‘If caste numbers are known, Janata parties will gain. That’s why census data is not coming out’

CPM leader Sitaram Yechury admits the Left needs to adapt, talks about the mistakes made in West Bengal, and denies an understanding with the Congress

Why Sitaram Yechury

The Left may have hit an all-time electoral low, but continues to remain an important voice in the political discourse, as it showed with the successful all-India strike steered by it last week. In the recent Parliament session, it played a crucial role with the Congress in ensuring the Opposition a voice. As the new general secretary of the CPM, Sitaram Yechury’s challenge is to continue to be heard outside the House and to prepare the party for the West Bengal elections.

SITARAM YECHURY: We are very concerned about what is happening in the country today — from foreign policy to domestic (developments). There is no tangible turnaround in the economy. (For the government), one way of maintaining some semblance of economic growth is by mounting further burden on people. The CPM feels that the only way to bring some correction to policies is by strengthening our popular struggles and holding discussions.

Parliament is no longer able to play that role because of the anomalous situation of the NDA having a majority in the Lok Sabha and being a minority in the Rajya Sabha. Another thing that is happening is communal polarisation, and greater attacks on the working people. It began at the bottom but it is going to reach all of you, because that is the only way in which they (the government) can sustain themselves. There is no other option but to strengthen people’s struggles to mount pressure on the government. I foresee a period of very intense people’s struggle. We have maintained that we have always been relevant and that is why you will find the Left more relevant now.

RUHI TEWARI: You have taken over the party at a time when it is at an all-time low, both electorally and politically. Has the CPM failed to keep pace with changing aspirations?

I would never say we are irrelevant, but I know that’s the popular perception. When I became general secretary, the most charitable comment I heard was through a cartoon, which said that ‘Yechury is now the captain of a sinking ship’. Yes, these are difficult times for the Left. One of the reasons is the changing aspirations of various classes. Through policies of liberalisation and economic reforms, there have been perceptible changes not only in the behaviour, but also the status of various sections of our society. Take the working class. Now less than 6% of the entire workforce in our country is what you would call the organised workforce, that is, workforce which has trade union rights. So you are fragmenting the workforce into contract, casual, temporary, daily workers and you are removing them from the orbit of collective bargaining. And your laws are all connected with collective bargaining. So, if you cannot change the labour laws, you create a situation where labour laws become irrelevant.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: One sees a lot of support for the causes you take up and people join your protests. But when it comes to voting, they choose to ignore you. Why is that?

We are in the process of intense introspection on that. To put it popularly, like we say it in our party, ladne ke liye laal jhanda… Which means, if you want to protest, protect your economic issues, then it’s the laal jhanda. But when it comes to voting, there are other considerations. This is what we are discussing. There are two aspects that we need to combine. On economic issues, people have confidence in us. That is what we have always articulated. But on the issues of social oppression, the confidence is not there yet. That is something we will have to work on. But democratic choice of the people is probably the last of the issues. (There are issues like) money, muscle power, your social grouping and organisation etc. These days, the amount of money that is being spent on elections is phenomenal. That itself is a deterrent for a party like ours to contest.

COOMI KAPOOR: What steps are you going to take in Bihar? Who will you ally with?

We have decided that we will be part of a united Left platform — that is, the CPM, CPI and the CPI(ML). Left forces and other state-level forces are now discussing the seats that we will fight. The united Left will fight the elections on three slogans. One, defeat the communal BJP. Two, isolate or oppose the casteist political mobilisation and the anti-people policies that they have followed. Third, strengthen Left representation in the (Bihar) Assembly. These are our priorities. These are our slogans.

RUHI TEWARI: After the bitter split with the Congress in 2008, are you back to being friends, because there is a lot of of tacit understanding that goes on between the Congress and the Left in Parliament?

