‘The primary task is to strengthen ourselves’

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

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

Sitaram Yechury after being elected general secretary of the CPI (M) in Visakhapatnam.

Sitaram Yechury after being elected general secretary of the CPI (M) in Visakhapatnam.

AN incident of the early 1990s involving the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Yechury is, in many ways, illuminative of the political personality of the new general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The not-too-widely reported incident essentially involves a message sent by Narasimha Rao through an emissary to Sitaram Yechury and the response it evoked from the CPI(M) leader. It was that he wished to have somebody of Yechury’s calibre and sociopolitical understanding on his side and that he had, after considerable thought, decided to make an offer to Yechury to join his Cabinet.

The CPI(M) leader believes that Narasimha Rao made the offer in jest, “since the veteran Congressman knew very well how the Communist parties functioned”. In any case, Yechury did not take even a moment to consider this “well-thought-out” offer and rejected it summarily. He apparently went on to add that the very fact that he was in a party like the CPI(M) meant that his purpose in life was not just to become a Union Minister or something akin to that but to be with the people for their causes and interests.

The incident, as a whole, exemplifies two important characteristics of the 62-year-old Yechury’s personality. First, it underscores the recognition and acceptance that he has among other parties, including political opponents. Second, it highlights his commitment to the CPI(M) and its political objectives.

These two factors came into play in later years too when he was instrumental in formulating the common minimum programme of the United Front government led by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda in 1996 and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004. In both exercises, Yechury’s role was to facilitate the incorporation of a people-oriented governance agenda into the overall scheme of the ruling coalition. However, the current context in which he has been elevated as general secretary of the CPI(M) is one where the Indian Left has been marginalised from mainstream political discourse. Frontline met Yechury immediately after his election to the primary organisational position in order to find out how he proposed to carry out the political, organisational and tactical directions evolved by the CPI(M)’s 21st congress. Excerpts from the interview:

You have taken over as the general secretary of the CPI(M) when the party has hit a historic low in terms of electoral success, political influence and organisational cohesion. How do you propose to use your new role to bring about positive changes in these spheres?

Undoubtedly, it is a huge responsibility and a big challenge to bring about positive changes in these spheres and take the party forward. But in communist parties, and more so in the CPI(M), these tasks are not carried out by one individual, however important he or she may be. The party as a whole takes up the task collectively.

We do not merely give lip service to the idea of collective responsibility. And at the 21st party congress what we have decided is to address the challenges before the party as well as before the nation. After considerable deliberations we have asserted that the primary task is to strengthen ourselves, build up greater unity among Left forces and thereby expand our presence in the overall polity, both in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arenas.

But the new nuances and emphasis in the political-tactical line adopted at the party congress focus primarily on building up the party and Left unity. Forging a broad alliance of secular forces seems to have taken a back seat. Do you think this line can be sustained for long given the fact that the Hindutva forces led by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] are marching ahead in an apparently fascist direction with the Narendra Modi-led government in power with an overwhelming majority?

The political-tactical line is something that evolves with the changing political situation. In the current political conjuncture, the basic task of the party is indeed to strengthen ourselves because even our parliamentary or electoral strength is primarily determined by our political and organisational strength. We have also analysed that this needs to be done by dovetailing parliamentary and extra-parliamentary initiatives. Without strengthening ourselves independently we cannot achieve the objective of forging broad alliances among secular forces. In fact, such alliances would not even materialise if we do not acquire greater presence and strength. But, of course, joint initiatives with secular formations in general are possible from issue to issue. That would materialise. Like, for instance, the joint initiatives of almost all opposition parties that have happened on the land acquisition Bill.

These have their own importance in the context of the rise of fascist forces that you have referred to. The party would seek to build up similar initiatives on issues such as the attacks on minorities, the Hindutva communal polarisation and neoliberal reform policies. However, one cannot expect all parties to come with us on all these issues. For example, many of those who came together with us on the land acquisition Bill did not have similar positions on the mines and minerals Bill or the coal re-auction issue.

Coming specifically to the question of electoral alliances with regional parties, does the new line envisage a kind of blanket ban?

The States have their flexibility on these alliances. But, as was pointed out in the debate and as mentioned by Comrade Prakash Karat in his reply, you cannot have State flexibility and national rigidity. In other words, things have to be in line with each other. That is how things need to work out, with clarity and sense of purpose. Not merely in electoral terms.

In 2004, the Left was instrumental in bringing together diverse secular formations and forging alliances to take on the communal forces. The perception is that the communal threat is bigger now. Do you foresee the Left playing a role similar to that of 2004 in the future?

[The year] 2004 was also not an isolated incident. It goes back to all the efforts made by the Left since the early 1990s. These included the struggles against the Congress-led government of Narasimha Rao, including the moving of a no-confidence motion against it after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In this political context, the emphasis on secularism and building up secular unity gathered momentum and it reflected in various forms, including mass movements. It developed further during the six years of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance [NDA] government. It was the larger political movement on these themes that eventually led to the 2004 developments. It was a long-drawn initiative, not a sudden single-point development. Now the situation in concrete terms is that the BJP has come to power with an absolute majority but has only 31 per cent of the vote share. Which means that two-thirds of the electorate has voted against the BJP and its policies. The mammoth nature of the BJP’s electoral victory should not blind us to this fact.

Now there are initiatives like the Janata Parivar unity that are essentially aimed at not giving the index of opposition unity electoral advantage to the BJP. Such situations will develop in other States and we shall address them as and when they develop. But what we are saying is that the primacy and emphasis is not on these but on building up the party, its own strength and advancing its policies at various levels, including in the extra-parliamentary space.

