'A maturation of inner-party democracy'

Interview with Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Published : May 09, 2018 12:30 IST

Sitaram Yechury.

Sitaram Yechury.

You began your address, after being re-elected as the general secretary of the CPI(M), saying that the single most important message from the 22nd party congress to the rank and file of the party as well as the country was that the CPI(M) had emerged as a united party, determined to carry out the revolutionary task of placing before the people of India an alternative policy framework against the ruling classes’ policies. The multiple, multilevel dimensions of this formulation were widely observed and many political analysts were curious to know how and why you came up with something like that.

Clearly, we had an unprecedented situation because two points of view on the political resolution were placed before the party congress. We had differences on the resolution. We have had differences on many other issues in the past too, when the then general secretaries had positions that were in a minority. Like, for instance, the way it happened when Jyoti Basu was offered the Prime Minister’s position. But those were issues with regard to the positions taken by the party and not the line to be determined. So, probably, it was the first occasion that we have gone into the party congress with two opinions on the political resolution. And emerging from that with the present unified understanding is a big achievement. Unity in the organisation is very important for a communist party. It was Ho Chi Minh who said, while leading the Vietnamese revolution, “Preserve and protect the unity of the party like the apple of your eye.”

So the unprecedented situation in which the CPI(M) went into the party congress had the seeds of a potentially major disruption and disunity.

The media are free to make such interpretations, but I was very confident, right from the beginning, that whatever be the differences, we would emerge united from the party congress.

What was the basis of such confidence? The dominant perception in the media was that the divergent perceptions would not be able to find common ground at all.

The party congress is the ultimate authority in our organisational structure and it comprises comrades who work closely with the people, their concerns and aspirations in relation to society and democracy. I was certain that their collective experience and articulation of the same would ultimately underscore the message that a united party is the need of the hour. That is what our class enemies, including the present ruling party at the Centre, did not want. But the collective wisdom of our comrades also realises that. And this is what ultimately led to the correct, unified approach.

Is it not for the first time in India that a minority view was able to generate significant reverberations within a communist party congress, making it the dominant view among the delegates and thus forcing changes in the official political resolution representing the majority view in the Central Committee? What was the process that went into effecting this change?

What became the most dominant mood in the party congress was the message for the unity of the party. And that message was underscored on the basis of the official amendment moved by the steering committee, the body that steers the party congress. So that committee, after hearing the discussions, came to the conclusion to amend the official resolution. After deliberations, it took the form of deleting one sentence and adding another. The statement with regard to not “having an understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress party” was deleted and the clarification that there would be “no political alliance” was added.

It has always been our position that there would be no political alliance with the Congress. Then the party congress defined how the associations with the Congress would be in Parliament, outside Parliament and in mass agitations on people’s issues. It was made clear that it is on these parameters that we would work together. We said very clearly that at the time of elections appropriate electoral tactics would be worked out to ensure the maximisation of the polling of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party votes.

In spite of the emphasis on not having a political alliance with the Congress, do you not think that the cooperation in various segments, including mass movements which would seek to build up resistance against the fascist ideology, would naturally lead to a political alliance or something of that nature?

You need to remember our track record in this respect right from the Janata Party government of 1977 or the Vishwanath Pratap Singh-led government of 1989, or more specifically, the 1996 United Front government. The United Front government in 1996 was formed after the 13-day BJP-National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee fell. We were very clear that the United Front had to be formed and we took an important part in formulating the Common Minimum Programme [CMP]. That CMP was a policy alternative, but even so we made it very clear that as far as the ministry was concerned we would give only outside support.

In fact, I have always said that the CPI(M) has an intellectual property right on “outside support”. I mean, I do not believe in intellectual property rights, but speaking conceptually, we are most eligible to claim it. Again, in 2004, the UPA was formed on the basis of a CMP and again we gave outside support. But beyond the technicalities, what we need to understand is that in this country, we have diversity in everything, including politics. Take for instance, a big State like Uttar Pradesh. There, once the Samajwadi Party [S.P.] and the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] come together, neither the Congress nor the Left is of any consequence. In the other big north Indian State of Bihar, if the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal (United) come together with other social combinations, they would be the most dominant force, pushing other parties to the sidelines. Now, in south India, except for Karnataka, where does the Congress figure as a main player?

Similarly, the Left is not a main player in south Indian States other than Kerala. In Odisha, too, neither the Congress nor the Left is a dominant player at the moment. So, India, in its very political composition, is a coalition that reflects its social diversities in manifold ways, across different regions. In short, the social diversities get reflected as political diversities too. This is something that the CPI(M) has always maintained. And we would have to address these diversities and build up equations at various regional levels and it is the summation of all this that would provide you the alternative at the Centre. This process also signifies a maturation of our democracy. So it is not as though you go with the idea of a national alliance right from the beginning. That is a very crucial thing to understand when we think in terms of building up electoral alliances or a policy alternative.

Your reference to the CMPs of the United Front and the UPA would make political observers recall the stellar contributions that these instruments made to policymaking in this country. Many of the interventions based on the CMPs such as the RTI and the NREGA, had far-reaching, even historic, implications, changing the lives of crores of ordinary people. At the same time, this very experience raises the question whether the Left, especially the CPI(M), and its interventions could have brought in bigger changes if the Left had been part of the governments it supported. There is also a stream of opinion that Jyoti Basu’s famous statement on the “historic blunder” of not accepting the Prime Minister’s position when offered was also a commentary on the lost opportunity in terms of positive interventions at the policy and administrative levels.

