Left Hand Drive

Even as a new generation of leaders rises to the top, there are fissures within the CPI(M) with the comrades divided over reforms and the issue of joining the Government

By Ajit Kumar Jha


Delhi's Gole Market area has in the past month become the centre of gravity for the new power players. One witnesses cavalcades of all types-the siren-blaring Ambassadors with red lights and gun-toting securitymen as well as Mercs with CD number plates-moving towards the same building, the A.K. Gopalan Bhavan, headquarters of the CPI(M), on Bhai Vir Singh Marg. Once as inconspicuous as the party's Alimuddin Street office in Kolkata, the building now has all the trappings of a bourgeois power centre.

RED RECKONERS: Karat (left) and Yechury are the new power centres

With 44 MPs, the CPI(M) comrades are not only instrumental in providing stability to the Congress-led Government but their influence is also becoming visible in every government document. Check the phraseology of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP): "productive forces" is a straight lift from Karl Marx's The German Ideology. Arjun Singh's "detoxification'' was first used by the Left cultural group Sahmat. Even the President's speech was peppered with Marxist terminology-from minimum wage laws for farm labour to land reforms and distribution of surplus productive land to the landless. Moreover, the left parties propose to set up a monitoring committee-apart from the one planned by the Congress-led UPA-to oversee the implementation of the CMP. The Left has indeed begun to play the "hegemonic role" in Government affairs without joining it, a classic example of power without responsibility.

OLD GUARD: Surjeet (left) and Basu

It is a U-turn for the party that called Manmohan Singh's 1992-93 budget "pro-rich and anti-people". But the change in status has triggered the rise of a new guard-some of whom draw their power from their proximity to 10 Janpath. The 88-year-old CPI(M) General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet may have been the architect of the UPA but now it is the second line of leaders, all in their 50s, that is calling the shots both inside the organisation and outside. "Comrades Surjeet and Jyoti Basu merely perform the role of elder statesmen,'' says Mohammed Salim, CPI(M) MP from Kolkata North-East. In fact, the race has begun among the frontrunners in the party to replace Surjeet.

The main source of power is either political links in Delhi or firm footholds in key states. Kerala and West Bengal units dominate the party organisation-nine out of 16 Politburo members are from the two states-five, including Prakash Karat, from Kerala, and four from West Bengal. In the 71-member party Central Committee, 12 are from Kerala and 16 from West Bengal. Out of 44 MPs, 26 are from West Bengal and 13 from Kerala.

The conservatives vs liberals battle over reforms has divided the party vertically in its state units. So has the party's decision not to join the Government. Not everyone who is pro-reform is in favour of sharing power with the Congress and vice-versa. In this melee, the reserved and cautious Karat, 56, has emerged as the key player. It was under Karat's direction that an overwhelming majority of the Central Committee decided the party should not join the UPA Government. His view prevailed over the opinion of leaders like Surjeet and Basu. Again, it was Karat who worked on the draft of the Common Minimum Programme until it began resembling The Communist Manifesto.


The West Bengal chief minister and Politburo member argues for reforms. But he voted against the party joining the UPA.

The Tripura chief minister follows his West Bengal counterpart in his pro-reforms agenda. He was also against the CPI(M) joining the Centre.

Secretary of the party's Kerala unit, Vijayan is the southern face arguing for reforms but against sharing power with the Congress.
M.A. BABY, 52

The Central Committee member from Kerala and ideologue voted for the party joining the Union Government. The pro-reform face.

The CPI(M)'s leader in the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal and a Somnath Chatterjee follower, he favoured joining the Government.

A student of JNU, Delhi, and Edinburgh University, Karat became president of the SFI during Emergency. He met Brinda-now the general secretary of AIDWA, the CPI(M)'s women front-while he was underground and they got married in a secret ceremony attended only by Surjeet and A.K. Gopalan. Karat, who began his career in the party as Gopalan's political secretary, was elected to the Politburo in 1992. Just four years later, he was influencing the party's crucial decisions: under his leadership two-thirds of the party voted against Basu becoming the prime minister in 1996, although the old comrade resents the decision to this day terming it as a "historic compromise''. Though not well-versed in Hindi, Karat became the party's in-charge of Uttar Pradesh as well as Tripura. Today the Malayali claims, "My Hindi is better than my Malayalam.''

