Sitaram Yechury talks about need for a stronger Left

shubhendu

Shubhendu Parth | May 18, 2015


#sitaram yechury   #cpm   #communist party   #sitaram yechury interview   #need for a stronger left   #yechury cpm general secretary  


The strikingly red CPM flag with the sickle and hammer pasted on the board behind Yechury is peeling off despite the adhesive-tape pasted around it, very symptomatic of the party’s situation in the country. As the new party chief, he faces an uphill task of galvanising the party and strengthening its capacity to influence Indian politics. In an interview with Shubhendhu Parth, Yechury talks about his new responsibility, challenges, and the future of party.

How do you see your new role in the party, an opportunity or a challenge?

It is a very big responsibility. [Currently] the party has the lowest representation in parliament. We have the lowest representation in state assemblies. At least five states where we had a good position around 10 years ago, we are not there anymore now. In terms of our mass organisation and party membership there has not been as much increase as we had hoped for. So the situation is very challenging, even internally, for the party. There is an external challenge too in terms of what Mr Modi is trying to do and the dual agenda that he is pursuing.

On one level it is an illusion of development for the people. In reality, the economic policies that he is following are only an aggressive version of what Dr Manmohan Singh followed. So instead of achchhe din, as far as people are concerned, it’s going to be more economic burden on them.

The real agenda is that of the RSS where they are pursuing the hardcore hindutva agenda – ghar wapsi, love jihad, changing of syllabus. We all know what happened at the Indian Science Congress this year in Mumbai. A very systematic effort is being made to replace mythology as history, and theology as philosophy… that is essentially to undermine the secular democratic foundation of the Indian republic. So these are very big challenges before the country that we have to deal with and then we have challenges within our party.


Can you please elaborate on these internal challenges?


The internal challenges are to increase our influence in Indian politics and to strengthen ourselves. We are facing a declining trend and the biggest challenge for us today is how to reverse this trend. We have also come to the conclusion, at the recently held Visakhapatnam Congress, that unless we strengthen ourselves all the other objectives cannot be fulfilled, including electoral alliances. Seat adjustments with others depend entirely on our internal strength. So the basic challenge that we are facing today is to develop the party and its independence, and a stronger unity of the Left forces. By Left forces, I do not just mean the Left parties, but also a large catchment of Left intellectuals and Left well-wishers who are not in any organised political party. The challenge is to bring them all together against the neoliberal economic policies of the communal forces. We also need to strengthen the Left democratic forces.


And how does the party plan to deal with these challenges?


To achieve this, we require revamping [of] our party. The organisation has to be stronger as it is our only weapon, and that is our vehicle to reach the people. A strong Left has always been the fulcrum of growth in the country and today, more than ever, there is a definite need for an effective Left intervention in the agenda that is unfolding under the Modi government.


You mean that the communist parties in India have weakened over the years?

No, that is not the case. But in order to meet the challenges we require a stronger party structure. It has been decided, at the Party Congress, that we will have a special plenum before the year-end to correct and strengthen the organisation which is the bulwark for our advance. The objective is to work out a strategy to revamp the party that can embark on this task of strengthening itself and meeting the challenges before the country. So that is the big agenda.


And what will be your approach?

We need to galvanise the party as a whole and enable it to meet the current challenges, which are quite formidable.


You have been talking about strengthening the party, but there is a definite decline in the willingness of people to join CPM. Why is the pull factor missing?

No, I don’t think it is missing. But I agree that it has to be stronger. A large section of the youth are still joining us; those who believe in us and want a radical change in the country. Increasingly the situation is leading up to a point whereby the youth in our country have started to understand that they require an alternative set of policies to realise their potential of contributing to nation building. And there is nobody with a clearer understanding of these alternative policies than us in this country. That is our USP for youth. And that is working and will continue to work. But the point is to effectively take it to them so that we are able to strengthen our organisation. The BJP membership drive that we have been hearing about is all but digital era gimmick. Even my party members have got messages from BJP stating that their membership request has been accepted and asking them to call a toll-free number. When they called that number, it got disconnected after one or two rings and they got another message saying “congratulations, your membership is confirmed.” Is this what an active membership is all about?


