The 57-31 CPI(M) central committee vote in Kolkata on Sunday against an alliance with the Congress goes beyond the personality clash between party general secretary Sitaram Yechury and former general secretary Prakash Karat, though it is that as well. It needs to be noted as well that the CPI(M), for all its antiquated Stalinist trappings, provides an arena for a clash of ideas and even personalities, which is fought openly and even fairly. Neither the right-wing BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah nor Rahul Gandhi’s left-central Congress, with his loyalist aides, allow for a free debate and vote within party forums. The two big national parties are actually more like Stalinists when it comes to inner-party deliberations.
It is the writ of Modi-Shah in the BJP and that of Rahul Gandhi in the Congress than runs. So it is the CPI(M), a much smaller national party, which is keeping the flag of inner-party democracy, for all its fragility, flying high. At a purely pragmatic level, the CPI(M) faces the dilemma that it has no option but to fight the Congress in the states where it has dominance — Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. The situation is quite clear in Kerala, where the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) confront each other. The BJP, despite its desperate and valiant efforts, is not be able to find a foothold in the state. In West Bengal, the CPI(M)’s rival is Mamata Banerjee and her All-India Trinamul Congress (AITMC), and it is the Congress which is in a dilemma whether to go with Mamata Banerjee or with the Marxists. In Tripura, the Congress has so far been the main rival to the CPI(M), but it seems that the Congress is fading away and the BJP is emerging as the power to beckon with in this border state, and Chief Minister Manik Sarkar seems to have sensed this.
The Congress is then left with no political space in Tripura. The CPI(M) can well dispense with the Congress here. It is also difficult in a certain sense for the CPI(M) cadres to fight with the Congress in these three states, and then cooperate with it at the national level. So, perhaps the Prakash Karat camp has a point — that there has to be a clear break with the Congress for the CPI(M) to hold its own. At the ideological level too, the CPI(M) with its antiquated anti-capitalist stance — many leaders in the CPI(M) and in the Communist Party of India (CPI) vehemently dislike the label of anti-market — is at loggerheads with the Congress on economic liberalisation. The Congress has been trying to ride the two horses of populist socialism and unbridled capitalism simultaneously. The BJP is practising its own brand of socialism along with its patronage of capitalists. The Karat camp may be right to argue that there is not much of a difference between the economic policies of the Congress and the BJP, and therefore it is right and necessary for the CPI(M) to see the two of them as ideological enemies.
What makes it difficult for the Marxists is the Congress’ unqualified professing of secularism despite its pragmatic use of soft Hindutva and the BJP’s largely intolerant Hindutva, taking on Taliban-like features. The Karat faction would not want to give any grace marks to the Congress for its theoretical commitment to secularism, and it would want to fight the simple battle between good and evil and deem the Congress as part of the camp of evil. There has been much talk about forming a broad national, popular front against the BJP’s unapologetic and undisguised Hindutva politics, which the CPI(M) has no hesitation in terming as fascist, a label that is not really quaint as it seemed in the 1950s and 1960s because the BJP has assumed a mammoth shape in the last quarter century and more. If secularism is the main plank, then the CPI(M) will have to join the parties that are opposed to the BJP. It is a different question whether the anti-BJP parties can defeat the BJP on the issue of secularism alone. Rahul Gandhi’s Gujarat Assembly poll strategy showed that the BJP is vulnerable on non-secular issues like economic performance, and that the secular card is what boosts the BJP’s electoral prospects.
The CPI(M)’s bid to fight the BJP on the issue of economic liberalisation will be counter-productive as well, as it has found much to its discomfiture even in Kerala and West Bengal. What is proving to be difficult for the CPI(M) is the fact that it has not yet clarified to itself and to others its view of a post-Communist, post-socialist world. The Marxists in India have not come to terms with the market economy while the Chinese Communists have done a good job of it, describing the market economy as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The CPI(M) has been hesitant, even timid, in facing up to the capitalist resurgence of the last 40 years, and with no prospect of socialist renaissance. The party is fast getting calcified and fossilised at the thought level, and it is left to engage in political pragmatics and nothing more. At the deeper intellectual level, both Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat are on the same page of antiquated Marxism, whatever the variations and differences in their respective polemical interpretations. Perhaps it is unfair to expect the two CPI(M) leaders who are engaged in holding the party together as best as they can to rethink Marxism. They need intellectual help from outside, but India’s leftist intellectuals are in a stupor and therefore can be of very little help.