Edited Excerpts from an Interview
In Kerala and West Bengal, opinion polls show that the Left parties stand to lose badly in the General Election. Even if you disagree with that, what has been the Left’s failure in the past decade?
Opinion polls have always underestimated the Left’s performance in the past. It is so too now. In Kerala, the Left will substantially improve its position compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. In West Bengal, if the people are allowed to vote freely and the Trinamool Congress’ efforts to suppress the Opposition are thwarted, the Left will do well there too. The major weakness of the Left in the past three decades has been the inability to grow substantially in states outside West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.
This seems to be another election where alliances will determine the formation of the next government. Where does the Left stand on alliance-based politics?
It is obvious that any government that will be formed will be a coalition. The Left has always stood for a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative. But that needs to be based on a platform of alternative policies. Since such a programme-based alternative does not exist, the Left is cooperating with some of the non-Congress secular forces. After the election, our effort will be to get these parties to come together if the situation warrants it.
Is it a possibility that the Left will support the Congress in a bid to keep communal forces at bay?
It is evident that the Congress will lose this election badly. In such a situation, it will have to decide whether it will play a role in supporting an alternative combination to keep the BJP and communal forces out.
Many Left intellectuals have become disappointed with the CPM. In fact, a well-known Left-leaning journalist recently wrote that this election could be the last gasp of the Left. Do you agree with such an assessment?
In West Bengal, which is the strongest base of the CPM and the Left, we have faced the severest attacks. Many of these so-called Left intellectuals have not raised even a whisper of protest. Since the 2011 Assembly election, we have lost 170 of our party members and activists to the violence unleashed by the Trinamool Congress. We don’t hear any of these intellectuals condemning it. But they jumped on to the bandwagon when some people died due to police firing in Nandigram. The CBI established that it was a crossfire in which only eight people died. The rest died due to other causes. Then they started a whole movement to topple the Left Front government.
The question is, if you are with the Left and you are finding that the strongest base of the Left is under such physical attack, why are you not speaking out? Instead of that, they will say, “Oh, the CPM has failed.” But we have faced such attacks in the past too. In the 1970s, when a lot of Left intellectuals were praising Indira Gandhi and the great garibi hatao campaign, we were being killed in West Bengal, but we fought it out. We are not concerned about that. What we are concerned about is the truth that the Left has not grown substantially outside Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. That is a source of disappointment for some Left supporters. I can understand that disappointment. As for others, I think their attitude reflects a loss of their own convictions rather than the CPM straying away from its basic political path.
But the criticism is legitimate. The CPM’s inability to understand caste, the energy of Dalit movements…
These are old hats. In fact, wherever the Left movement is strong, the CPM is strong among the socially most oppressed sections. In Kerala, we have maximum support among Dalits. We have the strongest base among agricultural workers. The Dalits are mostly agricultural workers. Even though some of our support base among SCs/STs eroded in recent times, that base is intact.
Is a grand union of all Left forces impossible, after all? Are minor disagreements proving to be a thorn in the relationship between Left parties?
The Left parties are working in a more united fashion in this election. We have a common political line of fighting the Congress and the BJP. There are no disagreements that are of any consequence. The aim for a broader Left unity is not a mirage. From the trade unions to other organisations of the working people, there is greater unity.
There has been criticism that the Left has ceded space to the Aam Aadmi Party. It appears that AAP has stuck a chord with the masses more than the Left. Due you agree with this assessment?
This is a Delhi-centric viewpoint. It is true that AAP has mustered popular support in Delhi. But the Left has always been a weak force there. Taking the country as a whole, AAP will have a limited impact in this election. It cannot be a substitute for the Left. Where the Left is strong, AAP will have no impact. Even a year after its formation, AAP shies away from spelling out its ideological and policy positions clearly. At present, it means everything to everyone.
But do you concede that AAP has changed the rules of the game for the two main national parties?
I don’t think so. But I will give it this much. It has put the BJP and the Congress in their place in Delhi. That’s a significant step. I’m afraid AAP is not coming up with policies that can be seen as an alternative. If the party does so, it’s fine. But until then…
In its latest manifesto, the CPM has supported the LGBT movement. However, the Left hasn’t been at the forefront of struggles like these and the women’s rights movement? Is your definition of working class limiting?
Yes, we have asked for decriminalising same-sex adult consensual relations. The Left has been at the forefront in supporting the women’s movement and the struggles for women’s rights. I fail to understand how you say that it has not done so. Women workers in the unorganised sector and home-based women workers are being brought in a big way into the organised sector. The Left’s understanding of the working class is much more comprehensive.
In Mangalore, you took up the Sowjanya rape case (a minor girl was allegedly raped and murdered by men close to a powerful godman). You visited Mangalore thrice last year. Why have you not been able to deal with such local politics in other parts of the country?
