The irony was inescapable.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had a party plenum in Salkia near Kolkata 37 years ago. It had just defeated the Congress in the West Bengal assembly elections and the special plenum was to plan the growth of the party across India. On December 27, 2015, the party again had a special plenum in Kolkata. This time, the discussion was on how to avoid extinction.
The comrades from Bengal seemed to have a simple solution—join hands with the Congress against Mamata Benerjee's Trinamool Congress. It worked well for the party in Siliguri, where it won a municipal corporation, sub-divisional board and a few panchayats with the help of the Congress. But the Kerala faction of the party is vehemently opposing it. The Congress is the party's main opponent in Kerala and it has been running a high-octane campaign against the Congress-led United Democratic Front government in the state.
Both states will go to the polls in 2016, along with Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Assam.
Though the special plenum was meant to address the issues the party is facing across the country, it turned out to be a platform for leaders from Bengal and Kerala to argue in favour of or against an alliance with the Congress. Sandwiched between the factions, party general secretary Sitaram Yechury took a middle path. “The party state committee in West Bengal will discuss any understanding with the Congress in January,” he said.
Yechury has been in favour of close ties with the Congress of late. He works closely with Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi. Many protests in Parliament were shaped by a small number of leaders led by him. Despite this the CPI(M) could not create a conducive atmosphere for leaders to come out openly in favour of an alliance with the Congress. In West Bengal, however, a silent revolution has been on. The state unit followed the tune set by Yechury and launched many movements with the Congress against the Mamata government. Many CPI(M) leaders shared platforms with Congress leaders, and in some panchayats the parties had electoral tie-ups in the past two years.
The Kerala faction, however, says any overt association with the Congress will offset the gains it had made through agitations over scandals involving the UDF government. Kerala leaders wanted the plenum to be a platform to discuss the expansion of the party. “Don’t forget that Salkia plenum in 1978 was a pathbreaking one for us. Only after that the CPI(M) progressed across in India. Today, in this critical time, we should use this plenum to take the party out of the crisis,” said Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Polit Bureau member and secretary of the party's Kerala unit, at the inauguration of the plenum.
For the Bengal faction, not many options are there. Many leaders admitted that a turnaround in the near future would be difficult without a joint movement or alliance with the Congress. Zialur Alam, a CPI(M) leader from Jalpaiguri, asked the leadership to replicate the Siliguri model across the state. “Will you still stick to history or think of defeating the Trinamool Congress which is out to destroy our party?” he asked.
Yechury did not try to hush any of the diverse opinions; he knew he had to take a call on an alliance with the Congress soon and wanted to weigh all options. Many party leaders, including Yechury, subscribe to the theory that the party could make gains in southern states other than Kerala by holding hands with the Congress.
The CPI(M) has come a long way from the days when it mindlessly opposed the Congress. In the last two party congresses it changed its position on forming a government in Delhi. It also tried to pave way for a potential alliance to provide an alternative at the Centre. But on the issue of an alliance with the Congress, the party seems to be held back by a mental block.
In Kolkata, Yechury sold the idea with some success. And he led the party to push the issue to the Bengal state committee to discuss the pros and cons. “Whatever we have achieved is best at this juncture,” said a central committee member of the party. “In January we will discuss the matter and we hope a final decision could be obtained.”
Sensing the growing proximity between the Congress and the CPI(M), Mamata had a meeting with Sonia during her recent Delhi visit and discussed a possible alliance. Sonia sent a representative to the state Congress leadership to find out if it was keen on an alliance with the Trinamool Congress in the upcoming election.
State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has not ruled out an alliance with the CPI(M). “In fact, I had proposed that either we should be allowed to go it alone or have an alliance with the left,” he said.
If an alliance with the Congress materialises, the wheel will come full circle for the CPI(M). Fifty-one years ago, a majority of communists walked out of the Calcutta party congress over ideological differences, and formed the CPI(M). Now, as the party seeks an association with the Congress, there has been no walkout—not even by V.S. Achuthanandan, the only living comrade among those who walked out in 1964.
Friends with benefits
* In 1996, the Congress propped up the United Front government at the Centre. The CPI(M) was part of the alliance, though not the government.
* In 2004, the Left Front supported the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. It withdrew the support in 2008 over the India-US nuclear deal.
* Since 2013, the Congress and the CPI(M) worked together on many occasions in the local body elections in West Bengal. Notably, the Left managed to win Siliguri Municipal Corporation with the help of the Congress.