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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 14, March 28, 2015

Whither Communist Party?

Monday 30 March 2015, by Ajayakumar Kodoth


The 22nd Congress of the CPI has begun on March 25 at Puducherry. The following article was intended to be published before the Congress but reached us late. It is thus being published now. More articles on the Left will be carried in subsequent issues.

by Ajayakumar Kodoth

It must be remembered that the general principles underlying the Communist doctrine, that is, the economic principles of social organisation, have been accepted by some of the best minds of the age, and it does not help at all if second rate persons go about trying to combat them without even understanding them. This is not a policeman’s job, which normally is not acquainted with the intricacies of politics or economics. It must also be remembered that a very large part of the world today is definitely Communistic.

—Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement on Communists, Prime Minister’s Secretariat, Under Secretary’s Secret Safe File, Govt of Madras: 24/ 1949, T. N. Archives, Chennai

This was Panditji’s response to the Indian bureaucracy when it stood baffled, thinking of ways to neutralise the Communist threat, in the light of the Calcutta Thesis of 1948. Let us set aside the moral issues surrounding the Calcutta Thesis for the present. Reading between the lines, don’t we perceive a great adminis-trator’s expression of “respect” for the Indian communist movement? Those were the days when the Communist Party of India (CPI) was headed by stalwarts at the national level and in the provincial States as well. And, justifiably, Nehru’s words throb with admiration for such a leadership.

Now let me fast-forward my readers to 2014, and invite their attention to a newspaper report that provoked revulsion in the hearts of the people of Kerala. The Communist Party of India was literally in the dock. A party that had enjoyed renown as the epitome of honesty, led by such men like C. Achutha Menon, P. K. Vasudevan Nair (both were Chief Ministers of the State) and others, was served a notice by the State Lok Ayukta over a corruption scandal related to the allocation of the Thiruvanantha-puram Lok Sabha seat to an outsider. Such a thing had been unheard of in Kerala until then! Following the Communist Party split in 1964, the CPI in the State under the guidance of the trinity—M. N. Govindan Nair, T. V. Thomas and Achutha Menon—maintained the lofty tradition of the past and passed on the values of integrity and selfless service to the newer generation of leaders. But from what we see around us today, there appears to be enough reason to fear that the stream has dried up. In fact, on hearing the news about the death of the widely respected State Secretary of the Kerala CPI, C.K. Chand-rappan, towards the fag end of 2012, a veteran journalist in Thiruvananthapuram remarked to this author: “There’s no point in looking up to the M.N. Memorial [State CPI headquarters] hereafter.”

The Communist Party of India and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (an Indian incarnation of fascism), formed in 1925, were the most significant movements that came into being after the formation of the Indian National Congress (1885). The Muslim League (1907) and the Hindu Mahasabha (1913) had been founded earlier. But the decision to keep away from the ‘Quit India’ Movement, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s personal invitation in 1942, as well as the Calcutta Thesis of 1948 pushed the Communist Party of India from the mainstream of national politics completely. Yet it managed to become the main Opposition party in Parliament after the 1952 elections. The RSS (Jana Sangh as it was known then, and now as the BJP) which won only three seats and garnered a paltry 3.1 per cent of the vote-share then, succeeded in getting 282 seats and 32 per cent of votes in the 2014 elections, thus marching closer to their ultimate aim of building a Hindu Rashtra. In the elections that saw the BJP winning an absolute majority, the CPI gained less than one per cent of votes at the national level and only one seat in the Lok Sabha (that too, by courtesy of the Congress leader, P. C. Chacko’s hauteur and the fecklessness of the AICC with regard to the Thrissur Lok Sabha seat in Kerala). In this context, it is worth remembering that even the new kid in the block, the two-year-old Aam Aadmi Party, has no less than four members in the Lok Sabha. The 90-year-old veteran CPI faces the threat of losing its national party status now!

The Hindu fascist rule is a reality at the moment. And what is the role played by the Communist Party in bringing the nation to such a dangerous precipice? A bit of introspection is in order, especially when the Twentysecond Party Congress of the CPI is just round the corner. The present-day crisis, in which the very existence of the CPI is under threat, is bound to sadden anyone who had high expectations of the movement. Therefore the need of the hour is not a celebration of the political demise of a great movement that had once raised enormous hopes in the hearts of the working classes, but an exploration into the possibility of rebirth of the Indian Communist movement that will speak for the downtrodden, in these very complex political circumstances.

