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Left in the lurch

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Out of power, their membership going down, the in are in danger of becoming history - and its leaders are finally waking up to it.

Nearly 20 years ago, Sitaram Yechury, some months short of 40, had sat down to prepare a crucial ideological document as a GenNext leader of his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). Just a month before he presented it in January 1992, the Soviet Union had disintegrated into 15 smaller countries. Communist regimes across Europe had bitten the dust. was growing by leaps and bounds ever since had abandoned state-led growth and opened up the economy in 1979. India too had liberalised some months ago. The debate between communism and free markets was over. Almost two decades later, this Tuesday in Delhi, Yechury, now close to 60 and no longer the Young Turk, did something similar and presented the first draft of a contemporised ideology — a survival guide, if one may call it — to the CPI(M) politburo at its meeting in AKG Bhawan, the party’s headquarters.

Far from their lofty dream of giving history a helping hand, communists like Yechury know they are one small push away from becoming history. Their numbers are down from 60-plus in the last to 25-minus in the current one. Their vote share slipped from 5.66 per cent in the 2004 elections to 5.33 per cent in 2009. They have been voted out of all states, including impregnable West Bengal, except Tripura.

At its last congress in 2008, the CPI(M) had said its membership numbers were up 13.18 per cent since 2004. Among the states, West Bengal had recorded the highest increase accounting for over 40 per cent of the growth in numbers. Political observers say that the next party congress scheduled in 2012 will give the true picture — the hangers-on who were there because of the winning machine the party had become in West Bengal will go away and membership is bound to plunge.

* * *

The signs of decline have started to show up. In the mere five months since it ceded Writers’ Building (the seat of government in Kolkata) to the Trinamool Congress, the CPI(M) admits that over 600 of its branches and local committees in the state have shut down. The cadres, the core strength of the communists, have seen large-scale erosion. In the industrial town of Haldia in East Medinipur alone, the CPI(M)-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has witnessed a 10-15 per cent erosion in membership, says its general secretary, Kali Ghosh.

In fact, CITU’s membership has fallen from 1.8 million in 2009 to 1.7 million in 2010. Clearly, the communists’ hold over industrial workers has weakened. Disenchantment over prolonged confrontation with the management, and the hardships it brings, runs high among workers. “Most of the crossover,” Ghosh says, “has happened in the transport sector, largely due to opportunism. They want to be on the winning side; there are many illegal autos plying; they just want protection.”

Others know the rot runs deeper. In Mumbai, where the communists were once close to the mill workers (the communists led the protest in 1906 against the arrest of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, which led Lenin to famously remark that “the mill worker of the East has awakened”), they have lost ground to the Shiv Sena. Ever since it was formed in 1966, the Shiv Sena has weaned away Marathi workers with promises of better jobs. “The reason these workers and unions are going to all the other parties (each worker is affiliated to one of the 24 mill unions which in turn are affiliated to different parties) instead of coming to us is that we are not that strong anymore,” admits Prakash Reddy, secretary of the Communist Party of India or CPI in Mumbai. While the party has been urging the working class to vote on issues of inflation, unemployment and education, most mill workers choose to vote on caste and community lines.

Reddy is one of the few communists who read the emerging signals rightly. The recent strike at the Maruti Suzuki plants in Gurgaon and Manesar near Delhi is by and large independent of political affiliations. At Manesar, for example, it had initially appeared that the workers were veering towards the CPI-affiliated All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). But after the first strike ended in June — there have been a series of strikes since then — a number of other trade unions including Hind Mazdoor Sabha, and New Trade Union Initiative stepped in to advise the workers. “But we have chosen to remain independent and do not want our union to align with any particular political party,” says Kuldeep Janghu, general secretary of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union.

National Secretary admits that while overall membership has not slipped, its presence in the organised sector has certainly gone down. “We are getting members from the unorganised sector — construction, plantation and bidi workers et cetera,” he says. Still fiery at the age of 74, AITUC General Secretary and CPI Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Gurudas Dasgupta is unfazed by the developments: “The struggle is on. Look, recently 400,000 coal workers went on strike; there was a loss of Rs 100 crore.” Sitting in his Delhi office — a brick building with the red CPI(M) flag on top and a huge poster paying tribute to M K Pandhe, who died this August, at the entrance — Tapan Sen, CPI(M) MP, says trade unions are no longer communist vote banks. “Workers,” he says, “have their own political beliefs and there are various kinds of chemistries at work such as feudalism, caste and religion.”