There is no tacit understanding. In Parliament, I sit in the front row in the middle. While I continue to sit there, the parties on either side keep changing and so does the government. But our protest or opposition on a particular point remains the same. It is not that the Congress and Left are going together, but being in Opposition, many a times, they have supported the viewpoint which we have articulated, and we have opposed a certain measure which we think is anti-country and anti-people. When the UPA proposed the land Bill, we moved amendments on many of the issues, but they refused those. In fact, we insisted on there being a division in Parliament, and the vote was taken. At that time, the Congress and the BJP were together in defeating our amendments. On the floor, what happens is that some people take positions on the basis of their immediate situation and their position in the government, whereas there are some people who take a consistent position depending on what is right for the country and the people. Outside Parliament, we have been very clear — the Congress party and its policies are the reason for the BJP coming to power.

SHALINI NAIR: Your party questioned the release of the Census data on religion ahead of the Bihar elections. Why is it that the government is still silent on caste data?

They (the government) must be privy to the caste census. If those numbers are made public now, then the entire castebased political mobilisation by the United Janata Dal or Unified Janata Dal parties will get buttressed. That is the only reason why the data is not being allowed to come out. Sitting on the religious census for all these days, changing the name of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi — all these things tie to some sort of a definite plan which they (government) are proceeding towards, and that is why the timing of the release of the data is suspect.

SARAH HAFEEZ: Do you think the Left will be relevant in 2016 and ready for the West Bengal elections?

It depends on the degree to which people are allowed to cast their franchise without any repression. That is the most important thing. All the mobilisation is happening. It did not translate into votes earlier because in many places, people were just not allowed to vote. It has been a politics of terror, not so much politics of people’s acceptance. So, (it all depends on) how effectively we are able to fight that.

RUHI TEWARI: In the 34 years that you were in power in West Bengal, you ensured land reforms. Where did the script change?

The script did not change. Much before we were voted out, we came to the conclusion that land reforms and our entire pattern of development, which was rural-centric, had reached a plateau. Without rapid industrialisation, any further growth was not possible. We embarked on that process. In 2006, the Assembly elections were fought on the slogan of industrialisation. We won with a majority. And then the land acquisition projects took place, which is where the problems began — not in the idea, but the manner in which this land (was acquired). Then, Singur, Nandigram (happened).

It was not the first time that land was acquired in Bengal, but earlier, there used to be a certain process through which our party would initiate (the acquisition). There would be very detailed homework done. In Singur, we did not do the homework. We thought, we have won the mandate… and that is where the problems began. We lost the plot and need to introspect.

AMRITH LAL: There have been talks about building the Left platform with more players. Has there been any dialogue with the Maoists? Also, nobody suspects the Left’s commitment to secularism, but why is it that, whether it is West Bengal or Kerala, the CPM or CPI is not the preferred choice of the minorities?

Our choice of candidates is not really on the basis of social standing, but on the work that you have done. So that may be one reason. The second is that in the sort of politics that you have today, (what is important is) are you going to play any role in actually running any government. Share of power is a very big issue for the minorities. The perception is — you are good people, you have all the good intentions, you protect us, but what is our gain in governance?

On Maoists, people ask, if you can talk to Maoists in Nepal, why can’t you talk to them in India. I will be most willing to talk to them, but on one condition: that they give up the politics of violence. The CPM was formed in 1964 and it was in 1967-68 that Maoists split from the CPM. Since then, our argument has been that what you (Maoists) are saying is not the way for an Indian revolution — bypassing Parliament and picking up the gun. So in opposition to that, we had to fight polls. Since then, our point has been: drop the politics of gun and come into the democratic mainstream.

AMRITH LAL: Do you think not joining the UPA government in 2004 was a historic blunder?

That is a big debate. With the Congress, the divide was about 60 to 40. In governance, this is not a very decisive value. It is very tricky and requires a tricky evaluation. The tricky part is, you enter a coalition government, and not only enter but lead a coalition government. We were 32 in Lok Sabha, where the majority is 272. (Imagine) leading a coalition with 32 members; invariably, you will have to implement many things that you oppose. So you do some things that you don’t agree with. Many things that you have told the people you will do, you won’t be able to do. So the net result will be betraying people’s mandate, from both ends.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: You spoke about the agrarian reforms in Bengal, and how the party later realised that you needed rapid industrialisation. Is there clarity in your economic thought now? How are you different from the others?

