To Shake Hands or Not? CPI(M)’s Congress Dilemma
<> ON 17/09/2016
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By calling the BJP ‘authoritarian’ and not ‘fascist’, Prakash Karat is
attempting to assert himself and his group within the party, which is now
considered to be firmly under the control of Sitaram Yechury.
[image: The future path that the party must tread is causing schismatic
changes. Credit: PTI]

Sitharam Yechury, CPI(M) General Secretary and Prakash Karat (right) during
a party meeting before the Bengal polls. Credit: PTI.

*New Delhi: *Not everything is well within the ranks of the Communist Party
of India (Marxist). Over the past two years, India’s biggest left-wing
party has been debating how best to fight the revitalised onslaught of
Hindutva forces, particularly with the Bharatiya Janata Party government at
the Centre. However, the question of whether the party should align with
the Congress or not in this struggle seems to have divided its rank and
file. A few months ago, the party found itself in a rather awkward
situation when during the assembly poll in West Bengal it fought the
incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) in alliance with the Congress even
while opposing the latter in the simultaneously-held Kerala election.

*A Catch-22 situation*

The CPI(M) has historically opposed the Congress, which introduced
neo-liberal economic reforms in 1991 in India and champions its advance
wholeheartedly. The party, accordingly, perceives the Congress as a
‘bourgeois party governed by the ruling classes’. But during the same
period, it has offered tactical support many times to combat the growing
influence of Bharatiya Janata Party which it considers communal and, thus,
divisive. In broad terms, in its conjoined fight against capitalism and
communalism, the party has been forced to give precedence to the latter
over the last three decades, especially after the Babri Masjid’s demolition
in 1992 by Hindutva groups; which polarised the country’s political dynamic
on religious lines.

The CPI(M)’s twin pursuits of preventing civil strife and gaining political
power have often created schismatic situations within the the party, with
one group inevitably opposed to any understanding with the Congress and the
other in favour of tactical alliances with not just the Congress but also
other identity-based parties opposed to the Sangh Parivar. Both these
propositions were discussed in the Kolkata Plenum the party organised in
December, 2015. After the five-day plenum, the party had decided
it should be open to ‘flexible tactics’ as response to ‘swift changes in
the political situation’, hinting clearly that an understanding with the
Congress party was imminent in the Bengal polls held in April 2016.

With the Left finishing as a junior partner
the Congress in the Bengal assembly, the party’s tactic came into question
again, and since then has plagued the party. While the Bengal lobby in the
party, also supported by the current general secretary Sitaram Yechury,
wants to move forward with broader electoral and issue-based alliances with
the Congress, a significant section of its cadres, led by the former
general secretary Prakash Karat, known as an orthodox Marxist, is fiercely
against any such move.

The party had to face a similar situation in 2008. One may recall that the
Left Front under the leadership of CPI (M) had withdrawn support
the UPA-I government for its decision to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear
deal. It was supporting the Manmohan Singh government from outside until
then. Karat, who was general secretary of the CPI (M) at the time, played
the most significant role in consolidating the Left Front towards
withdrawing support from the Congress-led government.

However, the move that Karat thought would give impetus to the Left
movement in India backfired considerably. Following this decision, CPI (M)
senior leader Somnath Chatterjee refused to step down
the speaker of the Lok Sabha, leading to his expulsion. The UPA-I saved its
government with the support of Samajwadi Party, Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya
Lok Dal and Janata Dal (Secular). The party has lost considerable base
across India since then. The electoral fortunes of the Left Front too has
been sliding downwards. From 50 members in the Lok Sabha, the Left Front’s
numbers collapsed to a mere 24 in 2009 general elections. In 2014, it had
to face it worst-ever defeat with only 12 MPs in its tally, out of which
CPI (M) has only 9.

*A tactical shift*

With Sitaram Yechury replacing Karat as the general secretary, the party
has indicated, in no vague terms, that there is a need to forge broad
alliances with secular democratic groups. At a press conference during the
Kolkata plenum, which was primarily held to decide upon the
political-tactical line of the party in the context of party’s declining
mass base, Yechury maintained that fighting communal forces in the country
will be the party’s top agenda. “The agenda of the communal forces is to
replace Indian history, it’s rich, syncretic history with Hindu mythology
and Indian philosophy with Hindu theology…They are being able to do this
because of state patronage,” he said, implying that the party will be open
to forge alliances with other secular parties in future to keep the BJP at

In the process, the group, a large section of which is from Kerala, that
backs Karat and his advocacy of a militant leftist line within the party
have been pushed to the corner.

