New Delhi, June 21: The CPM has decided to support Pranab Mukherjee for President, braving a division among the Left quartet, overcoming differences within but, most important of all, steering clear of a replay of the “historic blunder” of 1996 that denied another Bengali another pinnacle post.
The Prime Minister’s slot, which the CPM disallowed Jyoti Basu from accepting 16 years ago, cannot be compared with the ceremonial presidential berth but the irony would not have been lost on Prakash Karat who today announced the decision to back Mukherjee.
In the unforgettable summer of 1996, when Bengal, the rest of the country and even many parts of the world were waiting with bated breath to know if a communist would head the largest democracy on the planet, a younger Karat was among those who refused to let Basu take over. A bitter Basu later chiselled that decision in the immortal words “historic blunder” — a coinage that has popped up to haunt the CPM with every setback since then.
If Karat was uncompromising then, he was much more accommodating of the Bengal unit’s concerns this afternoon. The politburo was evenly divided but Karat went with those who advocated support for Mukherjee.
Had Karat, who was not keen to support Mukherjee, and the Kerala unit, for which it is risky to be seen as soft on the Congress when the CPM is caught in a murder scandal in the southern state, stuck to their opposition, the politburo could have seen a vertical split.
But Karat tilted the balance by going with the Bengal unit, possibly seeing some merit in the contention that the mother unit and main sustenance of the party should be helped in whatever way possible.
There was no vote, according to sources, but some could not resist drawing a parallel between Karat’s clincher and the “casting vote” that neutral actors such as Speakers use to break deadlocks.
Make no mistake: had Karat wanted to oppose Mukherjee’s candidature as badly as he wanted to scupper the Indo-US nuclear deal, he could easily have railroaded the politburo by taking the issue to the more powerful central committee, where the general secretary enjoys unassailable support.
The CPM may have remained united but for the first time in decades, the four Left parties emerged divided from a joint meeting convened later to discuss their approach to the presidential election.
The CPI and the RSP said they would abstain from voting. This means that presidential candidature has managed to disrupt all the three key coalitions — the UPA, the NDA and now the Left.
Not many remember having seen Left leaders hold separate media conferences at the same venue but that is what happened when CPI’s A.B. Bardhan, Gurudas Dasgupta and D. Raja and RSP’s T.J. Chandrachoodan came out of the CPM headquarters at AKG Bhavan in central Delhi. Bardhan and Chandrachoodan held a joint media conference outside AKG Bhavan while Karat addressed mediapersons in the conference room inside the building.
The CPI and the RSP said the Left Front would continue as ever and remain united as ever. The CPM and the Forward Bloc, which have decided to vote for Mukherjee, later privately dismissed the abstention route as “immature politics”.
The RSP and the CPI together account for barely 1 per cent or nearly 10,000 votes in the electoral college while the CPM and the Bloc’s share is nearly 4 per cent.
Although it remains to be seen, how much benefit the Bengal CPM will derive by hoping to widen the rift between the Congress and the Trinamul Congress by supporting Mukherjee, Karat listed historical reasons for taking the decision.
Karat pointed out that it wasn’t the first time the CPM would support a Congress candidate. The Left parties voted for the Congress’s Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1992 but continued to oppose the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government’s new economic policy.
The general secretary said that with the exception of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who the party viewed as the BJP’s candidate, the CPM has supported or voted with the Congress in presidential elections since 1992.
He added that the Left had consistently stated it would support a candidate with the widest possible consensus, which Mukherjee’s candidature has received. Not just from the UPA and others but also from secular parties like the Janata Dal (S) and Telegu Desam Party, which Karat said he had consulted.
Karat also found it easy to accept another reason cited by Bhattacharjee, who was not present in Delhi but conveyed his views in writing and over the phone, and the other members from Bengal.
Supported by Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar and Sitaram Yechury, they stressed, as they had at a central committee meeting earlier this year, that the presidential election should be delinked from the larger political battle with the Congress and the neo-liberal economic policies of the UPA II.
Their Kerala colleagues, conscious of the vociferous support Mukherjee received from the Bengal comrades, played along.
The Bengal leaders pointed out that there was a strong political argument in favour of voting for Mukherjee as it would drive a “wedge” between the Congress and Trinamul.
Karat, sources said, didn’t want to be labelled an “anti-Bengal obstructionist” when there were strong political arguments and precedents in favour of the CPM supporting Mukherjee for Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Some members from Kerala said the CPM should not play identity politics while others cited the street battles and murder cases that the cadres faced daily in Kerala at this juncture. They advocated abstention.
But a Bengal leader later said: “The CPM is an all-India party that does not play identity politics. But political realities cannot be ignored. The party runs on democratic centralism while Indian democracy is based on the principle of one man, one vote. In the absence of democratic centralism in the country, how can we ignore identity politics?”
Sources said Mukherjee’s personality also helped the Bengal members carry the day. “Mukherjee, unlike a Pratibha Patil or Giani Zail Singh, is not a Gandhi family sycophant. He is a parliamentarian of repute and experience and known for correctness,” said a source. The fact that the finance minister is cast in Indira Gandhi’s socialist mould rather than in Manmohanomics also makes him more palatable to the Left.
In a statement released later, the CPM said it “will continue to oppose the UPA government and resolutely fight neo-liberal economic policies being pursued, which are against the interests of the people”.
Karat was not implacably opposed to Mukherjee. The two shared a good equation during UPA-I. When the Congress and the Left were headed for a flashpoint over the nuclear deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had put in place a co-ordination committee that Mukherjee chaired. For nearly a year, Mukherjee and Karat met one to one several times.
Eventually, all politburo members agreed that the party’s Bengal brand was its most important asset.