The largest communist party in India – Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M) – has been lately beset by not only scandals, but also a crisis of ideological reconciliation in a badly compromised party machinery. The latter has not been discussed much, given the weight of the CPI(M) in left-wing media portals. Focus on trivial controversies has overshadowed long-term structural failings. Capturing the minds of voters and leading mass movements are the only means of political survival for the embattled party, in an arena where left-wing populism exited the discourse decades ago.

Ritabrata Banerjee, erstwhile General Secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), present Member of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha, and his run-ins with his party, CPI(M), have been making the headlines for a few days now. His party initiated a three-member inquiry commission against him when it started receiving an odd number of complaints against him.

The complaints ranged from domestic abuse to a lavish lifestyle unbecoming of a communist party member, reported Ebela on 2 June 2017. He was suspended till the time the commission investigated the allegations against him. He was found guilty by the commission and was swiftly demoted. Banerjee was obviously not one to take things lying low and in a tell-all interview aired on ABP Ananda (12.09.2017) tried to suggest that he was a victim of internal politics within the party.

In his interview, Banerjee named Mohammed Salim (the chairman of the commission) and his son Russel Aziz as his nemesis – the ones who had ensured he be punished. He alleged that he was slandered at the behest of those named, his bank statements procured through illegal means, etc. None of his allegations could be verified, since the papers and the secret recording he carried to the interview were never aired by the channel.

Salim remained unperturbed by the accusations when contacted by the same media house. Being questioned on accusations specifically labelled against him, he said that he does not enter into squabbles between kids (kochi kacha). The implicit hierarchy in this did not go unnoticed and was criticised by many sympathisers on social media. However, something that he said in his response was far more glaring of the rot that has crept in. Salim in response to Banerjee’s criticisms towards the method through which he was adjudged guilty, through which the party takes decisions, suggested that democratic centralism as practised, was a tried and tested formula.

Dissidents and Democratic Centralism

Expulsions in the CPI(M) are nothing new, neither are allegations of throttling individual voices of dissent by expelled members. Ashok Mitra, renowned economist and first Finance minister of the Left Front Government in West Bengal had to make a similar exit over differences. Former Polit Buro member Basavapunnaiah had then labelled him an “individualist” equivalent to someone not meant to toe party lines or adhere to collective decision making. In recent times, perhaps Saifuddin Choudhury, four times Lok Sabha MP, was the only dissenter allowed to make an unceremonious exit as opposed to an expulsion.  The party has become increasingly intolerant towards dissent.

Here, the CPI(M) policy of democratic centralism comes into play, when it comes to defining party discipline and its forms: the idea that ground-level party units elect higher units which are said to represent the popular views within the party, and the indirectly-elected top units/committees which form a party “line” that is not to be crossed (on grounds of “popular mandate” till the next party conference/congress), and are charged with enforcing it on the lower units and cadre till the end of their term. How a supposedly democratic mechanism deals with dissent has distinctly framed the party policy towards popular, ideological or pragmatic dissent.

There has been a broader engagement with these views of dissent and democratic centralism by Javeed Alam, Prabir Purakayastha, Prabhat Patnaik, et all, through various articles in the Economic and Political Weekly and the Journal between 2007 and 2010. Prakash Karat in his defence and critique of these views in The Marxist (XXVI, January- March 2010) had tried to suggest that panels for new committees are formed by outgoing panel members at all levels and there is also a secret ballot in times of contest over panel posts. He seemed to have forgotten his early days as a card holding member of the party and certainly his mass organisation days.

These steps exist only on paper today. We suggest a reality check. One need not go far. Did the Central Committee with Karat as General Secretary of the party send out a missive to far flung branch or local units to collect, collate and pass on opinions to the higher committee so as to help them make an informed decision on issues like the Nuclear Deal, support extended to 13th President Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature, etc? Or were decisions made, ratified and then missives send out for secretaries and presidents in every unit to convince the cadre of the rationale behind it, irrespective of whether they were themselves convinced or not. The time taken by the central committee to pass resolutions on this is suggestive enough.

Karat could then have been suggesting that the Central Committee understands and represents the views of every party member in a manner similar to the bourgeois democracy his party has been critical of. Since Karat’s article in the Marxist went largely unnoticed he could cite Lenin, the Menshevik, the Bolshevik and their debates in the RSDP to buttress his arguments. It is important to note that in 1906, Lenin had himself fought for an amendment to allow criticism and open discussion of Congress resolutions, both in the press and party meetings. It was the Mensheviks who opposed this and wanted Congress decisions to remain unchallenged.