*Karat’s view on BJP and its repercussions*

However, the Left Front’s dismal performance in Bengal, and a remarkable
victory in Kerala against the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF)
has re-energised the Karat group once again, as it wants to stick its neck
out again. Karat’s recent article in the Indian Express
that the fight against BJP cannot be conducted with other parties of the
ruling classes, indirectly taking a dig at the Bengal group within the
party, has polarised opinion on the matter once again.

In the article, Karat tries to define fascism by citing historical
references and goes on to say that understanding the BJP as a fascist party
would be theoretically wrong and it could at best be called
‘authoritarian’. Drawing similarities between the saffron party and the
Turkey-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), he concludes that “The
fight against the BJP and right-wing communal forces has to be conducted by
combining the struggle against communalism with the struggle against
neo-liberalism. Since the two major parties — the BJP and the Congress— are
alternately managing the neo-liberal order for the ruling classes, the
political struggle against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the
other major party of the ruling classes.”

However, Yechury was quick to respond to Karat’s thoery in an interview he
gave to the party’s Bengali mouthpiece Ganashakti. Pointing out that the
unlike the Vajpayee’s government (1998-2004), which had ‘coalition
compulsions’, the Modi government is ‘brazenly going ahead with advancing
the fascistic RSS project’. Regarding the party’s standpoint, he quoted
from the party programme that said: “…the threat to the secular foundations
has become menacing with the rise of the communal and fascistic RSS-combine
and its assuming power at the Centre…the danger of fascist trends gaining
ground, based on religious communalism, must be firmly fought at all
levels…the BJP is a reactionary party with a divisive and communal
platform, the reactionary content of which is based on hatred against other
religions, intolerance, and ultra-nationalist chauvinism. The BJP is no
ordinary bourgeois party as the fascistic RSS guides and dominates it.”

Asserting that Indian fascism can be categorised as ‘communal fascism’, he
directly rebutted Karat who, borrowing from European history, premised the
rise of fascism only within a capitalist society. Negating Karat’s
assumption that BJP cannot be called ‘fascist,’ he quoted from Bulgarian
communist leader Georgi Dimitrov’s report to Communist International that
said: “…before the establishment of the fascistic dictatorship, bourgeois
governments pass through a number of preliminary stages and institute a
number of reactionary measures, which directly facilitate the accession to
power of fascism.”

By publicly placing his position against the party’s current stance on
prospects of alliance with the Congress, Karat has asserted himself against
Yechury, perhaps, to unsettle the party dynamic a little. However, Karat
may have got his timing wrong. His opinion comes at a time when both the
Congress and the Left Front have already joined hands in various political
and cultural fronts and have organised demonstrations and protests against
the Modi government together. At a time when the anti-BJP forces are
looking to unite on different issues, keeping aside their ideological
differences, Karat’s view may alienate the CPI(M) further from mainstream
politics, according to political observers. The success of the
*Mahagathbandhan* (an alliance of two traditional rivals Rashtriya Janata
Dal and Janata Dal (United) against the BJP) in Bihar has given a fair
degree of confidence to the anti-BJP forces to think about such
possibilities in other states too.

Recently, renowned historian Irfan Habib, a committed Leftist and CPI (M)
member, too had talked about
need for the Left to enter into tactical alliances with other secular,
democratic groups to resist the Hindutva forces. In an interview,he also
the Left fighting alone and by pitching itself against the
*Mahagathbandhan *in Bihar was a ‘great mistake.’

Karat’s intervention against this broad democratic consensus among secular
political groups, thus, was seen by many as adversarial. Many leftists also
commented that if Karat’s purpose was to rule out an alliance with the
Congress, he should have said it directly instead of getting into the
debate whether BJP is ‘fascist’ or ‘authoritarian’. The CPI(M) in many of
its party documents have regularly mentioned BJP as a ‘fascist’ party, so
there was no reason to rethink about the nature of BJP, party leaders told *The

*A misplaced analysis?*

Leftists, liberal intellectuals, and most secular groups have condemned
Karat’s intervention as ‘irresponsible’ at a time when there is
‘full-fledged attack on communal harmony of India.’ Most were of the
opinion that Karat publicly locking horns with Yechury in such a context
does not portend well for the party’s future prospects.

The former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student’s union president and
Communist Party of India (CPI)-backed All India Students Federation leader
Kanhaiya Kumar was the first one to directly attack Karat. “*Ek bade
purane *comrade hain, JNU *mein padhey hain*. Kehte hain BJP authoritarian
*hai*, fascist nahin hai. Comrade, *agar aapko ladna nahin hai*, retirement
leke New York *chale jaiye*. Hum apni ladai lad lenge (There is a veteran
comrade, who had studied in JNU. He says the BJP is authoritarian, not
fascist. Comrade, if you don’t want to fight, retire and go to New York. We
will fight our own battles),” Kanhaiya said at convention in Kolkata

While declining to comment on CPI (M) internal machinations, CPI leader D
Raja told *The Wire*: “BJP coming to power is not like any other party
coming to power. It is not a usual change of government. One should
understand it. It marks qualitative difference from other political
situations. It is nothing but a political tool of RSS whose ideology is
communal fascism. This is a serious challenge. While the political
situation varies from state to state, there is possibility of bringing more
and more secular democratic forces in our fight against communal forces.”

