By Swapan Dasgupta
Sometime in the late-1970s, I read a tribute to one of the iconic Communist intellectuals of Bengal—an academic who shaped many impressionable minds during his long tenure at Kolkata's Presidency College. As evidence of his determined attachment to the then undivided Communist Party, the article narrated an anecdote dating back to the late-1940s centred on P.C. Joshi, a former party General Secretary.
Joshi, it is now recognised, was one of the most innovative Communist leaders. A cerebral man, he carefully targeted bright young men and women, particularly from elite families, for conversion to the cause. His success was most marked during 1942-47 when the Congress leaders were in jail and when the Soviet Union was in the forefront of the anti-fascist war. Many of those who embraced Communism as the only alternative to barbarism regarded Joshi as their mentor.
Shortly after Independence, thanks to an abrupt change in Moscow, the CPI was compelled to disavow the 'united front' approach and jump into a silly and abortive insurrection against the government of Jawaharlal Nehru. In a proverbial palace coup, Joshi was summarily removed from his post, expelled from the party and replaced by B.T. Ranadive. He became a 'non-person'.
It was during this period that a harried Joshi dropped into the home of the venerable professor who he presumably viewed as a friend and comrade. It is a commentary on the human priorities of the party that Joshi was brusquely told that he wasn't welcome any longer.
In the demonology of Communists, 'revisionists' and deserters have occupied a special place. Some of the choicest and most colourful polemical invectives have been reserved for those who deviated from the 'party line' and were turfed out for 'anti-party' activities. To the faithful, hateful outpourings against former comrades reinforced the party as the living God; to the heretic, dissociation from the church involved mental agony and the loss of a social support system.
Six decades of living in an argumentative democracy hasn't really changed the Communist repudiation of humanity and the worship of the party as the epitome of 'scientific' evolution. The world is replete with Reds of different shades who can no longer maintain a civil relationship with their former political associates. No wonder former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee lamented that his abrupt expulsion from the CPI(M) was one of the most unhappiest episodes of his life. In his imagined world, there was no meaningful life outside the party.
It is in the context of the troubled relationship of Communist parties with ex-Comrades that the decision to invite Chatterjee to speak at a public meeting in support of the West Bengal CPI(M)'s rising star Gautam Deb acquires significance. It is not that Chatterjee is a resident in Deb's constituency or that a Local Committee has extended the invitation without any application of mind. The fact is that Chatterjee's inclusion in the CPI(M) has been publicly endorsed—albeit as a purely one-time, election-centric issue—by Politburo members such as Sitaram Yechuri and Biman Bose. The former Speaker hasn't been rehabilitated; his existence has been acknowledged by the party.
The cautious re-embracing of a heretic has followed two paths. Firstly, it is being suggested that a desperate Left Front facing the prospect of ignominious defeat needs to garner all the support it can muster. Since Chatterjee has moved on from being Comrade to 'eminent citizen', he can, arguably, play the same role as those artists and intellectuals who have flocked to support Mamata Banerjee. Secondly, it is being argued that the invitation to Chatterjee is the Bengal CPI(M)'s way of snubbing General Secretary Prakash Karat whose stubborn 'anti-imperialism' forced the withdrawal of support to the UPA in 2008 and facilitated the anti-Left mahajot in West Bengal.
Both explanations are valid but there appears to be another dimension. The CPI(M), it would seem, is reconciled to defeat in West Bengal on May 13. It hasn't abandoned the fight but it is realistically battling to ensure that the Left Front tally doesn't fall below 100 seats. What worries the CPI(M) is not merely the loss of power after 34 years of pampered existence. Equally important is their concern for the physical safety of their cadres.
The fear isn't exaggerated. For three decades the CPI(M) has attempted to exercise total control of both the state and society. This has led to institutionalised intolerance and the perpetuation of a million petty tyrannies. There is huge, pent-up anger against the 'cadres' who walked with a swagger, ensured the harassment and social humiliation of all those who dared disagree and probably enriched themselves through petty corruption. If the party loses on May 13, not even the best intentioned government will be able to stop the wave of recriminations against local tyrants.
The CPI(M) knows that it cannot tame a Mamata who has fought an often-lonely but always unrelenting war against it. Its best hope lies in souring the awkward relationship between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. This can best be done at the national level by pandering to the likely disquiet in the Congress over two issues.
First, there is certain to be a lot of heartburn at the Congress being an infant partner in the Mamata-led alliance. Secondly, for Congressmen who have no stake in West Bengal, the defeat of the Left in West Bengal and possibly Kerala could signal the emergence of political bipolarity—a possible straight fight between the UPA and the NDA in the next general election. This, in turn, would involve other anti-Congress parties such as AIADMK, Telugu Desam and BJD moving away from the Left and re-establishing a relationship with the NDA.
The Congress has no real stakes in a Mamata-led Bengal, and neither has the CPI(M). The CPI(M)'s cautious re-recognition of Chatterjee as a Bengali notable isn't guided by a new spirit of enlightenment; it is dictated entirely by the need to re-establish a bridgehead into the Congress.