Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee during the interview at the CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street. Picture by Amit Datta
Change of guard for Bengal, change of lifestyle for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The ever-burning poison stick has been cast away, and with that the frequent gasps interrupting the flow of words. He has been forced to discard the dhoti, too, in favour of the pajama. And the 70-year-old former chief minister has more time to engage in his favourite pastime — reading. The book he has just finished: Narendra Modi, The Man, The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. But at the core, Bhattacharjee remains the same. He wants the working class across the world to unite, considers US imperialism a threat, tracks developments in China with eagerness and staunchly defends his attempt to industrialise Bengal. On the eve of hitting the campaign trail for the Lok Sabha polls, he spoke to Devadeep Purohit of The Telegraph at the CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street.
Excerpts from the interview:
Do you spot any prospects for a CPM turnaround in in the election?
We are trying our best to turn around for the last three years. From 2009 onwards, there was a gradual erosion of our strength. Then came the 2011 Assembly elections. If you see the Assembly election results, there was a gap of over 3 million between us and our opponents. It is not a small amount.
We have been thinking about how to overcome the problems and how to win over these people. Now, we are trying to rectify our party and reorient our policies. With that we are going back to the people who had deserted us in earlier elections and trying our best to win them over.
In this election, I am not telling you that the party will stage a total turnaround, but it will be a partial turnaround. We will improve our show — I can assure you.
What will be the consequences of a four-cornered contest?
So far as parties are concerned, it is a four-cornered fight. But actually it is a battle between two fronts — the Left versus Trinamul. In a few cases, say in Murshidabad and Malda, there is Congress. But in most constituencies, the battle is between Trinamul and the Left. Therefore, division of votes will not be a major issue and we are not depending on that. Arithmetic is one thing, but politics is not simple arithmetic.
What are your views on the rise of Narendra Modi?
Nominating Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate for the NDA is a new phenomenon. Earlier, the main political parties used to form a campaign committee and senior leaders used to be engaged.
But one person will lead the campaign and he will also become the Prime Minister. This is something new. With Vajpayee, there was always Advani-ji and four-five other leaders, there was a concept of a team. Now, this man has made it a one-man show and some leaders have even been thrown out.
Narendra Modi is a choice of the RSS and corporate combine. The RSS means Hindutva, one of the most retrograde ideas of our society as they represent religious fascism. And then there is this corporate lobby. This is a peculiar combination.
How do you think Modi and his policies can be countered?
There are charges against him of having played some role in the riots in Gujarat. He is yet to convince the country that he was not responsible for the 2002 riots.
Besides, as a prime ministerial candidate, his idea of development is corporate-led development, which means capital alone can solve India’s backwardness and poverty. We don’t agree as we think corporate-led development will not help India. We want inclusive development, which means a plan from below. Corporate-led development means you first allow 10, 20, now it’s 122 rich people to flourish and then there will be trickle-down. This theory will not work. We want development from below.
The education or health scenario is not good in Gujarat. Students, especially girls, face so many problems and school dropout rates among girls are high. Government-run health facilities are in poor shape. They have never taken initiatives such as land reform, which the Left government had done in Bengal.
In this background, we are trying to project a Left alternative, which has two aspects.
We oppose the following things — like denationalisation of public sector, decontrol of petroleum products, FDI in retail, commercialisation of education and health, privatisation of mines, jungles and rivers, etc.
We propose a 10-point programme, which is a Left and secular alternative. These include land reforms, universal PDS, a minimum wage of Rs 16,000, a minimum pension of Rs 4,000 for all Indians and more funds for education and health, and improving the life of SC/ST, Muslims and other backward sections.
We are opposing these neo-liberal policies and, at the same time, talking about the Left alternative. We want the election to be held on policy issues. Not whether Narendra Modi will be Prime Minister or Rahul Gandhi.
What are the factors helping Modi?
A section of the middle class has benefited from the neo-liberal policies. Take, for instance, the case of a bank employee, who has gained significantly because of these policies and now his son also aspires to a bright career. The neo-liberal policies have great appeal for this section and they want these policies to be pursued with more vigour. Now, these people want Modi to come so that these policies are pushed more aggressively.
This section does not bother about the pauperisation of a section of society. Their concern is simple —- my son should also get a salary of Rs 1 lakh a month. This section, which has reaped the benefits of neo-liberal policies, is supporting the BJP.
But they themselves have realised that they (BJP) cannot reach the magic figure and that’s why they are so desperate.
Why is there a dearth of young faces in the CPM?
That is true. We need more young people at different levels, including the highest level. But if you try to analyse the situation, Leftism is not as attractive as it used to be in your young days. Internationally, there is a lot of confusion after the Soviet debacle.
Nationally, neo-liberal policies have created a new young generation, who are smart and knowledgeable, but interested only in their careers. In this situation, very few young boys and girls are taking an interest in politics. But I can also humbly claim that among them a decent proportion of people are following Left politics.
We are trying hard to help these young people ideologically so that they can join politics in the future.
Is any attempt being made to change the party?
We are always trying to renew our ideas and policies. For example, earlier our position was for one-party rule in the country. But we have changed since the collapse of the Berlin wall and taken a position in favour of a multi-party system for political pluralism. We are evolving and always in the process of renewal of our policies.
Similarly, earlier our idea was that state-owned and socialist form of production was the only form of production. We are changing from the earlier concept that state ownership means socialism and socialism means only state ownership.
In future, we will have to improve our social policies. In education, we continued with the policy of one language in schools. It did not help us. Finally, we introduced English again. But in the meantime, the damage was done.