Revolution and Counter-revolution

It is an incontrovertible truth that many factors—among them, the upsurge of casteist politics in North India following the implementation of the Mandal commission report, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and other countries, the emergence of a unipolar world centred round the US, the forces of globalisation and liberalisation that virtually overturned the world economic scene—contributed to the decimation of the Communist Parties in India. But the very same period that witnessed such changes also saw an exponential growth in colonial-social-economic exploitation, poverty, unemployment and so on. At this juncture, the increasing relevance of people-oriented politics in a poor country like India cannot be overstated. Why then are the Communist Parties wilting? Why are they unable to give a convincing answer to such a question? More importantly, why hasn’t a proper assessment been made so far of the latest evidence of the Communist Party’s decline—the victory of fascism in the 2014 general elections that is capable of even overturning Indian history? Clearly, the malady seems to lie in the sheer absence of political insight.

Prof Bipan Chandra, the famous Marxist scholar-historian, likened the Indian indepen-dence struggle to a world revolution (The Long Term Dynamics of Indian National Congress, 1985) and the Marxist theoretician of yester-years, Mohit Sen, was one of the rare insiders of the Communist Party who held a similar opinion. Such observations point to the fact that it is high time the Indian communist movement radically revised the manner in which it has evaluated Gandhiji and the Indian National Congress. A policy-change of this kind is imperative and of great importance in the contemporary political scene. The criticism that the Communist Party did not align its political perspective sensitively enough to see and acknowledge a progressive section within the Congress during the time of our freedom struggle, particularly under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, is relevant even today. If the party had done so, it would not have stayed away from the ‘Quit India’ Movement. Nor would the Calcutta Thesis have come into effect.

Rather, at least in the wake of our gaining independence, the Communist Party would have, as P. C. Joshi demanded, co-operated with Pandit Nehru to rebuild India, and surged ahead. It was during P. C. Joshi’s tenure as the party General Secretary during the 1940s that the Communist Party struck deep roots in India, and found traction among the intellectuals. But with the materialisation of the Calcutta Thesis, things went out of hand. The Joshi line advocated supporting the progressive section of the Congress led by Nehru to combat the regressive group within the Congress headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It may be recalled that this stance was in sync with Lenin’s argument whereas the Ranadive line, which was part of the Calcutta Thesis, was in tune with the attitude adopted by M.N. Roy at the Comintern!

The 2014 general elections scripted a new chapter in the history of independent India. The formation of a government under the leadership of the Sangh Parivar cannot be seen merely as a party’s election victory within a democratic dispensation. It was in fact a counter-revolution, and when a nation is seized by counter-revolutionary forces, the immediate duty of democratic and secular parties is to join hands in order to fight and oust them completely. To keep a prominent secular-democratic party of the country like the Congress from a resistance coalition is nothing short of political myopia. In a recent statement, the CPM leader, Prakash Karat, characterised both the Congress and BJP as the sworn enemies and his CPI counterpart, Sudhakar Reddy, reiterated it!

M.N. Roy vs Lenin

The Indian Communist Party was formed in Kanpur in 1925 with the direct support of the Comintern, the official organ of the world communist movement. During this period M. N. Roy, as the Comintern’s spokesperson, prepared reports on the possibility of a revolution in India, and became a significant commentator of Indian affairs. Right from the time of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, he had gained renown as an authority on issues relating to the Eastern nations, including India (The Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India 1919-1943, Sobhanlal Dutta Gupta). With the publication of Lenin’s Imperialism in 1917, the Eastern countries attracted the special interest of the Comintern. The Second Congress ratified M. N. Roy’s “Colonial Thesis” but there were fundamental differences between Lenin’s and Roy’s perspectives on colonial politics.

While Lenin envisioned people’s initiatives in colonies progressing with the active co-operation of their respective bourgeois demo-cratic movements, Roy categorically stated that India’s freedom did not lie in the hands of a national movement. His belief was that the Hindu working class should fight for it, much like the working classes did in various parts of the world. He completely rejected Lenin’s stand that the Comintern should help the bourgeois national movements in the colonised nations, and he had the support of the majority, including Trotsky. Lenin had warned against Left adventurism from the very beginning but at the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922, M. N. Roy’s “Thesis on the Eastern Question” was officially acknowledged. During this Congress he emphasised that the Indian freedom struggle should be conducted under the sole leadership of the Communist Party.