The communists’ popularity among students is also under question. CPI(M) office-bearers claim that overall student membership has increased, but admit it has fallen in the priority states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Small farmers and farm-workers too are slipping away from the communist hold with the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party and other political outfits that champion the cause of the backward castes and Dalits across the country. These communities — industrial workers, farm-workers and students — kept the communists going for several decades.

* * *

A visit to Ajoy Bhavan, the CPI headquarters in Delhi, is revealing. The dwindling numbers of visitors add to the deserted look it bears. But for a middle-aged man at the entrance who guides you to general secretary A B Bardhan’s third-floor office, the building is eerily empty. The creaky, slow-moving lift with a noisy wooden door is suggestive of the time warp those who work here might well be caught in. CPI National Secretary and MP D Raja is lecturing a handful of people on workers’ rights. The book stall on the ground floor that sells communist literature has few visitors. In a room next to Bardhan’s office, a CPI official is busy sorting papers. Paper is something one finds in abundance at all communist offices.

Not long ago, at a lecture held in memory of Pandhe, Bardhan had said that the issues raised by Anna Hazare such as corruption and price rise had always been raised by the Left. “But we were not able to mobilise the kind of support he did.” The pain of having missed the bus is unmistakable. In his sparsely-furnished office, sitting behind a wooden desk under a fan, Bardhan says Hazare caught the popular imagination because the issue touched people and they thought it was free from partisan politics. “What they don’t realise is that this isn’t a simplistic solution. A Lokpal Bill alone won’t bring an end to corruption.”

Bardhan knows that the situation requires out-of-the-box thinking. “We are trying to rouse people’s political consciousness through our propaganda machinery but we are being only 10 to 20 per cent successful,” he says. He terms the pullout of support to the government over the nuclear deal as a “big blunder on which we had differences with the CPI(M) (the party formed after the CPI split in 1964).”

Sometime back, Yechury had proposed the merger of the CPI and CPI (M). Mention it to Bardhan and his eyes light up. “That,” he says, “will be a miracle. Where else will the two parties go?” Will it work? “Some years ago, this proposal was first made by Bardhan. He had been snubbed badly back then,” says Monobina Gupta, the author of Left Politics in Bengal. So, isn’t it just wishful thinking? A wry smile replaces the sudden twinkle in Bardhan’s eyes: “It may not happen in the near future. There are issues, and egos.” Yechury also knows it won’t be easy. “While the emotional sentiment of unity exists, there is a lot of historical baggage that will have to be shed before that can happen.”

All India Forward Block General Secretary Debabrata Biswas is clearly angry at the mess the communists have landed themselves in. “Communist parties in India need to stand on Indian soil and look at issues from the Indian context,” he lashes out. “Instead of taking inputs from the grassroots and addressing them, they have a top-down approach where they thrust their view on people.” Leftism, he adds, will exist because it is not confined to the Left Front. “But what needs to be seen is will the Left Front lead Leftism in India or will Leftism lead the Left Front.” Some jargon, but are there takers for it?

* * *

Back in Kolkata, nothing is perceptibly amiss at the CPI(M) headquarters at Alimuddin Street. The top leaders still make it to office on time; they are programmed to. The support staff too is around in full strength. Despite this, the usual buzz surrounding major events, something that the life-size paintings of Engels, Marx and Lenin had witnessed for over 30 years, is missing. “The whole gamut of global politics has changed. We will take cognisance of what’s happening in the international situation,” says former West Bengal industry minister and a strong advocate of industrialisation, Nirupam Sen. Driving away “evil and exploitative” businessmen hurt the aam admi of West Bengal during the 34 years of communist rule. No prizes for guessing who they blame.

In New Delhi, the communists have been away from power since their divorce from the United Progressive Alliance three years ago. Yechury and Bardhan’s assertions reflect this loneliness and the desire for introspection and change. The loss for Sen and his comrades in West Bengal is still new. so he can choose to blame the international situation rather than look inwards for the mess back home. Realisations will follow as the comrades take the lonely road ahead.

(Arghya Ganguly contributed to this article)

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