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Inner-Party Struggle in CPI(M):
A View from Bengal


"We seem to beat our wits end: should we preserve our values, or continue the honeymoon with the UF?” — muses Mitra, eminent intellectual and MP, in the special autumn (October’97) number of the CPI(M)’s Bengali theoretical journal Deshhitaishi in the autumn number of the party’s Bengali organ Ganashakti, he puts the same thing in another way. The Left has to “accept and abide by the policies of the central government”, says he, “committed as the latter is to fight both the communal forces and the Congress, but at the end of the day we see that we have gained nothing but lost what we had. We must therefore carefully weigh our options once again.” And very significantly, he adds: “In the ultimate analysis, the fight is within ourselves and against ourselves.”

Ashok Mitra articulates here, with sufficient restrain of course, the debate and dilemma at all levels of his party on the question of direct or indirect participation in a coalition government at the centre. This, and the closely related question of socio-economic policies to be pursued by the West Bengal government after its successful assimilation and stabilisation in the existing bourgeois-landlord state structure, have long been at the centre of inner-party polemics. Since a clear-cut social-democratic stance on these questions would require a revision of the 1964 party programme, that was put on the agenda in the 14th (1992) party congress. But neither that highest party organ nor a high-power body specially constituted for the purpose, nor even the next (1995) party congress could clinch the issue: so sharp were the differences at the top. So in theory the ambiguity is allowed to continue, while in practice the party’s evolution in a definite social-democratic direction seems unstoppable. In Basu’s Bengal the process has come full circle with the adoption of the globalisation-liberalisation-privatisation paradigm with all the concomitant socio-political policy shifts; and at the centre the party has involved itself in shaping and running the coalition government much more directly and intensely than during the VP period.

However, there is no dearth of indications that in both these areas a lot of internal resistance remains. For one, it is well known how a Basu-Surjeet move for a formal participation in the UF government ala the CPI and other social-democratic parties around the world— was scuttled by the majority of central committee members reflecting the sentiments of the majority of party ranks. The Chief Minister of Bengal tried once again to force the party reconsider its options by openly castigating the CC decision as a “historic blunder” but even this proved futile. After a brief period of intense polemics, the debate was removed to the back-burner where it was left simmering and occasionally flaring up. A recent case in point was the war of words between Ganashakti editor Anil Biswas, who used his magazine to justify communist participation in coalition governments and the provincial CITU president Niren Ghosh, who vehemently opposed that very policy in the next issue of the CITU organ, Shramik Andolan.

The other major area of inner-party struggle— the mode of administering the party-government mix-up in West Bengal — came out very alive during the recent series of local, zonal and regional party conferences. To take one example or two, the official document of the 15th conference of the Behala West (No. 2) area committee in Calcutta declares, “long 20 years in administrative power has led to lots of opportunism, self-centric attitudes and immoral activities. In certain areas, careerists are hanging on to the party just like fleeces.” The conference document of the nearby area committee No 4 in Behala West deals with the problems in a more down-to-earth manner:

“In our area... the CITU has been leading the trade Union in the Polar fan factory for the last 20 years. The president of this union is a member of the party’s state committee and also one of the national secretaries of CITU. But the TU leaders here are not interested in class struggle. Rather they teach the workers: a struggle may lead to a closure of the factory, so never tread that path, rather try to reach a settlement peacefully... It is also propagated that if the political organisation of workers is built up or strengthened, the factory will be closed down. Naturally, nobody feels like working for the party... the aforesaid state committee member refused to abide by party decision and has engaged in indisciplined activities. Even after being informed about the decisions of the zonal committee, he is busy strengthening his personal domination and organising factions within the party...”

That this is the actual state of affairs in most areas is recognised by leading ideologues like Biman Bose and Nirupam Sen in their articles published in the autumn number of Deshhitaishi. Sen, for instance, gives a long list of unhealthy tendencies such as:

“... Distribution of favours— which draws many a self-seeker around the party...
“the tendency on the part of leaders to personally influence party members so that decisions go in favour of one’s own group... such opportunist methods often lead to divisions in the party...
“the attempts to force decisions by brute majority and the mentality of totally disregarding the minority...
“encouraging sycophancy inside the party... as a result, the leadership finds itself more and more in the company of opportunist self-seekers...”
And so on and so forth, continues Sen, projecting before our eyes the tip of the iceburg. What he seeks to conceal are the widespread corruption replacing class struggle, and the savage forms inner-party feuds are now taking. But these are open secrets today.

“The president of this (Polar fan factory) union is a member of the party’s state committee and also one of the national secretaries of CITU. But the TU leaders here are not interested in class struggle. Rather they teach the workers: a struggle may lead to a closure of the factory, so never tread that path ...” —From conference document of Behala West (No. 4) area committee of CPI(M).

