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The Commissar In His Labyrinth


He’s not a mass politician. He’s never fought elections, he doesn’t intend to. Yet he’s charted a course to national centrestage. SANKARSHAN THAKUR reveals the enigmatic Prakash Karat

Early focus A rare photograph of Karat in his youth

He has a taste for murder. Should Manmohan Singh fall in the current jousting between the UPA and the Left over the nuclear deal with the United States, Prakash Karat will stand charged as the man with blood on his hands. But for all the Stalinist attributes that the 59- year-old CPMgeneral secretary is routinely, often flippantly, dart-boarded with, murder isn’t political doctrine for him; it’s literary preference. Patricia Cornwell’s compulsive Kay Scarpetta whodunits. But infinitely more than those, Ian Rankin’s dark Edinburgh crimes. Deep affections for place and persona might be at play here. Edinburgh is where Karat went to study politics as a young man in the late 1960s; and Rankin’s hero, Detective Inspector John Rebus, might bear a few critical, if also unlikely, likenesses to the man who has infused in a single declarative sentence the power to hold apart the world’s two largest democracies — “There will be serious consequences if the deal is operationalised.” The two men share more than a taste for a late evening sneak into Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar. Rebus, middle-aged, intense, irreverent, can be an obsessive man, dogged about fixations, frustratingly aloof, driven by inner wellsprings of conviction.

Often, in the ongoing brinkmanship with the government, Karat may have felt framed into a corner by the chorus of blame. This is a good deal, why is this man being so stubborn? The 123 Agreement has won formidable, media-amplified, attestation. Sonia Gandhi. Manmohan Singh. The bulk of the scientific establishment. Even, with tactical riders, LK Advani. Even, for a significant moment before he inserted due amendments post-haste, N. Ram, mate, comrade, editor of The Hindu, the prolix Mahadev of rightpolitic.

Or he may have sensed the dire burden of consequences piling at his door. Whoever wants an election now? Not even his own party, not his besieged fellows in West Bengal, not his embattled factions in Kerala. We’ll lose seats, has been the aggravated, though unendorsed, plea sounded from the party’s traditional strongholds — prevent precipitation.

But, for Karat, this isn’t about provincial gains or losses; this is a war about winning the world, or at least about keeping the enshrined enemy — the United States — from taking it unchallenged. Those who know Karat up close would tell you he really has no sense of isolation or guilt. If anything, those things mean impositions of a worldview he doesn’t much care
about. If they are calling him intransigent and destructive, so be it. That’s something Karat can begin to feed on and relish; he revels in battle, and if it’s against the expanding evil empire, it can’t get bigger or more righteous. America is fundamental to his understanding of what’s wrong with the universe.

When the Prime Minister warned history would be unforgiving if the deal with America wasn’t done, Karat was sharp and personal in retort. “History won’t forgive us if we collaborate in tying our destiny to the United Statesin perpetuity.” Those who dismiss his duel with Manmohan Singh as merely debating-room rhetoric probably misread him. There is no refuting that the Left’s quotient in parliamentary arithmetic is, and has been, limited. Equally, there is no refuting that it has enough to cripple or bring down the government. It may well be that the Left will earn diminished returns in a snap poll, but electoral arithmetic is not all the Left measures its weight by. There is the constituency of votes and the constituency of the idea; preserving the latter is critical to securing the former.

