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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

CPI-M: Kolkata Plenum and the Ideological and Political Contradictions

Saturday 30 January 2016


by Arun Srivastava

Addressing the valedictory session of the CPI-M’s Kolkata Plenum, party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury reiterated that the Left could offer India a “policy alternative, a better political culture which fights corruption, moral degradation and degeneration which is rampant in Indian politics today”. He, however, refrained from enumerating what India and its people actually desperately need from the Indian Marxists and Left forces.

He reiterated the three-decade-old rhetoric unity of Left forces and forging the Left and democratic front. These two issues have been figuring prominently on the agenda of the Indian Left. But unfortunately so far it has failed to take shape as the CPI-M leadership has never been serious for forging a Left and democratic front. During his lifetime the CPI-ML Liberation General Secretary, Vinod Mishra, had taken initiative but the CPI-M perceived the formation would weaken its hegemony.

Ironically the CPI-M had then put a precondition that none would criticise the performance of the Left Front Government as it was the epitome of class struggle. If that had been a reality the Trinmul Congress certainly would not have routed it in 2011 and wrested power. The major problem with the CPI-M has been it never accepts its fault and mistakes and always try to hide behind the façade of polemics and discipline.

The CPI-M leadership in West Bengal is yet to honestly accept the reasons behind the fall of the Left regime in 2011. The concept of self- criticism is pariah. If anyone musters the courage and tries to speak out he is instantly described as renegade. Earlier the CPI-M State Conference had outright refused to go for self-criticism and identify the ideological-political deviations and administrative malfunction under Left rule. No doubt discipline is imperative but pushing the wrongs below the carpet only takes the form of a gangrene. The leadership never tried to undertake the task of a through postmortem of the Singur-Nandigram episode. It was simply termed as an ‘exception” at the State Conference. The episode had provided the right opportunity to the party to do some introspection and remove the flaws in the industrial and land acquisition strategy and policy.

For the failure of the CPI-M leaders, it is an irony that Marxism has been getting a bad name. The bourgeois intellectuals and acade-mics in the wake of the Kolkata Plenum wrote that the Left has turned irrelevant and does not matter. They wrote: “The Communists are the most honest, decent people in Indian politics. They are also the most irrelevant. Now of course no one takes Communists or even communism seriously.... Leninism proved to be a delusion which could not survive the 20th century.” There is no one around to tell them that communism and Marxism have not turned irrelevant; instead it is the Indian Leftists who have lost and degenerated. Undeniably in the absence of genuine course correction, people remain unresponsive to the CPI-M’s policy.

In this backdrop a write-up from Prakash Karat in an English daily is worth mentioning. He writes:

“The CPM and the Left in general have fallen behind somewhat due to changes that have occurred in socio-economic conditions after more than two decades of liberalisation and globali-sation. Two constituencies where the Left had a traditional appeal—the middle classes and the youth—have been most affected by these changes. In the pre-liberalisation era, the Left had an appeal for both the middle classes and young people. There is a decline in that appeal. This is due to two reasons. First, there is a differentiation within the middle classes, with an upper stratum having high incomes and a lifestyle closer to that of the affluent sections of society. They see benefits in neoliberal capitalism and can no longer relate to the Left programme. Second, the problems and concerns of the other strata of the middle classes have undergone changes, which have not been properly addressed by the Left. The Left organisations are still stuck with the old issues and have not innovated in ways to reach out to them and take their concerns on board.”

It is interesting to read Karat emphasising that Left had an appeal to the middle class and young people. At a time when the developing economies and the poor people therein are looking towards Marxism and Left political parties with hope, the Indian Communists are trying to find support in the urban people which performed the task of vanguard to bring Modi and his BJP to power. It is astonishing how a Left party could ignore the huge population of rural proletariat. This invariably confirms the fact that the CPI-M leadership has not learnt and analysed the victory of the CPI-ML Liberation in Bihar Assembly elections. No doubt it could win only three seats but that is more relevant and important in a sharply divided social set-up of the state. Incidentally the CPI-M was a partner of the same Left Front under which the CPI-ML went to the polls. Concrete measures have been suggested to step up work among the urban middle classes.