In Practice

Democratic centralism has since been seen by many Marxist scholars as an approach or a method rather than a structure, an approach which had certain dividends to pay in a certain epoch. Like every other approach or method, without redacting it or debunking it, one can still reify it. But for argument’s sake let us side with Salim. And agree that it is a tried and tested formula. Even then he has got the formula all wrong. It is important to note here that what is practised today in the CPI(M) is mostly an inversion of the way democratic centralism was supposed to function. Decisions by the CPI(M) or the undivided CPI afflicted by parliamentary cretinism has mostly been taken on a top-down manner with branch and local units given the responsibility of pacifying cadre post-arbitrary decision-making. Left parties could have themselves adopted a more direct democratic manner of adopting resolutions, observing a shift from the “indirect bourgeois democracy” they see as a tool to future revolution – a party that claims to stand for the common people ought to be more democratic in nature than the status-quoist parties.

From different stances on SEZs, tie-ups with the Congress, since when has CPI(M) top leadership listened to its disgruntled cadres? Since when has democratic centralism, even if an infallible method as Salim sees it, been adopted without dilution?

Post the interview on the 11th, Ritabrata Banerjee was swiftly thrown out of the party. Possibly because of the grave crime of divulging inner party machinations in front of a member of the bourgeois press, that reached the ignorant masses who don’t know better. The decision was ratified by the Polit Bureau and confirmed by Polit Bureau member Surya Kanta Misra.

However, the party has formally refused to inform the Rajya Sabha Chairman of his expulsion which means Banerjee can continue to hold on to his Rajya Sabha seat for now. Is the breather sign of a tacit acknowledgement within the CPI(M) that through the transgressions of Banerjee they now realise that the chickens have come home to roost? Having defied the party in his public statements while voting in line with the party whip prevents anti-defection laws from kicking in, has enabled him to cause immense damage to the public image of his party.

He was after all their blue-eyed boy until a few months ago – and was widely expected (and was expecting) to take over from the retiring Sitaram Yechury as the chief voice of the CPI(M) in Parliament. For whatever his transgressions may have been, he did make allegations of feud and factionalism, something which is no hidden secret; things which Karat in his article in the Marxist had warned about having the potential to distort the practice of Democratic Centralism. If reports are to be believed, this has stirred a hornet’s nest by many questioning why the same yardstick should not be applied to those responsible for periodical leaks about internal actions against Banerjee and organised slandering on social media.

Banerjee was hardly known to be a particularly strong leftist ideologically when he was with the CPI(M). It would be difficult for him to either frame his differences as ideological, or to reinvent himself.  In a way, his exit is a symptom of the shift of the bhadralok away from the CPI(M) – which is beginning to realise that its base needs more leftism while its benefactors are relatively elite elements which would abandon it at any sign of an ideological purity test.

If Banerjee was going to expose the party and its faulty structure and functioning, he could have been better served had he been more accurate. Yechury and Karat were both weak leaders without a mass base and no record of leading struggles, promoted rapidly through the Delhi State and national units of the CPI(M) and SFI in an era when JNU politics had a certain centre-stage that was more than rhetorical, and only a few years after the CPI-CPI(M) split, in which the entire state committee of the undivided CPI stayed with CPI – requiring the CPI(M) to build itself from ground up, and involving rapid promotions.

Talk of Karat-Yechury factions is hence useless – at best they are weak mediators between the powerful state units of the party and allies to various factions at the state-level. The dominant faction in the CPI(M) from the mid-1990s was the Bengal leadership, whose wishes were represented in the Polit Bureau by stateless leaders such as Surjit, Karat and Yechury. With the Left’s defeat in West Bengal to Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress in 2011, and the professed self-purge done by the CPI(M), the Pinarayi Vijayan faction of the Kerala committee became the dominant force in the CPI(M). Currently, the most powerful leader in the party is Kerala CM and former State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, whose writ has run unchecked for many years now – not Karat or Yechury, who play more of a diplomatic and parliamentary role.

Further, if defying core party principles is a yardstick, why were the same standards not applied to former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Nirupam Sen, Biman Bose and Pinarayi Vijayan – markedly pro-capitalist leaders? Or to Benoy Konar and other CPI(M) leaders notorious for making sexist and threatening statements?

