When Prakash Karat was first elected general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2005, mainstream Left parties in India were on the ascent: they were influential in the functioning of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, they were ruling in West Bengal and Tripura, and were on the road to power in Kerala. Indeed, Mr. Karat's first term coincided with one of the brightest phases of his party, and marked a generational shift in leadership. Now, in his third and last term — the Kozhikode congress, which ended April 9, amended the party constitution to set a three-term limit for secretaries at all levels — the party faces a changed environment. Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said the congress highlighted the need for a native model of socialism rooted in Indian conditions. But from the time of Karl Marx, “scientific socialism” was supposed to be just that: a movement for revolutionary change situated in the prevailing conditions rather than a readymade formula to be applied anytime, anywhere. For Mr. Yechury to frame the issue in the manner he did suggests the party is reassessing its recent policies. Communist parties have always prided themselves in tempering the “economism” of day-to-day working class movements with the struggle for social emancipation in a world dominated by global capital. But unless the organic links between livelihood concerns and the big global picture are made evident, it is easy to lose sight of the here and now. This is what happened in 2009. The party broke with the UPA over the nuclear deal, an issue that had little resonance with party sympathisers or the broad masses, and the Congress-Trinamool alliance which followed led to the Left's electoral decimation.
If the CPI(M)'s reference to a native model of socialism is shorthand for placing the social and economic conflicts in Indian society at the centre of its political strategy, then a serious effort is needed to tie together the diverse struggles being waged by peoples' movements across the country. The Left in India — organised and unorganised — is plagued by divisions based on ideology and sectarianism. Finding creative ways of overcoming these divisions is the only way the CPI(M) can advance. For the party, the loss of West Bengal after 34 years in power was no doubt difficult; mistakes were made in Singur and Nandigram, which alienated some of its traditional support bases in the rural areas. Traumatic though this loss has been, it offers a valuable chance for the CPI(M) to introspect, consolidate and build itself anew, not just in Bengal but in other parts of India as well.