Lenin’s death in 1924 inflicted great damage on the freedom struggles in colonised nations, especially the working class movements. If he had lived for some more years, the confusion within the Comintern regarding the strategy to be adopted by the Communist Parties in the colonies would have been cleared. As M.N. Roy’s views were on the ascendant then, in India, Gandhi and the Congress were lumped together as enemies, on par with British imperialism, in much the same way as the BJP and Congress are yoked together as antagonists at present! The impact such a sectarian attitude had in retarding the progress of the communist movement in India was not insignificant. A few people like S. A. Dange, who had been maintaining regular correspondence with the Comintern since 1922, sensed danger in this approach and reacted against it.

In practical terms, what the Communist Party should have done was to join forces with the Congress in order to strengthen the anti-imperialist struggle, and simultaneously attempted to deploy the progressive sections within the Congress against the counter-revolutionary and reactionary elements in the country. That the Indian National Congress did not have a clear-cut policy against communal forces was regrettable enough. Worse still, it fell into the trap of Hindu-Muslim communalism most of the time. If the Communist Party had succeeded in setting the progressive sections of the Congress against it, secular politics as a whole would have earned huge dividends. Pandit Nehru had himself publicly requested the communist leadership against casting Gandhiji into the enemy camp. The Communist Party leadership responded to it in the Calcutta Thesis by describing the socialist Nehru as an agent of British imperialism and the national bourgeoisie. Despite this insolent attitude, that Panditji chose to make a charitable assessment of the Communist Party in 1949 (evident in the quotation with which this article begins) speaks volumes for his sheer statesmanship!

Such a dismissal of the Congress was undoubtedly one of the prime reasons that precipitated the Communist Party split in 1964. The late Comrade EMS’ anti-Gandhi-Nehru stance is very obvious in his Nehru: Ideology and Practice (National Book Centre, 1988). In fact, he ends the book by decrying their contributions. The most important counter-revolutionary force of our country—the Sangh Parivar—is also against Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideas. What an irony! Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideas are anathema to both the extreme Right and the Indian Left!

The Party Split and CPI Policy

The Indian Communist Party split is 50 years old! The CPI-M leaders assert that the movement has grown stronger following the 1964 split. But what relevance does such a claim have in West Bengal today? The fortunes of both parties have touched rock bottom in recent years in nearly every State in India, Kerala being the sole exception although here too it has begun to show sure signs of dwindling. The CPI’s fate became pathetic after it discarded its alliance with the Congress in the post-Emergency period. Close in the wake of the split, the CPI was stronger in Bihar, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It even had the image of a national party. The famous party headquarters at Delhi, the Ajoy Bhavan, was actually built after the split. The CPI-M Central Committee office in Delhi came up only in the 1980s almost like an afterthought, as if to proclaim that the party had greater interest in Kerala and Bengal than in the national Capital. Even in terms of seats in Parliament, with an electoral alliance with the Congress at the national level, the CPI had a better representation than the CPI-M. Half-a-dozen MPs and more than 40 MLAs in Bihar alone—all this was the norm. But in the post-Emergency 1977 election, the number of CPI seats in Parliament came down to seven (until then it was rare to win less than 20!). After this electoral setback, it still managed to win 12 seats in the Karnataka Assembly elections by joining hands with the Congress. The Achutha Menon Govern-ment, which was in power from 1971-77 and had been formed with the Congress support, was a great contribution that the CPI made to Kerala.

But the subsequent fall in the number of seats is not the only problem the party faces today. When it followed in the footsteps of the CPI-M and adopted a negative brand of politics, the CPI indirectly abetted the growth of the counter-revolutionary forces. If it had played a corrective role instead, and remained on the side of the Congress, the CPI would not have had to face this predicament. Nor would the Indian National Congress or the country have come to such a point of crisis.

If the CPI had not capitulated before the CPI-M after the Emergency, instead of the CPI the CPI-M would have been facing the problem that the CPI is battling now. What message did the 1977 Parliament-Assembly election results in Kerala convey? The CPI-Congress alliance won twenty out of twenty Parliament seats, and 117 out of 140 Assembly seats. It may be recalled that such a whopping victory was registered when Indira Gandhi had lost in Rae Bareli.

