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Who is this man?

God, it seems, had a hand in making Prakash Karat what he is today - general secretary of the godless Communist Party of India (Marxist). Jayanth Jacob writes. Timeline

india Updated: May 15, 2011 01:46 IST
Jayanth Jacob

God, it seems, had a hand in making Prakash Karat what he is today - general secretary of the godless Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The story starts in Madras Christian College where Karat was studying for his bachelors in economics. The years before had been tough. His father had died when he was 13 and his mother had taken up an LIC agency. She bought a house in Chennai and brought him up in the outhouse - the rent from the house being the family's main income.

At college, Karat worked for the The Radical Review with seniors N Ram and P Chidambaram on one hand. On the other, at school he had read the Bible and won prizes for his proficiency in the scriptures. Eventually, his college professor Reverend Duncan Forrester egged on Karat to apply for a scholarship to Edinburgh University.

To make up the rest of the fees, Karat took a loan and sold the Jawa bike his mother had bought him. At Edinburgh, it was while reading for his masters in political science - with a thesis on Indian languages and national politics - that Karat found his calling in life. First, he became enmeshed in student politics and was rusticated for taking part in anti-apartheid protests (a sentence suspended for 'good behaviour'). Then he came under the influence of Marxist historian and poet Victor Kiernan.

During a field trip in India in 1969, Karat went to the Madras CPI(M) office and offered to join. The state leaders asked him to finish his studies first. When Karat went back to them in July 1970 at the end of his course he was appointed an aide to AK Gopalan, MP and one of the biggest Communist leaders of the time after whom the party headquarters in Delhi is named.

To convince his mother about the shift, he enrolled at Jawaharlal Nehru University. P Sundarayya, the first general secretary of CPI(M), advised him to contest the student elections. As his detractors point out, Karat's election as president of the JNU student union (1972-73) was his only close brush with electoral politics.


Then, the articulate but reclusive comrade - who initially wanted to work in Kerala - rose through the party's ranks in Delhi. It's a 'placement' that would eventually help him rise to the highest post - especially because the CPI(M) is a party where the tallest state leaders often refuse to move to the centre.

During 1974-79, Karat was president of the Students' Federation of India. His first national party role also led to a change in his personal life. On a trip to Calcutta he stayed with Biman Bose, now head of the Bengal unit. In the room in front was the office of the party paper, People's Democracy, where Brinda Das happened to be working.

By the time Brinda and Prakash decided to get married, Emergency had been declared. At the time, the two were operating under the pseudonyms Rita and Sudhir. Senior leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet advised them not to wait for the restrictions to be lifted.

Becoming Comrade No 1
Karat then became secretary of the Delhi unit (1982-85). It was a time that he - along with the other bright young star from JNU, Sitaram Yechury - started getting closer to the general secretaries at the party headquarters. Karat became known for his skills in explaining to the party's stance on various issues to cadres. His command of English, Hindi, Tamil and smatterings of Malayalam and Bengali helped. In 1985 he was inducted into the central committee, the highest decision-making body, and in 1992 to the politburo.

When in the mid-1990s there was an offer for Jyoti Basu to be prime minister of a coalition government, Karat came out as one of the strongest opponents of the move, despite Surjeet's support for grabbing the opportunity. Karat explained the position the party had held since 1968 that it wouldn't lead a coalition if it wasn't the majority partner. The central committee discussed the matter twice before rejecting it.

He had already shown his mettle. So, at the 2005 congress, when the party was looking for a younger person to succeed the ailing, 89-year-old general secretary Surjeet, Karat, then 57, emerged as the strongest contender. Even the so-called Bengal group among the 800-odd voters didn't have a problem with his candidature. So the ideologically-rigid Karat succeeded the old-school, pragmatic Surjeet. At the same party congress, Brinda was inducted into the 17-member politburo as part of the first group of five women to make it there.

It was the time CPI(M) had its largest ever representation in Lok Sabha, with 44 MPs; the Left Front had 61.

With the Left supporting the first Congress-led UPA government, Karat was seen as the person calling the shots on many policy issues. Then came the crunch: his "obsessive" opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal and subsequent withdrawal of support to the government. "He cut his teeth in politics when anti-imperialism was the staple. So he couldn't have done anything different," says a party member.

It was at the insistence of the Bengal state unit, where local elections were due, that the withdrawal of support was delayed, giving the Congress time to manage the fallout in numbers as well as adhering to the timeline of the nuclear deal. The criticism from a number of party members was that the withdrawal didn't achieve anything - the deal went through and UPA-I survived the floor test in Parliament.

Then began the fall.

Karat's supporters say he was just "implementing the decisions of the central committee". There are also those who say Karat didn't assert himself over the Bengal leadership and force them to address the anti-Left anger building up post Nandigram and Singur. Others complained that the drive to widen the party's bases in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was soft-pedalled. (Except in Rajasthan, the party broke no new ground under Karat's leadership.)

Yet Karat was re-elected in 2008. In 2010, the number of CPI(M) MPs collapsed to 16 (Left Front's to 24). And Friday's results have ensured that the party is now in power only in Tripura.

Senior CPI(M) leader KN Raveendranath says, "A general secretary is only as good as the party. He cannot be faulted for everything. So what we need is to find out how to make ourselves relevant, address people's issues."

It's a full circle for the CPI(M). The next party congress should be announced soon. That will be the time Karat, ever so good at explaining the 'party position', will be tested again.