The CPI-M ought to know that the urban middle class and youth are opposed to the rural poor. Nothing could illustrate it better than their opposition to the Food Security Bill and describing the investment in NREGA as a wastage of the government money. No one will suggest to ignore this sector but the paradigm shift raises many questions on the ideological compatibility.

At a time when the people of even the capitalist and developed countries and economies are looking towards Marxism for bringing a pro-people and fundamental change in the functioning of their government and install Leftist parties in the government, the Indian middle class is running after the Rightist political forces. The Left has to come out with an explanation to this duality.

The question arises as to why the CPI-M fell behind that too in the background of the fact that it has been periodcally holding the party Congress which sets the policies and programmes. Obviously it implies that the Congress failed to comprehend the changes. This also gives rise to the question about what Karat has come to realise as a crisis and what steps he look to check the wrongs and rectify the mistakes? He had withdrawn support to the UPA. But no benefit the party could accrue out of this tactics. It was during his stewardship that the CPM had suffered electoral setbacks, particularly in West Bengal, and failed to register any worthwhile advance at the all-India level in terms of mass support. The political challenges before the CPM were spelt out in the party Congress. Karat has been the captain of the ship when the country witnessed emergence of Rightward shift and the advent of the Modi Government. In fact he admits; “a Rightwing offensive has been unfolding through the aggressive pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the onslaught of communal forces. Fighting this twin offensive, projecting a Left and democratic alternative platform, and building popular movements and struggles were the tasks set out.”

He argues: “The quality of the party can improve only when there is vibrant inner-party democracy in place. This is important not only for the CPM but for the party-based parliamentary democratic system itself. Neoliberal politics has further stifled democracy, which was already getting narrowed, within parties. Many parties have a leader-centric organisation or have become family enterprises. There is a widespread perception that the Communist Party is disciplined but not democratic as far as its internal organisation is concerned. Actually, the CPM, which practices democratic centralism, has a better record of inner-party democracy. The plenum pinpointed certain trends that adversely affect inner-party democracy and suggested steps to remove these defects.”

The Kolkata Plenum was a follow-up to the 21st Congress of the party held in April 2015. The congress, which is the party’s highest policy-making body, had set out a political line that emphasised the importance of expanding the strength of the party in order to forge a real political alternative, a Left and democratic front. But the fact is that the party did not gain subs-tantially from the Plenum. The Plenum, which was held after 37 years of the Salkia Plenum, was expected to provide a new line and fire the imagination of the rank and file but ended up simply by asking them to gear up for the 2016 Bengal Assembly elections.

The Salkia Plenum had emphasised the need for expanding in the Hindi heartland but it took 37 years to realise that the party should adopt a mass line to establish live links with the people. Mass contact with the people has increa-singly become confined to times of elections. It is indeed unimaginable how a Marxist party could forget the basic principle of always being with the people, learning from the people and then going to the people with the prescriptions for dealing with their problems?

Though the party has failed to get new blood for long, it was at the Kolkata Plenum that it resolved to reorient its policies and programmes, making the concerns and aspirations of the young a central focus. It is beyond compre-hension while the bourgeoise political parties have long started enticing the youth, the CPI-M did not feel its necessity and that too when the present-day youth was getting disenchanted and alienated from the party. The leadership was content with its small youth and student following. The party’s youthful component— the number of members below 31 years of age —is hovering just below 20 per cent. This task, ought to have been initiated long back. At Plenum guidelines were drawn up to recruit more young men and women and to promote younger cadres at all levels of the party. According to a party report, only 6.5 per cent of party members are under the age of 25, and only 13.6 per cent are in the age group 26-31, as against nearly 50 per cent in the age-group 32-50 and 27 per cent between 50 and 70. “This has adverse impact on activities of the party,” the report says.

 Since the Salkia plenum the party has been veering around the Congress. The leadership never ventured for independent assertion of the party even in the national political arena. The former General Secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet had conceded that the task of the 16th Party Congress was to analyse the national, international and organisational situations during the last three years and to evolve strategies for the future. Ironically even today the party has not been able to comprehend the task and it continues to work in tandem with the Congress notwithstanding the opposition from Prakash Karfat and his Kerala comrades.

