Prakash Karat: ‘Our stress is on the widest unity against authoritarianism’
Interview with Prakash Karat, former general secretary of the CPI(M).
Prakash Karat is one of the prominent Communist politicians in the country. Currently a member of the Communist Party of India’s (Marxist) Polit Bureau, the party’s highest decision-making body, he led the party as general secretary from 2005 to 2015.
Prakash Karat was attracted to the Communist movement during his student days and served as the all-India president of the Students’ Federation of India ((SFI) between 1974 and 1979. He began his political career working with A.K. Gopalan, the renowned Communist leader from Kerala, in the early 1970s.
Karat combines theory and practice effortlessly. Well-versed in Marxist philosophy, he has a firm grip on making theoretical analysis of political developments amid his busy schedule of organisational activities. He has penned excellent studies and articles in newspapers and journals. His studies on agrarian relations in the Malabar region of Kerala are much valued and discussed in academic circles. His post-graduate thesis, ‘Language and politics in Modern India’, was also notable. Prakash Karat studied at the Madras Christian College, Chennai, the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He was active in student politics at Edinburgh. After returning to India, he joined JNU where he became the president of the students’ union. During the Emergency, he had to go underground. He was the secretary of the Delhi State Committee of the CPI(M) from 1982 to 1985. Karat was elected to the party’s Central Committee in 1985 and became a member of the Polit Bureau in 1992.
Prakash Karat has written many books, including Language and Nationality Politics in India (1973), A World to Win: Essays on the Communist Manifesto, edited (1999), Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor G. Kiernan, edited (2003), Subordinate Ally: The Nuclear Deal and India-US Strategic Relations (2007), and Revolution! Lenin in 1917, edited (2017).
In an exclusive interview to Frontline in the context of the Indian Communist movement’s centenary, he spoke on a range of issues including the Communists’ role in the social transformation of India, the Communist movement and parliamentary experiences, history, lessons learned, contemporary challenges before the Communists and the present Indian political situation. Excerpts:
As a leader of the country’s largest Communist Party, how would you look back at the contributions of the movement’s to the sociopolitical transformations of Indian society?
The Communist movement in India was a product of two historical events—the anti-imperialist struggle against British rule and the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The Communists were the first to raise the slogan of ‘complete independence’ (as against dominion status) in 1921 at the Ahmedabad All India Congress Committee (AICC) session. The Communists were also the first to pioneer class-based organisations of the working class and the peasantry.
During the struggle for Independence, the Communist Party of India gave a complete picture of ‘swaraj’ as political independence encompassing economic and social emancipation of the Indian people.
Another distinctive contribution of the Communists was the combining of the anti-imperialist struggle with the anti-feudal struggle that emanated from the class understanding that independence required a fight against British imperialism and its domestic supporters such as the princes, zamindars, and feudal landlords.
The big anti-feudal struggles, which erupted in the post-Second World War period, saw the Communists playing a leading role in the peasant struggles of Telangana, Tebhaga, and Punappura Vayalar, and the spate of anti-landlord struggles in different parts of the country. After Independence, it was this anti-feudal agenda which saw the Communist Party bringing the question of land to the national stage—the abolition of zamindari system, the struggle for land reforms, distribution of surplus land above the ceiling to the landless, tenancy rights, and so on.
The Communists saw the abolition of landlordism and the anti-feudal agenda as part of the unfinished tasks of the democratic revolution, something the new Congress rulers refused to accomplish.
Another important Communist contribution was to the struggle for the formation of linguistic States in the 1950s. This was an important issue in the democratisation of the state structure, something which was theorised by the Communist leaders and put into practice through the mass movements for Visalandhra, Aikya Kerala, Samyukta Maharashtra, Maha Gujarat, and so on.
The Communists brought the worker-peasant issues to the stage of national politics and developed class-based movements against economic and social oppression. The Communists developed a Left and democratic alternative to the type of capitalist development taking place in India.
The Communists also made an important contribution to the strengthening of democracy by developing mass movements for the basic rights of different sections of the people and mass participation in politics. Given the legacy of communal politics, which resulted in the Partition of India, the Communists have always been the most consistent force for secularism. They have always defended the secular principle of separation of religion and the dtate, which has been distorted in practice by the ruling class parties.
Threats of Hindutva, neoliberalism
Land reforms and the fight for federalism are some of the essential aspects of the fight for India’s democratic revolution as far as Communists are concerned. Today, what would constitute the most urgent and important tasks for Communists in their struggle for a democratic revolution?
Today, whatever gains were made in the decades after Independence as far as land reforms, federalism and democratic rights are concerned are sought to be reversed. We have had three decades of neoliberal capitalism and the attendant rise of the Hindutva right-wing forces, who are now in power.
At present, the most urgent and important task for the Communists and the Left is to build a powerful movement against neoliberal policies, which exploit the working people of the country.
There is a relentless onslaught on the rights of the workers and peasants which emanates from this form of the predatory capitalism. Along with this, we have a Hindutva authoritarian government which enforces this neoliberal regime. This regime seeks to undo the existing constitutional framework from within and majoritarian rule threatens the very basis of democracy and secularism in the country. So, the twin important tasks for Communists are the fight against neoliberalism and Hindutva authoritarianism.
