West Bengals original party of strikes and bandhs is apparently having a change of heart. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has done an unusual thing by persuading its trade union arm, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, to withdraw a transport strike call. It is possible that the move is merely a tactical retreat for the party that would have been embarrassed in the event of the strikes failure. But the CPI(M)s ways with Citu raise some fundamental questions on political parties control of trade unions. Most political parties in India have their trade union fronts, just as they have similar outfits for farmers, students, women and other social groups. But parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have only superficial control over the trade unions affiliated to them. Things are very different with the leftist parties and some regional ones such as the Shiv Sena. For these parties, the trade unions exist merely to serve the formers political agenda. There is an obvious conflict of interest in a political partys control of the trade unions. A trade union, by definition, is supposed to look after the interests of workers. That should require it to steer clear of partisan politics. A partys interests are not only different from those of the workers but can actually be at odds with the latter.
However, what the CPI(M) does with Citu is much more than the partys internal matter. For several decades, Citus belligerence has been the bane of Bengals economic progress. Strikes and other shows of militancy by Citu have had a crippling effect on industry and labour relations in Bengal. Such was Citus influence on the CPI(M) that the former often appeared to be controlling the latter. Senior party leaders, including the former chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, wanted this to change. But it was not easy even for powerful party leaders to put Citu in its place. There were many reasons why the party lost power in Bengal after 34 years. But an important reason was the peoples anger with Citus strong-arm methods and its irresponsible strike culture. How the CPI(M) reins in Citu can be crucial for the partys efforts to win back popular support. It is possible that the old guard in Citu will not go down without a fight. It is a test that may go a long way in deciding if the CPI(M) can re-invent itself as a normal political party.