The bruising electoral fight in West Bengal is, even though unsaid, a litmus test to determine who between the two — former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat or the current incumbent Sitaram Yechury — was right in pursuing their contrasting lines on the Congress.
Their contrasting lines have been the driver of internal politics in the CPM. Since the party dominates the Left Front, their rivalry, springing as much from their contrasting lines as from their personalities, has influenced the Front as well.
From the time the Left withdrew its support to the UPA-I in 2008, over the nuclear agreement between India and the United States, Karat has been bitterly hostile towards the Congress. Even though Yechury too was opposed to the nuclear agreement, evident from his writing, he was against tripping the Congress on the nuclear issue.
He thought that the Left's withdrawal of support to the UPA government should be on its neo-liberal economic issues, to ensure that the CPM didn't lose both electorally and its political influence. The loss of influence was immediate.
The Left lost its veto power over the UPA government's policies. Even OB vans of TV channels disappeared from the party headquarters as there was no compelling need for journalists to solicit the opinions of Left leaders.
Electorally since then, the CPM continued to slide downhill, reduced to just 9 seats in the current Lok Sabha, from the high of 43 in 2014. Worse, it was trounced in West Bengal in the 2011 Assembly election, though not because of its line on the Congress or nuclear deal. Its defeat was because of the West Bengal government's decision to grant land to the corporate sector, often involving the dispossession of farmers through brutal methods.
But the defeat in West Bengal did become yet another black mark in Karat's record. In democracy, victories and defeats of a party do get ascribed to one at its steering wheel.
Now that Yechury has taken over from Karat, and the party encounters an existential crisis, it is he who is on test now. His has been, in a sense, a veritable U-turn on the road Karat had taken the CPM on.
Under Yechury's helm, the CPM is in alliance — the use of euphemistic descriptor such as adjustment notwithstanding — with the Congress, but the two remain rivals in Kerala. From Yechury's perspective, it is important to revive the CPM in West Bengal or countenance further marginalisation in the national polity.
Call Yechury versus Karat, a tussle between pragmatism against idealism. It could though very well be argued that idealism is bound to come to naught in the consequence of a tri-rickshaw (CPM) running with one of its three tyres — Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura - with little air in it.
Come election result day, Karat and his supporters will therefore scrutinise closely the West Bengal results to determine whether or not Yechury's decision to align with the Congress has succeeded.
Foremost, the test will entail determining the seats the Left should win to grade whether Yechury's strategy of aligning with the Congress has failed or passed. Will accretion of, say, 20 seats to the Left's 2011 tally of 62 seats be deemed as Yechury having passed the test?
Those opposed to Yechury's line will emphatically say, No. They will argue that the Trinamool Congress had an incumbency factor weighing against it, and an addition of 20 was not worth diluting the CPM's ideological identity because of its alliance with the Congress.
With what face can the CPM now (they are bound to argue) criticise the neo-liberal policies, of which the Congress had been the original proponent? Or they will say CPM workers will have been confused, even given up hope on the Left's revival on its own, and might think of joining the Congress in the future.
This argument will acquire credence should the Congress improve substantially on its 2011 tally of 42, but the CPM doesn't in the same proportion. It is not hard to conceive the anti-Yechury faction initiate a whisper campaign against the general secretary being an agent of the Congress.
It is hard to tell at what number of seats the anti-Yechury faction will be silenced. A hundred seats or nothing less than the Left-Congress mustering a majority, as of now considered impossible? In case the Left doesn't improve substantially on its 2011 tally in West Bengal, and also doesn't win as many seats as it had when it was last in power in Kerala, daggers will be truly out for Yechury.
Post-election, therefore, expect analyses to determine whether Yechury's experiment has been a failure or success. Vital to the rivalry between Yechury and Karat will be who between the two wins the media battle. Or, to put it more sharply, who provides the best media spin, which will come into play in case the Left manages to win just 70-80 seats.
This is because there is no certain method of projecting what the CPM's fortune would have been had it not stitched an alliance with the Congress. Sure, poll pundits can take their separate voting percentage tally to assess what it could possibly have been for the CPM in a triangular contest involving it, the Trinamool and the Congress.
But this would be faulty as the Left isn't fighting in 100 seats. Also, as was seen in the Bihar election last year, an alliance has its own dynamics, involving both the process of fission and fusion of traditional voting bases of the aligning parties. These two arguments would indeed be cited by Yechury and his supporters.
They will also point to the gains the CPM made, gains which, because they are intangible, can't be measured. For instance, it will be pointed out that the alliance enthused party workers and bolstered their confidence to take on the Trinamool's activists in the rough and tumble politics of West Bengal. Media reports on the election campaign have testified to this phenomenon.
The Yechury faction will also point to the changing political situation of the country, in which a pan-India anti-Congress stance has little meaning, and that it is pragmatic to join forces with those opposed to the BJP, arguably the predominant party now.
Yechury's faction will also allude to the party's ideas of secularism and society to point out that a growing BJP is a bigger threat to the Left culture than a progressively weakening Congress. They will say it is thus imperative to experiment on having an alliance with the Congress for preparing the workers of both to work together for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
It is an argument which tacitly admits to the CPM becoming weak, of perhaps not having within it the energy, resolve and clout to mount on its own a successful challenge to the BJP, not electorally, but socially - on issues which religiously and ideologically polarize the society.
Obviously, diehard or idealistic communists, of whom Karat is said to be typical, will argue that no party can rediscover its pristine health by walking with the help of crutches, that too, as old and weak as the Congress. However, their arguments will sound hollow because they didn't discover over the last eight years a method to arrest the CPM's freefall.
Whichever way you look, it can be said that Yechury has taken Albert Einstein's definition of insanity to heart. The scientist is supposed to have said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results."
At least, Yechury is trying another method to revive the party, regardless of what the results would eventually be.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, is available in bookstores.