In the early years of independence itself, the Communists identified the post-independent Indian state as a bourgeois landlord state. Capitalism has gained strength in India with liberalisation and other privatisation policies of the ruling class. Land reforms took place, though in a limited mode, in different States. How does the CPI(M) look at the present state of capitalism in India and also the character of the Indian ruling class?
The CPI(M) had, in its Programme, analysed the Indian state as a bourgeois-landlord alliance led by the big bourgeoisie. Capitalist development, over the decades, has led to further concentration of capital and strengthened the grip of the big bourgeoisie. This has increased with the neoliberal policies.
The development of capitalism in agriculture has proceeded apace. When we talk of landlords, it means capitalist landlords. A nexus of the rural rich comprising landlords, rich farmers, contractors and rural entrepreneurs has emerged. The character of the Indian ruling classes is still bourgeois-landlord with the latter being of the capitalist variety. We must also keep in mind that this bourgeois-landlord ruling class is in collaboration with foreign finance capital.
Indian Communists have a long experience of working in a parliamentary democracy. They have also formed and run State governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. How do you evaluate this experience and record, especially in the light of the lowest Communist representation in Parliament at the moment?
The Indian Communists have a unique experience of having participated in a parliamentary democratic system for the past seven decades. This is unlike the experience in Russia, China or Vietnam, where revolutions were made against autocratic, colonial or semi-colonial establishments.
After an initial period of Left sectarianism, which lasted between 1948 and 1951, the Communists decided to work in parliamentary forums in order to strengthen mass movements and revolutionary struggles. The victory of the Communist Party in the first State Assembly election in Kerala in 1957 and the formation of the first Communist Ministry was a remarkable event. It laid the basis for and set out the framework for participation in State governments, as it happened later in West Bengal and Tripura.
Communist leadership in the post-War upsurge ensured that the Communist Party became the largest opposition group in Parliament in the first general election in 1952. Since then, the Communists have been active in electoral politics. By and large, the Communists have had a correct understanding on how to utilise parliamentary forums to strengthen extra-parliamentary movements, although wholesale participation in parliamentary politics also led to illusions and reformist trends developing. It is a constant struggle to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics to advance the movement.
As far as Left-led governments are concerned, overall it has been a positive experience. From the first Communist Ministry in Kerala in 1957, Communists showed the way forward in the implementation of land reforms, democratic decentralisation of power through the panchayati raj system, providing social security benefits for the working people and maintenance of communal harmony. All these were achievements of the Left-led governments.
However, with the neoliberal phase taking hold, Left-led governments have found the space for alternative policies shrinking, and with the cutbacks in Central funding and investments, serious constraints have emerged for a pro-people development. It is true that the Communist representation in Parliament has declined to its lowest levels in the last two general elections. The rightward shift in Indian politics, the neoliberal market policies, the huge amounts of money spent in elections and the nexus between business and politics have all had a deleterious effect on the electoral prospects of the Communists and the Left.
You recently wrote: “At no time has the threat to democracy and the parliamentary system been as grave as it is now.” Are you saying that the situation is graver than the Emergency of 1975? Where we are heading towards?
The threat is much wider and deeper. What has been put in place is an authoritarian Hindutva regime which is working systematically to undermine the Constitution and all the institutions of the State from within. Especially after the second coming of the Modi government, the RSS game plan of having a Hindutva republic is unfolding. All dissent and resistance to this authoritarian drive are dealt with in a fascistic manner. The situation is far graver than the Emergency of 1975. It cannot be compared. There is a wholesale restructuring of the Indian state and step-by-step efforts to impose a Hindu Rashtra.
A strong and popular cultural movement was part and parcel of the growth of Communist movements in India. In the intellectual sphere too, the Left was able to assume an important role for decades. But today, one of the tallest claims of the right-wingers is that a new nationalist narrative is replacing the Left and liberal public discourse easily. There is also the triumphalism of rampant consumerism and individualism, especially through the new- generation technology. How challenging is this for Left cultural intervention? Do you need a reinvention?
The cultural movement, which developed under the aegis of the Communists and progressives in the late 1930s and 1940s, were part and parcel of the anti-imperialist movement and the freedom struggle. There was a Left nationalist component too. However, this consensus in the progressive-cultural movement broke down within a decade after Independence as a section of the intellectuals and cultural workers rallied around the national bourgeoisie and became the standard bearers of the efforts to build a Nehruvian state. This liberal-bourgeois discourse began to fray and develop cracks as the capitalist path of development under bourgeois-landlord rule became increasingly bankrupt.
We saw the bourgeois-liberal circles compromise on secularism and progressive values like fighting against caste and social oppression. The Left progressive cultural current became a minority trend by the 1980s. The biggest challenge for Left cultural intervention has been the twin assault of neoliberalism and Hindutva. The Left and Communists, in particular, are too dependent on their past cultural traditions and practice. They have to create a new cultural awakening and innovate to meet the present challenges and must be able to effectively use the new communication technologies.
