Whatever Happened, Comrades?

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury talks to Sankarshan Thakur

  • Published 30.04.17



Q What has gone wrong with the Left, why is it in such an abysmal place today?

A I wouldn't say something has gone wrong. The world has been changing rapidly, as it always does, but we suffered a lag in keeping up. Lenin had defined Marxism very pithily - it is the concrete essence of concrete conditions. As concrete conditions keep changing and concrete analysis doesn't keep pace, there is a time lag. We are victimsof that lag, we haven't kept pace.

Q: Where did you begin to suffer this time lag?

A: It has been there, it's a struggle to keep pace with it, but it increased around the 1990s when two things happened simultaneously: the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of globalisation. Accumulated mistakes were committed in the process of socialist construction. Post World War II, socialism was seen as a major factor in the defeat of fascist forces, and there was universal acceptance that it influenced the de-colonisation process. But when the process of peaceful consolidation of capitalism began following the war and de-colonisation, socialism needed to adapt to global changes. What was capitalism doing? It was adapting. The welfare state emerged, social security nets were effected in capitalist countries. As capitalist economies, they were loath to share profits, but still they gave benefits to working people in order to adapt and to counter the growing influence of socialism. That adaptability was not forthcoming in the socialist system, and that led to a large number of mistakes.

Q: Are you blaming the state of the Indian Left on something that happened in the 1990s around the Soviet Union?

A: No, no, no, I am only explaining to you where and how the time lag came, I am trying to date the lag because you asked me. I am not blaming anybody, if there is anybody to blame it's us.

Q: Let's talk about here and now, Mr Yechury. Your vote share has plummeted to barely 4 per cent across India, your seats in the Lok Sabha have fallen from 50 until very recently to 10; in Bengal, your biggest fort, you are virtually out of the reckoning on your own. What is happening?

A: This is a very serious question before us. At the party congress where I was elected general secretary, the major issue was how to stem this decline in our independent strength and its capacity for political intervention. This happened roughly in the 10-year period before I became general secretary. One of the things that happened was that in terms of our engagement, issues that were against the interests of the people were put on the backburner while we were talking of electoral understandings to combat larger problems like the rise of communal forces and so on. That made us lose our independent identity. To some extent that also happened because of organisational weaknesses which we were not paying much attention to. We became pre-occupied with larger political things. We have decided to correct both of these. The process was set in motion after I took over as general secretary in 2015 party congress and later, at the plenum in December in Calcutta. A little over a year has passed since then, so its too early to evaluate the results of these corrections. But we are acutely aware that during that decade there was a rapid and very severe fall in our strength.

Q: Why did that happen? Please be more specific.

A: Because of a combination political factors. There are two aspects to alliances in electoral politics. One is to stave off larger dangers to the polity, the second is the ability to struggle against wrong policies of forces that you ally with.

Q: But when you were with the UPA, you were able to effectively assert on a host of policy and governance issues...

A: Yes, of course. You'd remember that at least on 16 crucial policy matters we intervened and were able to reverse many of them and force decisions that would otherwise not have been taken. Like the rural employment guarantee, the right to food, the right to education, the right to information. These were major advances, and they happened under the Left's pressure. Unfortunately, these are not seen in the way they should be. We were able to stop a few wrong steps the UPA wanted to take - privatisation of BHEL, for instance, the offloading of shares, the move to privatise non-metro airports. All of them have now been modernised by the Airports Authority [of India]. Great things were achieved during that time, but in the bargain our strength declined and that began to tell on us. But yes, I would say we achieved a lot during the UPA days.

Q: Let me ask you at this point: was pulling out of the UPA your Historic Blunder 2?

A: (Laughs) No, I wouldn't call it that. But I would say that the issue on which we pulled out - the Indo-US nuclear deal - that issue we failed to sell to the people, we admit this. We could not make it an electoral issue. That was a big failure on our part, and that cost us. We could not convince the people about the reason we had pulled out.

Q: Did the party discuss it?

A: Subsequently we did.

Q: Are you saying the final decision to pull out was taken without discussion or am I mistaking you?

A: No, no, of course, it was discussed. We were supporting the UPA on the basis of a common minimum programme and the nuclear deal did not figure anywhere on it. I put this question to the Congress leadership, to Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi, to Manmohan Singh, all of them: why are you forcing us to withdraw? There was a lot in the common minimum programme yet to be achieved, why suddenly the nuclear deal? Number two, and more important: I believe we were right then, and we are right now about being worried over India moving closer and closer to US imperialism. That remains of great concern to us.