That’s been happening elsewhere too. In Mangalore, a tribal party cadre was arrested on charges of being a Maoist. A book by Kuldeep Nair that he had on him was shown as seditious literature. Then the Sowjanya case. We also took up the regressive practice of Made Snaana, in which lower-caste people roll on the leftovers after upper-caste people are done with their lunch. In Tamil Nadu, we organised a sustained anti-untouchability campaign. Because of our campaign, walls that were built to segregate castes have been literally brought down… starting from Uthapuram, a place I personally visited. We have consistently taken up women’s issues.
Engagement with the capitalist system is a reality. Even the CPM has to make peace with it.
What the CPM is engaged in is fighting against neoliberal policies. This is the worst feature of capitalism in India. There is no question of making peace with the neoliberal regime. We are actively struggling to mobilise people around alternative policies.
How can a system regulate the private sector and still generate more jobs? With the current demographic dividend pointing to a massive population of youth — who will be facing an employment crisis in the coming years — what does the Left make of the economy?
It is a myth that only the private sector can create jobs. We have witnessed jobless growth due to neoliberal policies. There has been less than 1 percent growth in employment annually between 2005 and 2010. Unless we have increased public investment in agriculture, infrastructure and promote industries that produce mass consumer goods, we are not going to be able to generate more employment, especially for the millions of young men and women who join the job market.
As far as the UPA’s welfare measures are concerned, there was an effort to modernise delivery mechanisms. What do you think of the UID scheme?
These were steps taken to restrict and cut down on subsidies, which were being provided to the ordinary people… steps on how to curb or contain subsidies on food, fuel and fertiliser. The Aadhar scheme is designed for that. Secondly, they want to introduce a cash transfer scheme instead of providing food under the PDS. If you want UID, that’s fine. But you cannot make it mandatory for the delivery of services.
We believe what they have done with UID is illegal. Parliament has not approved the law or legislation for the UID scheme and the Supreme Court has backed that by saying that you do not have the basis to proceed with it. The SC has instructed the government to stop linking Aadhar with the delivery of services, including the delivery of gas cylinders. The purpose is to curtail subsidised services to the poor.
This at a time when corporates were being given sops and loan waivers… The argument is that such sops encourage investment and these measures will ensure that the economy doesn’t slip back to pre-liberalisation days…
That’s been going on for a while. They keep giving concessions to corporates. In the last Budget, they cut excise duty on high-end vehicles such as SUVs, making them cheaper by Rs 40,000-4 lakh. The whole point is, after pursuing neoliberal policies, what is required is an alternative. We say the government should go for massive public investment in infrastructure and agriculture. Promote greater demand by greater investment. That will itself create a momentum for more jobs. Going their way, they are figuring out how to give more concessions to capital flows to India and to big businesses. That’s not going to solve any problems.
Strengthen infrastructure by increased public spending like some of the social democracies in western Europe?
That’s one aspect, in terms of delivery of services. But if you look at the Chinese model — not that all of it should be replicated in India — they overcame the 2008 financial crisis by massive fiscal stimulus and increased domestic investment, which pumped up demand in the economy. It created jobs and built a momentum for domestic growth. However, here you are looking at what will please the rating agencies — which will allow FIIs. This does not allow growth in the economy.
But our public-sector undertakings are hardly the best examples. What do you think about the impact of our economic policy on PSUs?
This government was not really committed to upgrading or improving the public sector. What it really wanted to do was privatise the public sector. It wanted to see the public sector restricted from most sectors of the economy. They would not do so openly. It was more of a creeping form of privatisation — disinvestment of public-sector shares. In the five years of UPA-2, they have sold 90,000 public-sector shares. If you see the pattern, the maximum shares sold are from sectors that are most profitable — blue-chip, maharatna or navaratna companies. Secondly, in UPA-1, (Finance Minister) P Chidambaram said they will set up a separate fund that will be ploughed back into the public sector. That has not happened. It is basically to meet Chidambaram’s deficit that they are doing this. They could not achieve the target this time because of some difficulties. But basically the purpose was to reach the fiscal deficit. They say we cannot develop infrastructure without the private sector. We can’t generate power without the private sector. What it really shows is our power generation is not really increased from private sector participation. What was required was reforms in the public sector. Take the Delhi Metro for example. It was executed by a public-sector enterprise. However, they don’t want to encourage such good public-sector enterprise.
What do you make of India’s foreign policy? While we stand with the US on many issues, there are areas where India has taken a stand that the US does not approve. What do you make of this pragamatism?