The other challenge is to counter Hindutva nationalism. We cannot allow the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindutva forces to appropriate nationalism. The Left has to project a nationalism which is anti-imperialist, secular and in tune with people’s aspiration for a better life.
From Kancha Ilaiah to Gail Omvedt, many intellectuals have levelled sharp criticisms against the Communists alleging that Indian Communists failed to address the caste question in society. How do you respond to such allegations? Isn’t it a time for all democrats to rally around the single point of caste annihilation than sit in watertight compartments?
Some of the criticisms levelled at Indian Communists regarding caste come from those who consider caste the only, or, main form of social stratification in Indian society. Communists cannot agree with this understanding. Caste and class coexist together and are intertwined.
The complexity is in the caste-class correlation as capitalism developed. As Marxists, we see the fight against class exploitation and caste oppression as interlinked. Both class exploitation and caste hierarchies underpin the Indian state.
As early as 1931, the Communists, in their first policy statement (the Draft Platform of Action), called for the abolition of the caste system and caste slavery. Having stated that, we must accept that there has been a trend in the Communist movement (dominant at times in the past) during which a mechanical understanding prevailed that making a revolution based on class struggle would lead to the sweeping away of superstructural features like caste. This actually hampered the development of a revolutionary movement which took into account the various forms of class and caste oppressions.
Such an understanding no longer prevails. The Communists have led many struggles for land and against upper-caste oppression in Bihar and other places. In Tamil Nadu, Communists are in the lead in fighting against untouchability in its various forms. But the praxis of building a movement which encompasses both class exploitation and the oppressive caste system is still a difficult one, given the fact that caste identities are used by all the bourgeois parties too in a more intense way, and identity politics based on caste is very much in tune with neoliberal capitalism and globalisation. The annihilation of caste in the present era, therefore, requires a determined fight to overthrow both the neoliberal order and the Hindutva-sponsored manuvadi order.
Turning back to history, which was the most challenging development in the history of Communist movements in post-Independence Indian history and, in a self-critical note, would you locate the lessons you have learned? Was it the period after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of neoliberal capitalism or the current period when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and right-wing forces have become dominant?
The Communist movement remained a minor, though vital, stream in the anti-imperialist struggle. It could never achieve the leadership of the national liberation movement. That leadership was in the hands of the Gandhi-led Congress. This is the major difference between the role of the Communists in India and the Chinese or Vietnamese Communists who led the national liberation movements of their countries.
The fall of the Soviet Union definitely posed a serious challenge to Communists worldwide. But in India, the CPI(M) weathered the storm better than many other Communist parties in the world. Unlike many of those parties, the CPI(M) had no blind faith or admiration for the Soviet Union. It had been increasingly critical of the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union both externally and internally. The CPI(M) was not derailed from the Marxist ideology because it had, from the outset of its formation, declared that the Marxists in India were best suited to apply Marxism-Leninism to Indian conditions and work out their own path.
However, the whole conjuncture had changed internationally and nationally. The neoliberal phase in India and the rise of Hindutva forces happened in this period after 1991. By the turn of the century, the adverse effects of these twin developments were being felt by the Communist and Left movement. I consider this the most challenging period in the history of the Communist movement in post-Independence India.
We have self-critically noted that it took us time to reorient our understanding and tactics on how to fight the rampaging capitalism which brought many changes in Indian society and classes. We had also bought into the liberal Left narrative about India’s strong democratic and secular ethos without seeing the flaws and distortions that existed in this narrative of a modern secular democratic republic.
This led to an underestimation of the capacity and resources which the RSS and Hindutva forces could draw upon to become the dominant force. The lessons drawn from these have to help to shape a revitalised platform for the Communists and the Left and democratic forces.
Left parties in Bihar did well in the recent election. A common alliance, the Mahagathbandhan, was formed to fight the election. Will you be a part of such an alliance in other States too? Is there no more scope to stand alone or form a third front in the context of the Hindutva challenge?
The CPI (M) has always employed tactics of electoral understanding and alliances with like-minded parties to fight the main party of the ruling class and its allies. In Bihar, the Mahagathbandhan was more effective as it drew in most of the parties that were against the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance. The Left’s role was important in the Mahagathbandhan. There is a need for wider unity of the anti-BJP parties in the elections in other States. Already, there is a strong alliance of parties led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to fight the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu. In the face of the authoritarian danger, our stress is on the widest unity rather than any third front at the present juncture.
The idea of having strong public intervention by governments got a lot of attention from people in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. Do you think that the global pandemic situation has strengthened the appeal of the idea of socialism?
The COVID pandemic has shown the vital importance of public health systems to combat the virus. People are seeing the contrast between the United States, which has the most privatised health system, and countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba, where there are strong public health systems. That you need public health and collective action to fight the pandemic has drawn people’s attention to the benefits of socialism. The example of the U.S., with nearly 16 million cases and 20 per cent of the total deaths in the world, is a grim warning of what capitalism does to the health of the people. In the post-COVID world, we have to take this lesson to the people in a big way.