The ‘Congress Question’ in the CPI(M) and the Problem of Historical Relevance

The CPI(M) is currently being rocked by an internal ‘debate’ over what has emerged, to put it in somewhat old-style communist speak, the ‘Congress Question’. I put the word ‘debate’ in quotation marks because, there is a touch of innocence to the way positions in support of a possible alliance with the Congress are being expounded by respected, senior intellectuals like Irfan and Sayera Habib in their letter to the party politbureau or Badri Raina in his article in a leading newspaper. These statements follow the dramatic exit of another widely respected Central Committee (CC) member, Jagmati Sangwan, from the party for precisely the opposite reason – of the CC going soft on the Bengal CPM for having gone against the commonly arrived at understanding in allying with the Congress. There is undoubtedly a potential debate here but since the common reference point in both – the Habibs’ letter as well as in Raina’s article – happens to be the recent election in West Bengal, one cannot help feeling that it is either a  ‘debate’ over a non-problem or is, at best, a question badly posed.

I say this for two reasons. First, the West Bengal CPI(M) [henceforth CPM-WB] is not really fighting any principled battle – all its exertions in West Bengal, contra Irfan and Sayera Habib, are directed, not against the proto-fascist Modi regime but against the Trinamool Congress whose local party apparatus is substantially what it has inherited from the CPM-WB itself. In the present context of West Bengal, what is urgently required is a different Left platform (with different faces that speak a different language) that can take the place vacated by the CPM-WB. In the absence of any such alternative, nothing can prevent the BJP from emerging as the main opposition party – and if that happens, that will be the end of any kind of Left politics for a very long time to come. A ramshackle CPM-Congress alliance as the opposition to the TMC is the surest way of making the Left (even in name) irrelevant in the state’s politics. The CPM-WB’s desire for an alliance with the Congress is motivated not by the need to defeat the Modi regime’s incursions but rather to return to power any which way. This seemed such a distant dream before the elections that the latter was prepared to go into an alliance with the Congress and entertain the possibility of a joint Congress-CPM-WB ministry, even as junior partner, were electoral fortunes to be reversed by the coming into being of the alliance. Thankfully, this possibility seems ever so remote now, following the election results, despite the alliance that we need not worry about it anymore.

Secondly, the CPM-WB has actually used the alliance question as a way of evading the real question at issue: Singur/Nandigram and the whole business of land acquisition (for corporations as well as for the luxury living of the rich and upper middle classes). Till date its leaders have not accepted that their defeat in 2011 after 34 long years, and their continuing unravelling, is a  direct consequence of the rupture that was Singur-Nandigram. Let us recall their facetious explanation of the grand 2011 defeat, from which they have not moved an inch in all these years: Their argument turned on blaming the central leadership for withdrawing support to the UPA government on the issue of the Indo-US Nuclear deal, which led to the break-up of an emerging understanding with the Congress, leading to the massive electoral defeat. One has to be deluded to take such an argument seriously and the electorate of West Bengal showed that it certainly was not. We  have had our own take and written on this matter of withdrawal of support and the role of the central leadership of the CPI(M) at that time itself – that is really not the point at issue here. The point is that this shield of the Congress and withdrawal of support to the UPA government was brought into play as a way of evading the Singur-Nandigram issue.

Till date there has been no expression of remorse or regret from the CPM-WB. So used have they become to the idea of ruling and so confident that they can make  people eat whatever they dish out, that they have forgotten the most elementary lesson of democratic politics: as they say in Bangla, people do not eat grass! Even when they, in Jyoti Basu’s name, dish it out as some kind of delicacy! The arrogance of having ruled for 34 years has gone so deep into their personalities that they really think they can convince the people about whatever they want. Thus not only was there no expression of remorse or regret even during the election campaign; there was in fact, an aggressive campaign for ‘industrialization’ and ‘bringing Nano back’ – which was naturally understood as the threat of more Singurs and Nandigrams. The extent of their arrogance can be gauged from the fact that Rabin Deb, the CPM-WB candidate from Singur went around campaigning in a Nano in the area. So really, what lay behind the CPM-WB’s humiliating  defeat this time was not that it did not have a firmer alliance with the Congress, as the Habibs and Raina seem to think.

