Sitaram Yechury: The Right Man for a Tough Job
In 1992, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) held its party congress in what was then Madras. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the future of communism itself was in question. Two young men, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury were inducted into the Politburo.
In the two decades since, the CPI(M) has seen the highest highs and the lowest lows. From ruling three states and being the third largest party in the Lok Sabha, the CPI(M) lost West Bengal after nearly four decades in power and has been practically decimated at the Centre.
The decline came under Prakash Karat, the hardliner, who inherited a party at its peak. Sitaram Yechury’s challenge is a far greater one. Reviving a movement and invigorating an ideology from the lowest point.
However, he may just be the man for the job.
Challenges: Bengal, Kerala and Delhi
The new General Secretary has a host of challenges in front of him.
1. West Bengal goes to the polls in 2016. Right now, it seems to be a fight between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, which is gaining ground in the state rapidly. Sitaram needs to invigorate his party’s cadre again, and begin to identify the next generation of leaders.
2. In Kerala, factionalism cost the Left the last Assembly Elections. VS Achuthanandan, arguably the CPI(M)‘s greatest mass leader has been strongly opposed by Pinarayi Vijayan and his supporters, even during elections. If the CPI(M) hopes to rule Kerala again, this divide between the ‘organisation’ and the ‘mass leader’ needs to be addressed.
3. In Delhi, the Politburo is still stacked with Prakash Karat supporters. Any sweeping changes, in both party line and organisation could prove difficult for the new General Secretary.
Shades of Surjeet
The CPI(M) continued to be a political force through much of the 90’s and 2000’s, in part because of Harkishan Singh Surjeet. The veteran peasant leader became General Secretary in 1992, the same year Sitaram joined the Politburo.
Surjeet was a committed communist and an astute politician. He was instrumental in cobbling together the United Front governments in the late 90’s. He became both guide and ‘kingmaker’ for non-Congress, non-BJP political formations.
Sitaram, in many ways, has maintained the relationships that Surjeet fostered. He has an excellent rapport with Sonia Gandhi and members of the ‘socialist’ parties of the hindi-belt.
Sitaram also has friends south of the Vindhya’s, which may help him rally southern parties against the Modi-led government at the centre.
Unlike his colleague and predecessor Prakash Karat, Sitaram is not considered a ‘hardliner’. Like Surjeet, he has no disdain for electoral politics. From his tenure in the Rajya Sabha it’s clear he could help the communists play a leadership role in the fractured and fragmented Opposition.
Organisation, Ideology, Pragmatism: Yechury’s Trifecta
For communists, leaders must have at least one of two qualities. They must either be ideologues, determining and defending the ‘party line’ in changing circumstances. Or they can be organisation men – unifying, managing and deploying the party’s substantial cadre.
Sitaram Yechury ticks both these boxes. He has written extensively on communist principles, neo-liberalism and way back in 1992, presented the Party’s ideological position in the wake of USSR’s decline.
As an organisation man too, he has lots of experience. He has been in charge of the CPI(M)‘s international cell, as well as the Maharashtra and Bihar units.
There is also a third quality that Yechury possesses, one not so common among comrades.
He is likable, has parliamentary experience and is media savvy. With the BJP’s unprecedented dominance in electoral politics over the last year, it’s these qualities that will help him forge alliances to form an effective opposition.
Clearly, the road from electoral decimation to political relevance will not be either easy or quick for Sitaram Yechury. But given his personal affability and political acuity, he may just pull it off.