CPI(M)’s Second July Crisis: Denial, Deception and Desperation

The 20th Congress will go down in the CPI(M)’s history as the Congress of denial and deception. The Congress refused to recognise, let alone try and resolve, the real debate within the CPI(M) in the wake of its disastrous experience of collaboration with the UPA-I at the Centre and the party’s post-Singur trajectory in West Bengal that led to its ignominious ouster in the 2011 Assembly elections. While skirting the entire issue, the CPI(M) leadership revived the ‘Left and democratic’ phraseology of the 1978 Jalandhar Congress and gave the impression that from now on the party would follow the principled course of struggle-oriented unity with Left and democratic forces abandoning the politics of short-sighted convenience practised in the name of a third front. And those in the party who thought this marked a new tactical direction based on a leftward strategic thrust have now been in for a rude shock.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau’s decision to support Pranab Mukherjee in the Presidential election knocked the bottom out of its deceptive ‘Left and democratic’ rhetoric and irrefutably exposed the opportunist kernel of its tactical line. More than the decision, what perhaps shocked the Left ranks most was the kind of arguments dished out by the CPI(M) PB and GS Prakash Karat in support of the decision. The first statement of the PB gave just one argument – that Pranab Mukherjee had already emerged as the candidate with the widest acceptance. Following Prasenjit Bose’s widely publicised resignation/expulsion, Karat came out with a labourerd defence with a number of pretexts, each more revealing than the other.

Even as Karat admits that the election to the office of the President is a political affair, he says for the CPI(M) the politics in this case has always been limited to the agenda of secularism, to making sure that somebody open to the BJP’s influence is not elected to this highest Constitutional office. As to why the CPI(M) had to support the Congress candidate even when there was no real chance of the BJP nominee making it to the highest office, Karat says abstention would have bracketed the CPI(M) with the TMC and thus weakened the party’s case in West Bengal where the party was under attack. Abstention, he also says, would have blunted the edge of the party’s initiative and intervention.

The fallacious nature of these arguments is as clear as bright daylight. If supporting the Congress candidate on considerations of ‘secularism’ is the consistent policy or principle of the CPI(M) where is the question of the party intervening in any other way? And after Mamata Banerjee declared her support for Pranab Mukherjee, the question of being bracketed with the TMC anyway came back with a vengeance. In fact, had the CPI(M) chosen to abstain in the election, it would have limited Mamata’s capacity to manoeuvre on this issue, but then the CPI(M) loves to live in the delusion that it can drive a wedge between the Congress and the TMC, and that the road to the CPI(M)’s recovery in West Bengal in future can only be paved with dollops of generosity from the Congress!

The undeclared argument, which is very much an open secret, is that the CPI(M) could not possibly have refused to support Pranab Mukherjee given the fact that he was the chief Congress negotiator to deal with the CPI(M) during the UPA-I days, and all the more so because he happens to be a Bengali bhadralok! There is a perception in a section of the CPI(M) leadership in West Bengal that the party could ill afford to be seen to be opposing the prospect of a Bengali making it to the highest office. The support extended to Pranab Mukherjee, according to this calculation, is a necessary price for the earlier ‘blunders’ of not allowing Jyoti Basu to head the UF government in 1996 and expulsion of Somnath Chatterjee from the party over the nuclear deal issue!

When the CPI(M) was in power in West Bengal, initially the ‘Bengali card’ seemed to be helping it in consolidating its position in the state. It all began with the plank of restructuring of centre-state relations, but the federal plank soon gave way to a chauvinistic line when the Gorkhas started demanding Gorkhaland. The CPI(M) invoked the spectre of ‘Bangla bhag’ (partition of Bengal), treating the Gorkhaland movement as a secessionist movement and pledging to defend the ‘unity and integrity’ of Bengal by all means. This had virtually become the CPI(M)’s central poll plank in the 1987 Assembly election. Over the years, this Bengali chauvinistic tinge increasingly alienated the CPI(M) from almost the entire gamut of minority communities in West Bengal.

And now the misplaced ‘Bengal plank’ has begun to challenge the very basis of the CPI(M)’s existence as a party with an all-India perspective. Prakash Karat would like the CPI(M) to believe that the decision to support Pranab Mukherjee is necessary in the interest of the party’s Bengal unit, and what is good for the CPI(M) in West Bengal must be good for the entire party. Yet, Karat is not in a position to explain how exactly this decision is going to help the CPI(M) recover its lost ground in West Bengal, especially when the plea of not being bracketed with Mamata has been nullified with Mamata eventually declaring her party’s support for Pranab Mukherjee.

