When a couple in its eighties chooses to write a letter to a communist party it has loyally served for over six decades, it calls for immediate attention.
And when that couple happens to be Professor Irfan Habib, the 85-year-old doyen of Medieval Indian history, and his economist wife Professor Sayera Habib, one can surmise that the situation is definitely much more than merely serious. The Habibs have always been political, but they are not into politics in the sense it is understood nowadays. In short, they have no political ambition, only deeply felt concern for the future of India and a realisation that their party — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — was not doing the right thing to save the country from fascists. In their opinion, the three-day meeting of the party’s Central Committee held from 18 to 20 June in New Delhi has failed to “offer a tactical line appropriate to that situation”.
Their concerns emanate from a realisation that the present BJP government is not “just another parliamentary government of a bourgeois party”, but represents “a regime which openly acclaims the semi-fascist ideology of the RSS, is unconditionally committed to meeting all the demands of the top elements of the corporate sector, Indian and foreign, and is continuously undermining, in the most naked fashion (through saffronising education, raising new communal issues, etc) the secular basis of our nation.”
They maintain that the CPM’s primary object should be “to isolate the BJP as far as possible, and form a broad united front with all other democratic forces so as to foil the BJP’s plan of gaining control over the states still outside its orbit, and finally, to secure its defeat the parliamentary elections due in 2019.”
What the Habibs are saying amounts to accusing the CPM leadership of having failed to identify the principal contradiction or the main political enemy in the present situation. The political-tactical line flows directly from such identification and, in their view, the principal contradiction is obviously between the fascist forces led by the RSS-BJP combine and the democracy-loving Indian people. Therefore, “the major task today of all democratic forces, including the CPM, should be to offer firm united resistance to the BJP’s offensive and its attempt to seize total power.”
In short, the Habibs are supporting what has come to be known within the CPM as the Bengal line that calls for uniting with all democratic forces including the Congress to defeat the BJP. They are also calling for the formation of a widest possible anti-fascist popular front against the saffron forces. However, this line militates against the party’s political-tactical line of building a “non-Congress, non-BJP” alliance or front. Historically, the CPM has been swinging between the two lines of maintaining “equidistance” from both the Congress and the BJP, and aligning with the secular Congress to defeat the communal BJP.
In the Bihar Assembly election, it shunned the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of the RJD, JD(U) and Congress to form a Left alliance and drew a blank. As the Habibs point out, there was a real danger of BJP winning in the elections but for the emergence of a popular wave in support of the grand alliance.
Strange things are happening in the CPM.
On 10 July, the West Bengal state committee severely criticised the party’s national leadership — Politburo and the Central Committee — and accused it of “arbitrariness”. It also accused the leadership of having shown “disrespect to the 2.15 crore voters of the state who voted in favour of the Congress-CPM alliance”. This was the first time that a state committee had openly attacked the central leadership, thus proving the critics right that the so-called “democratic centralism” does not really work in practice. And, this will also be perhaps for the first time that instead of the central leadership, a state committee will hold its own plenum to collectively brainstorm its future political course.
The West Bengal unit has decided to hold such a plenum in September. It may also be recalled that the West Bengal unit was also not happy with the central leadership’s decision to withdraw support from the UPA in 2008. The party’s graph ever since has seen a consistent downward trend.
Even before the CPM leadership could react to the Habibs’ note, Prasenjit Bose jumped into the fray and countered their view. Bose is a JNU-trained young economist whose meteoric rise in the party hierarchy came to an abrupt end, just like a meteor, when he was expelled in 2012 on account of his opposition to the party’s decision to support the Congress’ presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee. Bose, whose intellectual arrogance oozes in his rejoinder, raised all kinds of questions about the corruption of the UPA-II, the internal mess of the Congress, and quality of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership while dubbing the Habibs as “apologists” of the Congress party.
He also conjured up a possibility of a tie-up between the Congress and the TMC in not too distant a future. Not only that, he took a shockingly sexist stance and treated the joint letter written by the Habibs as if it was written by Irfan Habib alone. While he does mention the joint authorship of the note in the beginning, he addresses only Irfan Habib in the rest of his rejoinder. In contrast to the view held by the West Bengal unit of the CPM, which is obviously in much closer contact with the people of the state than an intellectual like Bose, he opines that the party could have become the main Opposition party in the state Assembly had it not joined hands with the Congress. In short, he claimed to know the ground situation in West Bengal better than those CPM cadres and leaders who have been facing the Trinmool Congress onslaught on a daily basis.
Such problems will recur if communist parties in India do not have a fresh look at their organisational principles and practices.
In a vast country like India with great regional diversities and with state and national politics in perpetual flux, it is impractical and unwise to devise a single political-tactical line that can be changed or modified only at the next party congress that is held after a gap of at least three years. The communist parties should learn from their adversary, the BJP, which can adapt itself with such adroitness that it leaves one surprised.
The way it forged political alliances in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North East are there for everybody to see. It does not mean that communist parties should become wholly opportunistic or pursue politics sans principles. However, it does mean that they should find ways of adjusting to the ever-changing political situations in various states. Moreover, they should correct their self-image of being revolutionary organisations and should strive to become good, effective and influential social democratic parties.