Apparently the CPI-M has been against the policy of liberalisation, which was adopted by the Congress, but the fact is a section of the CPI-M leadership had played crucial role in making it acceptable. They had worked on the draft. Did these leaders at that point of time not foresee that it would create economic crisis? CPI-M claims that its larger objective in terms of its party programme is to complete the people’s democratic revolution by forging a people’s democratic front. Naturally this gives rise to the question, how did the offer of “issue-based support to the Congress (I) to form a gover-nment” and the emphasis on developing the third front co-relate to this idea?

While the party insists that this Plenum is not about its Bengal poll tactics but about making its organisation fighting fit, but in the same breath it underlines the fact that Bengal will have to be the starting point for the CPI-M becoming fighting fit. Karat favoured the policy of equidistance, both from the BJP and the Congress, but the party now under Sitaram Yechury is reconsidering its tactics on the plea of checking the Trinamul Congress. Even some CPI-M leaders hold that for the sake of survival the party should enter into an alliance with the Congress.

It cannot be ruled out that tomorrow the party would again espouse some other tactics. The party may well argue that tactics changes according to the needs of the time. But there must be some kind of credibility and sustainability. This action of the CPI-M simply endorses the perception prevailing among the common people that they cannot assert on their own. They need the Congress’ secular crutch. In Bihar the left, CPI and CPI-M, till two decades back was the most formidable powerful force now it has been reduced to non-entity. It is alleged they became the victim of caste politics. This is correct. But the basic reason is they did not look at the caste question from the Marxist class perspective and angle; instead they treated it on the lines of the Socialist parties and forces. In fact the Left parties made a cocktail of caste and class.

At a time when the future of Marxism and Marxist politics is at stake in India, the Kolkata Plenum of the CPI-M simply focussed on evolving a strategy to win the 2016 elections to the West Bengal Assembly. This approach of the leadership simply reinforced the perception that by winning the Assembly elections, they would succeed in projecting Bengal as the Leftist model suitable to the Indian situation and use it to revive Marxist politics in India. Else there was no reason to give so much of importance to the issue of entering into coalition with likeminded parties in Bengal for the Assembly elections.

The compulsion of survival has been so acute that the Kolkata Plenum, instead of delving into the organisational crisis and the rectification measures, resolved to have alliance with the “like minded parties” to ensure the defeat of the Trinmul Congress. It is an irony that the Plenum instead of focusing on the all India political scenario and working out a policy in the all India perspective, chose to concentrate on the electoral success in West Bengal and regain the lost power. The matter of fact is that the Kolkata Plenum did not decide the future course of political action, the fate of the party in the coming days but also the existence of Left politics.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Left, including CPI-M and CPI, won 12 seats and received only 4.8 per cent votes as against 10.6 per cent in 1989. Since 2004, when the Left bloc had won 62 seats, its share of votes came down by more than half in 2014. Most importantly, there are no signs of Left influence in States like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. The Left is steadily losing its traditional voter base. So far this hovered at around seven to 10 per cent but in 2014, the figure came down to less than three per cent. In 2014, less than five per cent of skilled service workers voted for them. Among agricultural labourers, less than three per cent voted for Left candidates. In contrast the Trinamul Congress had a 10 per cent lead over the Left parties among skilled, semi-skilled urban workers and agricultural labourers.

The CPI-M leadership must admit that the organisation was suffering from mass alienation. This will do good to the party and help instil trust among the people. The party in fact admitted in the report that it started getting alienated from the masses the day its workers stopped raising funds for the party through small subscriptions collected from the public. A large section of party leaders even stopped visiting zonal and branch offices to oversee their functioning. Over the years, all this affected the image of the Marxists, the report added.

No social transformation is possible, in fact, cannot be conceived of without the vast mass of people belonging to all exploited classes rising in revolt against the exploiting ruling classes. The Indian ruling classes, the big bourgeoisie and a vast section of the middle class, the pety bourgeoisie have embraced neo-liberalisation. With these classes playing second fiddle to imperialism and neo-liberal policies, the anti-imperialist consciousness of the common people eroded considerably, distancing them from progressive ideologies and thinking. In this backdrop the CPI-M leadership ought to do some serious introspection about the inconsistencies in their actions and words. How far will this help the party?

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at

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