All political ideologies use jargon to communicate within their own people. And, of course, as is the purpose of jargon, this can leave outsiders rather confused. American libertarians draw their definition of “liberty” from English philosopher John Locke – who ironically supported African slavery and held that natural liberties didn’t apply to Native Americans. Hindutwadis oscillate between wanting the word “Hindu” to include Muslims and Christians or, say, when making conversion laws, wanting to exclude them. And Indian Islamists keep on wanting to treat Muslim Personal Law as some sort of divine commandment – when it was actually drafted by the British Raj in 1937.

Of course, no one does jargon better than the communists. So intricate and vast is their web of jargon that it has long been a source of confusion as well as humour. But communists take their jargon seriously. In fact, India’s communists are now deciding the vital issue of whether to ally with the Congress by shadow boxing over the meanings of two words, fascist and authoritarian, and then trying to decide which of these uncomplimentary words fits the Bharatiya Janata Party better. This process might seem surreal to the outsider, but on it depends the future of the embattled communists in India.

Congress-Communist relations

This debate within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dates to the West Bengal Assembly election held in April, 2016 – and is, in turn, a shadow of the debate that led to the Communist Party of India splitting to give rise to the CPI (M) in the first place, in 1964.

India’s Communists have always been confused about the Congress, which was at once – jargon alert – a “reactionary bourgeoisie” party in British India and also, undeniably, a mass party. For the first decade of its existence, the CPI had no contact with the Congress. Then, under general secretary PC Joshi, the communists accepted a role under the larger Congress umbrella as part of a socialist pressure group.

The year 1947 saw another flip as the Communists declared war against the new Indian dominion, declaring, “yeh azadi jhooti hai”, this freedom is false. By 1951, they had changed their mind and were happy to contest elections. By 1964, a section of the CPI was so angry with the party for its “unqualified support to the Nehru government because of its class character” that it left and founded the CPI(M).

West Bengal elections

Anti-Congressism is, therefore, responsible for the birth of the CPI(M) itself. There was, expectedly, plenty of heartburn when the West Bengal unit, supported by current general secretary Sitaram Yechury, wanted to ally with the Congress for the 2016 Assembly elections. A large faction, led by former general secretary Prakash Karat, wanted to maintain its ideological pure party line and go it alone. The Bengal unit, though, under heavy fire in the countryside from Trinamool toughs won the day with this pithy argument: “What is the use of the party line, if there is no party left?”

Unfortunately, for the Bengal unit and Yechury, the election was a disaster for the CPI(M). Not only did the Trinamool romp home, the Communists embarrassingly came third. Even the Congress had more seats.

Emboldened by this result, last week Prakash Karat, the erstwhile party general secretary, fired a salvo at the incumbent, Sitaram Yechury, claiming that is was incorrect to call the BJP “fascist” – they merely represented “an authoritarianism that is fuelled by a potent mix of neo-liberalism and communalism”.

Karat versus Kanhaiya

In the communist universe, the word "fascist" has a very specific – and extremely pejorative – meaning. But, as pointed out by George Orwell way back in 1946, it is often used as a general pejorative for “something not desirable”. Of course, having a schoolboy debate over the term was not the point. What Karat was really saying was this: Look, the BJP isn’t that bad. In fact, it is not much worse than the Congress. So tying up with the Congress in order to fight the BJP is a bit pointless. So, therefore, we communists must plough a lone furrow.

The response to this was bitter and came from an unexpected quarter: Jawaharlal Nehru University. Former president of the students' union and newly-minted politician Kanhaiya Kumar tartly told Karat – without naming him, of course – that he should retire to New York if he can’t take the heat. Kumar belongs to the CPI-backed All India Students’ Federation.

The CPI has long been a votary of close ties with the Congress. So much so that they were one of the few parties to support the 1975 Emergency, leading to people quipping that the CPI's initials really stood for the “Communist Party of Indira”.

While public party disagreements are the norm in other parties, it is rare in the CPI(M). Once the communists adopt a “party line”, as per the tenets of “democratic centralism”, everyone is supposed to stick by it. In effect, the CPI(M) now has two party lines. The last time this happened – in the undivided CPI in 1964 – it split.

However it does it, though, the CPI(M) needs to resolve its issues fast. So dire are the straits it is in now that the party appeared all set to lose it national party status and was saved only by some benevolent intervention by the Election Commission.