Some 42 years after it first considered whether to join a Central government if the chance presented itself, and 13 years after such a chance passed them by, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) seems more open to taking part in a Central government than ever before. We will know within a week whether the wheel of history will lurch in that direction this time. But it’s time to consider whether the party — an unique, meticulously-structured formation that sits on the base of a million levy-paying cadres — is ready to do so.
After all, the cadres are the party. The CPI(M) does not have leaders who can enforce their own agenda unilaterally — every policy is weighed by the elected politburo or the Central Committee. Recently, after a rash of quotes about possible post-poll alliances, general-secretary Prakash Karat retreated to the party line: “We are open to joining government in a secular and progressive alliance.”
Now, where else to test the readiness of the CPI(M)’s rank-and-file in matters of governance but in West Bengal, where the party has been in power for 32 uninterrupted years? And where else to search within the state but in the area that the CPI(M) calls ‘a red fort within the red fort of Bengal’ — the district of Bardhaman?
Within the ‘red fort’
On the opposite bank of river Damodar from the CPI(M) headquarters in Bardhaman is the village of Hijolna. The residents of this hamlet have been living in mortal fear the past half-year. Their enemy, they say, are the “CPI(M) goons” and the police. Most of the able-bodied men live the nights out in the fields in fear of raids. Bamdeb Mondal, their ‘leader’, proudly proclaims: “The day belongs to the police, but the night belongs to us.”
It wasn’t always so here. Just five years back, Mondal and several others were card-carrying members of the CPI(M). He resigned in 2003, crying foul over the corruption within. “I had to go underground immediately for the fear of being killed,” says the 43-year-old. “The CPI(M) operates as a mafia organisation — you cannot resign from it.”
Things turned worse after the panchayat elections in 2008, when the CPI(M) lost 14 of the 20 seats in the area. Between August 2008 and now, 23 police cases, including murder, have been slapped on Mondal. And Hijolna, with its roads dug up to keep the police out, has become a new Nandigram.
It’s indeed difficult to ‘resign’ from this party. Without a hint of irony, general-secretary Prakash Karat said that the party expels 10 per cent of its cadres every year for “failing to do their duties.” These are 11 duties a cadre must observe, says the party constitution, including paying a portion of his earnings as “levy” and “reading and popularising party journals.”
On a pasteboard in the party’s national headquarters in New Delhi is a translation of the Left’s well-known leitmotif, ‘The Internationale’. One chilling para reads: “And if those cannibals keep trying/To sacrifice us to their pride/They soon shall hear the bullets flying/We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.”
Hard to get in, get out
It’s not easy to be a member of this order. One is first logged as an auxiliary member and candidate member before being inducted as a party member with full voting rights. The politburo and Central Committee are elected up through the levels. Once elected, the party’s ‘democratic centralism’ commands that all policy matters be decided centrally. Any strong dissension could result in expulsion.
In Nandigram, the epicentre of political violence in the state, Abu Sufian, a former pradhan from the CPI(M) camp, says, “We have seen the Leftists sleeping with the same people we were once made to shout slogan against — the Tatas, the Goenkas.” Sufian, too, has 35 police cases against him, all lodged after he left the CPI(M) five years ago.
Beaten by one’s own
The CPI(M) has also been at the receiving end of violence in recent times. There have been at least 45 ‘martyrs’ over the last seven months.
Partha Chatterjee, leader of Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly and general-secretary of Trinamool Congress, says, “Violence has become a culture in Bengal politics. The days of Leftist ideology are gone.” He takes a call in the middle of the conversation. “Why should we lay back and face this violence every other day?” he barks into the phone. “Why don’t you get some people from outside and beat up the CPI(M) goondas?”
Biman Bose, the state CPI(M) secretary who has been a party member for 51 years, agrees that there has been a rot in the ranks. “For the last few years, we haven’t been able to properly carry out educational programmes within the party because of too many elections… That has hampered our quality improvement.”
Some seniors are much more disgruntled.
Many cadres, too, speak of confusion on the policy lines handed down from the New Delhi office. The biggest mudddle in recent times has been over the party’s opposition to the nuclear deal. “We debated it locally for long, but could not understand the point,” says a junior leader. Did he raise the issue with his leaders? “We dared not.”
When asked what the battered cadre would do to retaliate, in Delhi, Central Committee member Nilotpal Basu says, “Can you understand what would happen if we became violent?” This thinly-veiled threat is held out by others too. Biman Bose claims, “We have never struck first.”
How does a cadre explain to the electorate the indifferent performance of his own government on employment?
Karat says, “The cadre needs to tell the people that not everything can be provided by the state government; the Centre is responsible for much.”
This externalisation may be used even when the Centre does provide. Partha Mukherjee, head of the CPI(M) in Asansol, explains, “When implementing the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission in a couple of wards of our town, we told the people in the other wards, ‘The Centre will never have a policy that can cover everyone at once. They make us choose and divide.’” Biman Bose claims matter-of-factly that the CIA is still trying to destabilise his Comm-unist government. When asked how, he replies, “Through the NGOs, of course!”
Essentially, the cadre is at a loss to explain things when his own party is in power.
So it’s perhaps time to cast aside the old memories of the CPI(M) being a less corrupt party caught in a rigorous ideological bind. It’s only fitting — after all, why should the CPI(M) be any different from all the others it’s parleying with to shuffle closer to Centre?