What the Indian National Congress Could Learn From the CPI(M)

Source: The Wire

Apropos difficulties within the Indian National Congress, one of the stalwart signatories of the letter written by 23 heavy-weight and committed Congress leaders to their president Sonia Gandhi, namely, Kapil Sibal, has in a detailed interview to the Indian Express regretted that none of their “requests” or “concerns” as inscribed in their letter had come up for discussion in the recent meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Just to recall, this writer had in a recent article underscored the need for the Congress to renew and deepen its old traditions of healthy inner-party democracy.

I am of course in no way privy to what may or may not have transpired in the aforesaid meeting of the CWC, but the current unrest within the party recalls to mind an episode that may be germane to the circumstance precipitated by the initiative taken by its 23 members to articulate matters that they think of grave importance to the future career of the Congress party.

The episode goes back to the summer of 1989, when the Chinese authorities decided to launch an assault on protesting students/citizens at Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese action was then, regrettably, supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)].

Distraught by that concatenation of events, Sumit Sarkar and I wrote a critical piece titled ‘CPI(M) Myodpic’ the article appeared in the Hindustan Times of June 29, 1989.

A week or so after the publication of the article, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the late E.M.S. Namboodripad at a function at the Delhi School of Economics as the “man who wrote that article”. I recall EMS giving me an intense, long look.

Within days, I received a phone call, inviting me to a meeting at the Andhra Bhavan (if I am not mistaken). Nothing was said about the agenda of the meeting.

On the appointed hour, I saw that Sumit Sarkar and Pankaj Ganguly were also there, and so was more or less the entire politburo of the CPI(M) – comrades Surjit, EMS, Basavapuniah, the young Prakash Karat, and others I cannot now clearly recall.

Comrade Surjit started the ball rolling by simply saying to the three of us who were not members of the party by any means, “We would like to hear your thoughts on the collapse of the Soviet Union and on the Tiananmen event.”

That said, the meeting went on for close to five hours, of which I recall the three of us spoke for some four and a half hours. I do not recall a single interruption. After we had said our piece, comrade Surjit shared the understanding of the Party, thanked us for taking the time, as we retired to the customary tea and biscuits.

This sort of thing was to happen on other occasions as well, the last of them after the firing at Nandigram.

I cannot say how much, if any, of what we said weighed with the party, but I do recall the education I received in the culture of democratic interaction. Sumit Sarkar was, of course, a very considerable name, but that they should have thought fit to hear a fledgling writer and merely an activist on the Left made a deep and constructive impression.

Congress would do well to emulate this

One would have thought that the Congress party might have done similar vis a vis its stalwart members who had written a letter to their party president—invite them to a substantial interaction to flesh out the perceptions they recorded in their letter. Regrettably, this has not happened.

If anything, voices, as per reports, came to be raised that may have sought to “other” these eminent Congress members who clearly had no axe to grind except to contribute ideas towards rebuilding a more effective Congress organization and political movement.

Many well-wishers of the Indian National Congress who remain persuaded of the dire need for its resurgence feel that any such resurgence must needs be first based in a frank exchange of concerns and ideas within the party structures, if not with people on the outside. It is understandable that such a course can lead to potentially fractious interchanges, but it is also the case that unless a democratic spring is allowed to happen, the party may continue to be bereft of the sort of intellectual energy and organisational resolve that it requires to meet the challenges of proto-fascism. Imagine the message the party would send out were it to call the 23 letter writers to a face to face, informed not by a self-defeating impulse to put them in the dock, but crediting them with the privilege to make their case with fearless engagement.

Truly, this ought to happen if the Congress is not to weaken further or lose traction with millions of its supporters who wish to see it rise with a bold and conjoint determination, fuelled by a new conjoint democratic energy. This alone can remake the party into a sharp political instrument whose praxis results from a broad consensus of views, none of which may either be wholly adopted or rejected.

Conversely, the 23 letter writers would do well not to give in to a loss of faith, or sink into a despondent cynicism, or god forbid, part ways with the party.

That would benefit neither the party nor them. They must not allow their proven and unshakeable commitment to the ideals of the freedom movement to be disjunct from their commitment to the party.

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