Beyond the iron curtain

INTERVIEW:

Sitaram YechuryThe rout in the West Bengal poll after a 34-year uninterrupted rule has genuinely shaken up the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which had become all too used to seeing the State as its ‘pocket borough’.  A proper shake up in the CPM is expected, sooner than later. Sitaram Yechury, 59, a Polit Bureau member of the party since 1992, is one of the ‘Challengers’ even though he himself describes ‘collective leadership’ as the USP of his party.

Yechury opens up to the Deccan Herald  and admits “mistakes” the party made in its long run up to the historic debacle in Bengal on May 13, 2011.

In a free-wheeling interview at the party’s New Delhi head office – A K Gopalan Bhawan - Yechury repeatedly talks about “the introspection” that is underway in the party.

“We did not do our homework”, he admits while touching on the land acquisition policy of the Left Front government. He  answers queries on “the arrogance” of party leaders and the “politicisation of institutions” by his party in Bengal.

Yechury is candid about the fact that the party “failed” to properly communicate and convince the land owners on industrialisation. In one of the first detailed interviews to the print media after the poll-washout in Bengal and Kerala, the CPM leader speaks to Deepak K Upreti &  Anil Sinha. Excerpts:

Were you expecting the Mamta Tsunami in West Bengal or still hoping to retain Writers’ Building in Kolkata?

The trend which began in local bodies continued in 2009 parliamentary election and then in 2010 municipal election - all three were clear trends of erosion of our base.
In 2011, we polled one crore 96 lakh votes and got 62 seats, in 2006 we got one crore 98 lakh votes and got 235 seats. We lost because of opposition unity which was divided in 2006. The Left Front has collected 41 per cent substantial vote. Even the victorious Congress party in Assam got less than 40 per cent votes. But 41 per cent votes in Bengal does not translate into as many seats.

In 1977 when you came to power peasantry clapped for you, the same peasantry turned against the CPM. The Left  seem to be working against peasantry in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh.

That is not the complete story. It would be incorrect to say peasantry turned against the CPM. Land reforms and the benefits that peasantry got explains why CPM got 41 per cent vote. Because in Urban Bengal, the Left Front was routed. Much of the 41 per cent came from rural Bengal. So to conclude that peasantry went against the Left is wrong.
Land was acquired in Singur - that is not the first or the last time it’s happening in the West Bengal. In retrospect - it happened after 2006 assembly elections which we fought on the plank of industrialisation and we got 3/4th majority. So it was presumed people had endorsed the industrialisation agenda. Normally, when land is acquired, detailed work is done: village committees are formed, we talk to people and explain why the acquisition, what should be the compensation, what would be the future etc. This time the homework was not done (by CPM government) in Singur because we got 3/4th majority and we presumed people had endorsed (our programme).

The process of industrialisation under the Left Front is seen as neo-liberal economy, a clear departure from the ideological line?

In West Bengal it was not the neo-liberal economy as advocated at the Centre. Let us see the objective reality. In Bengal for 1,000 acres of land, 12,000 people took compensation as owners. One acre of land jointly held by 12 people. Can 12 families survive in one acre of land – this Bengal reality we understood after 20-25 years of land reforms. The fragmentation of land that took place in families resulted in a situation where land itself was not a viable option for livelihood.

You mean land ceased to be remunerative...?

Yes, it was not (so) because of division of land from generation to generation. So we concluded industrialisation was the alternative. Benefits of land reforms had reached a plateau.

But industrialisation can take place on barren land, why take away cultivable, fertile land?

Less than 2 per cent of land in Bengal (is) classified as wasteland. We can say our homework failed and communication (on the purpose of industrialisation) could not reach the poor .

So the party admits that there was a disconnect with the masses?

The Party took for granted the 3/4th majority given to it. It was not a disconnect but a mistake.

CPM is accused of politicising institutions – from the highest to the lowest levels - with cadres running the show in the state during the last 34 years. A piece of land or property could not be sold in Bengal without the consent or brokering by a Left leader. Do you accept the charge?

Politicisation per se is not wrong. In cases of misuse or abuse of power, we are taking action. Let us see the objective situation. In 1978 we were the first to introduce Panchayati Raj and six lakh representatives were elected, a number larger than our party membership. Among them many were good or bad. By the time you take action and remove the bad element, he has already done the damage. This is an objective reality, I am not justifying or denying it. We are conscious of it and combating it.

Are you also suggesting that the leadership of the time - Jyoti Basu, Pramod Das Gupta and several other veterans - were complacent and did not lead the way they should have?

On the contrary, they were most conscious of it and warned the younger leadership like us to be constantly vigilant. In fact, until Basu died he was always telling us that the party is also made from the same society in which we exist, so the same people come (into the party); unless we are constantly vigilant of the wrong and correct them, it will erode the party. Another thing he would tell us was whenever there was a problem, go to the people.

Do you mean to say that Jyoti Basu almost said “ after me the deluge”? He had been there throughout and seen all and known all.

(smiles) Completely opposite to ‘after me the deluge’, Basu was the longest serving Chief Minister who voluntarily stepped down saying he could not discharge his duties because of age. He supervised the change.