Prakash Karat with R. Umanath in New Delhi on August 22, 2007. Photo by Shailendra Pandey/Tehelka

Much more so to Prakash Karat than any other Communist frontrunner. Here’s a classical Marxist-Leninist, so viscerally committed to the purity and cohesion of ideology and organisation,he is often faulted for being unconcerned about the requirements of mass and electoral politics. He has contested only twice in life — a win and a loss in stakes for the presidentship of the JNU students’ union — and is unlikely ever to contest ever again. It can’t be he is disdainful of electoral politics, but there’s certainly a streak of indifference. The man who could bring down this Lok Sabha has never ever been to the houses of Parliament. Why? That’s merely one among many outposts of engagement. The headquarters is the Party. That’s where the command lies. That’s where the commander sits, dismissing extant concerns as minutiae, urging attention on the bigger picture: this isn’t about West Bengal or Kerala, this is about the world and about India’s place in it, act now or we shall be condemned to eternal subservience. America is neo-imperialism, it must be fought, whatever the cost. Karat is a past master at using Marxist theory to justify on-ground strategy. This is how he aligns his cadre, through high ideology, not realpolitik. “He’ll not blink on this one,” says a senior party colleague, “Prakash rarely does, because he has coldly thought most things through.”

Decades ago, when still a student in Edinburgh, Karat had caught the eye of Victor Kiernan. The distinguished Marxist historian was keen that Karat pursue the intellectual life. The strait-jacket of organisation will choke the intellect in you, Kiernan counselled, don’t join the party, work the cause from without. Years later, Karat would pay sentimental tribute to his early mentor, publishing a volume of his selected works (Across Time and Continents, Leftword Books, 2003), but he quietly rejected that piece of advice. Well before he landed in Edinburgh, Karat had found his purpose and begun to pursue it.

The formative influences on the man remain unclear — and Karat’s meditated reticence on his personal side have preserved the haze — but loneliness appears to have been among them. He is born into a family of matrilineal Palghat Nairs, well-heeled though not prosperous, past being feudal and seeking out the professions for sustenance. His father is a railway employee, posted far across the continent from native Elappulli, in Burma. Karat spends his early years unhinged in the antique land. His only sibling — a sister — dies of typhoid during the Burma days. Then, at age 12, his father passes away. Mother and son move to Madras. He schools there and begins to give off the first shine of promise — he bags an essay prize and a trip to Tokyo. On to the elite Madras Christian College where he meets N. Ram and P. Chidambaram. Spark merges with spark and makes a pool of light. It’s a journal called The Radical Review. It has things to sustain it — there’s the affluence of Ram and Chidambaram, there’s the ferment over America’s bull-headed misadventure in Vietnam. It’s a time heady with the air of resistance. Fidel Castro has repelled the Bay of Pigs; the CIA explosive in his cigar has turned a damp squib.

Che Guevara has lectured the World Bank in battle fatigues at New York and emerged a raging legend from dirty death in the Bolivian jungles. Joan Baez is ripping America under guitar strings in the streets of Washington. By the time he arrives in Edinburgh on a scholarship, Karat’s world has become more churned, eddying in additional seductions. There is South African apartheid to rail against. He plungesinto protest, even gets rusticated for a spell. But that only whets his appetite for soldiering.

He is never going to listen to sagely Kiernan. When he returned home in 1970, he was called in straight to the CPM, which by then had decided to move the Party Centre — the rganisation’s ideological engine — from Bengal to New Delhi. He began by assisting parliamentary party leader AK Gopalan, but he always remained in the field of vision of the then general secretary, P. Sundaraiyya, soon to become Karat’s favoured instructor. Sundaraiyya would have to quit the CPM over ideological differences in 1978, but, to date, the only portrait that adorns Karat’s office is his. Did N. Ram formally hook Karat with the CPM? Nobody’s telling. It’s true, though, that at the time, Ram had known Sundaraiyya better and longer than Karat. And he had a good sense of where Karat’s heart lay, what promise he held. Future general secretary of the party? Threeand- a-half decades is a long and risky period to lay bets over in politics, but there are those who never doubted where Karat would end up. Says a contemporary in the party, “We used to joke about it with him, sure, but everybody knew it was only half a joke.

