CPIM party general secretary, Sitaram Yechury. (PTI File)
Fifty-eight years after it split from the original party and the beginning of its existence as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964, the party is in a crisis. It is as aware of its predicament now, at the end of the 23rd party congress, as it was in 2018 when the 22nd party congress got over in Hyderabad.
The CPI(M)’s prescription in 2022 was the same as the prescription in 2018 — that it is faced with a crisis of revival and it is conscious that its task is to "be in the forefront of the fight against Hindutva communalism". The difference over four years is the crisis of existence has deepened and the space for the Left and the CPI(M) in particular has shrunk even more, because the BJP has grown stronger and confidently and aggressively occupies more of the middle ground in Indian politics today than ever before.
Re-elected for the third term as party general secretary, Sitaram Yechury is tasked to deliver a miracle. Boxed in by inevitable conflicts intrinsic to an organisation that is run on the basis of collective leadership, it will be difficult for Mr Yechury to deliver on the party’s mission. The party has shrunk even more since 2018, when the tasks it set itself were about the same and the political terrain was almost as hard baked in favour of the BJP as it is today. In 2004, the CPI(M) had 44 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha. In 2022, it has a mere three. The party has lost over one lakh members in just two states — 68,000 cadres in West Bengal and 47,000 cadres in Tripura. Kerala is its only outpost at present.
The marginalisation of the CPI(M) and the Left as a whole, as well as the decimation of the Congress, has transformed India’s political terrain. Political terrains, especially in electoral democracies, however flawed, autocratic and populist they may be, are book-ended on the one side by right-wing political parties and on the other by the Left, creating a middle ground that is occupied by political parties that are neither one nor the other.
The flimsier the CPI(M) has become as the Left book-end, so too has the Congress declined, as the party of the moderate middle, or the median voter, who is neither an ardent bhakt nor a devout comrade. The reshaping of the political space between 2014 and now pits the hard right-wing, identity-based, communally divisive, majoritarian politics of Hindutva of the BJP embarked on its mission to convert the Republic of India into a Hindutva Rashtra against small and regional parties with no specific ideological moorings, except a shared and common goal of defeating the BJP and protecting their turf from its encroachment. The Congress and the CPI(M) and its Left partners have removed themselves to the periphery. This is an unstable equilibrium; if indeed this can be described as an equilibrium.
The CPI(M)’s revival is contingent on the party’s revival in West Bengal. That is unlikely in the foreseeable future and the CPI(M) knows it.
Having identified the BJP as its enemy number one and prioritising its isolation and defeat as the key political goal, the CPI(M) has given Mr Yechury some leeway in siding with the Congress and forging the "broadest possible unity of the secular democratic forces." Neither the identification of the BJP as the principal enemy nor the Congress as a potential ally is unconditional; in West Bengal, the principal enemy is confusingly Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress. In Kerala, the principal challenge is the Congress.
Local compulsions do not make it easier for potential allies to join forces with the CPI(M), which has all sorts of purity and pollution issues with not only the Congress, but with small and regional parties, which are essentially populist in character, with no specific ideological moorings.
Its squeamishness about potential allies is no longer viable; it is not the party it was at the end of the 20th century. In 1996, when the prime ministership was offered to Jyoti Basu by a collective of non-Congress, anti-BJP parties, the CPI(M) was a political force to reckon with. It had worked to establish itself as a successful party that believed in principled politics, which gave it leverage and enabled it to anchor the United Front experiment in 1996 and then again as the lynchpin of the United Progressive Front led by the Congress in 2004.
The populist politics of the smaller and regional parties with whom the CPI(M) hopes to create a broad secular front have no particular ideological agenda. What they do have is first-hand experience on being allies in complicated coalitions at the Centre, which makes the CPI(M)’s lack of experience a serious shortcoming. Consequently, making sense of the CPI(M)’s fastidious ideological concerns is difficult for these ruling parties closely linked to the grassroots, all of whom have cannibalised the Left’s agenda and stripped the alternative programme of its most powerful appeal. By implementing policies that promise to deliver social justice and access to goods and services that enable the population to improve the quality of their lives, the regional and smaller parties have effectively appropriated the CPI(M)’s brand.
What then does the CPI(M) have to offer to make itself desirable as a political partner? In the tradition of Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, Sitaram Yechury is a leader respected by all political parties, but the CPI(M) is not what it was in its heyday. It is perceived as a party that cannot lead itself out of the morass of its failures in West Bengal and Kerala and even Bihar. However effective it is in playing a leadership role in the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which held the farmers movement together for one year, its political decline is what matters for the regional and smaller parties. These are parties that are preparing to fight for survival against the BJP’s One Nation-One Party hegemonistic plans and a larger space in Indian politics. They are up against the BJP, which has converted its Hindutva appeal into the dominant discourse of the middle ground and the choice of even median voters.
Unless the CPI(M) can convert its prescriptions into an alternative secular, democratic and progressive narrative that compels the median voter to reimagine his or her identity as an Indian, instead of a Hindu and an Indian, it will languish as an inadequate partner with no particular appeal.