On April 10, Sitaram Yechury got re-elected as general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), for the third time in a row, at the party congress in Kannur. His election to the post in the two earlier congresses—Visakhapatnam (2015) and Hyderabad (2018)—was preceded by intense inner-party discussions and differences of opinion.
However, right through the run-up and conduct of the Kannur congress, Yechury’s continuation as general secretary was a foregone conclusion. Many factors were discussed in favour of his re-election by a cross-section of the 811 delegates and thousands of CPI(M) supporters who thronged the venue through the five-day conference. These included the importance of Yechury’s skills in building bridges with other secular parties, especially in the context of raising a viable opposition to the blatantly authoritarian Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre; the manner in which he had systematically put together a social and political alliance of the marginalised sections of society; and the organisational guidance he provided to the Left parties in general and their mass agitations such as the farmers’ agitation last year at Delhi’s borders for over 12 months. Excerpts from an interview following his re-election:
At the Kannur party congress, you emphasised four points in your inaugural and concluding speeches. People’s mounting economic hardships, particularly agrarian distress and raging unemployment; the persistent rightward shift of the polity and Hindutva communal polarisation; mass movements against the Modi-led BJP government’s policies, including the year-long farmers’ protests against controversial farm laws; and the resistance put up by Left parties and regional secular forces such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). As you begin your third stint as general secretary, how do you plan to address these factors?
All these factors and issues related to them have to be addressed individually and simultaneously. The CPI(M) has been consistently doing it. As you are aware, the year-long farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws is the culmination of the many struggles that had come up over the last decade in the agrarian sector, highlighting the severe economic distress of farmers. The last party congress held at Hyderabad specifically highlighted these struggles in the agrarian sector. It pointed out how more than 165 organisations had come together in the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan led by the All India Kisan Sabha in 2018. Clearly, over the last four years, these struggles have been further strengthened and intensified, leading to massive collective action of farmers’ unions, other grassroots movements and some political parties, including the Left parties. This is what was reflected in the year-long farmers’ agitation against the controversial farm laws.
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The raging distress of unemployment directly impacts the youth, which is the single largest segment of the population of India. This demographically significant youth population has been thoroughly betrayed by the Narendra Modi government and the BJP. Every single promise given to them has been belied. The anger of the youth population at this betrayal is also getting manifested repeatedly across the country. There have been spontaneous and aggressive manifestations, often without an organisational plan or structure. The 23rd party congress has taken note of these developments and has decided to come up with a clear organisational plan to take up the unemployment issue and the distress it has inflicted on the people of India as a whole and the youth in particular.
As all of us know, the COVID pandemic has aggravated job losses and denial of opportunities. Far from addressing the provision of relief to all suffering people, this BJP government continues to impose more economic burdens with daily hikes in the prices of petroleum products, leading to galloping inflation. Coming on top of growing unemployment, poverty and hunger, this is ruining the lives of people. But the Modi government is least bothered about all this.
The CPI(M) congress has set in motion a series of organisational as well as campaign-oriented moves to take up this issue on a broad platform of like-minded organisations and parties. This will be taken forward, along with the unfinished tasks of the farmers’ agitation, which will also be intensified, highlighting the blatant betrayal of the Modi government to keep the promises it had given while withdrawing the farm laws.
Would these movements, however successful they are in addressing specific issues, policies and laws, have a lasting effect until they are reflected at the political and electoral levels? For many decades, we have heard leaders of Left parties, including the CPI(M), say that mass agitations are fought under the red flag, but when it comes to voting, the very same people who participated in these struggles take to the green or saffron flags. Is it not a fact that the situation remains the same even now? Despite the Kisan Sabha’s massive and spirited participation in the farmers’ agitation, the Left was not able to make any concrete political gains in the Assembly elections of the past few years.
The CPI(M) knows that there are no shortcuts in the revolutionary tasks it has taken up for itself. The RSS and the BJP have succeeded in creating the narrative of an overarching Hindutva identity among people. The sharpening of communal polarisation through the spread of hatred and violence is polarising the Indian society. This sharpening of polarisation is the RSS-BJP mainstay for political and electoral mobilisation. Indeed, mass movements on core issues of the people and economic distress do rise over communal and sectarian divides, but the propaganda machinery of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar systematically props up diverse divisive issues in different parts of the country.
In just a matter of three months, it has raked up the issue of hijab in Karnataka and sought to spread it across the country. The intellectually liberal culture of a premier educational institution such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU] has been attacked through various means, including the violence of armed goons of the Sangh Parivar. The latest in this series is the attacks in the name of non-vegetarian food during Ram Navami.
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Put simply, attacks are being carried out on the democratic rights of the people everywhere. Central agencies are being used against the BJP’s rivals, dissent against the government is treated as anti-national, and sedition charges are slapped on whoever expresses views against the Modi regime.
In this context, isolation and defeat of the BJP is absolutely imperative to protect India’s democracy, the country’s hard-fought freedom, and the rights of the people ingrained in our Constitution. But, as I said earlier, there are no shortcuts in this struggle. In specific cases, where people have seen through the BJP-RSS’ devious games and are thoroughly fed up of their machinations, as seen in States such as Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, people look for the best possible alternative to the Sangh Parivar in the given circumstances. The victory of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK]-led Front in Tamil Nadu, that of the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP] in Punjab and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front [LDF] in the elections held over the last year and a half have to be seen in this context. We are also part of the DMK front in Tamil Nadu.
The Congress party's role
Even when you emphasise the need to isolate and defeat the BJP, you have warned the Congress party to make it clear where it stands on the question of Hindutva and set its house in order.
