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The Rediff Special / Syed Firdaus Ashraf

May 14, 2004

What is the Left Front?

The Left Front consists of the Communist Party of India-Marxist -- the dominant Communist party in the country -- the Communist Party of India, the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Ninety percent of the Left Front consists of the CPI-M. The CPI was recently derecognised as a national party by the Election Commission.

When did the CPI-M come into being?

In 1964, when it broke away from the CPI.

And the reason for the split?

Some Communists felt the CPI and leaders like Shripad Amrut Dange were too close for comfort to Congress policies and was not pressing hard enough on Marxist-Leninism. These Communists -- among them Balachandra Trimbak Ranadive, a former CPI general secretary who wanted to initiate revolution in India soon after the nation become free -- believed the party should follow the Chinese line and not take the Soviet route to a Communist state.

This issue bitterly polarised the CPI. Eventually a group consisting of Ranadive, E M S Namboodiripad, A K Gopalan, Jyoti Basu, Promode Dasgupta and Harkishen Singh Surjeet among others broke away to form the CPI-M. Relations between the two Communist parties improved in the late 1970s, leading to the CPI-M and CPI sharing power as part of the Left Front. 

Who are the CPI's leaders?

A party which had such giants of the Communist movement as S A Dange, Achutha Menon and C Rajeswara Rao has only two known national leaders currently: A B Bardhan, the party general secretary, and Doraiswamy Raja, the party secretary. The CPI's trade union wing, the All India Trade Union Congress, has a labour union with a presence in banks, insurance and other industrial units.

Where does the Left Front have a presence?

It is really a two state -- Kerala and West Bengal -- horse. The CPI-M-led Left Front has ruled West Bengal without interruption since July 1977. In Kerala, it has won power off and on. Both the Communist parties also have a presence in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. It won Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu this election.

When did the Communists first form a government in India? 

E M S Namboodiripad led the undivided Communist Party to victory in the 1957 assembly election in Kerala, the first democratically elected Communist government in the world. But the Congress party, led by its then president -- a lady named Indira Gandhi -- brought it down two years later.

What is the CPI-M's biggest claim to fame?

The CPI-M led by Jyoti Basu won a huge majority in the 1977 assembly election in West Bengal and has not lost the state in 27 years. Political analysts believed that Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress leader, would defeat the Communists in the 2002 assembly election after Basu stepped down because of his age. However, its new leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharya stunned the naysayers by winning a fresh term for the Left Front in West Bengal.

Anti-incumbency, which has felled every state government in recent years, has taken a detour in West Bengal.

We hear the Marxists are anti-reform.

That may be true.

Sitaram Yechuri, a member of the CPI-M Politburo (the party's highest decision-making body) and its most telegenic face, told an Indian television channel on May 13 that his party would lobby for the divestment ministry -- headed by Arun Shourie in the outgoing Vajpayee government -- to be disbanded. This means that privatization will be put on hold for the time being at least, hurting the Indian economy.

Under the Marxists, West Bengal lost its industrial lustre as businesses fled the state, unable to cope with trade unionism run amuck. Jyoti Basu was an economic pragmatist towards the end of his political career; his successor too is trying to woo investment to the state, especially IT majors Infosys and Wipro.

In Kerala, activists from the CPI-M trade union wing, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, have held industry to ransom.

Have they ever held power at the Centre?

Jyoti Basu came close to being prime minister in 1996, but the CPI-M Politburo -- especially its Young Turks, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury -- vetoed the possibility. They argued that Basu should not head a non-Communist government. A decision Basu later described as a 'historical blunder,' much to Karat and Yechuri's ire. May we recommend you read an excerpt from a biography of Basu, which we published in 1997, for an illuminating insight into that episode?

Leaders to watch out for in the CPI-M?

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya; West Bengal party secretary Biman Bose; Sitaram Yechury;  ideologue Prakash Karat; Kerala party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan; and Hannan Mollah, the Marxist MP from West Bengal.

The rest of the CPI-M leadership is an old men's club, with ages ranging from the 70s to 90 (Basu will hit his ninth decade on July 8).

How does the CPI-M function?

Decision-making at the local and state levels is conducted via its district and state committees. National decisions are taken by the Politburo. Dissent is frowned upon, and retribution can be swift. Ask Saifuddin Chowdhury, once one of the party's stars in Parliament.

Like its ideological adversary the BJP, the CPI-M is a dedicated cadre-base organisation. The CPI-M values discipline from its activists, but its members have been accused many times of acting like a power unto themselves in West Bengal and Kerala.

What does the future hold for the CPI-M?

Most pundits had relegated the CPI-M and the CPI to the political fringes after their dismal electoral performance through much of the last decade, but they have rebounded into the reckoning with an electoral resonance (the CPI-M and CPI won the most number of Lok Sabha seats in its history this election) that will make it difficult for the Congress government -- which they are committed to supporting -- to ignore their demands. 

Unlike many parties who can be bought over by largesse, the Communists -- who may make for more rational allies than some leaders we can think of -- pride themselves on their integrity and ideological purity, so be sure they will end up being a pain in the Congress government's neck.


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