CPI(M)’s ‘July Crisis’ and Challenges for Rebuilding the Left
In an unprecedented move , the JNU unit of the SFI (SFI-JNU) has been dissolved by the ‘Delhi State Committee of the Students’ Federation of India’ [SFI is the CPI(M) student wing]. What is interesting about the press statement issued by the ‘Delhi State Committee’ following this momentous decision, is that it is signed by the Acting President and the Acting Secretary. The state secretary Robert Rahman Raman has since resigned in protest against the decision and the state president, according to him happens to be among those expelled. The state secretary in his statement has protested against the SFI Delhi state committee’s decision, ‘taken with just 12 members present and without adequate consultation or effort to retain the unit.’ The matter then, is far bigger than that of an errant SFI unit.
Clearly, leading state functionaries of the organization too are involved in the heresy that has called forth this action by the high priests of the CPI(M). Anyone who knows the command structure of the CPI(M) and how it works, can see immediately that a decision as important and unprecedented as this cannot have been taken by something as inconsequential as the Delhi state committee of the SFI. Indeed, even the Delhi state committee of the CPI(M) could not have taken this decision without the concurrence of the highest leadership – in this case Prakash Karat, the general secretary, himself.The other interesting thing about the press statement – the text of which we reproduce at the end of this post – is that in a perfectly stalinist manner, it reduces all political issues to a matter of organizational discipline. The members were expelled and the unit dissolved, not because they expressed political differences of opinion on a series of issues ranging from Singur-Nandigram to the culture of killing dissenters and indeed the party’s questionable stand on the impending presidential election; they were apparently expelled because the were “indulging in anti-organizational activities” and violating the rules under the SFI constitution. And what precisely is the ‘rule’ they violated? That a local unit can only concern itself with issues that have to do with its own ‘area of work‘ [where they supposedly have 'absolute right']. Translated into simple English, it means that you must concern yourself with your own work and leave the business of thinking about larger matters to the politburo and central committee. This point has also been made by the state secretary in his statement announcing his resignation: “The political issues raised by the SFI-JNU unit in organisational forums have been always dismissed as ‘too political’ and the leadership has reviewed things only through the ‘organisational’ prism.”
Most people who are unfamiliar with the insidious ways in which the stalinist machine operates, do not realize that this is perhaps the most effective tactic of turning a thinking being into an automaton and producing the loyal ‘organization man’.
It might be interesting here to rewind to an earlier ‘July Crisis’ in the CPI(M)’s history. That episode was of a very different character and scale. Nonetheless, some issues in debate then seem to resonate with some of the questions that have arisen now.
The year was 1979. The Janata Party (JP) government that had come to power in the aftermath of the Emergency by defeating the Congress, was in its worst crisis. The RSS/Jan Sangh component of the party had effected coup after coup, toppling a whole series of JP governments in states where non-Jan Sangh constituents had been dominant. The Indira Congress, still unrepentant about the Emergency, was waiting in the wings, ready to take centre-stage if the government fell. A no-confidence motion was brought against the government in parliament. When the moment of decision came, in the month of July, the CPI(M) decided to not only vote against the government leading to its fall, it supported Charan Singh’s claim for prime ministership. Charan Singh had been promised support by the Congress, though it did not intend to live up to its promise. The JP government fell and the Charan Singh government, supported by the CPI(M) and the Congress, came to be the caretaker government till the next election where the Congress made a comeback. This episode of the JP government’s crisis came to be described in the CPI(M)’s internal discourse as the ‘July Crisis’. The irony of course, was that the ‘July Crisis’ eventually became a serious internal crisis of the CPI(M) itself as a section of the party revolted against the decision of the central leadership to support Charan Singh who was already leaning on Congress support. Could the party not have abstained? Did it have to become part of the murky parliamentary maneouvres that were to eventually lead to the return of the Congress?
