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  CPI(M): Peeling the political onion

CPI(M): Peeling the political onion

Published : Jan 2, 2016, 6:22 am IST
Updated : Jan 2, 2016, 6:22 am IST

Every organisation introspects as much about success as about failure. Some do so regularly; most do so when the environment in which they work throws up new challenges.

Every organisation introspects as much about success as about failure. Some do so regularly; most do so when the environment in which they work throws up new challenges. It has taken the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 37 years to realise that the economic, social and political environment has changed so much that it must also change from within in order to relate to the evolving reality without. The Kolkata plenum was the CPI(M)’s response to the challenge to reorganise itself, to be responsive and relevant to the new generation of workers and voters as a distinct alternative for economic, social and political transformation in India.

The CPI(M) specifically, and the Left generally, are in a muddle over how to represent themselves to the constituencies that have historically been their special theatre of operations — industrial and agricultural workers, peasants and the minorities. In theory, the concrete conditions for the CPI(M) and the Left to grow into more than a minor player on the political scene have always existed. It has always been difficult for the Left to get past the social and cultural barriers of caste, conventions and the intricate networks that bind people to communities in ways that are not easily penetrable.

After the Bihar election and the run of election defeats for the Bharatiya Janata Party from Gujarat to Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushed off the pedestal on which he had been installed, and wrestling the dangerously divisive communal politics of its leaders on issues ranging from the construction of the Ram Mandir on the Babri Masjid site to policing what people eat in their homes has gained greater urgency than before. It has also become imperative to battle the BJP over its failures in managing the economy, where prices of daily consumption from dal to onions and tomatoes have spiralled, industrial production is down, growth is sluggish and unemployment is rising. Tackling the BJP on legislation that hurt the interests of land-owning small farmers, tribal communities in mineral-rich states, reservation as a policy for the socially backward is a priority. And the CPI(M) with its Left allies has consistently and historically opposed communal mobilisation and minority oppression, while fighting for the poor on entitlements to food, employment, health and education.

In reality, the concrete conditions for the CPI(M) to move back from the fringes to which it had been pushed after the break up of its partnership with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and its devastating defeat in West Bengal, have never been better. Figuring out what it should do and how it should do so is the puzzle that the CPI(M) set out to solve at the Kolkata plenum over five days. The growing gap between concrete conditions and the CPI(M)’s reality of a shrinking political presence, except in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, has haunted the party since 1978, when the second plenum at Salkia, a suburb of Howrah in West Bengal, resolved to convert the then essentially cadre-based party into a mass-based organisation that would expand into the Indian hinterland.

While the Kolkata plenum discussed the solutions, it was not mandated to address what remains the greatest theoretical challenge for the CPI(M) — figuring out how to address the issues of caste within and beyond the class categories to which Marxism is tied. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury made a significant reference to social oppression and the need to fight it, but it is not clear how the party proposes to do so. It failed to address the issue when it emerged during the Bihar elections in 2015. In Bihar, CPI(M) took the position that Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal were practising caste-based politics and were not progressive enough. It also questioned the position of regional, caste-based parties on economic policy, taking the view that none of the regional parties were in principle opposed to neo-liberalism and globalisation even though it hurt the poor, the marginalised and women the most.

The plenum was not the platform for the CPI(M) to discuss how it would steer its future relationship with the regional parties and find the partners it needs to promote its progressive alliance of Left and democratic forces. The discussion, nevertheless, took place on the sidelines, because the party needs to know what it should say to recruit support in places like Bihar and even West Bengal, where the youth are ambivalent in their response to classic Left propaganda on neo-liberal economics and globalisation, neo-imperialism and the United States.

To grow bigger, to have a wider footprint and a larger impact, the CPI(M) had to organise itself to appeal to the anxieties and discontent of the poor. It also has to find the language to articulate the aspirations and misgivings of the poor, especially the youthful poor who love their smartphones as much as they rail against exploitation by contractors. The formula used by Marxism to communicate its message has simply no appeal among youth, to whom “Inquilab Zindabad” is a slogan used in Bollywood films by Amitabh Bachchan. To find the idiom in which youth, women and all segments of the poor will find meaning in the messages of the CPI(M) is probably the first hurdle the party needs to cross. The second, is to formulate a series of issues on which it can invite the working poor to join to protest. The third is to work out how to keep the masses attached to the CPI(M), when alternative regional parties can exert a powerful appeal through the network of loyalties within communities. The fourth is to find a larger, broader message that can convert the mobilisations of the organisation into a political mobilisation at election time.

The CPI(M)’s biggest challenge is that it has a short time in which it needs to achieve all this and much more. It has clearly given itself a deadline with a target, that is, the 2019 general elections. Between now and then, it has to recapture political turf in West Bengal and win in Kerala to gain credibility as a party with winnability, renegotiate its way into the emerging anti-BJP coalition in which it will be in the company of the Congress, and perhaps even the Trinamul Congress. In order to do so, it will need to draw a map to mark its position on potential conflict areas such as economic policy, globalisation, defence and foreign policy, social security and welfare policies for government, and the role of the private sector. None of this is going to be easy. As a party that has been historically and consistently different from the mainstream centrist and right wing, and presents itself as an alternative, it needs very clear declarations on issues that are linked to the current and future trajectories of the Indian polity. Like an onion, the CPI(M) will have to peel away the layers that constitute its ideology in order to blend into the mixed up politics of the times. While there is no substitute for the parliamentary left, which has a long and rich history in India, before and after Independence, the intellectual and even working class supporters of the organised Left will find alternatives within a broader and deep running current of radicalism, should the CPI(M)-led Left fails to live up to its potential.

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata