As general secretary of CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury was expected to steer the party in a fresh direction and help it reinvent itself. But he has proved to be as much a failure as his dogmatic predecessor Prakash Karat.
It was two years back, on a hot Sunday morning in April in Visakhapatnam, following a rare nail-biting finish for his party that Sitaram Yechury was elected the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Preceded by days of drama and a close contest with S. Ramachandran Pillai, Yechury took over as the fifth general secretary of the CPI(M), succeeding Prakash Karat who served three terms as the party head.
The then 62-year-old leader’s elevation as the party head was celebrated for several reasons, with many believing this would help revive the beleaguered party. Karat had taken over the party in 2005, at its electoral peak nationally, with 43 MPs in the Lok Sabha. By 2014 and towards the end of Karat’s term, the party was down to just 9 seats. Yechury, meanwhile, had many advantages — he was 15 years younger than Pillai, was fluent in Hindi unlike Pillai and was a far more known and articulate face of the party.
Unlike his predecessor Karat, who was seen as being rigid and out-of-touch, Yechury was known to be modern, pragmatic and someone who had a comfortable equation with politicians across party lines. He was expected to steer the party in a fresh direction and possibly help it reinvent itself. The general secretary’s role was particularly important with elections in Left bastions Kerala and West Bengal due the following year in 2016.
However, two years after being crowned general secretary, Yechury has proved to be as much of a failure as Karat. The party has only seen a steady decline, reaching near irrelevance both electorally and politically and has been reduced to a marginal voice in national politics.
Yechury was personally invested in West Bengal. In fact, the Bengal unit of the party had backed him for the post of general secretary. However, in the 2016 polls in the state, the CPI(M)-led Left Front was vanquished, with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress winning 211 of the 294 seats. The Left-Congress alliance got just 76 seats. Congress, in fact, did better than its Left allies. This was a huge setback for Yechury and something he has to take responsibility for, given it was his line on the alliance with Congress that was followed. As party general secretary, he threw his weight behind the alliance despite opposition from within his party, and more importantly, despite fighting against the Congress in Kerala.
In West Bengal now, where the Left once ruled for three decades, its space is fast shrinking and BJP is making stunning inroads. In the recent by-polls in the state, BJP emerged as TMC’s biggest competitor, relegating the CPI(M) further to the periphery.
While the Left did win the Kerala elections in 2016, its government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is beset by troubles and controversies. Moreover, the BJP is looking to make a significant dent in the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Nationally, the CPI(M) and the Left haven’t been as irrelevant in the last three decades as they are now. In 1989, the Left supported the V.P. Singh-led coalition government from outside. In 1996, then party general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet played the role of kingmaker in cobbling together the United Front government, even though the decision to not make party veteran Jyoti Basu prime minister continues to haunt the CPI(M). From 1999 to 2004, when the BJP was in power, CPI(M) played a major role in setting the opposition’s discourse on contentious issues such as saffronisation of textbooks as well as the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. During 2004-08, the Left led by CPI(M) was at its peak nationally, supporting the Congress-led UPA government and setting a significant part of its policy agenda. Even as it withdrew support in 2008 over the issue of the India-US civil nuclear deal, it remained a relevant political force.
Today, however, the CPI(M) shows all signs of being a spent force. In the face of a rising BJP and aggressive regional parties, the Left has paled into insignificance. Far from bringing the CPI(M) back into relevance, Yechury’s leadership has rendered the party even more directionless, immaterial and disconnected. It has absolutely no resonance among the youth and its voice in Parliament is also becoming increasingly marginal.
In the JNU crisis in February 2016, Yechury had a promising opportunity to emerge as the face of the anti-BJP opposition, to fight the forces trying to ‘impose’ an idea of nationalism. However, this became much of a lost opportunity and even student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi became more visible faces of the anti-government agitation than Yechury, despite he being a product of the same university and also having been president of the JNU Students’ Union.
In other notable debates — the BJP government’s attempts to dilute the 2013 Land Acquisition law, demonetisation, increased violence by cow vigilantes, and the nationalism debate — the CPI(M) and Yechury have remained fringe voices.
If the past is grim, the future looks even more bleak for Yechury and his party. Its only remaining stronghold Tripura goes to polls in 2018 but even there it will have a challenge on its hands with the BJP moving in aggressively and given the gains it has already made in the North East.
Time is running out for Yechury and company. If he wants his party to retain any relevance in Indian politics and even a marginal electoral presence, Yechury has to get his act together and draw up a new, more imaginative roadmap for the party.
Ruhi Tewari is Associate Editor with ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @RuhiTewari
Picture Courtesy: Twitter @SitaramYechury