Q: A lot of people would say US imperialism is a bogey the Left keeps pulling out, that it's an outmoded thing in today's world, you are doing no more than tilting at the windmills.

A: But how? You call it tilting at the windmills, but look at what the US is doing worldwide. The criticism is we are ideologically opposed to the US, which we are on a lot of issues. What is happening today? What is Trump doing? And our understanding is if Trump wasn't doing it, somebody else at the helm in the US would. That's the very nature of imperialism. It is not in India's self-interest to be under the shadow of US imperialism. Let me make another point. Please remember that when Manmohan Singh went to the US for the first time as Prime Minister, the then President Bush (Jr) had introduced him to his wife, Laura, saying he is the leader of a democracy with millions of Muslims and not one is a member of al Qaida. That is something all of us were proud of. Look at what is happening today, what is the government telling us about ISIS recruitments from India? Why is it happening? The closer you are seen with the US and Israel, the more you are inviting such things to happen on your soil. It is not in our self-interest to do that. What was the great self-interest in signing the nuclear deal with the US?

Q: Let me put the question to you another way. As you said, the Left was influencing policy at that time. There was, again as you said, much left to be done. Was it so important for you to have pulled out on this issue alone? Do you bear any responsibility for what has happened to the political landscape of India since you left the UPA?

A: Well, if I were the cynical sort, I would have said it is not only our responsibility to look after the country's interests, etc. etc. but I am not saying that. The point is we made it very clear even then that we don't see even one megawatt of power coming to India because of that deal in a long time. That has turned out to be true. We have not been allowed on the nuclear big table. So what was their great hurry? The Congress and the UPA leadership should also have thought about it, was it necessary for them to be so obdurate on the issue? I still cannot understand what their compulsion was. What has India gained? Except that it facilitated the present Narendra Modi government to convert that deal into formally becoming a subordinate ally of the US in all spheres from foreign policy to defence to economic policy?

Q: If we could shift to Bengal, your erstwhile impregnable fort, what does the result from the Kanthi Dakshin bypoll tell you? You came a poor third, the BJP came an honourable second. I can understand parties losing elections, but this is like getting wiped out by a rookie outsider? What's happening with the CPI(M) in Bengal?

A: Bengal politics, please understand, is not merely about elections, it is also a reflection of the class struggle that is going on.

‘Presidential poll will test idea of India’

IN THE RED: A young Sitaram Yechury with Jyoti Basu and the then CPI(M) general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet at a 1998 rally in Calcutta
Pic: PTI

Q: There is a class struggle going on today in Bengal?

A: Absolutely. Even today. I am just coming back from north Bengal, where we are in a bad situation. What was the real reason for the rise of the Trinamul Congress (TMC)? It was the reversal of the class struggle we fought. Because of the land reforms we did during our tenure, we had deprived families that were illegally holding on to land for centuries. They were looking for an opportunity to strike back, and they have. The fight between the Left and the TMC is the fight between those we gave land and those whose lands were taken away by us. Now, under the TMC, all the land is getting transferred back to those people under benami deals.

Q: It's hard to believe that simply in those terms. Closer to the truth is the fact that Mamata Banerjee has actually taken your constituency away, she is in occupation of much of your space. In fact, she is seen as the leader of poor masses today in Bengal, like you used to be. At a national level, Narendra Modi has won that perception battle, he is the leader of the poor, not the Left anymore... you are not the garib aadmi, working people's party anymore.

A: ( Laughs out loud) Yes, of course, and Donald Trump is the champion of the US working class, a billionaire with a fleet of planes who sits in some penthouse on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Q: But he did get that vote, don't scoff at it.

A: No, no, I am not scoffing at all, you understand the phenomenon. The British Right has actually got the support of the British working class for Brexit; the Left was doing that for its own reasons, but the fact is the Right in the UK did secure working class support. It's happening and as a Marxist, it is a cause of great concern for me.

Q: But why is it happening?

A: Because that space is being vacated by the Left. There is working class discontent but unless we go back to basics and start organising them and motivating them for struggle, nothing is going to help, top-level manoeuvring is not going to help. We have to go back to the people.

Q: What's stopping you? There was a one-time Rs 86 rise in LPG prices, the Left was not able to mobilise any protest, and Modi remains the leader of the poor...