Then do we infer that his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and others failed to deliver?

We cannot foist the blame on one individual, the leadership as a whole (is to be blamed)... Both at the centre and in the state, there is need to introspect what corrections should have been done or not done. And collective leadership will have to take the blame.

Do you feel the need for changing the party culture?

First, we have to identity what went wrong, then only measures will come...that process is underway.

Would you agree that too much obsession with parliamentary and power politics at the Centre – which in Marxist terminology is a Bourgeois democracy - took the sheen off the Left movement. It stopped CPM from building direct connect with the masses and their mobilisation on the seminal issues?

These are the issues which are very important in our introspection process - that exercise has already begun. We have to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary method for advancement. While Parliament is important, the non-parliamentary exercises need to be paid attention to. Now the question you are asking is whether this combination has been successful or it is one-sided. The answer would come only after the introspection is over.

How does the CPM, being a part of the parliamentary system, aim to counter the pathetic argument by the Planning Commission that earning a little over Rs 20 is being above poverty line?

You are correct that unless our links with the people are strengthened, meaningful advance is not possible. That is the area we must concentrate on, and I am sure after the introspection is over, we will focus on that aspect.

The compromises like adoption of soft secularism, removal of Engli sh from the primary level and introduction of Bengali in 1982 by CPM are seen as regional parochialism. Comment.

We have not removed English. We maintain teaching should be in mother tongue but English will be simultaneously there. The opposition (of people) was to why  English medium schools were stopped (by the CPM).

In North India leaders like Mulaym Singh Yadav advocate Hindi but their children are educated in English schools. Similarly, many children of Left leaders also go to English schools…

No, no, lot of CPM leaders’ children study in government schools.

Condition of minorities in Bengal under CPM worsened. Justice Rajinder Sachar committee laid bare this fact.

Some of the things that Sachar committee highlighted are correct. The employment of Muslims in public sector and government is low - 4 per cent. But certain aspects the committee did not refer to. Largest number of Muslims with land are in Bengal. Why Muslims are not getting jobs was identified by us, which Sachar Committee did not even mention. Madrasa education is not recognised as school education in Bengal, where all employment is through the employment exchange. Madrasa certificates are not considered (for jobs). We are talking to Muslim leadership so that along with Madrasa education, Muslims also opt for CBSE education. Muslims say they are not getting jobs and we are (also) taking away their land. They say this because of the misunderstanding.

Arrogance of Left leaders is said to have contributed to the poll defeat; during campaign, a leader reportedly called Mamta a prostitute.

He retracted the comment. We are correcting ourselves. These are not general tendencies, just exceptions. We do take action, we are quite ruthless…

Why was Jyoti Basu so eager to be at the Centre?

You see, it is not a question of over-enthusiasm. When CPM had influence at the centre, good things happened - right to tribals, rural job guarantee, right to information etc. We could stop UPA-1 from taking up financial liberalisation reforms - privatising banks, opening up insurance sector, privatising pension funds. If they had done that, India would be ruined.

The RSS mouthpiece had praised the Left for being a more effective opposition in Parliament than the BJP. Shouldn’t such praise have come from Left supporters or sympathisers? Is Left playing a limited role?

The fact that even RSS mouthpiece is praising us shows we are not limited (laughs). Anybody with commonsense would concede that if Left had not stopped UPA-1 from carrying out reforms, the global economic crisis would have consumed India also.

Coming back to Bengal, is it the end of a phase and a new beginning?

Definitely, it is a new beginning.

 It is alleged that a lot of arms were recovered from the CPM offices in the state. These are strong comments against CPM.

We have complained to the governor that this is a conspiracy across Bengal - of planting arms in our party offices and saying they were recovered from the CPM offices.

What do you say about 2 lakh crore debt in Bengal, not enough funds to pay salaries. Is that the state the Left Front left for the people of Bengal?

She (Mamta) also made a statement that there is no telephone in the CM’s office. We have to take things with a pinch of salt. We have to wait and watch to see what policies are formulated by the TMC.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee during his reign had commented that he is, in fact, not implementing Marxism in Bengal.

I do not know.

A commentator has advised CPM that it should have taken a leaf out of  the book of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who brought reforms within the Communist party and government?

In an election there will always be a winner and a loser. Today everybody is giving us advice, very good. The fact is that we won seven consecutive elections, let the commentators examine how we did that? It is unprecedented in the country.

Some say it was due to ‘scientific rigging’.

The 2001 and 2006 elections in Bengal were described as most democratic polls. Mamta herself said so. You see, while there is a temptation to be anti-Left, you must understand the reality as to how in post-Independent India CPM wins seven polls without a break.

Could it have happened the 8th time too?

But for opposition unity…

You are tipped to lead the party .There is a strong buzz about change of leadership in the CPM.

Our party is a structured party. Our USP is always collective leadership.

How long do you expect the honeymoon to last for Mamta?

Six months.

As the red bastion falls to a grassroots leader, PM’s Central Committee meets next month to decide the modalities of a leadership change, hich will be completed during the party
congress scheduled next year.

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