WATCH | BJP did Pulwama politicisation, not us: Yechury

WATCH | BJP did Pulwama politicisation, not us: Yechury

CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury.

As India hurtles towards the Lok Sabha elections next month, it's time to sit back and absorb the drama of Indian politics, to be entertained by it, but also to understand and analyse the complex issues at play. With this in mind, DH brings you its comprehensive political coverage under the umbrella of DH Political Theatre

An important part of our coverage is interviews with key leaders from across the political spectrum. Today, we present, CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury in conversation with Sitaraman Shankar, editor of Deccan Herald.

Full transcript:

Hello and welcome to this edition of Political Theatre from Deccan Herald and Prajavani. Our guest is Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). His party is in power in only one state now – Kerala – but its ideology is an important counterweight to the right-wing narrative that’s loudest in the country today.

Welcome Mr Yechury. Let me start by noting that your party is down to nine seats in Lok Sabha, its lowest ever strength. When the country goes to the polls starting next month, what are you going to do to improve on this figure?

Well, we are going to tell the people to vote for us because what we are seeking is an alternative secular government at the Centre. The stronger the Left is, the stronger will be the pressure on the government to take a pro-people policy direction, which is what happened in the UPA-1. We had series of measures that provided rights to people through legislation. So the Left strength and presence in Parliament is important to use the situation so that people's livelihood can improve and the country could be more safer. So, that will be our appeal and we are hoping that people will respond to it because between 2004 and 2014, that is when the slide had happened in terms of numbers.

The ideology is fine but how will you ensure that this ideology translates into membership, into votes and into seats eventually? Where is the message getting lost?

Well, I don't think the message is getting lost. In terms of our membership, in terms of our membership of our mass organisations and their activities etc, in fact, there is an increase. The point is that these translating them into votes. In many places, like let us say in Tripura and West Bengal, our support base is simply not allowed to go and cast their votes. And that is where all the violence happens.

Can you elaborate a bit on that?

What happens is that, on election day, there are known areas they know as a Left base. People from those houses who go and cast their votes, they are prevented physically and violently. Last time, we lost around 180 of our comrades in such struggles in Bengal. Now currently that is what is happening in Tripura. So this is one set of problem. Much of the base that is there evident in the struggles we conduct, is there evident there in the public rallies we conduct. Our Brigade Parade rally in Kolkata, for instance, was many a time larger than the one conducted by the ruling party in Bengal. They have to be allowed to vote. That is why the resistance will be there. That is why the fights will be there. So that is what the real battle of democracy takes place on the ground. That is one fact. There are many other reasons why the support base does not automatically shift into a vote. Many a time people have a very high level of confidence in the red flag that it will take up their livelihood issues, it will fight for them, and people are willing to come with the red flag, face the police, face the lathis, go to jail. But when it comes to voting their social moorings tend to dominate over the choices of whom to vote. That is where in particularly in the large tracts of northern India and also even in states like Karnataka and other places the caste factor becomes an important element. So we will have to break that barrier. We have to actually break the caste barrier and many other social barriers that are erected by the other parties for their electoral benefits, whether it religious divide or caste divide. Now, these are the things that have to be overcome. That is our challenge. That is what we are doing.

So if one searches for a cricketing analogy, it is a bit like you have a strong U-19 team at the University level but it peters out when it comes to national level. Also, there seems to be a lot of barriers to this transition.

Barriers in the sense, we need to overcome. That is where in the last (Hyderabad) Party Congress, where I declared that in India, the class struggle sought to speak for the Communists, stands on two legs. One is the hegemonic exploitation and the other one is social oppression. Unless you combine both these in our struggles, really you can't leave alone running you can't even walk forward. So that is the effort we are in and I think we will succeed very soon.

You mentioned one reason was that people were not allowed to go and vote because of goondaism and thuggery in West Bengal. They could say the same thing very much about the communist cadres in the past and they do say that.

The only thing I can say is that if we behaved the way they do now, then they would never be in government. That is for sure. The very fact that they won an election and formed a government is, I think, the ultimate testimony that the situation was never so bad as it is now.

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What is it that causing so much violence and so much intimidation?