A: And in our student days a one paisa rise in tram fares raised hell in Calcutta, yes. Nothing is stopping us, except for some specific reasons in Bengal. We were in government for nearly 35 years and we had developed issues. That is why we held the plenum in Calcutta. We had begun to neglect our basic creed of working among the people. That is where the lag also came. Thirty-five years in power rusted the edge of Left politics. We gave up mobilising people, we only worked through government. We have been self-critical and we admit that was a mistake. But subsequently, from 2009, there was a huge degree of terror unleashed against us by the TMC, and the interests behind them.

Q: How did the TMC come to unleash terror on you in Bengal, you were the party in power?

A: I'll tell you how. The dependence of the cadre, a whole generation or more, on the administration and government and getting work done through them, blunted them. Also nearly 70 per cent of the voters in Bengal had been born after Jyoti Basu became chief minister. They had seen only one government, " Bam Front, Bam Front, Bam Front", the Left was all the democracy they had ever seen. There was a yearning for change. Besides, and this too is important - during the later phases of the Left government, a lot of undesirable elements came in. We were conscious of that, but by the time these were weeded out, the damage had been done. In our last few years in office, the largest number of people thrown out of the party were from Bengal, so a lot of wrong was happening which we are trying to correct. These people came into the party because we were the ruling party, not because of ideology, they had to be thrown out. But all of these things made us vulnerable to physical attacks that were mounted on us. The question often asked is why we did not resist. That resistance was blunted by 35 years of being in power. That was the impact of our bourgeoisisation in government and that's something we need to be very careful about.

Q: Do you not believe that what's happening in Bengal is that the TMC has grabbed your space at the grassroots, and certain other sections that would vote you or the Congress are switching over to the BJP? That's what recent election trends suggest.

A: That's a very superficial analysis. What is happening is far more complex. Bengalis are a highly politically conscious people. It cannot be that people who were voting Left have suddenly gone to Mamata or the BJP. What is happening in Bengal since 2005-06 is a process of communal polarisation. If the BJP is trying to make a presence in Bengal, that is because TMC has communalised politics. Between Mamata and the BJP, Bengal is caught in competitive communalism; that's alarming. Mamata is feeding Muslim fundamentalism, the BJP is exploiting the Hindu reaction to that. We didn't let any of that happen. Mamata has provided entry to the BJP, she is fanning Muslim fundamentalism, the BJP is using that to spread Hindutva fanaticism. I am really worried over this. Forget my party or its prospects, it worries me as an Indian. This trend is becoming pronounced everywhere and it threatens to undermine our entire constitutional order, the very idea of India. We are in a very critical phase as a nation, there are grave challenges, over the next two years things will happen...

Q: What things will happen?

A: First of all, you'll have the election of the President of India. That's a very important milestone. The choice is between having a secular custodian of the Constitution in the Rashtrapati Bhavan or a communal one. The choice is clear, secular supervision or communal supervision.

Q: Do you have a strategy in place?

A: We are trying, efforts have started. It should not be an issue of whose candidate it is, this issue is larger. Are we going to protect the secular democratic republic of India or sacrifice it? So there is a moral responsibility on everybody, not merely a political one, and parties will be tested on where they stand. This election will draw the battle lines.

Q: Two final questions that exclusively concern the inner workings of your party. Have you resolved the often very open differences in your party on maintaining equidistance from the Congress and the BJP? Has the time come to formally change that line? And, what's your position on contesting your Rajya Sabha seat a third time?

A: Well, there are laws and dynamics of politics. In the context of Bengal, we have settled the issue that going in alliance with the Congress was not in consonance with our policy, it was wrong. At the same time, we say that there should be a broad platform against the rise of communal forces, and they are rising dangerously. Soon you will see that all secular forces, and I don't only mean political parties, will be on a broad platform. That I believe to be necessary for India today. The parameters in which people think can no longer be on the terms of the past. The situation is a qualitatively different one now.

Q: Can you be more specific on what's qualitatively different and what you think should happen?

A: The challenge is much greater today, it is a challenge to the idea of India and it is bigger than ever before. Will even our Constitution remain as it is? And this challenge is not only for political parties to fight, all sorts of forces will have to come together. Don't only think political parties and their alliances, this has to be a much broader coalition. We hope such a coalition will come about.

Q: What about your Rajya Sabha seat which is expiring?

A: Well, there is a clear two-term norm in our party. When I became general secretary, I retained my Rajya Sabha seat because if I had vacated, the seat would have gone to the TMC. But I will complete two terms now and I am clear that I am not contesting in keeping with the party norm.