Interview: Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M)

'Opposition to the BJP has to be based on alternative policies'

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Sitaram Yechury. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Interview with Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, CPI(M).

THE defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in Tripura after its uninterrupted rule of 25 years came as a surprise to all given the good governance record of the Left Front.

Speaking to Frontline from Agartala, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury explained what lay behind the results in Tripura, the rise of the BJP in the north-eastern region, the implications of this rise, the continuing violence in the aftermath of the elections, and why only the Left can offer the people of India an opposition based on alternative policies. Excerpts:

How do you interpret the outcome and the manner in which governments have been formed in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura?

Except for Tripura and three other north-eastern States, nowhere has it been a general direct victory for the RSS-BJP. In two States, the BJP has formed the government with the help of regional parties. In Meghalaya, they won by manipulation as they did in Manipur and Goa. They have just two MLAs in Meghalaya.

In sum total, these three States account for five members in the Lok Sabha and three in the Rajya Sabha. But this does not detract [from the fact] that the Left lost in Tripura and the BJP has made big inroads. Yet, to extrapolate a BJP wave sweeping the country from this is erroneous as we have seen from the results of the byelections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. We have also seen the Telugu Desam move out of the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government. It has 25 members in the Lok Sabha, equivalent to all the north-eastern States put together. This indicates that there is a big battle ahead in the coming round of Assembly elections and general elections. We accept the fact that in Tripura the BJP made substantial gains and inroads at the expense of the Left.

Even as a detailed review of the reasons for the election debacle is awaited, at a preliminary level how would you explain the defeat of the Left Front in Tripura? Is it just anti-incumbency or are the results an expression of aspirations not being realised?

Firstly, there is a detailed review and an analysis that is required and it is being undertaken by the Tripura State committee right now in order to find out our shortcomings and to put in place corrective mechanisms. Secondly, 25 years of Left Front government has resulted in a generation who became first-time voters. For these first-time voters of the younger generation, the slogan of change was naturally attractive as they haven’t seen different governments in their growing years.

Twenty-five years of government has had its natural share of anti-incumbency contributions. These may be sectional—the issue of Pay Commission, employment of teachers—but nevertheless they contributed to a degree of alienation. Thirdly, because of the work done by the Left Front, particularly in literacy, new hopes and aspirations were generated among the people. But the objective conditions for the educated youths to be employed productively did not and cannot exist in a small north-eastern State. This led to a natural anti-incumbency feeling.

In the run-up to the elections, the CPI(M) had complained to the Election Commission regarding several violations, including malfunctioning of the electronic voting machines. Were these concerns addressed? Your party has raised similar concerns of EVM manipulation and violence where elections to a constituency were to be held on March 12.

There has been a general public perception that something is wrong somewhere with the system of EVMs. For instance, in Tripura, the country was told that all the EVMs were functioning before the elections. But, on the day of the polling, EVMs had to be replaced in as many as 519 booths, which resulted in voting being conducted in some cases until almost midnight.

In order to allay all apprehensions regarding fairness, we had asked that the VVPAT system be followed in all polling booths. That is the only way people’s confidence can be obtained, and in case of a dispute over a result, the VVPAT votes should be counted.

Unfortunately, the EC did not accept our suggestion. Now the number of votes cast in 519 booths in a State like Tripura is more than the margin of victory between the two major fronts. These doubts need to be addressed urgently.

What explains the rise of the BJP, which was practically non-existent in Tripura in electoral or organisational terms?

In Tripura, elections have been overwhelmingly bipolar. Traditionally, the anti-Left pole in Tripura used to be centred around the Congress party. But two years ago, the CPI(M) Central Committee noted that the BJP was increasingly replacing the Congress as the principal anti-Left pole. This materialised when the Congress Legislative Party moved virtually en masse to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). When the Trinamool leader, who engineered the shift, moved from the TMC to the BJP, the entire former Congress section also moved to the BJP.

Secondly, the BJP succeeded in bringing together all the extremist tribal outfits that are seeking separation of the tribal areas from Tripura and made very dubious deals with them in order to elicit the support of the tribal people. How contradictions are going to emerge from meeting the demands of the tribal sections remains to be seen. These demands have a big potential in disrupting the social unity between tribal and non-tribal people.

While the BJP did not electorally and politically make much impact, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that has been consistently working in the north–eastern region. More particularly, after the formation of a BJP government in Assam, the RSS penetration in the region has been growing rapidly. This victory of the BJP is not a flash-in-a-pan type of victory but something it has been assiduously working at.

Did you expect violence and vandalism in the aftermath of the elections?

That violence will follow was anticipated. What was not anticipated was the intensity and the rapidity with which it was unleashed.

The demolition of statues is a clear indication that much of the violence was pre-planned. As we have always said, statues can be demolished but ideas and ideologies cannot, and we will make sure that they will not be [demolished] in Tripura.

At the swearing-in of the new government, Modi said that the government is for those who voted and also for those who didn’t. How do you view this statement in the light of the violence?

By now the country is familiar that what the Prime Minister says is not what the Prime Minister does. The PM follows the famous dictum of all authoritarian autocrats which says: do what I do, not what I say. The general outcry of disgust against and opposition to the violence and statue destruction in the country will put the BJP on the back foot. But we suspect that it will only be temporary. The fundamental creed of the RSS-BJP is to widen their influence through political violence. Sharpening communal polarisation is always accompanied by intensifying violence against their political opponents.

How does the CPI(M) plan to resist this?

The CPI(M) has a very glorious record of countering semi-fascist terror earlier in Tripura. If the RSS-BJP thinks they can intimidate and incapacitate us with such violence, they are mistaken. The resistance has already begun and I can palpably see the determination to fight among the people in Tripura. In an election, anybody can win and anyone can lose. But this is not the aftermath that should follow in a democracy.

When we had warned from 1972 onwards that the country was moving towards a one-party dictatorship, many opposition parties felt we were exaggerating. We were proved right when the Emergency was imposed. Likewise now, we have to stop this communal polarisation juggernaut. Otherwise, what is at stake is the very foundation of our secular democratic republic.

Some political quarters have commented that the demise of the Left is not a good thing for the country. Does the Left face an imminent or a deferred demise in the present scenario with electoral debacles?

The recognition that India requires the Left, or that not only India but humanity requires the Left, is recognising a reality. And anyone who articulates this is speaking the truth and that is welcome. But to presume that the Left is facing a demise is completely contrary to the objective reality. It has become increasingly clear that it is the Left and the Left alone that is the principal policy opposition platform for the Indian people. Its relevance in politics can only grow.

Do you think that a coming together of parties who claim to be opposed to the BJP can happen in a meaningful way given the contradictions within States?

I have always maintained that politics is not arithmetic. In arithmetic, putting two and two together can give you four; in politics it can give you 22. It is not an arithmetic calculation. The question of opposition to what is happening in the country today and to the BJP government has to be based on alternative policies and not on numbers. And that is what the Left is working for.

Is the present phase of Indian democracy and elections more challenging for the Indian Left given the nature of political discourse and extreme polarisation at the level of basic identities?

The Left has faced many such challenges in the past and has overcome them as well. This challenge will be no different. The dangers posed to India and its people are far more grievous. It is in the interests of the future of the people of India that the foundations of the modern Indian republic are safeguarded while advancing the people’s interest to alternative policies.