An unusually long spell in power may leave a political party rather disoriented. The confusion gets worse when the party finds itself out of power. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) seems to be still too demoralized by its loss of power in West Bengal to think coherently of the road ahead. The party’s central committee met in Calcutta apparently to find ways for a revival not only in Bengal but also at the national level. If any such way was found, there was no hint of it in the remarks made by Prakash Karat, the CPI(M) general-secretary. It was difficult to see what lessons the party had taken from its massive defeat in Bengal. The reasons the party cited for the defeat are at best half-truths. Underlying this refusal to face the reality is the CPI(M)’s inability to change and adapt itself to a fast-changing world. The party is thus still bound to its opposition to economic reforms in general and to the opening of banking, insurance and the retail trade to foreign investors in particular. It is the same outdated approach to issues of governance that prompted Mr Karat and his loyalists in the politburo to oppose the civilian nuclear deal between India and the United States of America and to withdraw support to the United Progressive Alliance government in 2008.
Clearly, Mr Karat presides over a crisis in the party that is largely his own making. But the bigger problem that the party faces has much to do with its ideology and programme. It remains wedded to the socialist economic model which has been discarded everywhere, including China. Its Stalinist organization makes it a misfit in democratic politics. But such fundamental issues are unlikely to be discussed at the party’s next congress. The inability to address these issues makes the CPI(M) a prisoner of its own contradictions. The result is a situation in which the party continues to talk of a “people’s democratic revolution” in its programme and, at the same time, struggles to make use of the parliamentary system. The confusion has always shown in the party’s dilemma about joining a coalition government at the Centre. It is possible that the next party congress will endorse Mr Karat’s line of building a “third alternative” to replace the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level. That would be a sure recipe for further irrelevance of the party. The only hope for the CPI(M) is to try and reinvent itself under a new leader.