As the Communist Party of India-Marxist's congress in Vishakhapatanam reaches midpoint, the long-standing battlelines between outgoing general secretary Prakash Karat and politburo member Sitaram Yechury are fast getting blurred. A new division is emerging: between Yechury and the heavyweight of the party's Kerala unit, Pinarayi Vijayan. The proceedings on the last day of the congress on April 19 will make it clear whether this wrangle erupts into the open or remains subterranean. What is certain, however, is that the outcome of this clash will decide who becomes the party's next general secretary as Karat reaches the end of the three terms he is allowed under the party's rules: Yechury or Vijayan-backed politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai.

It is hardly a secret that Vijayan, who continues to remain the supreme leader of the Kerala party unit despite relinquishing the post of state party secretary two months ago, is working hard to become state chief minister in the event that the CPI-M led Left Democratic Front succeeds in winning next year's assembly polls. The Kerala heavyweight has been an energetic Karat loyalist in his struggle against Yechury all these years. If Yechury becomes the general secretary, he cannot be expected to help Vijayan realise his chief ministerial ambitions.

If the entire Kerala party decides to follow Vijayan, that would leave no room for Yechury to manoeuver, even though he enjoys the general goodwill of the delegates and the support from party units in West Bengal and other states in north India.  Not only is the Kerala the largest of the CPI-M's state organisations, the units in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu work in tandem with it whenever the party has to take any vital decision.

Two paths

It is this ground reality that has put Yechury’s fate entirely in the hands of his bête noire Karat. “There are only two ways Yechury can become the general secretary,” explained a senior party leader and a delegate from West Bengal. “Either the new party secretary of Kerala [Kodiyeri Balakrishnan] takes an open position in favour of him [Yechury] and divides the state unit or Prakash Karat himself goes against Vijayan and proposes the name of Yechury” for the position.

Many senior leaders of the party feel that Karat, despite his running feud with Yechury, may indeed throw up this surprise. They point out that while presenting the party’s draft political-organisational report before the delegates, Karat emphatically said the party’s main focus in the coming years would be to regain its lost ground in West Bengal. With Pillai at the helm, they argue, the party will not be able to achieve this objective.

It isn't only considerations in Bengal that make it desirable for Karat to propose Yechury's name to be the next general secretary. Delegates at the party congress clearly favour the alternate document on the party's political-tactical position that Yechury presented before a central committee meeting in October over the official one prepared by Karat. “It is only logical that the leader whose [ideological] line has an edge should be placed at the helm of the party,” said the CPI-M leader.

Standard practice

Technically, the delegates attending the party congress elect the leadership. But in reality, they only have an indirect say in it: the outgoing general secretary plays a pivotal role in the exercise. Usually, the outgoing general secretary in consultation with the politburo proposes an official panel for the new central committee, and delegates usually support it without any amendment. A similar exercise is repeated by the members of the new central committee to elect the new general secretary and politburo. Here, too, the practice is to approve the official panel without any change.

Whether Karat ultimately saves the day for Yechury or the Kerala party unit gets divided despite Vijayan’s iron grip on it will be known only on the last day of the party congress. As of now, there is a great deal of suspense about who Karat's successor will be: Yechury or Pillai, the two names in the running. One of the consequences of this suspense is that the party newspapers in various languages have not yet begun working on the profile of the next general secretary – a job that they do well in advance. In 2005, when Karat became the general secretary, the picture had become clear even before the party congress began in Delhi, and, therefore, a profile was kept ready by the party newspapers much before his name was officially announced. On earlier occasions, too, the CPI-M had experienced a similarly smooth change of guard at the centre.