Interview: Prakash Karat, CPI(M)

‘We will do better this time’

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Prakash Karat, general secretary, CPI(M). Photo: Monica Tiwari

Interview with Prakash Karat, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

THE coming together of 11 political parties under the stewardship of the Left on a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party platform has raised the expectations of a third alternative. While pre-election alliances have not been forged, there is an understanding among these parties on various issues, secularism being one of them. Among the earliest to release its manifesto, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has pushed for alternative economic policies, criticising both the Congress and the BJP on matters of economic policy. Its general secretary Prakash Karat spoke to Frontline. Excerpts:

In the emerging political scenario where a non-Congress, non-BJP political alternative is being talked about, and with the Left having some experience of bringing together a coalition of non-Congress secular parties in the past, how do you view the current role of the Left and some of the regional parties?

The CPI(M) and the Left have been striving to build an alternative to the Congress and the BJP for the past two decades. Both the Congress and the BJP have no basic differences as far as the pursuit of neoliberal policies is concerned. The BJP poses as an alternative to the Congress; where it is distinctive is it adheres to the Hindutva ideology. In such a situation we have been trying to project alternative policies, which can be the basis for a political alternative.

The Left has not yet become strong enough to be able to make this alternative a reality at the national level. But at the time of elections, we have been trying to cooperate with other non-Congress secular parties so that some electoral alternative to the Congress and the BJP is available to the people. In 1996, after the general election, we were successful in rallying most of the non-Congress, non-BJP parties to constitute the United Front, which went on to form the government. It was a post-election arrangement and a Common Minimum Programme was drafted. In the two years that this government lasted, the Left sought to ensure that the CMP was implemented, but the government fell because the Congress withdrew support to it. In the present Lok Sabha elections, we are expecting the non-Congress secular parties to do well. While the BJP may make gains in the States where it is strong, in many other States, it is the regional parties and the Left that will benefit from the anti-Congress mood among the people. It is with this understanding that 11 parties decided that they should work together to forge an alternative after the elections.

The mainstream parties, the Congress and the BJP, have been rather dismissive of a third alternative.

The BJP has been dismissing the possibility of a third front because it knows very well that the non-Congress secular parties have substantial support and can prevent the BJP from making gains at the expense of the Congress. Given the nature of the non-Congress grouping, we do not believe in projecting one leader as the prime ministerial candidate before the election. The BJP, which projects an authoritarian leader as the Prime Minister, ridicules this approach, but we are clear that such matters can be decided only after the election.

There is a feeling that while the policy initiatives of the Left have been very good and pro-people, as evidenced in UPA-I, they have not translated into electoral gains. Is it because the struggles conducted by the Left are at a low ebb?

We knew our support to the UPA government would be only for a limited period as the negative aspects of their rule, like price rise, corruption and so on, would adversely affect us if we continued our support to it. The reasons why we had a setback in the 2009 elections were not this. The main reason was our defeat in West Bengal from where the Left used to get the bulk of its seats. There were factors relating to the State which affected our performance.

The UPA government and the Left’s support to it from outside was in a different category. We were not in a coalition or alliance with the Congress. We extended support to the Congress-led government because we wanted a secular government after six years of BJP rule. What we had told the Congress was that there should be a Common Minimum Programme for the UPA government. It was not our programme, but we were consulted about it.

We sought to get the UPA government to implement some of the pro-people measures in the CMP, such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Act [NREGA], the RTI [Right to Information] Act, and the Forest Rights Act. At the same time, we also opposed the neoliberal measures taken by the UPA government. The Left parties and the trade unions conducted many struggles during this period. There was a one-day general strike in the country. We were not part of the coalition or the government, but our struggle to ensure that the UPA government implemented some of the commitments made in the CMP, such as the NREGA, helped them in the 2009 election. Since they were in the government and could claim they had implemented it, the Left could not get the credit for it because we were outside the government. All through the period we supported the UPA government, we conducted a number of agitations and struggles.

Is there a change in your policy initiatives as articulated in your manifesto for Elections 2014 as compared to what was outlined in 2009?

We have concretised some general demands. For instance, we have demanded a minimum wage of Rs.10,000, which would be linked to the consumer price index. We have asked for a minimum pension of Rs.4,000. We have gone into areas of legislation where we have asked for the abolition of the death penalty, an amendment to the Constitution to make parliamentary approval mandatory for any international treaty, the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and for bringing corporates and public-private partnerships under the purview of the Lok Pal.

Is there consonance with various constituents of the non-Congress secular formation on some tentative policies?

We have not clearly worked out a platform of common policies with these parties. On some issues we have a common approach. But we will definitely adopt a Common Minimum Programme if the situation so requires after the elections. As of now, there are some different approaches. For instance, the issue of one-third reservation for women in the legislatures and Parliament, some of the other parties do not agree with this. There are some issues that need to be sorted out.

But there are not any major differences of opinion, and if there are, can they be surmounted for a common objective?

We haven’t really worked out anything common yet. We know some differences exist. Obviously, a CMP would mean what is agreed to as common, but we will see to it that maximum agreement can be had.

What do you think will be the possible electoral outcome for the Left?

The CPI(M) and the Left draw their main strength from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and it is in these three States that we are working hard to improve our performance as compared with 2009. We are confident that we will be able to do better this time.