The leaders of the left had always been markedly indifferent to public perceptions created by what could easily be termed by them in their intellectual bubbles and political fortress as the “bourgeois” media. But liberalisation and more specifically the broadband boom brought its own share of problems. The youth bred on a steady daily diet of professional wrestling, Coca Cola and English Premier League were not going to be swayed by problems that didn’t seem closer home. They could not identify with the idealist next door, organising blood donation camps, joining hands with wage labourers or sharecroppers. They had after all not breathed the realpolitik of the 70s, never felt the urgency of left politics. Thus, was born the tech savvy communist. And it goes without saying that he (and rarely she) was a media darling.

But while the CPI(M) tried to take the seamless plunge grooming netizens, it failed to realise that the Jagmati Sangwans, Gowriammas and the V.S. Achuthanandans who had ensured their mass connect, or whatever little of it was left, were being pushed to the periphery. It continued to patronise the Pinarayi Vijayans, the Ritabrata Banerjees – many of whom furthered the cause of stark nepotism in the Party. The CPI(M) did, after all nominate its most controversial leader as CM in Kerala, who was perhaps the only top leader to have a big corruption charge on him. Isn’t it a case of the party ranking its cadres then, based on who is media-savvy enough? If well-oiled PR machineries, a sizeable digital footprint and fan following on social media can ensure VIP treatment by the party, why punish the Banerjees alone? If being too friendly with “bourgeois” and “fascist” politicians were a violation, then why did the party not expel Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu and Sitaram Yechury for the same, as they did with Somnath Chatterjee? If Somnath Chatterjee defying the party whip was seen as a serious offence, would one not look at the fact that Prakash Karat took many, many months to pull support from UPA on the Nuclear Deal vote, allowing for the Congress to find more allies among regional parties it could deal with on quid pro quo terms – defying a party resolution to pull support instantly.

No One Else To Blame

It must have been policy decision which catapulted leaders like Banerjee to the fore. If the cadre on the streets is to be believed, such leaders have come to dominate the party and periodic rectification programmes are nothing but hogwash.

Meanwhile, the left with CPI(M) at the helm was unable to ensure any decent representation among Dalits, tribals or Muslims either at the cadre or the leadership level. The only internal debates that the left has engaged in are whether or not to support the Congress party – pragmatic in nature. This brings forth the glaring question – has the Left been ideologically true to itself?

Some media reports (news portal, for example) are suggesting that Banerjee has been offered a cabinet position by the BJP to counter the popularity of Kanhaiya Kumar, ex-President of the JNU Student’s Union. Banerjee also appeared on RepublicTV on the 14th and alleged that he was pulled up for writing Jai Hind on his Facebook. A larger narrative of suppressed nationalist urge was spun. Whether this was done keeping any specific viewership in mind cannot be ascertained but this much can be said that his was not the narrative in the interview he gave in Bengali. In English, his content veered from Jai Hind, Vande Mataram to martial arts training camps in Kerala, in Bengali it was mostly about vested interests derailing a Marxist listening to his inner voice. The time had come to bell the cat, he kept repeating.

Whether these are merely the rumour mills on an overdrive or not, the CPI(M) state and national leaders brushed it aside as if it didn’t bother them. But it must. Labelling dissenters as “individualists” doesn’t hold much water anymore. Banerjee may be guilty of the charges levelled against him but he could do what he did because of his Party’s continued patronage. Ritabrata Banerjee alone wasn’t bourgeois. Sitaram Yechury himself used an iPad in Parliament, even spent half an interview about it, and questioned the pro-public transport Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor project implemented in the national capital – in Parliament!

The Party’s policy in Bengal and Kerala has, for the past three decades, at the very least, been highly “bourgeois” too (a matter for another essay, perhaps) – and a lack of any alternative economic framework since 1991, to sell as an idea to the masses, has hurt the Left badly. The problem of centralism, and dissent against it, is real. Like the “India Shining” slogan of the BJP in 2004 was an abject failure – so was the decades-long left counterpart projection of “CPI(M) Shining” (especially in West Bengal), and the delusional ride that the ordinary cadre were taken for by self-serving establishment leaders came to an end.

If the CPI(M) thinks it still can lead the struggle for the rights of the people who are slowly but surely turning their face away from the party, it is time it gets its house in order. Purging Ritabrata may have been correct, but the party mechanism used to enforce it is part of the problem. The situation for the party seems rather bleak.

Rohit Dutta Roy is a PhD scholar at the University of Cambridge. Saib Bilaval is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Views expressed are the authors’ own, and do not reflect any editorial line.

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