An unexpected oversight by the Election Commission (EC) of India has provided the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with ample time to deliberate over an issue which has significant bearing on its future. Though the matter has been discussed within the party for several months in a low-key manner, if it is not handled pragmatically and reviewed according to the necessities of the time, someone in the party is sure to remark in future that this was Himalayan Blunder Part Two!
At the heart of the matter is party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his tenure in the Rajya Sabha, the second term of which ends on 18 August. The question is whether he should be given another term, since the Congress leadership indicated support for his candidature. Of the six seats that fall vacant, the Trinamool Congress is certain to secure victories of its five nominees. Yechury is being mentioned for the sixth seat with Congress support.
Yechury was elected from West Bengal for the first time in August 2005, the year Prakash Karat was elected General Secretary of the party. Brinda Karat, wife of Prakash, was also voted to the Rajya Sabha from the same state. In 2011, when their terms ended, Yechury was re-nominated, but Brinda Karat bowed out of the race.
At the heart of the matter is party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his tenure in the Rajya Sabha
The simmering controversy in the party stems from the long principle that the party general secretary does not become a member of Parliament. But Yechury holds the office of the General Secretary while being member of the Upper House because he was already half-way into his second term when he was elected the party boss in 2015.
The other 'convention' preventing Yechury's re-election is that the party has never given any member more than two terms in the Rajya Sabha. The only time this was allowed was for Ramnarayan Goswami, one of its members in the late 1980s and 1990s. But his first term, if it can be actually called that, was for just nine months long as he was initially elected in a bypoll.
These distinguishing traditions became part of the CPM's practise when politics was characteristically different and the party did not prioritise its active presence in Parliament. The thrust of communist parties previously was dramatically different compared to the past decade because its front organisations — labour, peasants' and youth wings — carried greater organisational clout than the parliamentary party. These bodies don't have the clout of the past and the CPM must mark its presence on every platform available.
The united CPI, even after the formation of its government in Kerala in 1957 for the first time under EMS Namboodiripad, accorded greater importance to party organisation than government. This trend continued when the Left Front government in West Bengal was established under Jyoti Basu. In the CPM model, the party remained 'superior' to government and it was a common allegation of adversaries that party officials in district and block levels micro-managed government officials. Consequent to this principle, the CPM gave less importance to its parliamentary party.
To go back to the lapse on part of the EC: On 16 May, it announced biennial elections to Rajya Sabha for ten seats from West Bengal, Gujarat and Goa. As per the schedule announced, the poll process was due for notification on 22 May and polling was scheduled for 8 June. But on 22 May, the EC issued a fresh three-line press release. Without assigning reasons, it withdrew its previous order and said fresh dates would be finalised "in due course". Informally, the EC let it be known that the postponement is due to the upcoming presidential elections, due in July, and the challenge to political parties to disprove charges that electronic voting machines can be tampered with. It is difficult to comprehend the mix-up because the presidential poll did not become due overnight.
Meanwhile, the West Bengal unit of the CPM has formally passed a resolution seeking another term for Yechury. This will be considered by the Politburo when it meets next in June. But the proposal is already being opposed by many in the national leadership and in some states. Yechury, for his part, has stated that he is not keen on another term because of the past convention.
The opposition is being seen as mainly coming from the Karat group, which is undoubtedly politically conservative compared the current General Secretary's known political pragmatism. It needs recalling that the decision to forge an alliance with the Congress for the assembly polls in 2016 was at his behest. Its failure gave a shot in the arm to his critics, who argue that the party's revival has to be based on the principle of ekla chalo re — walk the path alone.
However, just as the refusal of the apparatchik to allow Jyoti Basu from becoming prime minister in 1996 was a missed opportunity, turning down the proposal for another term to Yechury will be repented by the party in future. Parliamentary politics has become particularly significant in the present political climate and it would be infantile to argue that the best hands should be reserved for mass politics and organisational engagements exclusively.
The additional problem is that in the event of the CPM not nominating Yechury again, it will be tough for the party to get anyone else elected in his place from West Bengal. The party with its Left Front allies has just 32 members and though it may get the support of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, it may not still be enough. The party is currently down to just eight members in Rajya Sabha. The added crisis is that the other two members from the state, Tapan Kumar Sen and Ritabrata Banerjee, are due to retire within the next three years. Effectively, the CPM will not have any representative from West Bengal after 2020.
In the event of the CPM not nominating Yechury again, it will be tough for the party to get anyone else elected in his place from West Bengal
Sticking to past dogma and refusal to sense that changing times make alterations in theory and practise necessary are among the primary reasons behind the CPM and other Left Front constituents losing steam. Parties must stay firm on principled positions but not when these are rooted in archaic political realities. In the age of 24x7 news TV, Parliament is one of the most visible arenas of politics and credible interventions always ensure primetime coverage. As part of a wider strategy to make a political comeback, the CPM needs to put its best foot forward in Parliament. It needs to ensure its best speakers are elected to Parliament whenever they have the opportunity.
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