Prakash announced his course early, without having to say it. He was streets ahead intellectually, but it was more than just that. He was careful as a good careerist would be, straight and narrow and deep.” Like it is with several key aspects to the man, his rise to the top of the hierarchy — anointed youngest party boss at 57 at the Delhi Congress in April 2005 — remains subject to contrary interpretation, even within the party. Some say it’s a path coldly plotted, from sustained reserve of persona to focused employment of intellect to consistent firmness on ideology and programme. Others argue, weightily, that Karat’s ascent is a consequence of what he is and means rather than the other way round. Ramesh Dikshit, Lucknow-based academic and NCP leader, who set up the first JNU students’ union alongside Karat, says, “Prakash has got where he has entirely by dint of talent and commitment. I have my differences with him, and I left the party because of those, but that can’t stop me from admiring the man’s honesty and adherence to what he believes to be right. He is not a transparent man — he is dogmatic and puritan and Stalinist in political approach — but to hold on to all of that and articulate it intellectually speaks of rare ability and integrity. The CPM is not a party where people rise merely because someone influential takes a liking to you.”

EVERY LIFE has a central stem around which it flowers or falters. For Karat, that’s always — and by unanimous agreement — been party ideology and programme. Talk around and you’ll get a sense of the near-astounding respect he evokes even in the bitterest adversary. And nobody doubts that for an ideology-driven party like the CPM, which refuses to repudiate Stalin and which remains theoretically committed to revolution, he makes the perfect choice as leader. Karat hasn’t come up idly promoted in the party backrooms; he’s zig-zagged his way, often aking choices that others at the time saw as futile deviations. If something made Sundariyya and Gopalan send Karat to build a students’ movement at the fledgling JNU when he had, to all intents, completed formal studies in Edinburgh, something also made Karat resolve to embrace the assignment.

When he became secretary of the Delhi party in 1980, many thought he had erred; Delhi was, and remains, barren turf for the CPM, he should have gone for the Party Centre. Both decisions were to become ballast for Karat’s growing reputation within and outside the party. Did he jump onto the visiting Shah of Iran’s motorcade at the head of a violent protest as JNU president? Was he the lead disruptionist when the World Bank’s Robert McNamara came visiting? Did he steal British Prime Minister Edward Heath’s thunder in Delhi? Truth? Semi-myth? Take your pick, but you can’t tear any of that away from that substantive body called the Prakash Karat myth. Was he wasting away as Delhi party secretary? He was only getting a sounder and sounder grip on the many intricate and enigmatic ways the CPM conducts itself. “This was rare training,” reflects a Politburo member. “Being in Delhi and being perceptive, he remained close to the ideological and theoretical heart of the party even while he gained practical experience in how it is run.”

There are those who credit — often in unkind ways, often in ways that give no due to Karat’s own qualities — the progress of his career to wife and partymate Brinda. She’s the pushy one, the ambitious one, she’s the key Karat. Even those who are unreserved in their admiration and respect for Prakash tend to wince when it comes to Brinda; he is, at least for them, the better half in that relationship. They would applaud Karat’s elevation to the top party job to the skies, but because the occasion was also attended by Brinda’s appointment to the Politburo, they labelled the Delhi party conference of 2005 “Coronation Congress”.

Brinda Karat comes from the affluence of Kolkata’s Alipore. They met early in their party careers, Brinda, a bit of a Miranda House rage, having dumped a future with Air India in favour of fashionable leftwing politics, Prakash having arrived from long and studied convictions. It must be said, though, there is little to suggest that Brinda’s convictions about her political choice have not become deeper over the years. Neither is it that she’s ever betrayed a chink in commitment. It was a love that was wholesomely blessed by the party; when they decided to get married in 1975, in the thick of Karat’s underground Emergency days, Harkishen Singh Surjeet took it upon himself to pick an appropriately auspicious date — November 7, the anniversary of the October Revolution in the New Calendar.

