Despite the intense internal questioning, for Karat and CPI-M politics is still in command, writes Aditi Phadnis
The year was 1977. The Emergency had ended, elections had been held in February and Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi -- identified as the central figures behind a period in Indian politics in which most civil liberties and freedoms were suspended -- had been defeated.
Morarji Desai had become prime minister of a Janata Party-led government and by October it was becoming clear to most of the country that the coalition of socialist parties, which had been joined by the then Jana Sangh, was far from being the effective alternative to the Congress that everyone had visualised.
The Communist Party of India had actually supported Indira Gandhi and the Emergency; the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), had opposed it and many of its cadres had either been in jail or had been underground during that period; and the socialists had banded together to resist the Emergency, had gone to jail and had been released to win elections in large numbers.
By October that year, Coca Cola had been thrown out of India all right but Health Minister Raj Narain's antics were just a symptom of a bigger malaise from which the Janata Party government was suffering (as minister, Narain visited the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to inaugurate a new centre for Community Medicine and chancing upon a team of neurosurgeons, enquired if they had managed to get a chance to look at the insides of Mrs Gandhi's head -- an incident he was to repeat with great relish during a special convocation to award an Honorary D Litt degree to Seewoosagur Ramgoolam of Mauritius).
This was to have been a government that was socialist in the real sense of the word -- but reactionary and feudal interests seemed to dominate it.
In the highly politicised atmosphere of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, this question was debated for 14 hours at a general body meeting.
The JNU Students' Union was controlled by the CPI-M-affiliated Students' Federation of India. Its President Sitaram Yechury wanted the union and the students of JNU to lead an agitation against the government. The quality of the debate was stupendous. The least radical of the students were banded together as a body that called itself Free Thinkers (many of them went on to join the Indian Administrative Service).
"Left adventurists", as the Trotskyites were called, were present on the campus, in addition to the ubiquitous SFI and the CPI-affiliated All India Students' Federation. All of them had a view on the Emergency and the forces it had empowered.
The socialists, for obvious reasons, wanted the defeat of the resolution that JNU students lead an agitation against the Janata Party government.
The Trotskyites with amazing prescience saw elements of fascism in the very configuration that had defeated fascism:
But the Free Thinkers felt the Left parties were acting as a proxy in disguise for the Congress in trying to bring down the Janata Party government.
The debate finally ended. The SFI-sponsored motion was defeated by the GBM by a two-thirds majority. In keeping with the best democratic tradition, Yechury stepped down.
It was a crisis. The matter was discussed at the level of party elders -- the Delhi unit of the CPI-M, then headed by Prakash Karat, himself a JNUSU president. A mid-term election was due: should Yechury be fielded again for president despite his error of judgement?
There was fevered debate. Some said he should be dropped because he was associated with the SFI's defeat. Others said he should contest again.
It was here that Karat intervened. "Why are you losing focus?" he told those present.
"Keep politics in command. First decide what the stand is: were you right in deciding to lead an agitation or wrong? If you were right, yes, the GBM voted it out as a stand, but it was the right one. So you have two courses: you can be on the defensive, say 'let us forgive and forget', the agitation line was a wrong one. In that case, whether Sitaram or anyone else, the SFI candidate is going to lose the election. But if you feel it was the right stand, that this government should be fought, then you don't have a candidate other than Sitaram."
The SFI conceded that Karat was right. Not only did Yechury win that election as president of JNUSU but two others between 1977 and 1978. This was largely because of Karat's favourite line: "Keep politics in."
Now it is Karat who is facing a similar situation.
Association with the Congress at the Centre (2004-09) cost the party two state governments -- in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Although the CPI-M vote in West Bengal is still intact, and in Kerala the Congress has barely managed to form a government, the fact is the CPI-M has had to ask itself many hard questions.
At the recent party congress in Kozhikode, Karat has been appointed general secretary of the CPI-M for a third term -- but the party constitution has been amended so that no general secretary can stay on for more than three terms.
Karat has announced the CPI-M would step up agitations against the neoliberal policies of the Union government.
The 20th party congress has given a call to undertake campaigns for resolving the issues of all sectors of the working class like peasants, artisans, small shop keepers and the middle class. So the CPI-M is gearing up for another phase of struggle, despite intense internal questioning what hasn't changed is: politics is still in command.