C O M M E N T A R Y
Red peril - 1
[As strong as the CPI-M appears, it is internally haemorrhaging, says D.N.Ray. Part 1.]
20 March 2008: Scaring the Manmohan Singh government from signing the Indo-US nuclear deal, and fresh from an election victory in Tripura, the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) would appear never to have been stronger. But beset by leadership struggles, pulled apart by regional differences, and ideologically confused and moribund, the CPI-M, in fact, faces a bleak future. While Prakash Karat, the CPI-M’s general secretary, controls the party, he is not necessarily leading it.
In opposing the nuclear deal more stridently than his chief rival in the party, Sitaram Yechury, and such detractors as Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the West Bengal chief minister, and Jyoti Basu, Karat has won support of the hard-line majority in the CPI-M. But on economic issues, that form the base in Marx’s theoretical superstructure, Karat has compromised, although his supporters blame Yechury, who has an economics degree and handles the party’s economic affairs.
Speaking in Cuba in 1997 on the future of Socialism, Karat called for “flexibility in the management of the economy and multiplicity of the forms of ownership of property at different stages”. He sought “a fresh look at Marxist theoretical work on economic development. This requires giving up the entrenched notion of public ownership being equated with only State ownership”. He said that “Central Planning as a singular/ centralised model must give way to plans at different levels and the vital element of popular participation.”
Karat was perhaps plagiarizing from Euro-Communists, crushed by the demise of Soviet Russia. But when Karat succeeded Harkishen Singh Surjeet as general secretary in April 2005, the minimum concessions on economic policy he had advocated in Cuba unstoppably maximized, for which Yechury, Buddhadeb and Co have been blamed, and unfairly perhaps.
Although a majority in the CPI-M’s central committee was thought to have opposed the UPA government’s SEZ policy, the party still supported its passage in Parliament. At stake was the West Bengal government’s planned chemical hub in Nandigram, to which only the present Kerala chief minister, V.S.Achutanandan, was ideologically opposed.
When local resistance to the Nandigram SEZ lead to a carnage by police and CPI-M workers, the blame passed solely to Yechury, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Biman Bose, the West Bengal party chief, and Manik Sarkar. The majority in the central committee that had resisted the SEZ policy but not resisted it enough felt that the state violence in Nandigram had blotched the CPI-M’s image. But they should have shown courage to reject the Nandigram SEZ project right in the beginning. On the other hand, Karat has emerged from Nandigram almost blameless, his stand on SEZs unknown, although, as the party chief, he should have taken the rap.
Karat and the CPI-M have been Janus-faced on SEZs, the patents’ issue, and even to an extent on the Indo-US nuclear deal. While enabling the SEZ Act in Parliament and pushing for Nandigram, the CPI-M also kept up pretence of opposing aspects of the policy once SEZs became contentious among farming communities all over the country and politically controversial.
The UPA government only accepted the CPI-M’s demand for a cap on SEZ size, but at the higher end of five thousand hectares, and has retained the tax holiday and concessions to SEZ promoters for ten years. As CPI-M watchers have remarked, the entire opposition of the CPI-M to SEZs seems proforma, procedural rather than substantive, and the party must feel wrenched that strong arm tactics didn’t retrieve Nandigram.
And then, a month before Prakash Karat became general secretary, the CPI-M – not so astonishingly – supported the UPA government to amend the Indian Patents Act for the third time. The amendment permits a drug company to extend a patent to a previously uncovered disorder. When an ordinance was first brought for the amendment in December 2004, The New York Times, usually supportive of drug multinationals, said that it would adversely impact the health of “hundreds of millions of people in India and worldwide…These rules have little to do with free trade and more to do with the lobbying power of the American and European pharmaceutical industries.”
Yet, neither in December, nor months later, Karat blocked the amendment. This was the man who, in 1998, using his clout in the party, obstructed Jyoti Basu from being prime minister, who called this a “historical blunder”. Party leaders say Karat has ceded economic policy decision-making to Sitaram Yechury, which, if true, constitutes a serious demerit in a general secretary, who cannot do his own economics. On the other hand, there are those who say Karat is hoping for Yechury to make mistakes to finish him. Either way, it calls attention to the serious ideological/ personality clashes in the CPI-M that could undermine its politics.
Indeed, such is the “libertinism” in the CPI-M that Jyoti Basu, a veteran of the party’s politburo since 1964, its first politburo, spoke in defence of capitalism. Party insiders say that Basu embarrassed the CPI-M leadership, but it is not clear if it was more embarrassed by ideological opponents like the BJP seizing on his statement and ridiculing the party. Prakash Karat’s attempt to control the damage made Basu look worse and did nothing to redeem the party.
