Sitaram Yechury, CPM's new general secretary, meets Open Assistant Editor Kumar Anshuman for a wide-ranging conversation. Excerpts
Kumar Anshuman | 23 Apr, 2015
AK Gopalan Bhawan, the headquarters of The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi, betrays no sign of a change of guard. The party’s new general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, steps out of his Ambassador and quietly goes inside. After a round of greetings, he heads for his new room. Life has not changed much for him, except the growing number of text messages on his iPhone. He had received 1,008 congratulatory messages before his handset’s battery surrendered. After an hour-long meeting with Communist Party of India (CPI) leaders D Raja and Sudhakar Reddy, he meets Assistant Editor Kumar Anshuman for a wide-ranging conversation. Excerpts
In the 1978 Jalandhar Congress, the CPM defined its political-tactical line. Why did it take so long for the party to rethink that line now?
The party went through various experiments. You had the United Front in the 1990s. Then you had the UPA in the 2000s. After all that, what is the net result? Mistakes have been committed and we noted those. Because of the mistakes, in the last ten years, our parliamentary presence has declined. Our organisational and political influence has declined. We have now been reduced to our lowest parliamentary presence in our history. There was a time when all these laws, the right to education, information and food, tribal [welfare], NREGA, had come about because of the Left’s strength. That is not the position after ten years. That is the reality. So we are trying to answer this question: why did this occur? What were the weaknesses? This is the most important reason why this re-examination was undertaken. It’s not that after a long gap of 25 years we have suddenly woken up. We are now grappling with these inherent weaknesses.
Even after the collapse of communism globally, CPM is steeped in an ideological time warp. Do you have a recipe for change?
Of course we have a recipe for change. We are not trapped in a time warp like many of those capitalists want us to be or believe us to be. Marxism is a philosophy. The running thread or backbone of the philosophy is a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. As the conditions change, if the analysis doesn’t change, then I believe we are not Marxist. So what appears as a ‘time warp’ is that you are not changing your analysis in tune with changed conditions. Marxists all over the world have to adapt to these changing conditions.
You talk about a crisis in capitalism. Isn’t the crisis actually in the Left?
The crisis in capitalism is palpable for the world to see. Wall Street collapsed in 2008. In these seven years, world capitalism has not been able to recover its pre-meltdown situation. Under the process of globalisation, you had very rapid growth in the gap between the rich and the poor. So the purchasing power of the majority of world citizens declined very rapidly. Because of their decline in purchasing power, they couldn’t purchase consumer durables as they would have otherwise. Capitalism always gets into a crisis if what is produced is not sold. So they tried to get over the crisis by providing cheap credit, which were those subprime loans, and when people couldn’t pay back those loans, there was a Wall Street collapse. Now how was that handled? They started bailing out these corporate giants that collapsed. In the process, governments [took on] sovereign debt, and because of the debt, governments were collapsing. Corporate insolvency was converted into sovereign insolvency. In order to get out of sovereign insolvency, they are now imposing austerity measures. That is the recurrent crisis. There is no solution within capitalism. The solution has to come from outside capitalism, and that can only come by an overthrow of that system which is based on human exploitation. I agree that the alternative is not there. What you talk of as a ‘crisis in the Left’, it’s true that the Left alternative is not visible. However, the alternative is there in some countries in Latin America, for instance. Nine out of 11 countries in Latin America have Left- oriented governments. That capacity of the Left must be achieved in every single country, and that is our job in India.
How did the Left lose India geographically as well as ideologically?
There are several reasons. We can advance only by advancing class struggles. [These] struggles in India are always standing on two feet. One is economic exploitation and the other is social oppression. Though we recognised this reality many decades ago, our emphasis and activity was preoccupied more with economic issues and economic exploitation. On social oppression, we were not as active as on economic issues. Therefore, what was the outcome? People had confidence on the economic struggles of the red flag. The same confidence was not there in the struggle of Dalits for equality, the struggle of women for gender equality, and those of Tribals or religious minorities. Instead of walking on two feet, we were limping on one foot. For instance, in all of Northern India or the Gangetic belt, electoral preferences go by your social connections, but on economic issues, you prefer the red flag. That disconnect explains why in electoral terms we are not advancing, but in terms of mass struggles, we are growing. We need to correct that imbalance.
Does the CPM have a future in 21st century India?
I completely agree with you. Everything has changed. There is a quantum leap of technology. Today it’s no longer necessary for an Indian person to be literate. You need not read or write, but you can be fully conscious of what’s happening in the world around you through various communication media. Your knowledge is no longer dependent on literacy. Because of that, the aspirations of people are also growing by leaps and bounds. But the reality is that these aspirations are not being [achieved]. The living conditions of people are becoming worse. That is the dichotomy.
Do you think that the youth can be inspired with redundant anti-imperialist slogans?
The idealism of the youth is also dependent on the conditions in which they exist. Those conditions are now developing in a rapid way. Today, there are different facets of youth. There is the youth which is radicalised, or the youth whose aspirations have increased manifold, or the youth exposed to a lot of things that were not there even ten years earlier. The bottomline is that segments of youth are realising that they don’t have opportunities for themselves to develop and grow and use these advantages they have. Employment is declining, the international economy is in a recession, and therefore foreign placements are declining. So where does the youth go now? We alone in India have an alternative policy trajectory by which this youth energy can be properly utilised for nation building and their own development. That situation will take shape very soon. Give the youth proper health, proper education and job opportunities. They will build a better India.
