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Bureaucratic centralism

The central leadership of the CPI(M) does not have a single mass leader, and its lower rungs are impossibly corrupt. Result: a party in a permanent state of drift. Tanmay Chatterjee writes.

kolkata Updated: Jul 13, 2010 00:42 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee

It’s a photograph that can, potentially, become the defining image of a communist dream gone horribly wrong (see photograph to the right).

On June 15, 2009, hundreds of local peasants (said to be Maoist sympathisers) in West Bengal’s Lalgarh area attacked the palatial bungalow of local CPI(M) secretary Anuj Pande and razed it to the ground.

Symbolically, the incident summed up what commentators had been saying for years – the proletariat had turned decisively against the party that claimed to represent them.

Pande was the biggest local supplier of building materials and collected protection money from almost every business house in his area.

He was the local Mr Fixit, power broker, strongman and arbitrator.

He had entered the CPI(M) in the 1980s – well after it had entrenched itself in power in the state – and had climbed up the rungs of the party bureaucracy over time.

He was efficient, ruthless and feared. But he lacked a mass base and wasn’t very popular outside the party’s district hierarchy.

Pande is the face of the newer lot of CPI(M) leaders in the districts – people who entered the party not because they believed – as generations of communist leaders before them had – in the proletariat revolution. Unfortunately for the party, it is the Pandes of this world who dominate its second and third rungs not just in West Bengal but also in its other strongholds, Kerala and Tripura.

Capital is not an anathema to the party’s hard-boiled ideology any more. “It’s no big surprise that the party controls assets worth hundreds of crores and is busy accumulating more,” says former ideologue Berlin Kunanathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram.

In its race to accumulate wealth, the party, especially in Kerala, now has its fingers in every pie — tourism, infrastructure, IT and healthcare, to name a few.

“Once, Left leaders were role models. Now, they are symbols of arrogance and flamboyance,” says Umesh Babu, well-known Malayali poet who was expelled for questioning the party’s growing corporate culture and bureaucratic trends The CPI(M) leadership is aware of this.

A classified party document (in HT’s possession) authored by the late West Bengal state secretary Anil Biswas says: “There are people in the organisation who use the party as an instrument to earn their living and attain powerful positions in society. Those who want to indulge in corruption find the means… to serve their personal interests.” But the leadership is helpless in arresting or reversing this trend.

The late CPI(M) patriarch Jyoti Basu, known for his dry wit, had told a close associate soon after his party’s politburo had turned down the offer to make him Prime Minister in 1996: “It is most unfortunate that those who have only contested students’ elections at Jawaharlal Nehru University now decide our national policies.”

“And this,” says a senior leader on condition of anonymity, “is probably why the party has been stagnating for years now.”

The CPI(M) is, thus, caught between a dogmatic (but honest) leadership intent on pursuing a doctrinaire line and a corrupt bureaucracy down the rung that’s in the game only for selfish gain. Leaders with a mass base find themselves squeezed out between these two blocs.

“There is no denying that a bureaucracy now runs the party,” says a veteran CPI(M) state committee member from West Bengal who did not want to be named.

Former Lok Sabha MP Mohammad Salim, a member of the party’s highest decision making body, the central committee, does not believe this bureaucratic trend can be arrested altogether.

“No organisation can be immune to this trend. We have to be vigilant...Some people raise their voice against the trend and swim against the tide while some accept it. The matter has been discussed several times at the central committee,” Salim told HT.

Leaders, especially from West Bengal, admit in private that the party is desperately missing a pragmatic leader like former general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

“Today, with the passing away of Jyoti Babu, we don’t have a single leader who is acceptable across the political spectrum,” says the leader from West Bengal. “And given the doctrinaire approach of the central leadership, it is unlikely that we will throw up someone like him in the foreseeable future.”

One result of this is that the central leadership’s writ over its state units is waning. But without mass support, the central leadership obviously lacks the nerve to take them on head on.

Democratic Centralism, the Leninist principle that guides most Marxist parties across the world, has, thus, been replaced in the CPI(M) by a bureaucratic centralism. And the result is there for all to see.

With inputs from Ramesh Babu in Thiruvanthapuram