Karat-Yechury Standoff Reminiscent of Past Schisms Within CPI(M) 
Prakash Karat (R) and Sitaram Yechury (L)
Prakash Karat (R) and Sitaram Yechury (L)(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)

Karat-Yechury Standoff Reminiscent of Past Schisms Within CPI(M) 

It is deeply ironic that CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s desire for his party to align with the Congress in the next elections, has been nixed through Opposition from his predecessor, Prakash Karat.

It is ironic because Yechury had lined up with Karat in the mid-1990s to back the line to which Karat now sticks tenaciously, and from which Yechury is trying to shift.

The real irony lies in the fact that the CPI(M) might actually have made a difference then. It still had a formidable presence in national politics, although it had declined from being the main Opposition party in the first Lok Sabha elections (1952-1957), to being a sizeable but niche fourth largest in the tenth Lok Sabha elections (1991-1996).

Also Read: CPI(M) Decides Against Third Rajya Sabha Term For Sitaram Yechury

Yechury’s formulation for the party’s political resolution is reported to have got the backing of only a third of the top leadership. The majority backed Karat’s draft, which explicitly banned any understanding with the Congress.

Of course, the final decision will be taken at the party congress in Hyderabad in April. But full congresses of communist parties tend to stamp their approval on whatever the politburo and central committee have decided.

The thing to note is that reversing this formulation after the matter has become public, will embarrass the party hugely in Kerala, which is the only sizeable state in which it still rules.

If the party is losing ground, it is partly a result of such hardline positions. The writing was already on several walls back in the 1990s; indeed, dividing lines as well as lines of thinking were being redrawn—except in diehard doctrinaire minds.

The Soviet Union had collapsed at the end of the 1980s. China had already switched to capitalism under the watch of its Communist Party. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the movements released by Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in Russia, the practice of a Marxist system was limited to a few countries like Cuba.

Perhaps those changes only brought dark thoughts about such matters as ‘running dogs of imperialism’ to minds such as Karat’s.

Also Read: Prakash Karat’s Fictions: An Unconvincing Narrative of Revolution

Community-based Mobilisation

Important changes had taken place within Indian politics too – community-based aspirations for social mobility were replacing ideology. Political parties projected caste, religion, and regional identity more openly than before.

The Telugu Desam had set the tone for resurgent regional politics in the early ‘80s, followed later by similar parties that came up in places like Bihar and Orissa out of the wreckage of the Janata Dal.

Religion had already become the flavour of the day with the Khalistan movement from around 1979. The Shah Bano fiasco and the opening of and the opening of the locks at Ayodhya allowed LK Advani and others to promote Hindutva politics aggressively from the second half of the 1980s.

Also Read: Rajya Sabha Now Has a Gaping Sitaram Yechury-Sized Hole

The Caste Card

At least with this unsettling, caste-based mobilisation was renewed. The early 1990s witnessed furious counter-mobilisation of Dalit, backward caste, and upper caste groups in states like Uttar Pradesh. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its preceding organisations (like BAMCEF) had gained ground since the 1970s; the party emerged with five seats in the ninth Lok Sabha in 1989, including that of Mayawati.

Reservation quotas for backward castes, announced in 1990, electrified national politics, spurring parties based on the support of backward castes. To be sure, caste-based mobilisation under the banner of ideology was not new in Indian politics. Former Prime Minister Charan Singh was only one of those who married socialist ideas with backward caste mobilisation.

But ideological positioning seemed less important now, even as window dressing for caste-based mobilisation.

One result of all this was that the CPI and CPI(M) lost ground in states like UP and Bihar. They used to have pockets of strong support in places like Mau, Ghazipur, and the Faizabad district—in which Ayodhya is located—until the temple movement, the politics of reservations, and the rise of the BSP swept up in great waves.

Also Read: Sitaram Yechury Talks Elections, Parliament and Morphed Images

On ‘Another Planet’

All these changes might have been happening on another planet, as far as Karat and his acolytes were concerned. They seemed quite happy to align with parties of regional and (albeit unstated) caste mobilisation, while they focused on the capitalist evil that both the Congress and BJP represented in equal measure.

The fact that the Congress was their major opponent in both the states where CPI(M) leaders could rule – Kerala and West Bengal – must surely have influenced their positions.

On the other hand, they negotiated for a few seats in their alliances with regional parties in states like Bihar, Andhra, and Orissa. That helped them ensure a couple of seats in those assemblies.

Also Read: Sitaram Yechury on Why the Left is Fighting Alone in Bihar

Dogmatism – CPI(M)‘s Ethos

The tallest leaders of the CPI(M) in those days were party General Secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet, and Jyoti Basu, who served as West Bengal’s chief minister for 22 years. Both wanted to align tactically with the Congress against the BJP, against the rise of Hindutva politics. But Karat and Yechury together prevented it—just as Karat has prevented Yechury now.

While doing so, they purged one of the more brilliant parliamentarians of the time, Saifuddin Chaudhary, who some viewed as Basu’s voice in the party’s central committee.

Much water has flowed down the Hooghly—the Periyar too—since then. Karat is no ‘young Turk’ now.

It is striking that he and his followers robustly stick by doctrinaire positions at a time when ‘left politics’ at such universities as Hyderabad Central University and JNU have come to hinge on caste identity.

The future might bring interesting times.

(The writer is a geopolitical analyst and author of ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)