VISAKHAPATNAM: It was a nail-biting finish. After a tense race that ran for days, the suave and politically-savvy Telugu bidda Sitaram Yechury — the second youngest politburo member — was elected unanimously as the CPM’s new general secretary on the last day of the party congress at Visakhapatnam on Sunday.
Yechury, 62, won in a photo finish, amid thumping applause that could be heard from outside the Port Kalavani stadium, after a morning where his main opponent, 77-year-old S Ramachandra Pillai (or SRP) of Kerala, was still in with a chance.
Yechury becomes the fifth general secretary of the party succeeding his contemporary Prakash Karat, who served three terms as the party head. Karat, who was seen to have had differences on the party’s tactical line with Yechury, finally proposed his name for the post. The party’s new Central Committee approved it after the other frontrunner, SRP, seconded it.
It was the prospect of a contest — and a secret ballot at that — which finally clinched it for Yechury. None of the contenders, nor Karat, was keen on seeing a bitter division within the party played out in a vote. The Bengal lobby’s adamant support for Yechury, by far the more popular contender nationally, tilted the scales on Sunday, after a politburo meeting stretched past midnight on Saturday without consensus.
SRP, informally backed by Karat, had the support of the powerful Kerala lobby, led by State strongman Pinarayi Vijayan. Maybe that was the reason SRP, otherwise a very well-liked and gentlemanly party veteran and low-profile organisation man, stuck on till the last.
Party leaders say SRP, besides being 15 years older, also suffers the disadvantage of not being fluent in Hindi — seen as a handicap at a time when the party would like to renew its old bases in the North and expand.
A leader from the North East, K Shanta of Manipur, said, “Sitaram is not only popular with party workers, he’s a good speaker who can go to most states and speak in their language.
Everyone outside the party also knows him. Besides, he’s equally comfortable with intellectuals and ordinary workers.”
Sitaram Yechury’s supporters argued that he would hold an appeal for sections beyond the party’s traditional base, particularly youth, while the Kerala lobby had pitched hard for his main contender, S Ramachandran Pillai. Uncertainty had lingered till the very end, with both Yechury and Pillai refusing to rule themselves out overtly. Finally, according to sources, it took Karat’s persuasion for SRP to withdraw from the race.
Yechury is simply seen as a more viable prospect, with the chance of providing agile and imaginative leadership at a time of deep crisis that has seen the Left come down to single digits in the Lok Sabha and practically facing a wipeout in Bengal.
The coming 2016 assembly election in Bengal, the old “red fortress” where the CPM is now facing an existential battle, would therefore have been a factor in their preference. Yechury represents West Bengal in the Rajya Sabha, and after an inconclusive debate in the politburo, the Bengal lobby insisted on a vote in the 91-member central committee after the Kerala supporters pitched in for Pillai. At this stage, Karat reportedly intervened and persuaded all to ensure an unanimous change of batons, as was the tradition.
Addressing the gathering afterwards, Yechury described the 21st CPM meet as a “congress for the future” of the party, of India and of Left unity. “We must strengthen ourselves internally and externally, to meet challenges before the country and the party,” he said.
Attacking the Modi government, Yechury said it is headed by communal forces pursuing an aggressive neo-liberal agenda. “The Modi government has unleashed a new trimurti – communalism, neo-liberal economic policies and erosion of democratic practices. We must ensure this trimurti does not convert itself into a trishul that will pierce the heart of India,” he added.