Here I must also tell you that it was not our party’s decision to have Bengali as the only language in the primary section, some experts advised us — quoting from Tagore and some international documents — to teach only Bengali. Finally, we realised it was absurd and introduced English.
Similarly, our health policy also had shortcomings. We tried to expand the services in the rural areas, but there is enough scope to improve the coverage.
What are your concerns for the state’s youth who have been leaving Bengal to seek their future elsewhere?
After five years, who will take responsibility for Bengal being in industrial wilderness? The Jindals have left Salboni (the steel and power project is hanging in balance), Wipro and Infosys are not coming, Videocon is leaving. You know what happened in Singur.
Our idea was to improve the manufacturing sector like automobiles, petrochemicals and steel so that jobs got created. We also had plans for the knowledge economy as we tried to get Infosys and Wipro, which would have created jobs. We also tried to get food processing firms.
Practically, there has not been any investment in the last three years.
It is not a question of whether Trinamul or the CPM runs the state. The more important question is what will be the future of young people who come out of colleges and universities after five years.
What mistakes do you think the CPM made that led its being ousted from power?
We have tried to figure out why people who were supporting our party earlier had deserted us. After extensive discussions in the party, we have identified why this happened.
First, the functioning of the government. You see that I stick to our position that industrialisation is a must. Our policy was correct. We had realised that success in agriculture alone cannot take us forward. That’s why we put forward some new policies for promotion of industry. Jyoti Basu started it with the new industrial policy. It was taking shape and investment was coming.
But some problems over land acquisition cropped up. If you take the case of Singur, you will see a majority of people voluntarily gave land and they got good compensation. There was a perception among a section of people that the government is out to take over land from poor farmers and that created a serious problem in Nandigram. When the agitation started, I decided not to go ahead with land acquisition. But the damage was already done and it alienated a section of people from the Left movement.
This has to be taken care of. We have to formulate our policies in the future. Now the question doesn’t arise as we are not in the government, but when the question again comes up in the future we have to be careful about land acquisition.
Secondly, there were some setbacks in the functioning of local self-government — panchayats and municipalities. What were the problems? We failed to consolidate the unity among the poor. In fact, the poor were divided and a section stood against us. That was our failure. We failed to follow a class approach, which means we failed to create unity of the villagers or the poor people.
We vested land in the hands of the government and we started redistributing. But there were problems in the list of beneficiaries. There were complaints that only CPM supporters were getting land and supporters of other parties were not. As these people were also poor, they should have also got the benefit.
So, there was serious alienation in the rural and even in urban areas. It was evident in the 2008 panchayat elections itself and after that in the municipalities. The main thing is poor people who were supporting us so long got divided and a section left us and became Trinamul’s friends.
Finally, there was another criticism of the party that we have discussed extensively among ourselves. In many localities, the party’s image was not good. There were complaints of highhanded behaviour of certain leaders, there was unnecessary and unwanted interference in the social life of common people and in some cases, there was corruption.
This image problem has to be taken into account seriously. Unless you can improve this, people will still say, ‘these boys belong to your party and we are not supporting your party’.
Your party withdrew support from the UPA over the nuclear deal. What is the relevance of opposing US ‘imperialism’ now?
Some of our slogans may give an impression that there is a hangover from the past without any relevance now. In our college days when we used to raise slogans — like ‘Hands off Vietnam’ — we could capture the imagination of the students and youth. But those days are gone.
Now when we raise slogans against imperialism, some critics say, ‘what are you talking about?’ But I playfully ask them, ‘when did US imperialism wither away — after Hiroshima? After Vietnam war? Or after Iraq?’
They can’t give a proper answer.
Imperialism is very much there, very aggressive. They are now active in Syria. Their final aim is Iran. This is one aspect — military aspect — of US imperialism. The question is why are they sitting in the Persian Gulf. They just cannot give up this area as their aim is to loot oil and gas from West Asia. They are now active in the Malacca Strait up to the South China Sea to pose a threat to China.
But there is another aspect — the economic aspect of imperialism. International finance capital is looting the developing countries and everything — mines, jungles, rivers — are up for grabs. This is one sort of primitive accumulation as we had seen in the early days of capitalism.
As the Soviet Union is no more, they are out to maximise profit across the globe. This is imperialism and we must understand the threats from it.
Isn’t it right that your party is obsessed with China even at the cost of national issues?
We are very much aware of the problems back home and we always think about how to spread the Left movement all across India. But we cannot be just silent spectators of things happening elsewhere.
I think we should closely observe the Chinese economy because their experimentation has a serious bearing on the communist movement all over the world. They think the market has a role in the socialist economy and private capital — along with foreign capital — can play a role to improve productive forces.
So, we have to observe what’s happening there. I must admit that there are concerns in our party about what’s happening in China. There is a section in our party, which believes that socialism doesn’t exist in China. Others think that the Chinese are trying their best, and they are aware of the problems that foreign capital could pose in certain sectors. But finally they will prevail because of the strength of the socialist sector and socialism will triumph.
Are you also not under the influence of past ideas like Comintern?
The imperialist countries encircled Moscow from the early days of the Soviet system, communists all over the world decided to have a world centre. Communist International (known as Comintern) was formed (in 1919) to combat this threat. As capitalism is a worldwide phenomenon, the working-class movement also has to have a worldwide presence.
If there can be G20, WTO, why can’t the communists have a worldwide platform? Having said that, I must tell you that post-1943, it was not attempted again and Stalin himself wrote that it was not possible to co-ordinate a platform like this.