Well, there are a lot of vested interests at work. That is when we say the real class battle taking place. See, there are lakhs of families who have benefitted from land reforms that the Left Front initiated. Now the erstwhile illegal owners of the land, the landlords, still eye that land. They want to re-grab it. If the Left is there, that is not possible. So in most places where the clashes take place, you will find the landless people who got their entitlements, thanks to the Left Front government, they are in the bitter battle against erstwhile landlords or their gangs or private armies who want to reoccupy these land. That is one element. The other thing is that there is a lot of urban mafia at work. Then they know that they cannot thrive if a Left Front government is there. So they would want to ensure that the Left doesn't come back. And you see the entire scam of chit funds. Now if the Left government was there, none of these would have been permitted. They know for a fact that allowing the Left to come back would mean a death knell for them. So there are such vested interests at work and it is not purely, only as it is often very wrongly, erroneously, described only as political rivalries. But behind this political rivalry, there is this real solid class issues. And that is what it leads to these kinds of clashes. Of course, in final analysis the lust for power is also there.

But you continue to be ring-fenced into these three states (West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura). Why is there no major outreach in other states. Is it too difficult?

No, the outreach is happening. Take, for instance, now in Maharashtra, you had the huge Long Marches of farmers. You had the second edition recently. That is one stage. Look at Rajasthan where there were very very big struggles led by the party. As a result in the most polarised elections (recently), we won two seats and came second in two all alone. These are only examples. You will find that growth everywhere. But maybe not as soon as what we want. But it is happening.

So it is happening more in the background more than in the foreground.

Yes, when you evaluate any communist party, particularly ours, the strengths or influence. I think there have to be two yardsticks. One is, of course, the electoral yardstick. There, yes, we have had reverses. There is no doubt about it. It is an important yardstick. The other one is the popular struggle. Now whether the struggles have been powerful enough to influence the agenda of the country? If you look at it from that yardstick, yes the CPI(M) and its mass organisations have brought about through the popular struggles, the issues of the kisans, the peasantry, the issues of youth in terms of employment against growing unemployment. That is why in this election narrative, you will find no parties can escape these two basic issues. Agricultural distress and unemployment and these were issues brought to fore by our struggles.

We will come back to that issue soon. Do you think in such a polarised election, you would be one of the major gainers? But it is not looking like that. Nobody seems to be interested in aligning with the Left.

In a sense that is also a reflection of our strength. In the sense that it is a reflection of our lowest strength. The number is not large enough to affect their future. But it is not that the others don't seem to be interested. In fact, all of them are interested. If nothing else, they think it is the Left, particularly the CPI(M), that add a moral fibre to their entire campaign. After all, that is why the country, whether anybody like it or not, the moral conscience of the country lies with the Left is the general perception. We have certain policies, issues which we think are sacrosanct for the country and the people and they will have to be upheld.

You mentioned jobs and rural distress. What has gone wrong? How do they fix it?

You see the question of agrarian distress is essentially connected with the debt that the peasants take. Now everybody engaged in agriculture has to borrow before the agricultural operations begin in the season and when the harvesting is done. When the proceeds get sold,

they return the loans. Now when the price of the proceeds is not adequate to meet the production costs, that is where the crisis comes. That start accumulating. Unable to repay those debts leads to distress and then it leads to farmers' suicide. So what is the solution? The solution is what we have been talking for years now. This government promised it in their election manifesto last time that the remunerative price will be so fixed that it will be one and half times of the production cost. Once you do that then this distress can be tackled and I am sure it can be eliminated. Then this distress suicides will go down and that immediately increases the productivity of land and of the peasant and that will lead to higher level of production.

So you are not a fan of loan waivers?

I am saying loan waivers for once. One time loan waiver so that they don't get pushed into committing suicides. If you want to stop that, a one-time loan waiver is required. But after that what is required is like feeding somebody hungry with a fish or teaching them how to fish. So you have to look long term and that is where I think a proper fixation of a remunerative price and controlling your production costs, your fertilisers, all these inputs that go into agricultural operations, controlling them, regulating them and an adequate remunerative price.

What about jobs? What has gone wrong?