The 1964 Communist Party split should never have happened. The Chinese Communist Party’s call to divide the Communist Parties at the international level against revisionism as well as the differences of opinion within the undivided Communist Party regarding its attitude towards the Congress led to the break-up. What did the two parties gain by remaining separate entities in these 50 years? Hasn’t Indian politics come to a situation where those, who had taken pride in opposing the Congress, eventually joined hands with it to form the first UPA Government in order to keep the BJP out of power? What Sitaram Yechury stated then was that they would be the watchdogs. Was playing the role of watchdogs better than becoming part of the Cabinet, working honestly, and discharging one’s responsibility to the people? If the Communist Parties had joined the Ministry then, or at least not withdrawn their support, the misguided financial policy of the Congress could have been brought to heel. The primary factor that worked behind the CPI-M rejecting the prime ministerial post offered to Jyoti Basu and moving out of the UPA was the anti-Congress stance adopted by its Kerala unit, a State where the CPI-M and Congress have always been at loggerheads. What intention did it have other than protecting its own selfish political interests within a small State of a mere three-and-a-half crores in a country comprising around 120 crore citizens? In all such crucial moments, the CPI could only stand powerless and silent.

What does Indian Politics demand Today?

The declaration of the Emergency in 1975 was an action that went totally against the great tradition of the Indian National Congress, and it will remain a blot forever in the history of modern India. But to evaluate it as something graver than an instance of political idiocy committed by such an able leader as Indira Gandhi, and to characterise it as a symptom of her autocratic tendency is to overstate the point. The heavy loss the party and its leader sustained at the national level in the 1977 elections, like in 2014, was a well-deserved one. The Indian citizens, however, brought her back to power in 1980. But the fact that this issue has another dimension has not been adequately analysed. It was the Sangh Parivar that harvested the most gains in the political turbulence created by the Emergency. Behind the label of the Janata Party, the old Jana Sangh won more than 90 Parliament seats in the 1977 general elections; Vajpayee became the Foreign Affairs Minister and L.K. Advani, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. It was during this period that the RSS made inroads into the military and Doordarshan.

Mohit Sen writes in his autobiography about the attempts made by Indira Gandhi before the 1980 Parliament elections (that saw her return to power) to re-establish political ties with the CPI. It seems in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections that preceded it, the Congress promised 60 seats to the CPI. The latter, assuming that Indira Gandhi would never be back on saddle, rejected the offer. But the Congress won by a huge majority and the CPI came a cropper. On the other hand, if the deal had been struck, a Congress-Communist joint Ministry would have become a reality in Andhra. (A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist, Mohit Sen) In Kerala the CPI sacrificed the chief ministerial post to forge a political alliance with the CPI-M and asked P. K. Vasudevan Nair to resign from the post in 1978. By then, the CPI had become totally convinced of the CPI-M’s argument that both the Congress and BJP were enemies in equal measure; it also nursed feelings of guilt over the support it had lent to the Emergency. Both the Communist Parties had in effect paved the way for the arrival of the Sangh Parivar. Sometime later they went a step further by strengthening the BJP-supported V.P. Singh Government from outside in order to oppose Rajiv Gandhi. What they should have done instead was to give support to Rajiv Gandhi to form the government on the basis of a minimum programme.

From the time of the Emergency, the CPI-M’s policy played a very crucial role in infusing courage into the Sangh Parivar that had, since the assassination of the Mahatma, grown extremely diffident. In the 1977 elections to the Kerala Assembly, the RSS leader, K.G. Marar, was the CPI-M-Janata Party front candidate for the Uduma Assembly seat in Kasaragod district. EMS’ policy was that the party would join hands with any devil to defeat the Congress. Today the BJP President, Amit Shah, speaks about a Congress-free India! The monster set free by the CPI-M and the old Janata Parivar has now laid siege on the Red Fort!

What is the pressing need of the hour in these political circumstances? A communal-fascist power like the RSS, which eats into the vitals of our nation, is nothing but cancer. By dismantling the UPA on the issue of a nuclear weapons contract, what the Communist Parties did was nothing short of running away from responsibility. The CPI followed the politically ignominious path paved by the CPI-M. What relevance does the CPI-M policy of anti-Congressism have in these circumstances, having let the fascist genie out of the bottle and installed it on the throne? Today the situation is not as simple as it was in 1977 when the CPI-M joined the grand alliance to exorcise the Congress from power. If in 1977 it had no qualms about joining forces with a group containing RSS elements and led by Jayaprakash Narayan, will an association with the Congress be anathema now, when the enemies to be combated are the real fascists? Will the CPI continue to genuflect before the CPI-M? The condition of the Communist Parties groping in the dark for appropriate strategies is pathetic indeed!

The Second Independence Struggle

The CPI-M’s forging of the grand alliance to resist the Emergency has been hailed as the second independence struggle. It was at the end of the elections declared by the Indira Gandhi Government that the Opposition front came into power at the Centre in 1977. But the Indian citizens tolerated this reactionary front of opportunists only for two years. Thus the second phase of freedom lasted only for a short span of two years! But we must not be unmindful of the positive political side of Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980. At least temporarily, it put the brakes on the advancement of the Sangh Parivar that lurked behind the façade of the Janata Government.

