Communists are known to be slow to learn and slower to change. The proposal of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to limit the term of secretaries, including the general secretary, to a maximum of nine years shows that the party is learning to change. Belated though it is, it is a correct step. In finally agreeing to make this change, the party may have been influenced as much by the American model as by the Chinese one. For the American president, the limit of the term has long been eight years. The Chinese Communist Party adopted the American model in the post-Deng Xiaoping period. The CPI(M) has not gone the whole way, because it has proposed to limit the term of the party bosses to nine years. It would have done better to fix the limit at two terms. Only in exceptional circumstances should the limit have been extended to three terms. This has nothing to do with Prakash Karatís organizational abilities or his lack of them. Limiting the maximum term for a high office is a matter of democratic principle as well as organizational efficiency. An unlimited term in office for a leader corrupts both the organization and the individual. The history of communist parties in China and the former Soviet Union shows how long-reigning rulers can turn into new emperors.
The CPI(M) hopes that the change will help it groom a new generation of leaders at all levels. Following a series of electoral debacles, the party faces serious challenges on many fronts. One of the most critical of these challenges clearly relates to the leadership issue. At different levels of the organization, the party is saddled with ageing and inefficient leaders. But a new future for the party is not necessarily dependent on a younger generation of leaders. Some of Mr Karatís decisions as the general secretary, such as the withdrawal of the partyís support to the first United Progressive Alliance government, may have caused the party huge damage, especially in its strongholds like West Bengal and Kerala. But undoing the damage is not something that will depend entirely on whether Mr Karat stays at the top or not. It will depend much more on whether the partyís policies and strategies are updated in order to meet new challenges. New leaders may not make much of a difference without the party embracing a new approach.