In fact, in the run up to the party congress that followed, in 1982 (Vijaywada), the Bengal CPI(M) under the stewardship of Promode Dasgupta and Jyoti Basu, initiated a debate where the ‘party line’ on the July Crisis was openly criticized and rejected from the local level conferences right up to the provincial conference. ‘Democratic centralism’ was invoked by the horrified central leadership that argued that local level party committees were not empowered to debate issues that related to the all-India political line. In a manner of speaking, the claim even then was that thinking politics was the job of the politburo, while the task of the lower committees was to simply implement the line – and ‘have absolute right’ in deciding on the more mundane day to day issues.
It is interesting, therefore, to see the way in which SFI-JNU has framed its argument regarding its position on the CPI(M)’s decision to support Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential election. In a pamphlet issued by the unit on 7 July explaining why the General Body meeting of 5 July became necessary, it says:
“A wide debate has unfolded after the CPI (M)’s decision to support Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential elections. Despite the ongoing summer vacations, JNU has not been untouched by this debate. In the past few weeks the SFI came under severe attack from ultra-Left organizations like the AISA over this issue. Students were asking about SFI’s position and we could not afford to remain silent. Given the urgency of the situation and considering the interests of the organization in JNU, the SFI EC decided to initiate a debate involving all available SFI members and arrive at a common position. To do so, the highest democratic platform of the GBM has been utilized. In the given situation, this exercise could not have been delayed any further.”
It is clear from the above that the question of organizational decline or stasis that the SFI has been facing for the past few years is centrally a political issue in its understanding. Despite obligatory references to ‘severe attacks’ from ‘ultra-Left organizations like AISA’, it is clear that the SFI has been finding itself on the backfoot politically, precisely because of the positions taken by the party elsewhere. The pamphlet is in fact quite candid in underlining what it calls a ‘structural break’ in the political logic of student politics in JNU, since 2007. Why 2007? Here is why:
“There has been a structural break in this trend since 2007. For the first time in 2007 JNUSU Elections, the SFI failed to win any Office-Bearer position. The elections were held in the aftermath of the political developments in West Bengal, surrounding Singur and Nandigram. In the JNUSU elections held in March 2012, the SFI failed to reverse the adverse electoral trend witnessed in 2007. Organizational reviews in this period have identified both political and organizational reasons for the poor performance. However the primacy of political factors, primarily those related to Singur-Nandigram and the general state of the Left movement in the country has been noted in inner-organizational discussions. In a left leaning political campus like JNU, these developments have eroded the SFI’s support base among the progressive and democratic minded students. The developments since 2007 have made the SFI vulnerable to attacks of “double-speak” by the ultra Left, which has gained at SFI’s cost.”
It should be clear from this passage that in the reckoning of SFI-JNU, the question of supporting Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential elections is more like the proverbial ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’. The point being made here is clearly that it is the complex of issues surrounding Singur and Nandigram – and along with it the entire approach of the reformist neoliberals in the party (viz Buddhadeb-Biman-Gautam Deb in West Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan-Thomas Isaac in Kerala) – that is in question here. In fact, the position articulated here is linked to the somewhat arcanely coded debate that was played out at the CPI(M)’s last party congress that posited a choice between the Latin American model and the Chinese model. For the belief behind the CPI(M)’s neoliberal thrust is precisely that it must, like China, ‘out-do’ capitalism on its own terms – as if that will leave it untransformed at the end of the day! As if it has left it untransformed already!
The leadership of SFI-JNU deserves to be congratulated for the forthright manner in which it has taken a position on some of the most critical issues that concern the future of the Left in India. It is futile at this juncture to ask the kind of questions that are usually asked of people who decide at some point to speak up: why did you not speak up earlier? Why did you support the decision to do X? Why did you not quit when Nandigram actually took place? There is no correct and proper time to speak up. To speak up publicly, that is. There is always a time-lag between this public expression of dissent and its initial articulations in the ‘proper party forums’. It always takes a long, long time before people actually decide to set aside considerations of ‘discipline’ – and that is a moment of reckoning for people who are serious about their politics. And that is what the stalinist machine dubs ‘anti-party activities’, even though that is precisely the when one is forced to confront the meaning what one is doing.
