April 11, 1964. Thirty-two members walked out of the national council of the Communist Party of India at Thyagaraja Hall in Calcutta. The dissidents were against the idea of ‘sharing power with the Congress’. The walkout culminated in the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Fifty-two years later, the CPI(M) is facing a similar dilemma. General secretary Sitaram Yechury backs the desire of the party's West Bengal unit to have an ‘electoral understanding’ with the Congress in the poll-bound state. But a majority in the Polit Bureau does not agree. Observers say the present debate in the party may lead to a split.
The West Bengal unit of the CPI(M) says it can fight Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress only if there is an understanding with the Congress. Yechury supports the view. But former party general secretary Prakash Karat and his supporters in the Polit Bureau are against any “survival tactic”. “The party’s political line is that there will be no understanding or adjustments with the Congress,” said a senior Polit Bureau member. “If Yechury is not able to implement that line, he should quit.”
Party leaders in West Bengal perceive the issue as “power-struggle camouflaged as dispute over the political line”. “The Karat faction is trying a repeat of what failed in the Visakhapatnam party congress,” said a Polit Bureau member who supports Yechury. “The Karat faction’s efforts to install the septuagenarian S. Ramachandran Pillai as general secretary was foiled there, and Yechury was selected to lead the party. Now, they are trying again.”
Pillai, however, dismissed the charge. “The issue is the implementation of the political line, which was decided in the party congress and reaffirmed in the Kolkata plenum,” he said. “Based on the understanding, the PB and the central committee will take an appropriate decision after listening to what Bengal has to say.”
Yechury agreed. “Why jump the gun when the PB and the CC are yet to discuss the issue?” he told THE WEEK.
The Karat faction, however, is comparing the current crisis to what happened in 1964. “In 1964, the party split over the issue of allying with the Congress,” said a senior Polit Bureau member. “Now, the CPI is making fun of us for showing signs of allying with the Congress. If the West Bengal unit wants to go with the Congress, let them do it as Bengal CPI(M), a separate party.”
Party leaders in West Bengal, however, say the comparison is “bereft of any class understanding”. “In 1964, it was about a strategic class understanding—whether to share power with the Congress or to be led by the People's Democratic Front. Now it is a matter of electoral understanding. Even if this understanding leads to victory, it doesn’t mean sharing power with the Congress,” said a party leader in West Bengal. He cited instances of the CPI(M) joining hands with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh and with the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. The alliances had won in both the states, but the CPI(M) decided not to join the government.
The Karat faction, however, fears that an alliance with the Congress in West Bengal would backfire in Kerala, which is also set to go to the polls. The primary opponent of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front in Kerala is the Congress-led United Democratic Front. What is also worrying is that the BJP, which is trying to gain a foothold in the state, would allege that there is a conspiracy between the CPI(M) and the Congress.
In short, the dilemma for the CPI(M) is not just about whether to ally with the Congress; it is also about choosing the state the party wants to hold on to—West Bengal or Kerala. A gain in one will be the loss of the other.