What has gone wrong is that the economy is slumping and the GDP today is the lowest in last five years, and the last quarter of the last year was even lower than the lowest. It is lowest according to the new series, which really nobody understands how it is calculated. But even by that standards, it is lowest at 7%. The last quarter was 6.6%, that means the economy is on the downslide. That means the job creation is stuck. Not only job creation is stuck, there are retrenchments and lay-offs. Last year, it was told that 1.10 crore people who were working have lost their jobs. In that situation, what is the answer? The answer lies in the fact that there should be a very high dose of public investment to build the infrastructure that is required. All of us know the state of our infrastructure. Build our roads, irrigation channels, canals, all these are required. Now if you do that, it will be massive job creation. That is what will generate jobs. When the jobless get the jobs, they get salaries, when they start spending it, that boosts the domestic demand in the economy and that would lead to a sustainable growth. The question that raises here is that where do you find the resources for this public investment. There I think we will have to understand that there is no shortage of resources in India. If the humongous 15 lakhs crores of rupees is taken as loans which has not been paid back by corporate friends of this government, even if you recollect half of that and put them in public investment, then all this I am suggesting can happen. We can give our youth which is today wandering aimlessly, and it’s dangerous. Because we don’t know where they will get misled into. We can give them health, we can give them education, we can give them employment. And then, people of my generation can just be senior citizens, lay back, our youth will build better India. That is perfectly possible.

But would you say we are sitting on some sort of time bomb with these factors -- joblessness and restive youth?

Absolutely. That is the tragedy now. Our main appeal to the people is to change their course so that we don’t get engulfed into this strategy. What is the tragedy? We have a demographic advantage. We are one of the youngest countries in the world. So we have a lot of energy that can be positively utilized to build a better India. Now the demographic advantage should not be allowed to turn into a demographic liability. That is the challenge and that is the challenge we will have to meet now. It is perfectly possible to meet these challenges with the sort of a road plan that I have just given you.

I will switch back a little bit and come to hardcore politics. What is your main problem with Narendra Modi and the BJP government? Is it substance or style? Or both?

Both. But more substance than style. Style is up to the individual. We really are not bothered about the individuals and their styles as much as the policies -- their substance. Look at what is happening in the country in the last five years. One, you had with greater aggression than what you were critical of Manmohan Singh, for the economic reforms and policies etc. But with much greater aggression, this government has pursued those neo-liberal policy trajectory. Now, what is the end result? Privatisation large scale, privatisation of your public utilities, except for air, and very soon because of pollution levels that will also be privatised by Ozone clubs and like that. That will feed you fresh oxygen and all. You are creating newer greater avenue for profit maximisation at the expense of people’s welfare. What is the net result? When Manmohan Singh was leaving office I used to criticise them in Parliament saying that you are leaving behind a legacy where 1% of India's population corners 49% of the GDP. Today in these five years, that has gone up with 1% cornering 73% of our GDP. If this is one track, the second one is this rabid communal polarisation. Instead of an inclusive India that we all talk of and that is the foundation of our republic, our Constitution, instead of that you see the exact opposite happening. Private armies in the name of cow protection, in the name of moral policing, telling our children what they can wear, what they can eat, whom they can befriend, otherwise they are attacked. And who is the principal target, that is Dalits and Muslims. As a result, what is happening is dehumanisation of the society. Have you ever come across your life these repeated incidents of a girl child being gang-raped and murdered? Unthinkable at a period when we grew up. These kind of things are happening and there is total degeneration of our social fibre and moral fibre. That is the second track. The third track is the entire assault on institutions of our Constitutional Republic. Right from Parliament itself. How the Rajya Sabha was sought to be bypassed because they do not have a majority. Two, the entire judiciary. The four judges coming out and doing a press conference, unprecedented again. Then the CBI. The midnight coup and the sort of using it clearly for their political advantage. The RBI -- undermining its regulatory authority and eyeing its funds for government expenditure, then the question mark on the Election Commission, the CVC. I mean all the institutions, which are important for the functioning of our Constitutional order, are under attack. And fourthly, your entire foreign policy and the manner in which you handled Jammu and Kashmir. In the last four years compared to the five years before, every particular indicator of terrorist attacks, ceasefire violations, loss of security personnel, civilian lives, everything has exponentially risen. These are very serious concerns. Our Opposition to this government is the opposition to all these four tracts of policies which we think is regressing India, not progressing India.

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The last point you have mentioned is terrorist attack and the situation in Kashmir. Pulwama and Balakot, I think, have disrupted the opposition’s campaign, and the government made any questioning of its narrative sound ‘anti-national’. How do you counter this?