The biggest challenge for Karat comes from the youngest Politburo member, 51-year old Sitaram Yechury. A Surjeet acolyte, Yechury, also a JNU alumnus, is the pointsman regarding political allies. He calls the shots outside the party. An economist by training, he is the CPI(M)'s coordinator with the UPA. Comfortable in Hindi and English, the flamboyant Yechury is the party's most visible face on TV. While in 1996 Yechury, like Karat, opposed Basu becoming the prime minister, in 2004 he voted against Karat's directive. At one time the best of friends, today the two hold different views on critical issues. When Karat claimed "the CPI(M) had merely endorsed the CMP, not signed it'', Yechury scoffed at the stand: "Well, the CMP is not a bank cheque that you need to sign before encashing.''

The same bitter tussle between the conservatives and the liberals over the course of reforms is ripping apart the party's Kerala unit. Led by the 79-year old Politburo member V.S. Achuthanandan and E. Balanandan, the conservatives have the backing of the vehemently anti-reform Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). They have begun a purge of the reformists. After the expulsion of scientist M.P. Parameswaran in February, the axe fell on B. Ekbal, former vice-chancellor of Kerala University, and Joy Ilamon last week.


Communist politics in India seems to have come a full circle. Four decades after it suffered the first split-the CPI(M) was formed in 1964-the CPI, vilified for being pro-Congress, has the satisfaction of having the Marxists toeing its line. On its part, the CPI has made a concession. Though not averse to joining the UPA Government, it opted to stay out "for the sake of maintaining the Left unity", as CPI General Secretary A.B. Bardhan puts it.

With 10 MPs, the CPI may be a smaller partner, yet it wields influence primarily because of the membership base of its trade-union wing, the AITUC. It controls the employees' unions in banking, insurance and energy sectors, the PSUs of which the Government might want to disinvest. Which is why when Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel intended to shed 49 per cent of government holding in the Airports Authority of India, he was knocking on Bardhan's doors at Ajoy Bhavan in Delhi.

The CPI, which has 5,50,000 members, is not a party in which the Central Secretariat calls the shots. State secretariats are equally important. Moreover policy decisions are taken by a 31-member National Executive and debated by a National Council. Being part of the ruling establishment entails a small change-the leadership is contemplating a core group of senior leaders to assist Bardhan. They will be the new power centres.

-By Lakshmi Iyer

The hardliners have crossed swords with liberals like Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan, 59, and Central Committee member M.A. Baby. As power minister in the previous LDF government Vijayan had initiated reforms in the State Electricity Board even as the CITU opposed it tooth and nail. "We will resist only those reforms by the Congress-led Government which we cannot agree with,'' says Vijayan. Baby, who had voted for the Left joining the UPA, pretends to be more anti-Congress when he says, "We have no illusion about the Congress given its class character. We will see to it that the UPA policies do not take the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh route.'' Karat rebuts: "Both Manmohan and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram have learnt lessons from NDA's defeat. They are reformists with a human face.''

On the issue of reforms divergent opinions are surfacing between Karat and the more liberal West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Karat, however, disagrees, "Buddha and I agree on all economic policies. Even in 1985 the party congress voted for private participation in the Haldia petrochemical project.'' Although Bhattacharya voted along with Karat on the party not joining the Government, the Bengali, having been in power, is more pragmatic when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts issues.

The power centres within the organisation, however, are not linked to the growth of the party and its frontal organisations. Although the AIDWA's growth rate, from 31 lakh to 59 lakh members over the past decade, has outstripped that of every other CPI(M) mass front, only six of the Central Committee members are women. And the party has only five women MPs.

The struggle between the pro-reformists and the anti-reformists seems like a generational war with the old men comprising the hardliners and the young men, the reformists. And in the second generation, those who have been in power are more reform-friendly than those who haven't. The only difference is that Karat, a leading member of the new guard, has the strong backing of the older generation. His stock is higher in the party, says a party insider, "since he can rein in the reformists and the moderates with his magnetic personality". The struggle, as they say, is inevitable. The synthesis, however, may be a long way off.

-with M.G. Radhakrishnan, Labonita Ghosh and Kavitha Muralidharan