Challenges from left & right
Challenges from left & right. “Who said we communists are against religion? I am Sitaram, my colleague Hanna is a Mollah,” Sitaram Yechury once said in zest. Never the stiff-necked comrade, he is always fun to talk to. And he gets serious and argumentative when needed.
Yechury, with friends across political spectrum and with the experience of an effective member of RS that was not available to his predecessors, can change the CPM course. He does not favour a merger with the CPI, but left unity should be paramount. Karat had ruled out forging a “third front” with Janata Parivar and other non-Congress and non-BJP groupings.
Will Yechury’s line be different? There is an ample room for the Left in general. It can penetrate the chinks in the BJP armour – the Parivar’s targeting the minorities and playing the conversion card. It can attack the social and economic policies of the government. But for that, it has to be less dogmatic
“Who said we communists are against religion? I am Sitaram, my colleague Hanna is a Mollah,” Sitaram Yechury once said in zest. Never the stiff-necked comrade, he is always fun to talk to. And he gets serious and argumentative when needed.
A generation of students and scholars at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) remain mesmerised the way he would dissect issues and articulate his points. And if he was talking about Marxism, one did not have to be a Marxist to appreciate what he said. Whoever was the Communist party of India (Marxist) General Secretary, the media would be dealt with by Prakash Karat and Yechury. Reporting the Left ‘beat’ became easy with them around.
Many wondered how capitalist-run newspapers carried so much news and views of the Left leaders in the 1980s. Of course, the Soviet Union was still intact, then. Indeed, news from the extreme Right to extreme Left would be published. That is certainly not the case now.
Reporting the CPI (M) party Congress at Vazhapalani, Chennai, for The Hindustan Times raised eyebrows as to why a “Birla newspaper” was carrying so much of writing about the party meet, even on the front page. Someone had an answer, too: the newspaper group’s chairman K K Birla and then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu were friends.
Being well-bred Kolkata ‘bhadralok,’ they may very well have been friends, despite opposing political viewpoints. A newspaper speculated during the Chennai meet that the CPI (M) was “shedding gerontocracy” and that Karat was being anointed the party General Secretary. The reporter had no idea how the Left parties function. It took several years for Karat to wear that mantle.
The man to continue in that post was Harkishan Singh Surjeet who had taken over half-way from EMS Namboodiripad who had not been keeping well. I was to do Surjeet’s profile and sought Karat’s help. He let me into a little known ‘secret’ that Surjeet was a poet and did compose poems in Persian and Urdu during his long years in British Raj jails.
I broached the topic when I met Surjeet. He sought to dismiss it with a wave of hand, but I would not budge. Finally, he relented and dictated four lines of highly Persianised Urdu. One could not make anything out of it. Help was not easily forthcoming for translating that kind of writing into English. When translation by a senior colleague did publish, Surjeet commended it.
Both Karat and Yechury were close to Surjeet, who was a master negotiator. Karat is four years Yechury’s senior. Both went to JNU, later called “Kremlin on the Jamuna” by an American diplomat, leaked by WikiLeaks, and went underground during the 1975 Emergency. The genial, media-friendly Yechury has taken over as the General Secretary when he has already been written off by the all-knowing social media as Casabianca, or the last man standing on a sinking Titanic.
The ground reality would be different, but not very. The party performed its lowest in many years in the last Lok Sabha polls. Lost is West Bengal bastion and does not seem poised to recapture Kerala like it does, after losing it though, every five years. A party that has combined mass struggle with pursuing the parliamentary path, has lost on both counts, betraying its disconnect with the people. In any case, its ground support does not convert into votes. And they matter.
The Marxists and communists in general, who aligned on caste and regional lines in some areas, have lost ground that is assiduously sought to be captured by the right wing forces. Four years out of power in West Bengal after ruling it for 33 years, the CPM seems nowhere in that state, while the BJP is the one posing a serious challenge to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
The sole Marxist bastion left is tiny Tripura. The consistent good performance of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has not helped the party much because of the state’s isolated location. Nor can it raise money for the party, having no industry to speak of. The Kerala unit of the party is famous for its faction fighting that showed during the Vishakhapatnam meet between known adversaries, former CM V S Achuthanandan and Peenarayi Vijayan.
Yechury has an unenviable task cut out. Many of the state units are non-performing. The party has never performed well in the Hindi-speaking region which has been its Achilles’ Heel. Despite good performance elsewhere, that has never allowed it to gain a national stature.Can multi-lingual Yechury help? He speaks, besides his Telugu, Hindi, English, Tamil and some Malayalam.
His team includes Mohammed Selim from West Bengal who has spent his early years with SFI in New Delhi. Both Yechury and outgoing General Secretary Prakash Karat were protégés of Harkishan Singh Surjeet who was a master negotiator who succeeded in forging opposition fronts and even played a key role in the formation of the United Front Governments of Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral.
By hindsight, Karat failed to adopt the path Surjeet had charted. And although it was a collective decision of the party, he frittered away the huge gains made in 2004, by influencing the policies of the Manmohan Singh Government, by opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal – because it was with the US. Yechury, with friends across the political spectrum and with experience of an effective member of the Rajya Sabha that was not available to his predecessors, can change the party’s course. He does not favour a merger with the much smaller CPI. But Left unity should be paramount.
Karat had ruled out yet another attempt at forging a “third front” with the just-united Janata Parivar and other non-Congress, non-BJP groupings. Will Yechury’s line be different? It remains to be seen. For both the communists as also the Janata grouping, it is an uphill task with the BJP and the rightwing forces in general being on the ascendance, launching a consistent onslaught on the Congress and the Left.
Yet, there is ample room for the Left in general. It can penetrate the chinks in the BJP armour – the Parivar’s targeting the minorities and playing the conversion card. The Left can attack the social and economic policies of the government. But for that, it will have to be less dogmatic. The communists are losing elsewhere in the world, but India can be different if its communists want it.