That I think is happening now. The fight against terrorism is the fight of united India. There is no opposition or ruling party or no parties there. I mean it is India versus terrorism. That is what the Opposition parties have said from day one. We said our Air Force show the targets, they hit the targets, We salute them for that. But then after that this fight against terrorism is when we all of us get together. But where does this divide and politicisation come from? It begins with the BJP president. He said our government the Modi government will give back and give fitting rebuff, that no earlier government could give. Earlier government or whatever, what we need is a rebuff to terrorism. Remember, terrorism is not any community-oriented or any region oriented. You lost Mahatma Gandhi to the hands of a Hindu fanatic, you lost Indira Gandhi to the hands of Sikh fanatic. You lost Rajiv Gandhi to the hands of a Tamil fanatic. Now if this is the situation, terrorism has no borders or characterisations. We all fight it together. Then you are disrupting it by politicising it. The BJP president says 250 killed, the Home Minister says 300 cell phones were there which are not working, therefore 300 killed. Another Cabinet Minister says 450 killed. And one minister says zero killed because our aim was not to create casualties but only to tell them that we have hit them. So the politicisation process is started by them. That is something that is being exposed now. That will be the narrative that will happen.

How do you feel the action itself, yes the Air Force did the action but they have political masters? Do you think it was handled well?

Now it is not the time to do a post mortem on it. Now the question is to ensure that such things do not repeat in the future. My concern is that even after Balakot, nearly a dozen security personnel were killed in terror attacks. You had the bomb blast in Jammu. So these attacks are continuing. Now, where is the fault that the government and the agencies will have to answer. So we are saying is that we cannot lower our guard. Our vigilance must be topmost. Then you see that you have to utilise the diplomatic channels in order to defuse this situation. Both globally and bilaterally. So that will have to be the direction we should go.

You have spoken about state-specific alliances. But it seems that Congress, the main opposition party, is not interested in alliances. What is your message to Congress?

Our message to them is decide on your priority. We decided that our priorities are three. One, defeat this BJP alliance for the sake of India and the sake of ourselves. Two, then strengthen the Left, the stronger the Left in Parliament the better and third, ensure that an alternative secular government is formed at the Centre. Now with these objectives, we are moving. If your objectives are also similar and to ensure that, then it is time for everybody to get together. Now the situation in India there can never be a pre-poll alliance at the all India level. Because a party which is relevant in one state may be completely irrelevant in another state. So you cannot have that kind of an understanding. What had always happened is state specific alliances and then post elections that formation that forms the alternative government will come. Remember, even after Emergency, when Indira Gandhi was defeated, the Janata Party was formed after the elections. In 1996, the United Front was formed after the elections and then H D Deve Gowda became the Prime Minister. Then you had the 1998. The NDA was formed after the elections when A B Vajpayee became the Prime Minister. UPA was formed after the elections in 2004 and Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister. That is what is going to happen in 2019. There will be a formation post-election.

Hasn’t the electorate changed? Won't they like to know to know who the PM face will be?

That will be the narrative that they (BJP) would want to pitch that it is not a Parliamentary form of election but a Presidential form of election. That is exactly the narrative that was there in 2003 and 2004. Who is the alternative to Vajpayee? Same slogans that this will be 'khichchdi' sarkar which will not deliver etc. But then what happened? The alternative came and after Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister to last ten years uninterrupted was Manmohan Singh. India has these alternatives. They will all come. These are all narratives that they would like build up for elections. But they failed in the past, they will fail again.

It is interesting to note that you spoke about unified force (to take on BJP)? But the communist house at least from the outside it is divided. Given that there is no ideological difference, would you consider a merger of the CPI (M) and the CPI?

A merger is not on the agenda right now. But the communist parties are working together much more closely than they were before. More importantly the mainstream CPI(M), CPI and CPI(ML) we are coordinating our efforts to ensure that we don't clash with each other and that is the positive step to begin with. That is a question that will see later. Unity will have to emerge from the bottom. Top heavy unity has never been sustainable or never worked. So that bottom level unity will come through common struggle. Those are happening and the Left is in the midst of a lot of common struggles.

You are very youthful to be in the position that you are in, given the history of the party. What are you doing to bring younger people into the senior ranks? Is there an exercise to do that?

A lot of younger people are there coming to the party. But you right that they need to come to the leadership. That is happening at the lower levels, that is happening in our state committees. If you see the state level leadership, there is much larger proportion of younger people than it was before. But it still needs improvement. There is no doubt about it. This is

something which we are very conscious about. Today's politics need lot more energy which you get only when you are younger. So that is what we all have to deliver. I feel very very unhappy, not unhappy but disappointed for saying that for 20 long years I was the youngest Polit Bureau member. But if your are the youngest for 20 long years, then there is a problem. That is what we are addressing. I am sure we will overcome that soon.

Thank you very much. All the best.

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