The historic blunder question was an issue of contentious and intense debate in one of our party congresses, in 1998. We had very sharp divisions and the then general secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, had always supported the position of Jyoti Basu while the majority opinion in the Central Committee was that we cannot participate in coalition governments and compromise on our promises to the people. The issue was put to vote after deliberations and the party congress finally upheld the view of the Central Committee. Then, after two years, we had a special congress where we updated our party programme. In the earlier programme, we had only talked about governments at the State level. In the updated programme we added the position on governments at the Centre too. It said that in future, if any such possibilities arise, the existing Central Committee at that point of time would take an appropriate decision depending on the concrete situations as well as the capacity to influence the policy decisions of the forthcoming government. As the general understanding of the party goes, there is no point in being part of the government if you cannot influence its policy direction.

Coming back to the processes in the party congress, especially the ones that led to the amendments to the political resolution, there is a stream of opinion that this also charted a new path of internal debate, an internal democracy within the CPI(M). There were even calls for a secret ballot as part of these debates and it is being observed that this is new for the CPI(M). What is your view on this?

I see it positively. The growth of inner-party democracy is always a priority for communist parties. Even before this party congress, we have taken pride in the fact that the CPI(M) has a thorough and robust system of internal debates on the political resolution, encompassing all the branches at the national level. There is no other party in India that releases its political resolution two months before the conference and keeps it open for debate even at the lowest levels of the party organisation. But inner-party democracy is as important an element as democratic centralism. So we have never had the demand for a secret ballot on the political resolution. This is my 12th party congress and I have not seen a demand like this before. But if the majority of the delegates feel the need for a secret ballot then it is commensurate with democratic centralism too and thus this is seen as an advancement of inner-party democracy. I think that the maturity of the organisational structures of the CPI(M) as well as the strength of its inner-party democracy was highlighted by the fact that ultimately there was no need for secret ballot. The steering committee of the party congress came up with the amendments evaluating the discussions, and the amendments were accepted with overwhelming unanimity. It was clearly a maturation of inner-party democracy.

The run-up to the congress was marked by an impressive and stirring farmers’ movement in Maharashtra led by the All India Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the CPI(M). The reverberations it created spread across the country and inspired diverse segments of the population. How has the party congress decided to continue with these mass movements on people’s issues? What are the concrete steps to sustain the momentum?

Addressing the agrarian stress is evidently an area of emphasis where mass movements will be intensified. The agrarian crisis is so striking that we will have to strengthen independent struggles as well as collective mass movements with like-minded organisations. Another area where we need to focus is our youth. Youths form the single largest segment of the population that has been betrayed by the Narendra Modi government and the BJP. All the promises made to them have been belied. Demographically we are one of the younger countries in the world. Our youths, if given access to health, education and employment, can themselves create a new and prosperous India. And if we are able to stop the loot of crony capitalism, there is no dearth of resources. But to stop the loot, we need to have the policy corrective too. Workers and the agrarian stakeholders are already on the move, highlighting the crisis as well as the alternative policy parameters. Youths would become part of the struggles in a big way through the struggles that are being planned both at the level of independent initiatives of the party and through collective action. More than 165 organisations have come together in the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan led by the All India Kisan Sabha. Now, we are strengthening and intensifying collective action in the Jan Adhikar Jan Andolan, which would be a massive coalition of various mass organisations, political parties of the Left, and grass-roots movements that have been taking up people’s issues through forums like the National Platform of People’s Movements.

The other area of very crucial importance is the larger integration of the Left and Dalit movements, intense manifestations of whose angst and assertion have been evident across the country. In the last three years, we have seen a greater integration of Dalit and Left movements addressing this much-felt social and political need to some extent. After generations, we heard the slogans of “Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam” and “Lal-Neel salaam” being raised across diverse platforms. Through all this the movement for social justice has assumed a qualitatively higher character. This is an area where we would move in with greater priority.

Apart from all this, there is the question of the entire philosophical-intellectual attack mounted by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar. I did point out at the party congress, too, as to how the German people, the inheritors of the great German philosophies, the founders of dialectics, the most progressive of thoughts at that point of time, eventually internalised and accepted fascism. That essentially happened because there was a constant assault of irrationality on rationality, of unreason on reason.

Today, the efforts being made to reduce Indian history to Hindu mythology through absurd, obnoxious statements such as we have had Internet at the time of the Mahabharata, are exactly in this pattern; the assault of unreason on reason. Convert the study of Indian history to the study of Hindu mythology. Convert the study of Indian philosophy, the rich syncretic traditions that we have, to the study of Hindu theology. The attack we see on institutions of higher education is founded on this objective of facilitating the acceptance of reactionary ideas in the minds of the people. This is one of the most devious elements of allowing the RSS’ march to achieve its objective of establishing a fascistic Hindutva society. I draw the parallels with Nazi Germany because, at this level, it is a chilling parallel. This needs to be combated at all levels, including at the level of the people on the ground, students and academics in institutions and at the ideological and philosophical levels through intellectual interventions.

Despite your very emphatic assertion on integrating the Left with Dalit movements, the CPI(M) has yet again failed to elevate a Dalit to the Polit Bureau, despite strong expectations that this would happen this time.

I am also indeed disappointed that the party congress could not ultimately reach there. I believe that such an organisational measure is not merely a symbolism, but a question of integrating, and I am sure this understanding is very much there in the party. I can assure you of my sincere efforts to correct this. And I am sure it will be corrected soon.

Despite the party congress giving a predominantly anti-BJP political thrust to the CPI(M), do you not agree that in West Bengal you would be on the same side as the BJP or at least constrained to stay together at some level because of the high-handed and oppressive politics of the Trinamool Congress?

I don’t agree with this. In West Bengal, the BJP and the Trinamool Congress are collaborators in competitive divisive politics, and we are committed to opposing both of them politically and organisationally. The BJP and the Trinamool Congress are pursuing their petty political interests blatantly, sacrificing the very idea of India, and we are fighting back by upholding the concept of a harmonious and united India.

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