So are you planning to launch a mass contact programme to reach out to the people with your alternative policies? 

Yes, both our youth and student organisations have a large number of programmes on the basis of the issues confronting them. The issue of privatisation of education is a very big concern. Today, nearly two-thirds of the youth have no option but to go to the private institutions to pursue higher studies where the entire democratic structure of students union, student protest are completely missing. So the youth is becoming insulated and very careerist without any actual knowledge of the society that they are living in. Besides, their own ambitions are also not getting fulfilled.


That is the situation everybody talks about, but how do you plan to address it?

Those are the exact things that we will shortly discuss at special plenum and chalk out the exact plans. But definitely there are ideas for programmes and organised initiatives on various issues to build up a popular people’s movement soon. This will include the students, the youth (the young workers), the urban and rural workers and we will address all their issues.


But in this new-age digital economy, the lever of driving change by mobilising the workers – the trade unions – has almost become non-existent. This was kind of synonym of the Left. Does the party revamp include shedding the ‘Left’ tag?

There is nothing like a tag. Whatever the changed circumstances and situations may be, the basic fact remains that if you want liberation from this sort of bondage and exploitation, there is no other option but the Left. So ‘Left’ is not a brand or a tag that you have for the time being. It is not an item to be sold that has a limited shelf life. It is a vision for the future, an ideology that promises liberation from exploitation. It has a shelf life as long as there is growth of exploitation. Today you have two Indias in the making. Who will talk about the economic inequality but the Left? The new-age economy has not changed the fact that the farmers are committing suicide. Who is asking these questions today, leave alone giving the solutions, like we do? Who but the Left is today talking about the actual potential of the country and why are we not able to achieve that? There are 58 billionaires in India whose net assets are almost half the GDP of the country. And then there are 120 crore Indians who are just surviving on something or the other. Is there a shortage of resources in the country? No. The government is giving more than '5 lakh crore tax concessions to the rich. That is people’s money and no government has the business to pass it on to the rich.


In that case the Left should have been in a better situation. But the story is different. How did you miss the opportunity?

I told you the reasons. It is the organisation’s weakness. The question of projecting ourselves and the method of functioning need to be changed. The situation has also changed with over two-third students now going to private institutes and colleges. The route to access them has changed. Only 7 percent of workers are organised workforce. The rest are contract labourers or casual workers with almost no rights. Even the journalists are on contract and it has been over 10 years since any journalist came to me asking for a wage board. To organise the unorganised is an entirely different ballgame. These are areas in which we need to work and we have already started the process. We need to understand that today, majority of Indians are tied up in a day-to-day struggle to make both ends meet. And they want this situation to continue so that there is no other contribution one can make. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.


Globally, China has moved away from the fundamental tenets of communism. With the changing scenario as mentioned by you, will the party revamp also lead to an Indian communism matching to our country needs?

That has always been our USP. The CPI was talking about the Soviet style of communism, while the Naxalites talked about the Chinese style. When we broke away to form the CPM it was clear that in our country it will only be the Indian style. This is how we were born. Also, we need to understand that communism does not exist only in India and China – 11 out of 14 Latin American countries have Left governments. There is a Left government in Greece. You have the Left and the social democratic forces rising in Europe as well as the Right. Each of the governments is focusing on its respective needs and addressing its own set of challenges. The issue is how effectively you are positioned in your country using the domestic situation to advance. That is where we have to strengthen ourselves, and hence the decision to have a plenum.


Does the ‘strengthening exercise’ also include alliances, particularly since you recently said that the Third Front was a mistake?

No, I never said it was a mistake. What I said was that alliances and fronts are not a priority now. No alliance or front can succeed without us becoming stronger. Our first priority is to strengthen ourselves and the movements led by us and on that basis, at the time of elections, we will decide what works well for us – alliances or no alliances. Merely forming fronts does not mean any electoral benefits. It has to be based on the various initiatives and the issues taken up by us.


So the Janata Parivar is not part of the CPM agenda?

Remember that historically in India there were two political streams – socialists and communists. The communists got divided because of the ideological issues, but the socialists got divided due to purely opportunist decisions of who would share power when [and] with whom. The fact that the socialists are coming together is a good sign. However, it is too early to understand what will be their alternative vision and programme. We will need to wait and see.