Would this mean greater association, cooperation and joint action with civil society groups on these issues?

Yes, of course. We have said that strengthening Left unity does not merely mean strengthening alliances with Left parties but a large number of Left sympathisers who are associated with these civil society organisations. This has already started happening on issues like the land acquisition Bill.

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is indeed a related phenomenon. The resolutions of the 21st congress do not make any specific reference to the rise of the AAP and the manner in which it has captured the hearts and minds of the people of Delhi. Did the deliberations have any reference to the phenomenon? Has the party congress drawn lessons from it?

Surely, in fact, we had drawn those lessons even before the party congress. The primary lesson is on picking up issues that really concern the people and building up a movement on the basis of that. One of the things that you would have seen in the political-tactical resolution is that movements and campaigns would be built up not only on centrally decided issues but on issues that are identified and picked up at the local level. And this is what the AAP did. Moving from area to area and picking up issues that concerns the people. This is not something that we do not know, but we need to implement it with greater application and effectiveness.

In places like Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, the CPI(M) seems to have done this and has even won corporation elections....

Yes, that’s a good case in point. As I was saying, we have done this in several places. In fact, Jyoti Babu [Basu] used to always tell us that we should give villagers the autonomy to decide whether they want a road or a well instead of the decision being taken at the State headquarters. Yes, this concept was always there and we have some experience in doing this, but this needs to be adapted to new situations and new needs. And, of course, this needs to be focussed and implemented effectively. It is not merely about learning from the AAP experience, but it is the right way of advancing our politics.

It also needs to be pointed out that the AAP kind of politics has several inherent limitations, which are manifesting themselves in the internal problems that the party has been facing in recent times. As far as we are concerned we sense a striking lack of clarity in the AAP on two crucial issues that concern the people of this country: the issues of communalism and neoliberal reforms. And this lack of clarity within the AAP on these issues is also a reflection of the lack of unity within their leadership. So, this is also a lesson to be drawn from the AAP. That it is not enough to just focus on local issues and mobilise people. That it is insufficient unless you combine it with a certain larger political direction in which you want to go.

What exactly are the plans on facing the reverses in West Bengal and in countering the rampant physical attacks faced by the party? There have also been comments to the effect that the central leadership has not been really supportive of the State CPI(M) in facing the situation.

In West Bengal, the CPI(M) has been facing similar situations in the past. It is not only the Trinamool Congress that has unleashed violence and sought to advance in the State. In the 1970s, the Congress tried to decimate the CPI(M). The Congress succeeded in 1972 and then the Trinamool Congress did it in 2009. Mamata Banerjee roped in all anti-CPI(M) forces in the process. She managed to rope in the Maoists from one end of the spectrum to the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] on the other.

This grand alliance of reactionary forces turned into a lethal combination and advanced essentially by propagating violence. They are specifically targeting the links between the party and the people such as local [and] area committee secretaries and members. So, that leaves a sort of vacuum. And the people who used to be protected by us and want to be protected by us, they suddenly see the absence of these links, and they are at a loss to understand what exactly is happening. They see the BJP in power at the Centre and there was a period when they thought that party would be able to protect [them] from the hooliganism of the Trinamool Congress-led grand alliance of reactionary forces. But over the past nine months and with the experience of the Modi government in this period, this is also changing. So, a process of revival of our organisational links has started. It may take some time to concretise but I am confident we shall overcome.

From one CPI(M) congress to another, one has heard constant talk about the rectification process against factionalism in the party as well as against individual predilections. But successive reports to the congress show that the processes have not been effective at all. In fact, there is the impression that many of these tendencies manifested themselves at the higher levels of the party during the course of the present congress itself.

Our intentions have always been good while talking about and addressing these tendencies. But, yes, in terms of implementation we have fallen short of desired results. Now, the task is to get down and work towards seriously implementing it. That involves addressing also the question why we have not been able to implement it. And that is a subject matter of the plenum that we are planning to hold before the end of 2015.

At the level of international politics, what are the lessons that the CPI(M) has drawn from the Bolivarian experience, Egypt and, more recently, Greece where new forms of the Left have captured the imagination of the people and risen to political power?

The running thread in all these experiences is the forging of unity of various forces that have a common objective. This is something we have always talked about theoretically and we do need to strengthen efforts in this direction.

The common thread in our country is the opposition to neoliberal economic reforms and to the Hindutva agenda. Now, these two have to be taken together. It is no longer the case that neoliberal reforms are Congress property or that Hindutva communalism is RSS-BJP property. The Modi government welds these together and forges [them] into a single thread. Those who are willing to fight both together need to be brought together.

Another aspect of these movements has been the channelling of the massive anger of the people against neoliberal economic reforms. Formations like the Syriza in Greece were able to convert this popular resentment into political power. Why is the Indian Left consistently failing to do something like this?

The Indian Left is in the forefront of the fight against the manifestation of neoliberal reforms, whether it is the question of privatisation or the attacks on working class rights or on the peasantry. But there is also a large number of disparate forces in these struggles. The point is to unify them. This is what the Syriza managed to do and we are indeed making efforts in that direction.

But do you not think that organisations like the Syriza have been more creative in doing this and that the Indian Left is not able to emulate this? That the tools that they have used are more modern and suited to the times?

We are also learning to do that. In a world that is becoming more and more impersonalised, traditional forms of propaganda will not work anymore. So we need to get more creative and we are moving in that direction.

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