Yechury 2.0

How Sitaram Yechury prevailed over the Karat faction at the party congress

Red salute: Yechury at the CPI(M)’s 22nd party congress in Hyderabad | Manoj Chemancheri Red salute: Yechury at the CPI(M)’s 22nd party congress in Hyderabad | Manoj Chemancheri

Even after stepping down as the chief minister of Tripura, following the CPI(M)’s electoral defeat, Manik Sarkar has half a dozen policemen to guard him from extremist groups. But, last week, when he swapped rooms in Hyderabad’s Golkonda Hotel, the decision had nothing to do with his personal safety. He did not want to be in a room facing CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s 401.

When the Polit Bureau (PB) met on the last day of its 22nd Party Congress in Hyderabad, the Prakash Karat faction tried to propose Sarkar as the new general secretary. Yechury, who has completed only one term, indicated his displeasure. The constitution allowed him two more terms, but, more than that, his logic was: If he had to be replaced, the party should get some other candidate, and not the one who had only a month earlier led the party to its biggest defeat since the loss of West Bengal, seven years ago. That worked. The Karat faction quit, leading to Yechury’s unanimous reelection.

There is no question of allying with any ruling-class party. Appropriate electoral tactics will be worked out during the time of elections. - Sitaram Yechury

It was the second defeat for the Karat faction in three days. In the draft political resolution, Karat, reflecting what was called the majority view, had proposed that the main task of defeating “the BJP and its allies by rallying all the secular and democratic forces has to be done without an understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress party”. But, Yechury countered it with what came to be known as the the ‘minority view’ to have an “understanding with the Congress” in order to fight and defeat the BJP at the Centre.

Since they knew they were in the minority vocally, the Yechury faction asked for a secret ballot, knowing well that several delegates privately agreed with their view. The Karat faction relented that even while a political alliance was out of the question, there could be an understanding with the Congress.

“There is no question of allying with any ruling-class party,” Yechury told THE WEEK. “Appropriate electoral tactics will be worked out during the time of elections.”

According to him, the factors that constitute a political alliance would vary. “It could be a political front—such as being in a united front,” said Yechury. “But, that has never been our party’s character. Our USP has always been outside support.” Asked about the possibility of an arrangement as during UPA I or when the party supported the Janata Dal-led coalition from the outside in 1996-98, he said, “Let us see how the concrete situation emerges. Then we will evolve appropriate electoral tactics.”

The decision has brought relief to many in the opposition, especially Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who is known for taking inputs from Yechury. Despite its lack of numerical strength—in Parliament or outside—the CPI(M) has been a binding force among the the opposition ranks, given the party leader’s acceptability across the non-BJP political spectrum. Also, the party still commands enough strength in West Bengal and Tripura to help anti-BJP forces. “I am glad that the CPI(M) has finally abandoned the completely mistaken equidistance line,” Congress ideologue Jairam Ramesh told THE WEEK. “But, in Kerala, the CPI(M) and the BJP have secret understanding. That, now, must be buried.” Interestingly, Ramesh had been Yechury’s partner in drafting UPA I’s common minimum programme.

Though the CPI(M) says that it will support the strongest candidate who can defeat the BJP, in places where the left is not putting up its own candidate, how this strategy will work on the ground will have to be seen. West Bengal, for example, is a state where the left has to fight both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, and fighting the latter would mean splitting of the anti-BJP votes.

Yechury’s vehement opposition to the Karat line was mainly aimed at guarding the interests of West Bengal. Though the political line declared by the CPI(M) in 2015 was that there will be no understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress, the CPI(M) and the Congress jointly fought the 2016 assembly elections. Later, the CPI(M)’s Central Committee (CC), at the behest of Karat, gave a ruling that what happened in West Bengal was not in consonance with their political line.

Interestingly, Brinda Karat, second in command of the Karat faction, ruled out the possibility of a repeat of 2016 in Bengal. According to her, Yechury’s “minority view was not accepted. It was not accepted or rejected. It was agreed that the party would redraft the political line”. But, as the Brinda spin had most leaders tied up in knots, the Yechury faction fielded PB member Mohammed Salim to untie them. Asked about Brinda’s interpretation of the new line in West Bengal, Salim said: “History may not repeat itself. But history can repeat in a different form. For that matter, there is substantial change in the political line. That there will be no understanding with the Congress has been deleted from the political resolution.”

The spat between Brinda and Salim, which broke out even before the end of the party congress, is an indication of what is in stock for the CPI(M) leadership. That the Karat-faction is not yet ready to concede defeat also means tougher days ahead for Yechury. But, he took a rather philosophical line, at least in public. “There is no winner or loser; the party has won,” said Yechury. “For the last one year, the dispute was over those two words—no understanding [with the Congress]. In the final resolution adopted by the party congress, those two words have been dropped.”

The war over nuances provided much mirth to friends in other parties. Quipped Jairam Ramesh: “JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] once said that when the revolution comes to India, the comrades would still be arguing over the right words and formulations.”

The political-organisational report passed in the party congress, which sums up the political development of the last three years, candidly admits that “the differences in the PB on the political-tactical line and its implementation had its impact on the work of the Party Centre... [in] the forging of a broad platform against communalism, the development of class and mass struggles, and the efforts to build a left and democratic alliance and front—these could not be pursued with a common assessment and single-minded attention.”

The new PB and CC elected in Hyderabad is a repeat of the election at the Visakhapatnam congress. In both the committees, the Karat faction has the numbers. Yet, Yechury could prevail, especially during the last one year, when the ideological faction fight was at its worst.

Perhaps, it was his transparency that helped. When his plea for an understanding with the Congress was rejected at the Kolkata CC early this year, he openly told the media that he had got the support of only 31, against 55. In Hyderabad, Yechury told the party congress that what “Karat presented is the majority view of the CC”, but, that “does not mean it is the party view”. Apparently, it was his pragmatism and his appeal to reason that finally prevailed.