With three states – Bihar, West Bengal and Punjab – slated for elections soon, how is the CPM gearing up to gain ground?

We will not have state-wide but a state-wise agenda. Each of the three states has its own set of problems. The capacity of the party to intervene in the specificities of each state and to build up the unity of the working people is the objective. And that cannot be done unless we address the main issues of the state.


Bihar elections are just around the corner. What about your numbers?

Let us see how we shape up. Remember that the Left used to be in a very dominant position in the state. That dominance of electorates was based on the Left’s internal strength. That got weakened and therefore we are not as strong in the state as earlier. With the elections close on the heels a lot of churning is happening. Nothing is clear yet. So let us wait.


What went wrong in West Bengal for CPM and what has been the learning in terms of the state elections due in early 2016?


Various things. For 35 years, we won seven elections, which is unprecedented in Indian democracy. In fact, three-fourths of the electorate in the state was born after Jyoti Basu became the chief minister. The natural question to them was what kind of democracy was this with the same party, same government and almost same people at the helm. So the urge for a change was very strong. Secondly, in 35 years of government formation a lot of riffraff also got associated with us. They did not join CPM because of its ideology but because we were in power. By the time we could realise and take action to rectify the damage was already done. Thirdly, in terms of tactical mistake like Singur. It was not the first land acquisition case in Bengal. Land was acquired earlier and it has been acquired later. Why did Singur flare up the way it did? Since we had got two-third majority in the 2006 election on an economic and industrial growth plank we assumed people wanted industrialisation and went ahead without doing proper homework. This lack of understanding of people’s mood created some resentment which was effectively utilised by the opposition.


You said people had the urge for change. Do you think there will be an urge for change this time in favour of CPM?

The urge for a change for better is already there. Objectively it is now in favour of us. However, it depends on us how effectively we capitalise it.


How are you gearing up in Punjab?


The communist had a big role to play in Punjab. In fact the Left was the strongest in Punjab and Bengal. However, during the fight against extremism in the state more than 200 comrades were killed by the fundamentalist forces. They were our strongest links with the people and their loss has affected us badly in the state. In the current situation of the liberalisation, a new mindset was created. People were flush with money; the ill effects of which can now be seen and one of the biggest impacts is the widespread drug abuse in the state. In such a situation the possibility of the Left gaining ground in Punjab is increasing. However, the patchwork at the time of elections will not work. We will have to build up and sustain struggles of the people now. Remember that the trade union movement, the farmers and peasants’ movement were very strong in Punjab. The earlier years’ kisan sabha still has a very good appeal among the people and the party now needs to translate that appeal into an organisation. But we have to work urgently.


Is there a lesson to learn from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)?

Yes, there are lessons to be learnt – both negative and positive. They are doing exactly what we have always believed in and have been doing: to take up local issues troubling the people, organising them and leading their movement. It was not the election-based alliance or political patchwork that got them the mandate, but people’s intervention that worked in their favour. This is something that we keep talking about but they did it more effectively. However, that itself is not enough to sustain unless you have a long-term vision. We need to know where they are in terms of economic policies, in dealing with the communal forces. This is something that they are yet to spell out. The AAP reality show that has been unfolding on the TV is a reflection of this contradiction with one faction of the party talking in a different language than the other. So unless they have a clear vision of the road ahead they cannot sustain the popular movement that brought them to power. We have seen a similar government born out of a movement in Assam losing steam. Where is Assam Gana Parishad today? Spontaneity is good but you cannot sustain yourself on the basis of just a movement. AAP can change the course of politics temporarily but they have to sustain it.

How would you rate the first year of the Modi government?

I will define this one-year time as the period when Modi’s illusions are being ruptured. He had said that ‘achchhe din aane wale hai’ but now people are singing the old Kishore Kumar song: ‘koi lauta de mere beete hue din’.


Do you mean the UPA II was better than Modi?

No. UPA II was bad and that is why we now have Narenda Modi as the prime minister. But the government is now doing the exact opposite of what he had promised.

parth@governancenow.com

(The interview appears in the May 16-31, 2015 issue)

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