“Com. Jyoti Basu,” said Karat, “has explained (the nature of capitalist development) in West Bengal and the role of the Left Front government on the basis of the perspective of the CPI-M…The CPI (M) knows fully well that in the states where the Left is in government they cannot build socialism, but undertake some alternative policies within the capitalist system….”
C O M M E N T A R Y
Red peril - 2
[ Anti-Americanism turns the CPI-M against the Indo-US nuclear deal, says D.N.Ray. Part 2.]
22 March 2008: Either of two things can be said about Karat’s defence of Jyoti Basu. One is that this is the party line, and it meshes with what Karat spoke in Cuba in 1997 on the future of Socialism. In which case, Karat is in sync with Yechury and Co on everything or most everything from patents to SEZs to reaching an accommodation with capitalism. Or, Karat finds himself limited on economics, or has deep differences with Yechury et al’s economic policies, but either to preserve party unity, or since he finds himself infirm, lets them prevail. That would mean Karat is not a powerful general secretary, as sometimes portrayed, or, the party is divided on economic policy, and that Karat is provisionally managing the contradictions. In that course, a split in the CPI-M cannot be ruled out, with the liberal Right and conservative Left sections pulling apart.
Part of the reason for Prakash Karat’s hard-nosed opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal is that it keeps a party divided on economics someway together on politics, or, at any rate, a strategic issue. It also serves the CPI-M’s political objective of wooing the Muslim minority by demonstrating that it alone prevents the Congress-led UPA government from operationalizing the nuclear deal with the United States. This way, in the competition to woo Muslim votes, the CPI-M attempts to trump the Congress. And simultaneously, it adheres to its often declared objective of keeping the UPA in power to shut out the BJP.
But even as the CPI-M rejects the Indo-US nuclear deal, it has, on principle, no quarrel with the central American objective of seeing India stripped of its strategic weapons. The CPI-M did not support the Indian nuclear test of May 1998. It holds that India’s unilateral moratorium on testing is a step in the right direction. “The CPI-M believes,” said a party insider, “that developing a nuclear arsenal is a futile exercise. It believes that the nuclear race in the sub-continent has given the US scope to intervene much more effectively than ever.”
With the US in decline in an increasingly multipolar world, its need for India outweighs any advantage to be got by playing Pakistan against it. Also, in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Mrs Indira Gandhi reached the exact opposite of the CPI-M’s conviction, that a nuclear deterrent alone would prevent US excesses against India. It is this conviction that spurred Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and presently propels Al-Khamenei’s Iran to seek nuclear weapons. Besides, India faces the greatest strategic threat from China, which claims Indian territories and provoked a war in 1962, and that threat can only be met with nuclear weapons. The CPI-M has never been able to tell why it is okay for China (or, for that matter, the other great powers) to possess nuclear weapons but not India.
Be that as it may, the CPI-M opposes the nuclear deal guided by its anti-Americanism, which, in turn, is fuelled by its desperation to adhere to some political ideology, having sold out on economic policy. While the CPI-M has compromised much under Prakash Karat, anti-imperialism remains his last hope for himself and for the party.
In February when he visited China, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh’s advisors told him that in case the Chinese supported the nuclear deal, the CPI-M would surely fall in line. The Chinese did no such thing. But even if they had, the CPI-M would not have played along. While the Communist Party of India split two years after the 1962 Chinese aggression and a pro-China CPI-M emerged, its principal leaders, E.M.S.Namboodiripad, Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet, were not hard line pro-Chinese. Then, within a few years, the Chinese Communists served a deathly blow to the CPI-M by supporting its splinter group, the Naxalites.
In consequence, the CPI-M became equidistant from both the Soviet Union and China. But the demise of the Soviet Union prompted anxieties about the US as the sole superpower. The CPI-M sees China as a counter to the US, which is why it seeks a level playground for Chinese investments in India. If not China, it certainly wants India in the company of the BRIC states, that is Brazil, Russia and China. On the other hand, if China supports the nuclear deal with the US, that would be akin to two enemies coming together, and it would doubtlessly repel away the CPI-M. “What have we to do with China?” Prakash Karat asked this writer. “We will not support the deal even if China supports it.”
Manmohan Singh’s problem is that he has not understood the desperation of Prakash Karat and the CPI-M’s anti-Americanism. But Manmohan Singh is a time server. After the 2009 elections, he will be forgotten, if he is not selected a second time as PM. Prakash Karat, on the other hand, is battling a crisis in the CPI-M that he won’t admit of. His laudable opposition to the nuclear deal for all the wrong reasons symbolizes not strength but the growing evisceration of the CPI-M.
[ D.N.Ray is a veteran CPI-M watcher.]