In a good many lower- level conferences held in recent months, the debates degenerated into UP assembly- style scuffles inside conference halls and street-fights outside. In some cases (as in Thakurpukur, a suburb south of Calcutta) even fire-arms were freely used; in some others the police had to be called in for preventing disturbances during the conferences. Allegations like rigging and incidents like tearing off of ballot papers (as in central Howrah) have also been reported. Conference or no conference, the use of hardened criminals to settle scores with rival groups in the party (a case in point being the ghastly murder of Kalipadababu, a powerful leader in North 24 Parganas district, in a crowded train compartment about a year back) do not raise eyebrows any longer.

What are the factors responsible for such escalation of internal strifes? To be sure, in most cases they relate to or originate from fights over money matters, individual ego clashes and petty local interests. But quite often policy matters are also involved. As we have already noted in the official document of the Behala West (4) zonal conference, the question of class struggle versus stability as well as the conflict between party and its TU wing do constitute an important bone of contention in most industrial areas. In rural regions, policies relating to land disputes, wage struggles, panchayat functionings etc. are found to figure prominently in debates in party bodies and conferences. Very recently the Calcutta district conference severely condemned the official policy of hawker-eviction (nicknamed” Operation Sunshine”, it clamed 18 lives a year ago) which enjoys the fullest support of the chief minister and his principal lieutenants in the party and in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.

Another interesting feature of the crucial Calcutta conference was the exclusion of heavyweights like minister Manab Mukhopadhyaya, legislator Robin Deb, the party’s state-secretariat member and ex-minister Shyamal Chakraborty from the official panel and their eventual defeat in secret ballot. This sort of voting is not considered normal in the CPI(M). More significantly, most of the dropped leaders are known supporters of the line advocating formal participation in a coalition government at the centre even with a meagre presence in the Lok Sabha. Similar cases have been reported from certain other important districts like North 24 Parganas. In few districts, of course, the reverse has also happened. Overall, a lot of heat and tension was generated in the process, and almost always the hectic lobbying and behind-the-scene maneuvers were closely connected with power-struggle within the state leadership. The situation became so grave that, speaking in Calcutta on the occassion of the 80th anniversary of November revolution, Jyoti Basu declared, “A conspiracy is being hatched to break up the party.”

With the announcement of elections, however, the whole situation changed considerably. Both the pro-participation and no-participation (in a coalition government) blocs realised the need for at least a temporary truce. But whereas the later group had an upperhand earlier, now the scales seem to be changing. Basu has already begun to utilise his privileged position (as the prized vote-catcher and the most wanted public speaker) to propagate his line in mass meetings. We must not remain bogged in two or three states, says he, we must think big and fight for power in Delhi. While his opponents in the party cannot object to this type of talk on election-eve, the message is easily carried across to the people at large. Public opinion is thus built up in favour of participation, the media enthusiastically lends a helping hand, and opposition leaders from VP to Bardhan to Mulayam step up pressure to make the CPI(M) fall in line. In a situation like this, it becomes pretty hard for hardliners to persist in their no-participation stand. So in the late December Central Committee meet in Calcutta, they almost veered round to the Basu-Surjeet position by agreeing to keep both options open. Of course, this is not to say that the debate is over; rather there is every possibility that it will hot up again once the results are out. As of now, another important debate revolves round the question of approach to the Congress.

“A conspiracy is being hatched to break up the party” — Jyoti Basu, speaking on the occassion of 80th anniversary of November Revolution.

Should the party not enter into some sort of tacit electoral understanding with the Congress — at least in states like UP, as old friends Mulayam has been insisting — to stop the BJP from coming to power at the centre? While some central committee members are enthusiastic about this opportunist idea, others, particularly those from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, object that such a tactic will never be acceptable to the ranks in these states where Congress is the principal challenger. The old dilemma thus continues: if all-India poll calculations demand an understanding with the Congress, ground realities in the base states ordain otherwise.

Between such refined polemics at the top and the crude scuffles below, there is a definite if often indistinct link. As the former percolates to middle and lower levels, it gets mixed up with various ‘impurities’ or regional, even local factors; at these levels it then takes on new forms and acquires new implications, which in their turn provide new textures to the central themeof debate. The interconnections are thus mutual and complex, and they keep changing with time, but a close observer who goes beyond the surface can still study them.

And we must study them--but not as passive observers. The ringside view from Bengal suggests that with sharpening ideological struggle above, savage inner-party power struggle below, and slow but steady erosion of militant mass base at the grass roots, the CPI(M) has entered a period of irrepairable crisis. With the further maturing of revolutionary situation and intensification of our multiple all-India initiatives, a vertical split in the party seems to be a distinct though not immediate possibility. It is with this long vision that we intervene in the polemics: not only in the pages of journals and party congress documents, but concretely in various realms of practice. In the process we unite with them, or sections of them, wherever possible without sacrificing an iota of our principles; and wherever necessary we contend with them or fight them — as in the case of leading people’s struggles against the degenerated Left Front governments. This is the path of unity and struggle and, the whole thing being organically integrated with class struggle in both its grassroots and national-political manifestations, this is the path of advancement of communist movement in India.


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