For critics of Brinda Karat, it’s not all down to subjectivities of personality. And it isn’t entirely personal either, for with her high-profile seats in the Politburo and in Parliament, Brinda is an important political mover as well; at a very human level, she does evoke jealousies and those often become part of internal faction play. But a lot of the reservations about her also have to do with her to-the-mannerborn background and her insistence on preserving it in her private space. It’s almost with a sense of deep hurt that a contemporary of Karat’s pulls out a wart at the end of extended showering of praise. “If there’s one blemish to him,” he says wistfully, “it is that he continues to live with the Roys.” Reference to Prannoy and Radhika Roy, the success-couple behind NDTV, brother-in-law and sister to Brinda. Karat retains his spartan party-given flat in the MPS’ hostel at Vitthalbhai Patel House, but home remains the Roys’ residence in South Delhi.

Many find the contradictions between Communism and class comfort disturbing but if there is a disjunct, it remains a finely-managed one. On a day that Karat fires ultimatums at the government, Prannoy comfortably slips into his studio seat to announce that 60 percent of those aware of the details of the nuclear deal disapprove of the CPM’s stand. Also, that his polls suggest Karat’s tactics will substantially reduce the party’s numbers in parliament. Karat, on his part, is able to display his disdain with equal ease. “So NDTV is still doing polls?” he remarked sardonically to a friend upon being told. “Haven’t they learnt any lessons from their embarrassments in UP?” Beyond a point, little that transpires in the Roy-Karat home cramps either side. Beyond a point, how relevant or consequential is it to dwell on the personal in a nation that never seems to mind the presence of family or dynasty in public life? Old friend amesh Dikshit will vouch that the lifestyle of the Roys hasn’t rubbed off on Prakash, personally or politically. “He came home for dinner a couple of years ago. He was already a very important man. I knew he declined all VIP treatment the Mulayam Singh government was eager to offer. He came in a friend’s car and returned late at night on the pillion of my nephew’s scooter.”

COMMUNISTS, BY dint of training, are wont to underplay the role of the individual in politics. This isn’t a crisis Prakash Karat has created single-handed; the party, irrespective of the noises being made in West Bengal and Kerala, is behind him, it unanimously backs the line. The Left as a whole is behind him, he isn’t stringing them along by force. And to a preponderant degree,
that’s true. The Left today lives out of its opposition to America and the American way of life; any Communist would be loath to be seen endorsing the US. Even so, questions linger about whether another leader in Karat’s place would have dealt with it differently. Predecessor Surjeet, for instance, or Comrade Sitaram Yechury. “Without compromising on line, they would probably have calibrated this more flexibly,” says a CPM leader, “I can see Surjeet playing this out in his mind beyond a mid-term poll, I can see him imagining another fractured Lok Sabha, I can see him grappling with the difficult dilemma of having to possibly support the UPA again in order to keep the BJP out of power. Karat is too much of a puritan to pay much heed to the practicalities of politics.”

But there is more that handicaps Karat in a fluid political setting than merely the fact of his being hidebound and clinical. He wants to play the public game as a recluse. In a democracy that thrives on the elasticities of what can be achieved over a conversation, his distaste for engagement can become a huge drawback. Sitaram Yechury must dirty his hands with the required wheeling-dealing; very often he also ends up earning a bad name for it. Karat himself will militate against the idea that his personality has come to bear upon the course of this crisis. In nuanced and key ways, he may be wrong.

Paying tribute to EMS Namboodiripad in the party’s ideological quarterly, The Marxist, in 1998, he wrote: “EMS is a striking example of how an individual’s life and work acquires a tremendous impact when harnessed to the theory and practice of Marxism. When the individual is a person of EMS’ exceptional intellectual ability and depth of vision, veritably, theory becomes a powerful force and in the hands of a creative practitioner like EMS, it produces the impulses for a powerful movement.” As he marches up the Coromandel Coast, blazing a firm red line of limits to how much of America he can bear with, Karat surely must have his sights peeled on whether his impulse carries the intimations of an upsurge. The crisis is yet unfolding, nobody seems in a desperate hurry. Meantime, Rankin’s at work in Edinburgh. Another dark murder is in the making.

Sep 15 , 2007

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