Friday, July 06, 2007

The state of the CPI(M)... (this was published in ECONOMIC TIMES, July 7, 2007)

When Prakash Karat replaced Harkishen Singh Surjeet as CPI(M) general secretary a couple of years ago, those who followed the party’s affairs expected significant changes in the party’s line. Karat, after all, was known to have been a hard-liner and was among those who were categorical, in May 1996, that the party dismiss the ``offer’’ to make Jyoti Basu the Prime Minister.

Karat was expected to effect some decisive changes in the party’s line because he belonged to a generation that matured in the political scene witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist block; Karat’s election as member of the CPI(M)’s Central Secretariat (in 1991) was a couple of years after Michael Gorbachev, his Glasnost and Perestroika had lost their early charm and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. In other words, Karat, grew up in times when it had become clear that the old shibboleths of the Marxist diction were losing their appeal. Those were also times when it was established that the communist party will have to seriously negotiate the dynamics of freedom and discipline from a completely different setting.

In other words, the task before Mr.Karat was to re-invent his party’s relevance in a setting that was both modern and conservative. Modern in the sense that means of communication had advanced beyond what was imagined by the older generation and this meant that it was no longer possible to convince the people that the Soviet Union represented an ideal model. And conservative in the sense that the odious caste system was the various other vestiges of the feudal order were sought to be reinforced to sustain the unequal socio-economic order.

In the political realm, Mr. Karat was faced with the challenge to ensure the relevance of his party in the midst of a resurgent BJP, wedded to a revanchist view of history and a Congress party lost in its own ways marked by the dynastic fixation and desperation to sustain itself even if that meant resorting to the communal idiom. And there were such parties as the Samajwadi Party, the Telugu Desam, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the DMK (or the AIADMK), entrenched in the various States as strong forces whom the CPI(M) cannot afford to ignore.

It was a difficult period and Mr. Karat was certainly in an unenviable position. There was, however, a huge potential for him to re-invent his own party elsewhere. The mass movements that were already on in the Narmada valley, in the tribal tracts in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa were crying for a new leadership so that their demands are placed in the political sphere and the linkage between those and the organised unions in the industrial towns are linked up to form an organic unity. In other words, there was the scope to build a democratic alternative that was both political in its core and democratic in its form.

All this seems to have been lost now. And Mr. Karat seems to have learnt all the wrong lessons. He is now heading a party that condones a Budhadeb Bhattacharya, who was guilty of sending a heavily armed force of police to deal with villagers resisting their land being grabbed in Nandigram.

General Secretary Karat is now guilty of shielding one Suhrid Datta, an important leader of the CPI(M) in the Singur region, whom the CBI has charged of rape and murder. Datta, according to the CBI had conspired, with henchmen, to rape and murder Tapasi Malik, a 19 year old girl. Her ``crime’’ so to say was that she was one of the leaders of a struggle by the local people against their land being handed over to the Tatas.

Karat’s party argues that the Singur plant of the Tatas will generate employment, contribute to the growth of the economy and also manufacture a car that will cost only a lakh of rupees. We all know that an auto-rickshaw costs that much today. Moreover, it is a mystery as to why the Tatas are not rolling out a car that costs only a lakh of rupees from their automobile unit in Jharkhand? The smallest car from their factory (Indica), now costs three times more than what they promise!

While Karat condones his comrades in West Bengal despite all this, V.S.Achutanandan, Kerala Chief Minister was in Munnar, last week, to lend moral support to revenue officials of the State Government and reclaim large tracts of land that the Tatas are understood to have encroached upon and converted into tea plantations. The extend of the land, it now emerges, is to the tune of 5000 acres. The question arises as to whether all this encroachment would have been possible without the political leadership, including the CPI(M), letting that happen. The fact is that important members of the CPI(M) in Kerala, Karat’s home state, must have been involved in this land grab. Well. Achutanandan is now suspended from the Politburo of the party. And Karat has refused to speak anything about the eviction of encroachers. Among the encroachers are film star Mamooty; he happened to inaugurate the DYFI’s national conference in Chennai recently.

All this clearly show two things. One that the CPI(M) is no longer a party that can be seen as being guided by a strong and centralized leadership. In other words, democratic centralism, one of the legacies of the Leninist era, is no longer the norm in the CPI(M). This may or may not be a cause for celebration. The second aspect is that the CPI(M) is as vulnerable to corruption as are most parties across the spectrum.

This clearly explains the manner in which the party has been reacting to the charges of corruption and malfeasance that are now being brought up against Pratibha Patil. It now turns out that Pratibha Patil had presided over a cooperative bank whose funds were siphoned out by her family members and that she had, like many other politicians from Maharashtra, set up a sugar cooperative mill and defaulted payments to the government. Karat’s party has chosen to attribute malafide intentions against those who unraveled these facts.