All this reflects the distance that now separates old-style communist thinking from the ground situation. To take one benign instance, a common refrain to be heard among all kinds of people – apparatchiks and Left sympathizers alike – is that the party has become ‘cut off from the masses’ and that therefore, ‘we need to go to them and explain our position to them’. There is a heartbreaking naivete and innocence in such statements, which assumes that ‘they’ can simply be explained anything, irrespective of what it is that you want to explain! For 34 years we can rail against the Congress holding them responsible for everything from semi-fascist terror to stalling the state’s devlopment; now we can simply, without blinking an eye-lid explain to them how important the Congress is for the future of the state – and the people are suppose to believe you at all times. Thus the Habibs have the following to say about West Bengal:

In West Bengal, had we failed to work out an accommodation with the Congress, our defeat would have been much severer under the Trinamool’s onslaught, our Party and its members would have suffered still greater attacks, and we would have made the BJP the main opposition party. Our fault was surely that we did not work out in time a common programme with the Congress to present before the people of West Bengal a real alternative to the Trinamool regime. (emphasis added)

The point is actually just the opposite. The CPM-WB is unravelling even as we speak/ write. More and more of its supporters are moving to the TMC or the BJP. And its sudden newfound love for the Congress, against which it has railed for three and a half decades, has only made its desire for alliance with it look suspicious – as a way of coming back to power at any cost. More important, it is the countrywide decay and unravelling of the Congress and Congress-style politics that has led to the rise of the BJP in the first place.

In fact, it is strange to see how much of the Habibs’ language and understanding is rooted in another time – as much of course, as the language of the party. Thus:

The primary object of our Party should, therefore, surely be to isolate the BJP as far as possible, and form a broad united front with all other democratic forces so as to foil the BJP’s plan of gaining control over the states still outside its orbit, and finally, to secure its defeat at the parliamentary elections due in 2019.

For a party that is undergoing its most spectacular decline, to talk of ‘isolating the BJP’ [by allying with the Congress, also in the phase of its most splendid fall] sounds a bit out of tune with reality to anyone not used to ‘partyspeak’. I am leaving out here a more detailed discussion on the invocation of the arcane Dutt-Bradley thesis by the Habibs. This thesis, to those who have the patience for it, was propounded in the context of unbridled sectarianism of the CPI, which stayed away from the mainstream of the nationalist struggle, and exhorted it to seriously build a popular front, given the more immediate context of the rise of fascism and Dimitrov’s thesis on the United Front at the Comintern Congress in 1935. To invoke that thesis in a context where the CPI(M) has been entering into unscrupulous alliances and has become indistinguishable from any mainstream, indeed neoliberal party, is to refuse to understand how things have changed.

One might mention here that Badri Raina’s article linked above also poses the question of an alliance with the Congress as one of a choice between ‘purity’ and historical ‘irrelevance’ – once again wrongly presenting the question. This is not the CPI(M) of the 1960s or CPI of the 1930s where ‘purity’ was an issue. It is now a question of a party that has completely lost its identity and is no different – at least in West Bengal and Kerala – from any other party. And yet it is becoming irrelevant. In other words, it growing irrelevance has nothing to do with its refusal to change and abandoning the desire for purity is in itself no guarantee of remaining relevant.  One could argue against both the Habibs and Raina, that the it is precisely because the purist sectarianism of an earlier time has ceded place to an opportunist accommodation with the system, that the CPI(M) has lost its relevance – and since this ‘system’ is largely identified with long spells of Congress rule, its alliance with the Congress cannot but make it more irrelevant.

What the Left needs to do today is to reinvent itself as a movement that sees beyond elections, thinks afresh about economy and climate change, about the  myriad social questions that confront us today – in ways radically different from old standard ways of the Left but also different from the way in which the Hindu Right presents its alternative vision. The question of ‘crony capitalism’  and predatory corporate loot, especially via ‘corruption’ is also on the table today and the Congress is directly implicated in all of those things. An electoral alliance with it is likely to turn its liabilities into the liabilities of whoever enters into an understanding with it and give a further handle to the Hindu Right.

This does not mean that the Congress can be wished away from the scene altogether in a post-election  scenario. But that is another issue and this time round, it might just be one of the players in the field, not the leading player of an opposition front.


3 thoughts on “The ‘Congress Question’ in the CPI(M) and the Problem of Historical Relevance”

  1. For some reason I have to grudgingly concede some of your points, in particular about the CPM-WB’s inability or rather stubborn refusal to apologise and make genuine amendments to Sangur-Nandigram


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s