The CPI(M) can’t evade gender and caste questions
A party that claims to speak for the dispossessed continues to ignore those who are on the margins
The recently-concluded central committee meeting of the CPI(M) was in the news for its decision on a tactical understanding with the Congress that many commentators hailed as a decision that might help resuscitate a party with rapidly shrinking influence in national politics.
But another facet of the meeting, which saw the constitution of a new politburo and selection committee, has been less commented upon. This pertains to the woeful diversity of the 17-member politburo, the highest decision-making body of the party, which saw no Dalits and just two women. That the body’s 53-year-old history has seen no Dalits made the statistic grimmer.
The CPI(M) has had a troubled history with diversity, especially in states it has governed for large stretches of time, such as West Bengal and Tripura. In Bengal which has the second-highest population of scheduled castes, for example, the CPI(M) had few notable Dalit leaders and even fewer ministers, save former primary education minister Kanti Biswas, who chronicled his frequent altercations and serious disagreements with his party colleagues over caste. Today, the party struggles to gain a foothold among the influential Namashudra community that has been successfully wooed by the ruling Trinamool Congress by offering ministerial positions and a visible slice of the power — something that the CPI(M) appeared unwilling to do.
In fact, Fransesca Jensenius, a professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, showed that when the composition of state cabinets across India between 1977 and 2007 (which consists of 30 of the 34 years the CPI(M) was in power in Bengal) is compared, the probability of a Dalit MLA in Bengal becoming a minister is almost half of even states such as Bihar, which saw a series of anti-Dalit massacres and land tensions during that period.
The party faced a similar predicament with the Muslims, who make up more than a quarter of the state’s population, with the state cabinet and the party dominated by a few Hindu castes. Indeed, the 2006 Sachar committee report commissioned by the central government found Muslims in Bengal among the poorest in India with representation in government jobs at less than 5%, underlining how the CPI(M) blurred the lines between patronage and empowerment.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee successfully painted the party as anti-woman after the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl allegedly by CPI(M) cadre at Singur. All this contributed to the party losing the support of these key constituents en-route its humiliating defeat in the 2011 assembly elections.
In Tripura, a state the CPI(M) ruled uninterruptedly for 25 years, the party’s recent drubbing at the hands of a new entrant, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was also partially attributed to its losing touch among the tribal belt and not accommodating enough tribal leaders in its fold.
The CPI(M) has spent decades arguing against “identity politics” and focusing on what it views as the central theme of Indian society: the divide between the rich and poor. But it is suicidal for a party that claims to speak for the poor to continue to ignore who makes up that poor, and to ignore the very real questions of gender, caste and religion. A party that controls many trade unions and was recently happily taking credit for the kisan long march in Maharashtra, today appears unwilling to allow those marginalised communities a seat at the high table.
This is detrimental for a party looking to corner the government on issues of increasing violence against Dalits and women, but which is itself unwilling to take those categories seriously enough to give them a slice of decision-making. Ironically, its adversaries, the BJP and even the Congress, have far more Dalits and women in decision-making positions and doesn’t shy away from talking about identity publicly. This is a death knell for a party already struggling for credibility. No amount of ‘tactical alliance’ will resolve this.