Indian communists once took all their lessons from either Moscow or Beijing. With the collapse of communism almost everywhere in the world, they seem to have stopped learning any lessons from abroad. Otherwise, the Indian comrades could have learnt much from the forthcoming congress of the Communist Party of China. Seven of the nine men who rule China, as members of the all-powerful standing committee of the CPC’s politburo, are due to retire next month. Nearly half of the members of the party’s central committee will also make way for new leaders. There are different explanations as to why the Chinese party introduced fixed terms for its leaders since the exit of Deng Xiaoping from the scene. But the most widely accepted view is that the fixed terms are meant to hold ambitious leaders in check. How the new leaders are chosen to replace the old ones has little to do with democratic practices, though. The new rulers arrive, as much as their predecessors had done, in the wake of intense factional battles. The play is often pretty much the same, although the actors have changed. Even so, the Chinese innovation is a historic break from a tradition in which the party bosses ruled for life.
If Indian communist parties have remained largely irrelevant to the country’s politics, it has much to do with their inability to change with the times. These parties thus have no system of renewing their leaderships at regular intervals. Once chosen to lead the party and its units, the leaders usually stay on in their positions for as long as they live. The practice has had a crippling effect on both the growth of these parties and on the quality of their leaders. Ageing leaders are often ridiculously out of step with the changing times. Also, the common people and even their own cadre find it difficult to identify with such leaders. But the worst effect of such an organizational system is that the gerontocracy keeps the parties hostage to obsolete ways. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) sought to make amends at its last congress by fixing three terms for the general secretary and the secretaries of all committees. But it provided for a fourth term for such leaders if the central committee agreed to it. Clearly, the Indian comrades are not half as brave or innovative as the Chinese. They would do well to change their own systems before they can hope to change the world.