Monday, April 7, 2014

One group has already lost the elections: How leadership fails the Communists

The winners of this election are anybody's guess. But the losers are known: The Communists. That is a pity because space is lying wide open for an alternative to the conservative Congress of vested interests and the ultra-conservative BJP of militant Hindutva. The Left was best suited to fill that void, but lack of vision and inability to change with the times have made it impossible. Indians, eager to escape from the devil of the Congress and the deep sea of the BJP clutch at straws like Aam Aadmi because the Left has managed to achieve a remarkable level of irrelevance.

Not that the CPM as Big Brother of the Left Front has been inactive. Their talk of a Third Front fell flat. Their attempt to form an alliance in Tamil Nadu turned farcical. They have stitched a Progressive Forum to contest eleven seats in Narendra Modi's Gujarat. They will not win one. Even in West Bengal and Kerala, their pockets of strength, they are no longer what they used to be. Are we watching the sunset?

The communists have no one to blame but themselves for their plight. To begin with, they were never a united force. They shifted their policy positions often, took unpopular decisions on key issues and were constantly in-fighting leading to the great split into the CPM and the CPI. B. T. Ranadive thought that independence was the ideal time to launch a revolution and started the Telengana People's Armed Struggle; it would have been a joke but for the lives lost. S. A. Dange supported Indira Gandhi's Emergency.

While the party failed to set down roots in areas it considered fertile -- Andhra, Punjab, Maharashtra where it had strong trade union muscles -- it fared better in West Bengal and Kerala. One reason for its success in Bengal was that the leaders were shrewed strategists who remained invisible while pushing the suave, foreign-educated Jyoti Basu to the front. In Kerala the party benefited from some of the most talented political leaders India ever saw such as A.K.Gopalan and E.M.S. Nambuthiripad.

Obviously leadership matters. And this is where the party has suffered a serious setback in recent years. Where erudition, dialectical materialism and political calculations once reigned, strong-arm tactics and the politics of violence have gained ground. It is now known that behind the 30-year Communist rule in Bengal, there was an element of aggression and vendetta instilling fear among the people. Despite Mamata Bannerjee's autocratic misrule, the communists are not gaining ground because people seem to be afraid of them. In Kerala the argumentative wisdom of EMS has been replaced by violence and murder especially in Malabar, the homeground of today's CPM leadership. By the established see-saw pattern of Kerala, the ruling UDF should take a drubbing from the LDF in this election. But that is unlikely to happen. A CPM leader who rebelled and formed a rival party was recently murdered in a brutal manner and the feeling is widespread that the party leadership was aware of the murder plans. The dissensions within the party are of an unprecedented nature.

In earlier days the party's central leadership in Delhi often acted as an uplifting influence on state units. The last General Secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, was respected by leaders of other parties too for his abilities as a negotiator and bridge-builder. The present chief, Prakash Karat, elicits no such respect. In fact powerful state leaders in Kerala and Bengal are for all practical purposes beyond his command. On critical issues, like the murder in Kerala, Karat backs the leaders unmindful of the negative impressions it spreads among a knowledgeable and politically sophisticated public. Karat represents a generation of eggheads that moved directly from university to party leadership. The absence of experience with the masses is all too evident.

It is nobody's loss if Prakash Karat and his violence-prone comrades become mere footnotes in history. But in an India that is desperately in need of a third alternative, the collapse of the Left will have implications that go beyond the ineptitude of a few footnotes.