We know that in this case too, a long time has passed between the initial, hesitant questions and their maturation into a full blown critique of the new Left-wing neoliberalism within the CPI(M). And quite characteristically, this critique has had to veer in the direction of questioning that unquestioned organizational principle – democratic centralism. Recall the statement issued by many pro-CPI(M) intellectuals in the wake of Nandigram. Many of the intellectuals who signed that initial statement in March 2007 have come a long way from there. At least two of them, Javeed Alam and Prabhat Patnaik have even written publicly questioning the very idea of democratic centralism. [Javeed Alam ( 'Can Democratic Centralism be Conducive to Democracy?', EPW September 19 2009; Prabhat Patnaik ('Re-Envisioning Socialism', EPW November 3, 2007)]. Prabhat has more recently come out with a letter that has been doing the rounds for some time now, where he stated his disgust at what he called ‘feudal stalinism’ in the party. So it has been with many of the younger elements within the party. The recent episode of the resignation of Prasenjit Bose on the issue of support to Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential election was in fact, the tip of the iceberg. Prasenjit’s resignation should be seen as a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis that is now brewing within this erstwhile Left party now on the way to a full-blown neoliberalism.
All these are merely the signs of what is brewing within the CPI(M) and to believe – as the leadership seems to do – that the crisis will blow over by simply expelling people and dissolving an errant unit, is facile to say the least.
However, there are more serious issues than the SFI-JNU leadership is at present willing to confront, that need to be addressed. A case in point is the pamphlet issued by it on the 9th of July in response to the AISA statement welcoming the SFI-JNU resolution. This pamphlet amounts to little more than a diatribe against the AISA and the CPI(ML) Liberation and is a defense of the CPI(M)’s overall politics. While this is understandable at one level, given inter-organizational rivalries, it will be a wasted opportunity if the current round of questioning does not lead to a questioning of this very culture of sectarianism on the Left. And sectarianism alas, is not the monopoly of what the SFI (JNU and otherwise) calls the ‘ultra-Left’. Indeed, most nonparty people today recognize from their common experience of organizing joint struggles and movements, that it is the CPI(M) that has had the most sectarian stance in practice.
Perhaps the most significant question that this episode raises before the entire Left is the one that lies unaddressed so far, even though it is posed directly in the experience of the JNU SFI: How can politics be brought back in order to reanimate political life in the sterile organizational lives of most Left parties, especially the parliamentary ones? How might we think of ‘differences’ within a party/ organization? Are these to be feared and eliminated? Democratic centralism which is an essentially anti-political creed precisely seeks to achieve such an elimination. What if we recognize that differences in politics are not an aberration but arise out of something more fundamental, namely the irreducibility of the political element? That is, the element of contestation and negotiation, which after all, is what prevents a movement from stultifying. What are the possible organizational forms that are conducive to a new kind of Left politics? If one looks at the new formations in politics on the Left worldwide, there is an increasing recognition of this fact. There is an increasing recognition that an alternative to the party form of this type can only be a party-as-coalition. It is only when different tendencies and indeed, ‘factions’, are able to contest each other openly, when they are able to take on each others’ arguments in full public view; it is only then that a faction ceases to be a faction and becomes a legitimate political tendency.
The text of the Delhi SFI press release:
Delhi State Committee of Students’ Federation of India today decided to dissolve the JNU unit and expel four state committee members for indulging in anti-organizational activities and violating the rules under the constitution of SFI. The JNU unit had called a GBM on 5th of July and passed resolution taking a decision on an issue that is outside the purview of a unit committee and grossly violated the constitution of SFI.
The Rule 4 (a) of the SFI constitution states that: “The unit committee will have the absolute right to take decisions concerning issues at the institution level or its defined area of work, provided such decisions do not have implications which go beyond the confines of the institution or the unit’s area of work”.
Also, the Rule 4 (f) states that “The CEC will have the absolute right to take decisions on all issues of national and international concern”.
Roshan Kishore, P K Anand, Zico Dasgupta and V Lenin Kumar have been expelled from the primary membership of SFI for violating the norms and the fora, as well actively pursuing an anti organizational agenda.
Kopal Sumeet Tanwar
Acting State Secretary Acting State President”