If we look at the scene in 2015 what we see is this—neither the Congress nor the Communist Parties show the kind of vigilance or responsibility that democratic-secular parties should demonstrate at a time when the nation has been run over by the counter-revolutionary forces. It is in the Left party’s best interests that the Congress is reborn so that the two forces can take on the challenges posed by the Sangh Parivar. The reason is simple—wherever fascist powers have established their dominance, they have trained their guns on the Communists first. Such a fact has to be anticipated and pre-empted by the Communists, especially now, since the fascists have taken control of India. Another fact the Communist Party has to acknowledge is that nowhere in the world has it—even Lenin’s party in the erstwhile Soviet Union—emerged out of its vanquished state on its own. An equally unpalatable truth that needs to be recognised is that today’s youth in India do not look up to the Communist Parties with any sense of hope. If the fault lies within, why should others be blamed?

The second freedom struggle has not taken place so far. High time it did. The Left parties and Congress should prepare themselves for the responsibility. By now, Aravind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, having won the Delhi Assembly elections, has formed the government. It is yet to be seen whether the Communist Parties will serenade him as they wooed Jayalalithaa and Mayawati in the past. There seems to be such a possibility. But India’s future is not going to be decided by organisations like the AAP which burst into the scene almost as a knee-jerk reaction to crucial issues like corruption. The AAP may win in Punjab in the 2017 Assembly elections but that will only be a temporary phenomenon. Few members of the AAP possess a clear sense of political direction, have taken a strong position against issues like communalism or thought out a consistent and clear-cut stand on class politics, imperialism, etc. The need of the hour is not a half-hearted coalition but a long-term ideological co-operation and political unity with the Congress on the basis of a common minimum programme so as to generate and sustain a movement against the counter-revolutionary forces. This will not be a mere coming together of two movements but a yoking of the two great ideologies of Marxism and Gandhism. It will certainly require compromises on both sides and a readiness to make them. Only such a political front built on the foundation of strong ideological conviction will help bring about a permanent solution to the problems that India is facing at present.

In order to bring into being a political front comprising the Congress and Communist Parties, the Congress, more than the Left, has to take on certain responsibilities. The elimination of corrupt and criminal elements from within the Congress and, more importantly, a thorough introspection regarding the hazardous economic policies of the party is a must. For this, the Congress party must look back to the historic Karachi Resolution (1931), the central doctrine of the economic policy of the Indian National Congress. The Karachi Resolution tried to define the meaning of Swaraj for the common people and proclaimed that “the real goal is a socialist republic in which government is shared by peasants and workers”. The Congress party has been conveniently ignoring the poor, especially from the 1990s, when the policies of economic liberalisation were implemented in a reckless manner. It paid a huge price for the folly and now it is time for serious re-examination. A sincere attempt in this direction will help that party to take the Left parties into confidence.

In Kerala, the only State where the Communist Parties still enjoy political clout, they have set their eyes on the power they may get if the ruling front led by the Congress loses it as a result of sheer ineptitude. This is going to take them to a major crisis because the national interest is being sacrificed for a temporary political gain in a small region. In these circumstances when the Congress has become weak at the national level, the time is ripe for mutual co-operation between Marxist and Gandhian ideas. A political experiment of this kind is possible now in Kerala which is suffocating because of the pressure tactics employed by various religious and communal organisations. What this requires, first of all, is a Left leadership that is guided by the brain but is influenced by the heart.

This author had a detailed conversation with C.K. Chandrappan shortly before his death, and when he posed a question on the future of the Communist Parties in India, the veteran CPI leader and former MP remarked: “The CPI-M is going to sink and the CPI will also sink along with it.” His anxiety about the future of the communist movement is painfully evident here. He later repeated the joke that Mohit Sen had once cracked about the CPI: “A country can have two Communist Parties but why two CPI-Ms?” If a spirit of sober self-introspection does not emerge at the forthcoming Party Congress, the Indian Communist Party, despite its majestic tradition, will not find a place even in the dumpster of history.

Son of veteran freedom fighter K. Madhavan, Dr Ajayakumar Kodoth is a former member, Kerala Public Service Commission, and an erstwhile Associate Professor of History, Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad. He can be contacted at e-mail: madhavajayakumarkodoth[at]

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