We have said that on the strength of our resolute commitment to secularism and uncompromising opposition to communalism of all forms, especially its dominant variety, Hindutva communalism aggressively propagated by the Sangh Parivar. You cannot afford to be confused about your line on Hindutva or whether soft Hindutva is a viable political option. Having this clarity is absolutely imperative since the BJP government under Modi has mounted a multi-pronged attack on people through the communal-corporate nexus, which includes pursuing rabid neoliberal reforms, looting national assets, promoting crony capitalism, legalising political corruption and imposing full-fledged authoritarianism. This context needs to be understood by all those who are fighting the BJP and its associates.
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As political journalists, we get to hear that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi values your political opinions. We are even told that in individual conversations he refers to you as ‘Boss’. Still, you are forced to make this point against the Congress party on its approach to communalism…
I have friendship with leaders of secular parties across the spectrum. I keep telling all of them about the need to have sustained and committed struggle against communalism. As far as my life is concerned, and as far as the CPI(M) is concerned, as far as our fellow comrades in the party are concerned, defeating the rabid Hindutva communal forces is our primary mission and task. I am ready to associate with anybody who will join in this struggle in a committed and steadfast manner.
But what you say about the Congress is true of many other regional parties too. No one knows for sure where parties such as the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), the YSR Congress or even the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) stand on the question of Hindutva communalism.
Indeed, I keep telling all of them about the need to pursue committed and steadfast fight against communalism. On our part, the Left parties are clearly striving to bring together all Left and democratic forces and form a joint front.
So, does this mean that there is no possibility of a national-level secular alternative in the 2024 general election?
If you look at India’s history in terms of a national-level alternative to the establishment, you will see that almost always the alternative has been formed after the election results have come out. This was the situation in 1989, 1996 and 2004, when alternatives came to power. You need to remember this track record in this respect right from the Vishwanath Pratap Singh-led government of 1989 and more specifically the United Front government in 1996. That government was formed after the 13-day BJP-NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee fell. The CPI(M) was very clear that the alternative has to be formed, and the party, under the leadership of the then general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, played an important role in formulating the common minimum programme [CMP]. This happened in 2004 too, when the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] was formed as the alternative to the six-year-old BJP government led by Vajpayee.
The CMP was a policy alternative, but every time we were clear that as far as the Ministry was concerned we would give only outside support. As I have said many times earlier, the CPI(M) has an intellectual property right on “outside support”. Again, at the cost of repeating myself, I would assert that beyond the technicalities, what we need to understand is that in this country, we have diversity in everything, including politics. In other words, 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.
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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.
Where does the Congress party fit in while pursuing this understanding? Evidently, as a national party, it would want a national level, unified alliance, where it can dictate terms.
I do not know what the Congress’ strategy or plans would be. But there are some fundamental political realities. What happened in a big State like Uttar Pradesh in the recent elections? The contest became essentially bipolar between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party [S.P.], with the Bahujan Samaj Party getting about 13 per cent vote share but just one seat. The Congress got two seats, but its vote share was in single digit. So, the Congress is of little consequence here. We did not contest very many seats and supported the S.P. across the State since we wanted to prevent division of secular votes. In the other big north Indian State of Bihar too, the political process essentially revolves around the BJP, the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United). 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. In Tamil Nadu, both the CPI(M) and the Congress are in the DMK alliance led by [M.K.] Stalin. So, the diverse political reality of India needs to be internalised by those who want to fight communalism and its plans to erect a sectarian pan-Hindu identity.
The role of the Congress in a secular alternative to the BJP has been a matter of intense debate and confusion in the CPI(M) right from the last party congress in Hyderabad. Reportedly, this time too there were discussions suggesting that the grand old party of India should not be part of a secular alliance…
There is no confusion in the CPI(M) on the Congress’ role. In fact, the Kannur party congress has reiterated the line formed in Hyderabad. It did not chart any new line. At Hyderabad, the party congress changed the line in the political resolution, which suggested not to have an understanding or electoral alliance with the Congress party, to one which stated there would be no political alliance. It has been our position since then that that there would be no political alliance with the Congress. But the Hyderabad congress also defined how the associations with the Congress party would be in Parliament, outside Parliament and in mass agitations concerning people’s issues. It was made clear that it is on these parameters that we would work together.
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As far as elections are concerned, the party would take an appropriate call and evolve necessary electoral tactics to ensure the maximisation of the polling of anti-BJP votes. I must tell you that this line the CPI(M) delineated over the last two party congresses is finding increasing acceptance among secular parties. I am certain that an opposition united on these parameters, which means combining both direct alliances and issue-based understandings in different States, would take on the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. After doing this in the States, there would be a combination at the national level on a CMP. It will happen in every State, and there will be a united front of secular forces that will form the government after the 2024 election.
After the last party congress you stated that you were disappointed that despite your best efforts a Dalit leader could not be brought into the CPI(M) Polit Bureau. This time, the PB has a Dalit member in Ramchandra Dome…
Indeed, it was disappointing last time. But, after that congress, I had told you in our interview, that we would take sincere steps to correct this. And indeed, the party has lived up to this promise. As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, this induction was not just a matter of symbolism, but a question of integrating and building vibrant joint Left and the Dalit movements.
We have been seeing significant manifestations of these movements for nearly a decade now and the CPI(M) has initiated a number of these movements. The slogans of Jai Bhim-Lal salaam and Lal-Neel salaam have been raised in these platforms spread across the country. Through all this, the movement for social justice has assumed a qualitatively higher character. We had identified this as an area with very high priority. Dome’s induction into the Polit Bureau underscores this priority. Equally importantly, he is a seven-time MP and a very popular medical doctor in West Bengal.