We are different in the sense that we are not for indiscriminate entry of private capital. We have always said that any private capital that flows into India will have to be according to three conditions. One, that private capital must augment our production capacity. If this takes over existing production capacity, it’s a no. Secondly, capital inflow must expand employment opportunities. And lastly, that capital inflow must upgrade India technologically.

We make that distinction because remember, when all of this (reforms) was happening, there were very big debates in Parliament. I think it was Kamal Nath who was the minister of telecom or some other individual… (He asked) ‘Mr Yechury, you oppose 100% FDI in telecom. China does it, but you oppose us’? Then we had to go and examine what China did. What does China do? It allows 100 per cent FDI in telecom, but only in hardware production. Every single mobile producer has a factory in China. The mobile phones most of us have are all made in China.

So 100% FDI in hardware means, you come, set up factories in China, and produce. You export from China. Chinese people get jobs. What are we doing? We are opening up our mobile services 100 per cent. The moment you open up your services, why will anybody produce here? We had just one hardware factory. I think it was Nokia in Chennai. A week after Prime Minister Modi said ‘Make in India’, they closed shop there.

AJAY SHANKAR: How different or similar is the Aam Aadmi Party to the Left?

Similar in the sense that they pick up a lot of issues that we pick up. There are similarities in many issues. On many other issues, there are differences too, like the way they induct people into the party etc. Also, the way they take up local issues and mobilise local people on those issues… That is something we have always said, but we have not been able to execute it effectively. That, I think, is one important difference.

RAJ KAMAL JHA: How do you read the gains the BJP has made in West Bengal? Your spokesperson’s reaction is that it is the B team of the Trinamool Congress? But isn’t it more complex?

This is a much more complex problem, and we need to understand history a little. Remember, when India became independent, Mahatma Gandhi was in Calcutta. It was an extremely intense, communally polarised state. Now, as long as the Left was there, it (communalism) was naturally subdued because of the heavy attack that we would mount ideologically. But once the Left was not there, it (the communal forces) found its space. The other factor is that once the BJP came to power at the Centre, you had this situation of the Trinamool and its politics of terror…
Common people wanted protection. What they saw was that the CPM was unable to protect them because we were also targets of the attack. We were trying to protect our own people. So protecting the normal people, not that we did not want to do it, we were not in a position, because of the circumstances. And then, there was an illusion that the BJP will be able to protect them.

But then, much sooner than even I had anticipated, the dissolution of this perception came. In the corporation elections you saw what happened. So that’s why somehow it gives us a sense of confidence that what we did in these 34 years was not in vain. People thought going with the BJP can protect them, but then, on the ground, that is not really working.

MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: This is probably the first time since the Mamata Banerjee government came to power that such senior Left leaders are out on the streets. So, as we come closer to the Bengal elections, will we see a more aggressive CPM?

That should be a normal strategy. And it took some time to come and that was because of the attack against us. The voice of resistance has to turn into the fire of rebellion. You will see a much more aggressive CPM and the Left in Bengal now. Aggressive, not destructive. Even the march the other day was not destructive, but we will be aggressive.

AMRITH LAL: How do you see the turbulence in China panning out?

China is not a novice in economic matters. They had run into a problem when they delinked the yuan from the dollar. Since then, in the last four years, the yuan appreciated by about 5%. A motivated explanation will be that China is also in crisis. There is something fundamental behind this. The Chinese were the fastest to understand that the 2008 global meltdown is leading to a very sharp dip in global demand and export-led growth is not going to sustain for long. They realised this before any other country did. Their entire bailout package was for boosting internal investment. They realised that the euro crisis was coming, its export markets are in doldrums.

China is retreating from an aggressive, export-oriented strategy towards a domestic strategy now. It will definitely cause a turmoil because of the size of its economy. It will have a long-term impact and it has already begun. China has started offloading US bonds. We will have to just wait and watch what really is the basic objective of these developments.

Transcribed by Aditi Vatsa & Naveed Iqbal

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