Yechury earned his red stripes at turbulent Jawaharlal Nehru University

He was thrice president of the anti-establishment students union of the university of predominantly left-wing academics in 1970s.

By A Sreenivasa Reddy

Published: Wed 22 Apr 2015, 10:59 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 8:39 PM

Dubai — Sitaram Yechury, the urbane and sophisticated face, and now the boss, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi, honed his oratorial and organisational skills in the left-wing student politics of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He was thrice president of the anti-establishment students union of the university of predominantly left-wing academics in 1970s. 

I have had the occasion to listen to this charismatic and budding communist party leader when I was a student at the JNU. In the late eighties and early nineties, he was a big crowd puller in the university, where he used to campaign for the Students Federation in India (SFI), the student wing of the CPM, in the union elections. 

Students used to throng in hundreds to hostel mess halls to hear his after-dinner speeches during the students’ union election campaigns. He used to make a persuasive case for why students should vote for the SFI in erudite and chaste language with a cigarette in his hand. He used to smoke non-stop even when he spoke for an hour or so. Those days smoking cigarettes was a style statement at the JNU and a mark of your arrival in intellectual circuit. Some ultra leftists even took to smoking beedis as a mark of a solidarity with the proletariat. Students who were of anti-leftist mindset used to be impressed by his eloquence. He gained fresh converts for the SFI with every of his election speech. 

But he had particularly difficult moments when he had to defend the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989 in which a few thousand students were killed as tanks moved into the Beijing landmark. As a fraternal arm of the party, the CPM backed the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on students. That did not go down well with students, a huge number who thronged his meetings and tore his eloquent defence into pieces. That year the SFI lost the elections and sowed the seeds for a new students organisation called the All-India Students Association (AISA), the student arm of the CPI (ML). It has since been downhill for the SFI, which could never recover its famed grip at the JNU, apart from occasional victories.

His detractors at the JNU used to call him a demagogue. He used to enjoy the epithet and often dared anti-SFI groups for a debate on issues. Despite his eloquence, he failed to arrest the slide of the student wing of his party in the leftist bastion as other forms and schools of Marxism took hold among the students.

His acolytes and he himself used to boast in JNU election speeches that the late prime minister Indira Gandhi was scared of him. It was said the lady prime minister had the firebrand leader arrested at the earliest opportunity after the imposition of emergency in 1975.

Being of St Stephen’s vintage, Yechury exuded an air of elitism but he unfailingly talked of the masses. His manners, diction and language all had hallmarks of a privileged background. This was often raked up on the campus by his detractors who argued he did not have the right temperament to be a communist leader.

Some media outlets went to town saying there is a generational shift in the CPM. But that’s a misnomer. Both he and his equally illustrious predecessor Prakash Karat are of the same generation. And are of the same JNU brand. Both were student leaders in the same university before they were coopted by the party.

It was the indefatigable communist leader from Kerala, E M S Namboodripad, who reportedly groomed these two young leaders and promoted them in the party hierarchy.

If not for him, these two brilliant gentlemen would have ended up either as left-wing academics or journalists and the party would have been saddled with gerontocrats and scheming regional satraps like Pinarayi Vijayan.

Suave Yechury might put a sophisticated gloss on the party but it remains a moot question if he can ever revive what is certainly a moribund organisation steeped in the mores of a bygone era.

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