Is Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury following in the footsteps of the party’s stalwart, the late Harkishan Singh Surjeet?

Said to possess the same political temperament as Surjeet, Yechury is currently attempting to emulate the role played by the long-serving CPI(M) general secretary in bringing together disparate political parties to form a grand coalition of secular forces.

A towering political figure, who enjoyed an excellent rapport with leaders across the political spectrum, Surjeet was instrumental in persuading an array of political parties in 1996 to stitch up an alliance, christened the United Front, which eventually went on to form the government with Deve Gowda (and then IK Gujral) as prime minister.

Similarly, he made a significant contribution to the formation of the United Progressive Alliance in 2004 when Congress president Sonia Gandhi stepped out to seek the support of “like-minded” parties to take on the communal forces – ie the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was Surjeet who worked behind the scenes to convince like Chandra Shekhar, Jyoti Basu and VP Singh to drop their antagonism towards the Congress and lend moral support to Sonia Gandhi’s efforts.

Forging a consensus

In his own way, Yechury is doing the same these days. Though Sonia Gandhi has taken the lead in reaching out to other opposition parties to forge a consensus on fielding a common Presidential candidate, Yechury is also actively involved in this exercise in the hope that this alliance will begin the process of realignment of political forces in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Besides conferring with the Congress on a regular basis, Yechury has met former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and is in constant touch with Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar. In addition, he travelled to Bhubneshwar to persuade Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik to join the opposition grouping in the Presidential election.

The opposition leaders especially asked Yechury to speak to Patnaik since the Congress and the Biju Janata Dal have been locked in a longstanding political battle in Odisha. On the other hand, Patnaik has maintained a good working relationship with the BJP and has often supported the ruling party in Parliament. The opposition is hoping that the Odisha chief minister will re-evaluate his party’s relationship with the Modi government in view of the BJP’s growing footprint in his home state. The BJP replaced the Congress as the main opposition party in the recent local elections and is now making a determined effort to dethrone the Patnaik government in Odisha. Patnaik has not given any commitment to the opposition but there is a fair chance that he may support its Presidential candidate.

However, Yechury’s outreach to YSR Congress chief YS Jaganmohan Reddy failed to yield the desired result. Reddy declared last week that his party will support the National Democratic Alliance candidate in the upcoming Presidential election after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As in the case of Patnaik, Yechury was asked to get in touch with Reddy as the Congress does not have a cordial relationship with him. The YSR Congress chief has not forgiven the Congress for denying him the chief minister’s post after his father Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy was killed in an air crash in 2009. To make matters worse, Jagan Reddy was arrested in a disproportionate assets case in 2012 when the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre. Currently out on bail, Reddy obviously needs the Modi government’s help with his pending cases.

As the discussion among the opposition parties gathers momentum in the coming days, Yechury can be expected to be an active participant in this exercise.

Different times

Like Surjeet, Yechury has friends across the political divide, is alive to the requirements of electoral politics and is flexible in his approach. Mentored by Surjeet, the present CPI(M) general secretary has been often compared favourably with his senior, with both leaders being described as pragmatists. This was evident during the first term of the UPA government, which was propped up by the outside support of the Left parties. When the then CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat fell out with the UPA government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in constant touch with Yechury as it was known that he was not as rigid on this issue as Karat.

There is no doubt that there is a striking similarity between Surjeet and Yechury with regard to their approach to other political parties. But Yechury does not enjoy the same seniority and stature as Surjeet did. Moreover, Yechury is heading the CPI(M) at a time when the Left parties are in decline and are facing a serious existential crisis. Not only have they virtually disappeared from their bastion in West Bengal after 30 years, there is little hope of their revival as Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is still riding high, while the space vacated by the Communists has been occupied by the BJP as her main opposition in the state.

Unlike Surjeet, Yechury, however, has his share of opponents within his own party as it is well known that he has an uneasy relationship with his predecessor Prakash Karat. The divisions in the party were evident during Yechury’s elevation as general secretary in 2015 as the election went down to the wire. Yechury’s decision to align with the Congress in the last West Bengal assembly polls also came in for strong criticism from his colleagues. Though the Communists are in power in Kerala and Tripura, the BJP is snapping at their heels, determined to overthrow the Left from the two states where it still has a strong presence.

Clearly, Yehcury has a tough task at hand.