“Alliances should not be merely understood as electoral tactics. When we
fight the menace of fascism, there is a need to mobilise a large number of
secular democratic forces, individuals, social organisations not only to
build public opinion but also for public campaigns,” he added clearly
refuting Karat’s arguments.

CPI(M) former central committee member and senior leader Suneet Chopra was
overtly critical of Karat’s standpoint. Speaking to *The Wire*, he said: “I
am not concerned at the moment what agreements or disagreements you may
have but you can’t give them (the RSS and the BJP) a clean chit on your
own. Everyone knows the link between Mussolini, Moonje and the RSS. The
interconnections between the RSS and fascist organisations are not secret.”

Pointing out that BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, are nothing but
fascist organisations, he added: “The cult of violence they believe in,
systematic targeting of minorities that they practice, its dream of Hindu
Rashtra and its Hindutva politics are clearly fascistic programmes. It is
well documented. The party programme clearly states clearly that BJP is not
a party like other bourgeois parties because it is under the control of a
fascistic organisation, the RSS. There is no ambiguity”.

Responding to Karat’s opinion that fascism is patronised by the bourgeois
ruling classes only when capitalism is in a crisis and Indian conditions
have not yet reached that level of threat, he said: “Fascism has evolved
under different circumstances in different countries. The fascism of Italy
was not the same as that of Japan. To discount this understanding and have
a fixed opinion on how fascism should be understood (as explained by Karat
in his article) is wrong. One must understand that ‘authoritarian’ is not

Similarly left-liberal intellectuals, too, pointed out that the debate
within the CPI(M) neglects the present political context.

Anil Bhatti, former professor at JNU and an expert in the history of
Fascism, told *The Wire*: “We are passing through a period of transition
where BJP as a party, and the Sangh parivar as whole, with a clear ideology
called Hindutva is rising. People who are outside this framework of
Hindutva are constantly under attack. Secondly, such formations give rise
to irrationality. They do not encourage a scientific temper in society. The
BJP is going back on the fundamental promises of Indian constitution based
on the principles of an inclusive and a just society.”

“The combined danger of communalism and irrationality has foregrounded a
situation where all secular forces should come together with an inclusive
political strategy. We have to go back to the times when nationalist forces
joined hands against the British rule. It is a fight between the Sangh
parivar’s aggressive nationalism, now patronized officially, and secular
nationalism. The left has to follow a flexible strategy You must be aware
of the signals. As wide alliances as possible. I don’t think a formula is
necessary at this stage. What is needed is a perspective.”

The debate may only add to the confusion that the party cadres are
struggling with regarding its political-tactical line at the moment. This
has a direct bearing in the way the party functions on the ground. Under
these circumstances, the party needs to clear the haze it has surrounded
itself with. The strong opinions against Karat gives some advantage to the
Yechury and the Bengal lobby at the moment. However, in a different
political context, the tables may turn again. And that may lead to another
avoidable theoretical debate unless the party actively engages with present
political realities.

Summing up the problems of the current debate within the CPI (M), the noted
political theorist Rajeev Bhargava told *The Wire*: “The whole approach of
looking for definitions and drawing certain political and strategic
conclusions from abstract theorisation of this kind is mistaken. Marxist
analysis should be based upon ‘a concrete analysis of a concrete
situation.’ Definitions will not solve the problem. The whole approach is
mistaken. You have already got a fixed line. If it is fascist, we will do
this! If it is authoritarian, we will do that!”

“The party has to take into account the emergent political factors of
21st century. In India, we are witnessing globalisation, a different kind
of neo-liberalisation, exclusionary nationalism, also tremendous
improvement in the material conditions of a very large section of Indian
people; there is a such a huge kind of demand for growth among a large
number of people although growth itself is controlled by a small elite; our
horizons have changed. Under these conditions, what does it mean to discuss
whether BJP is fascist or not? One cannot use 20th century ideas to derive
possibilities in the 21st century. After all, we are not living in 19th and
early 20th century Germany. Yes, the ideas can help us in analysing but we
have to free ourselves from dogmas. The debate is inane and completely
pointless,” he added.

“I would say think like Sitaram Yechury who seems to be thinking in these
broad categories.  You can’t demand purity from others (Congress) while you
are pure only theoretically while on the ground you have to do a lot of
dirty things. The party needs to think pragmatically and weigh its options
accordingly to take forward the politics of equality, freedom and justice
in the best way possible,” he said.

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