to wonder if they can again get people like Muzaffar Ahmed, Ajoy Ghosh and EMS Namboodiripad.
With inputs from Tanmay Chatterjee, Kolkata