At a time when the Congress stands at its most discredited juncture, and more and more people are taking to the streets against the anti-people policies of the Congress government, the CPI(M) has come out with this most revealing argument that the presidential election should be delinked from the struggle against neo-liberal policies. Neo-liberalism and imperialism are fancy terms for the CPI(M) to be invoked and discarded at will. As it turns out, the CPI(M) is also highly flexible as to the connotation of these terms. In a recent interview published in the English weekly magazine Outlook, Prakash Karat has said regional parties do not subscribe to neo-liberalism because they have to worry about getting the votes of their people. This is why they go for populist measures like giving subsidised rice to the people, which according to the CPI(M) GS is antithetical to neo-liberalism!

If the subsidised rice scheme or similar populist schemes are to be treated as antithetical to neo-liberalism then no government in India can be said to be pursuing the neo-liberal agenda. The ‘aam aadmi’ or ‘human face’ rhetoric has emerged as an integral part of the neo-liberal packaging where the poor are ‘subsidised’ and ‘empowered’ to remain subjected to a sheer subsistence-level existence, while global capital goes on grabbing all resources and hijacking all profitable avenues of the economy. And if regional parties have to be bothered about votes, are not the all-India parties of the ruling classes bothered as much? In the same interview Prakash Karat also hints at the CPI(M) cosying up to the Congress in the event of Rahul Gandhi rediscovering the lost ‘socialist touch’ of his grandmother and great-grandfather! Behind this apparently sarcastic remark lies the bigger political truth – the CPI(M) is looking for some socialist component within the neo-liberal agenda of the Congress, and the ‘aam aadmi’ rhetoric of the mother and son duo may come in handy for the CPI(M).

The killing of Comrade TP Chandrasekharan in Kerala and the decision to support Pranab Mukherjee have triggered a major debate within the CPI(M). In Kerala, Comrade VS Achuthanandan has publicly differed from the party’s official position on TPC by calling him a brave communist and expressing sympathy and respect for the slain leader. The CPI(M) CC has retorted by publicly censuring VS for his utterances that are allegedly providing ammunition to the ‘enemy’. The debate is also resonating quite powerfully in Delhi with two of the party’s most prominent intellectual faces, Prabhat Patnaik and Prosenjit Bose, coming out in the cyber world with open expressions of dissent.

While Prosenjit resigned in response to the PB decision to support Pranab Mukherjee, Prabhat Patnaik has made no secret of his condemnation of the dominant culture in Kerala CPI(M), as well as his admiration and respect for VS, who has now been publicly censured by the CPI(M) Central Committee. Incidentally, both Prabhat and Prosenjit defended the CPI(M) most doggedly in public through the entire indefensible Singur-Nandigram phase, and the fact that even they have now chosen to go public with their dissent signals a new and higher level of disillusionment within the CPI(M).

There is of course little room for dissent within the CPI(M), especially if the dissent emanates from a Leftwing perspective. Any such dissent is invariably dubbed ultra-Left and sought to be crushed by all means, ranging from expulsion to elimination. It is indeed ironical that even Prosenjit Bose who spent all his years in JNU rubbishing whatever he thought was ‘ultra-Left,’ and defended the post-Nandigram CPI(M) in TV channels, blaming ‘Maoists/Naxalites’ for every problem faced by the CPI(M), is now being branded ‘ultra-Left’.

The ‘ultra-Left phobia’ has pervaded the mass organisations too. In West Bengal, veteran CPI(M) MLA and peasant leader Abdur Rezzak Mollah is prevented from joining a march to Singur on the issue of returning land to the dispossessed peasantry. In JNU, the traditional CPI(M)/SFI citadel, (often called the CPI(M)’s fourth bastion after West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura), the entire SFI unit has been dissolved and dubbed a ‘B team of the ultra-Left AISA’ for questioning and opposing the CPI(M) decision to support Pranab Mukherjee! Can there be a bigger proof of the CPI(M)’s growing rightward deviation or derailment that any radical political dissent within the party or mass organisations is dubbed ultra-Left and banished forthwith?

The desperation with which the CPI(M) has begun to purge the party of every sign of dissent is likely to result only in greater dissent. Apart from the question of political tactics, the growing subversion of the spirit and principles of inner-party democracy is also striking a resonant chord of disillusionment within the party. By all indications, the post-Kozhikode developments in CPI(M) suggest a new phase of churning in CPI(M) circles. Long-time CPI(M)-watchers are obviously tempted to call it another ‘July crisis’ for the party, recalling the events of July 1979 when the CPI(M) threw its weight behind the prime ministerial ambition of Charan Singh and thus proving instrumental for the Congress to regain initiative and stage a political comeback after the rout of 1977. But the first July crisis had happened when the CPI(M)’s upswing in Bengal had just begun, and the second is happening at a time when the party is indisputably in a state of decline in its biggest erstwhile bastion.

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