Left high and dry
For the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the current contours of the national political landscape mimics the tortuous and treacherous river bed of the Hooghly, with its shifting sandbanks and silting navigation channels, making it difficult to steer its ageing and heavy-bottom ship out into open waters.
Fanciful as the analogy may seem, the process of marginalisation of the Marxist party is increasingly evident as the kaleidoscope of shifting political alliances arranges and rearranges itself in a bid to tie up as many loose ends as can deliver even a few votes.
In the seemingly endless entanglements of permutations and combinations of political parties in the run-up to the elections aimed at cutting out contenders, a correct Marxist reading of history ought to have given the CPI(M) a lead on winning alliances. Instead, it has been sitting out on the sidelines and watching the forces of history at work. Its role as match-maker appears to have become redundant as its once-upon-a-time proteges like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav and the multiple factions of the erstwhile Janata Party have developed in-house brokers to negotiate with would-be power sharers.
A more adept reading of the tea leaves of history would have alerted the hardcore environmental protectionists of the CPI(M) in 1996 that the magnitude of their 'historic blunder' in refusing the prime ministership offered to Jyoti Basu was likely to endanger the status of the party as a national player. The puritans within the CPI(M), who include its present party boss in West Bengal, let the weight of orthodoxies sit 'like an Alp on the brain', a tendency condemned by Marx himself.
The ideological sand-banks that stopped the CPI(M) from navigating itself out of the protected shallows in three states - West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura - ought to have alerted the new generation of leaders to the possibility of misreading the concrete history of the times. The CPI(M) began the process of desilting its navigation channels only after its boat was beached in 1996. By 1998, when a splintered mandate made it impossible to set up a coalition, the offer of the top job to Jyoti Basu was in the nature of a farce, because by then Mulayam Singh Yadav was showing signs of having outgrown the CPI(M)'s tutelage. It was evident by then that Marx was probably right, when he wrote, in response to Hegel's observation that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, "the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce".
Competitive politics, in which personalities matter more than ideologies, is proving Marx once again correct that "men make their own history, in that each follows his own desired ends independent of results, and the results of these many wills acting in different directions and their manifold effects". A high-minded agenda such as 'leading an all-out struggle against the BJP-led government' in which the CPI(M) has defined its role as a vanguard leading 'democratic and secular forces', requires a convincing leader to head the campaign. Basu's retirement and the limited interests of his successor, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, is contributing to the party's increasing irrelevance in national politics.
A few years ago, a looming crisis such as the Congress threat to withdraw support from the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh and the accusations that the Samajwadi Party has negotiated an understanding with the BJP would have triggered off a hectic round of shuttle-diplomacy by CPI(M) leaders. Today's crises are tackled by others, while the CPI(M) cautiously expresses its preferences for a negotiated rapprochement.
Even though it controls the third biggest bloc of members of Parliament - a position that is unlikely to change even after the 2004 election results come in - the CPI(M) has become a party of regional interests. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee is leading a carefully calibrated campaign that attacks those parts of the opposition and their agendas that impact his parochial concerns. Therefore, BJP-bashing on secularism-globalisation-privatisation-scams is on the cards. But it is crafted to avoid clashing with his government's charter of promises and achievements.
The stories of the 'Shining India' campaign are repeats of what Bhattacharjee tom-toms as the successes of his government - which is in converting West Bengal into an attractive foreign direct and IT investments destination where educated youth can aspire to a future of mimicking the lifestyles of 'professionals' in Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
When Bhattacharjee lashes out at the foreign origins of the Congress president, he may make his party colleagues like Sitaram Yechury wince for being perilously close to the BJP's position. Bhattacharjee, however, is eager to cash in on Bengali sentiments of patriotism because it gives him a weapon with which he can attack the Congress.
The narrowing of mental horizons of the CPI(M) in West Bengal is a pointer to another Marxist truth that "life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life". The measure of the shift in the CPI(M)'s perspectives is the almost ludicrous conspiracy theory floated by one of the party's student leaders after the disappearance of Tagore's Nobel medallion and other artefacts from the Viswa Bharati campus. The theft was, the SFI spokesman said, part of an opposition-led denigration plan, somewhat like the Purulia arms-drop several years ago. The reaction of his party elders was not so different either.
The attachment to the rhetoric of socialist utopia has not stopped the CPI(M) from altering the contents. Instead of championing the underdog, as it had done till the Eighties - a process in which it succeeded in giving itself a bad name - the CPI(M) has now opted for an optical illusion in which its successful stewardship of West Bengal for the last 26 years has reduced the problems of poverty, disadvantage, discrimination, disease and dispossession. Listening to the CPI(M) campaign, it would appear that compared to the rest of India, West Bengal is a near-utopia.
Thus, the new struggle that glorifies middle-class aspirations is not seen as a parody. Instead, it is a new revolutionary beginning in which the unruly and redundant working-class is disciplined into quietly accepting the closures and pay-offs in the hope that 'today's pain is tomorrow's gain' (a slogan that decorates every torn-up stretch of road in Kolkata, where a new flyover or pavement or sewer is haltingly coming into existence). The countryside has been transformed through land reforms and decentralisation of power via the panchayats, so it follows that the next revolution must be an urban one.
At this rate, the internal transformations of the CPI(M) will blur the obvious differences that marked its separateness and contributed to its relevance in a multi-party democracy.