To create job opportunities, you need more investment, both domestic and foreign…
The amount of tax concessions given to corporates, both international and national, has been more than Rs 500,000 crore annually for the last five years. It has been more than the country’s fiscal deficit. Now all we are saying is, don’t increase tax rates, don’t burden the people more because of taxes. You collect what is legitimately due, instead of giving these concessions. The money that you get is more than sufficient for you to unleash a massive programme of infrastructure building. Build your economic and social infrastructure. That will generate jobs by the million. We are the only one suggesting this alternative.
Your fellow comrades in China are more liberal when it comes to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Are you ready to reconsider your party position on that?
We are very clear on FDI policy. All FDI must have three things. It should expand India’s productive capacity. It should result in more employment, not unemployment like FDI in retail would do. And the FDI should result in the technical upgradation of India. Meet three conditions, and we welcome FDI. People say that China allowed 100 per cent FDI in its telecom sector. The fact is China allowed 100 per cent FDI in telecom hardware production. As a result, whatever telecom products you use are mostly made in China. India has opened up all telecom services to FDI. So every single service provider of the world is ruling the Indian telecom scene while BSNL and MTNL are struggling. In China, only public sector companies provide all these services. Private companies produce all the hardware. Why can’t India use its mind judiciously? That’s what our stand is. A case-by-case study of what is good for India.
Do you think it was a bad decision to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh Government over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal?
The Left parties were forced to withdraw support. The Common Minimum Programme was the precondition for supporting the UPA. The Nuclear Deal was never part of the CMP. If there was anybody who violated the CMP, it was the Congress. Because of that violation, you undermine the very basis of our support. Whether it’s a mistake or not is not for us to answer. After seven years of the deal, not a single extra unit of nuclear power has been generated, not a single extra installation of a nuclear reactor has taken place in the country. Who made a mistake? The question needs to be posed to the Congress.
You like the idea of dictating power without being in power, as you did with Manmohan Singh for a while until he called your bluff…
It’s not that we like or dislike. The point is that we would normally enter a government whose policy direction we could influence. That means our strength should be such that we are in a position to influence the policy direction. Whenever we are not in a position to do that, we won’t be able to fulfill the promises that we made to people at the time of elections. We would be forced to do a lot of other things because of coalition compulsions that normally we would have opposed. So both ways, we are betraying the people. It is not what is fashionably portrayed as ‘power without responsibility’. It’s the other way around. It is responsibility without power.
You were trying till the last Lok Sabha polls to forge a non-Congress, non-BJP third front. The party seems to have distanced itself from the idea now.
What we are saying now is that it is not these alliances that will determine our future. When elections come, how we ally with a party is a different matter. But if the Left has to regain its position in Indian politics, if the Left has to become more relevant in terms of setting the agenda for people, then its own strength has to increase. Our experience is that it is only on the basis of the Left’s independent strength that we could form governments in Kerala first and then in West Bengal. It is only on the basis of our strength that we continue to be in government in Tripura. So our parliamentary performance is directly linked with our independent strength. Without strengthening ourselves and merely talking of alliances won’t help. We have to reverse this erosion in our independent base. In every election, we will see which is the best result we should work for. There is no need of any front or alliance, but there will be electoral adjustments. We did that in Delhi and you saw the result.
Which is your biggest enemy—the BJP or Congress?
No distinction is possible now. The current Modi Government has merged the agenda of economic reforms that the Congress had begun with a very poisonous programme of communal polarisation. This government is patronising the communal attacks that are taking place in the country by the RSS and its outfits. This combination is functioning together. It’s no longer possible to separate the fight against economic policies and the fight against communalism. They have melded it into one struggle. So it’s no longer possible to say which is the greater enemy and which is lesser. There is one enemy, which is a combination of both these.
You mean BJP?
Yes, that is it. But also there is no question of going with the Congress, as it is their policies that have created the ground for the BJP to come to power. That is the reality today.
A large part of your party cadre is moving towards the Trinamool Congress and BJP in West Bengal.
For a large number of our party members, it’s a question of life and death. What is happening in Bengal is a politics of terror. We have lost nearly 500 of our comrades’ lives since the 2009 election. Through this politics of terror and violence, the attempt is to [sever] the organisational link of the CPM with the people of Bengal. You are eliminating one level of the cadre. That has created a situation where common people, who are protected by the CPM from such politics of violence, are suddenly finding themselves helpless. We are fighting and we will fight. It is only the strength of our fight that will make us come back. In the meanwhile, people are asking, ‘Who will protect us?’ They see the BJP with the Central Government. They are thinking that, ‘The Government will protect us.’ So you will find a sudden movement towards the BJP. But there, they are also disillusioned. You will find [a reverse] movement that is now happening. I am sure during the Kolkata Municipal elections or subsequently, that will also happen.
The Kerala unit of the party was divided and the group that controls the party in the state is not very supportive of you.
That is not correct. The media creates all this. Ultimately, the decisions were all unanimous. On record, officially, there is no division. Yes, there are differences in opinion. They will be there and should be there. That is the vibrancy of our inner- party democracy.
What is your biggest challenge as general secretary?
Arresting the current decline in our influence and reviving the Left is the biggest task before us.