The UPA’s foreign policy has seen a tilt towards the US. That happened because our prime minister entered into a strategic alliance with the US as early as July 2005 when he visited Washington. Since then, policy shifts have unfolded, which have led India to accommodate the US’ geopolitical strategy. Even under UPA-1, we saw how we committed to oppose Iran at the IAEA and scuttled the Iran-Pakistan- India pipeline, which was in our interest, but the US thought otherwise. During the Indo-US nuclear deal negotiations, we came to be bound by an Act passed by the US (Hyde Act), which said that we should help the US isolate Iran. Under UPA-2, we drastically cut oil purchases from Iran against our own interests.
India has not been able to realise its full potential as a major developing country. We are a part of BRICs and IBSA but we don’t take any initiative to strengthen cooperation between major developing countries. We always look back to see if the US approves of our actions. That is why, even on an issue like Syria, where a war has been going on for three years, India could not take a clear-cut position — recognise that there is interference within the internal affairs of Syria and that efforts are being made to destabilise the government. Only when America was on the brink of military intervention that most of the countries like India took a stand against military intervention, because of the stand taken by Vladimir Putin at G-20. Basically, India has made a major departure from an independent foreign policy.
There were also reports that the US was keeping Indian authorities under surveillance…
When the Edward Snowden files revealed that India was No. 5 on the US’ priority list in terms of surveillance on emails and telephone calls, our foreign minister kept saying it was normal. The files show that the Indian embassy in Washington was under surveillance. Even then, they dismissed it. Other countries like Germany, France and Brazil stood up against this. The Brazilian president called off a visit to the US in protest against the practice.
What do you make of India’s stand on Crimea breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia and the West’s position on the same?
Look at it in totality: Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. It became independent. The US and western countries tried to make sure that all the countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union come over to the western orbit and join NATO. In 2004, the orange revolution in Ukraine helped put a pro-western government in power. In 2011, unfortunately for them, another government came to power. President Viktor Yanukovich was not amenable to that. He did not agree to sign the EU treaty and instead entered into an understanding with Russia. That’s when the so-called movement for democracy erupted and about a hundred people died in the violence and the government was toppled. So, the first point is an illegitimate overthrow of a government. As a consequence, the parliament of Crimea, which has a predominantly Russian-speaking population, has said we don’t want to be part of Ukraine, which has been accepted by Russian authorities. Russia has stood up against interference in its neighbouring countries.
As far as China is concerned, a lot of questions are being asked about India’s policy. What do you think is lacking?
Despite various provocations — much of it in the media, there’s a hue and cry that there’s an incursion across the border — both countries are quite clear that there are no problems at the border. They are committed to improving relationships, and they have a mechanism to improve border relationships through talks. I think it is in our interest that we pursue this path and see that there’s greater cooperation and trade with China.
The Left is always hounded. There’s always some major offensive. Does it take a toll on you… answering questions and being on the defensive all the time?
No. In fact, we thrive on that (laughs). If I find any of the major newspapers in India not attacking my party or criticising it in editorials, I start wondering if I’m doing something wrong. That’s how we have been brought up.
What do you make of today’s media?
It is the media that reflects the capitalist development in our country. There was a time when some of the major media houses used to come to us and say, “Please fight against FDI.” The moment the NDA government allowed 26 percent, they jumped on board and signed agreements. Today, you have this interlocking of big capital, media and foreign big media (coming through television networks). We have made a very moderate demand, asking for no cross-ownership in the media. We are being attacked strongly by media houses for this.
Earlier, Rupert Murdoch could not own a TV channel or a newspaper in his own country of Australia. Of course, a right-wing government changed that rule. But we believed it was a good principle. No cross-ownership. We think the time has come for some independent regulation of media. Independent does not mean government regulation. I think self-regulation has failed. It’s a big debate that is going on in the UK after the Leveson inquiry. Forget the CPM or Marxist point of view, I think liberals should be raising these points.
What about the fight against Hindutva and the rise of Narendra Modi?
Hindutva is diffused. This election, we have Hindutva organisations making a serious bid — using Modi’s prime ministership as a vehicle and the BJP — to bring back the whole Hindutva agenda. The media has completely missed the point. Modi in Varanasi means nothing else. The VHP had a campaign during Ram Janmabhoomi movement: “Ab ki baari Ayodhya, uske baad Kashi aur Mathura (Now it’s the turn of Ayodhya. After that, Kashi and Mathura)”. Now they have taken up Kashi. His (Modi’s) rallies have begun with Har Har Modi chants in a city where serious communal violence took place during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It was after polarising Varanasi that the BJP has been winning that seat in all the elections except 2004. The Gujarat development model is all an eyewash. The real agenda is Hindutva.
Will the Left thrive and reinvent itself?
India is among the few countries where the communists have a mass base and the Left has a wider influence than its organised strength. I think that will develop further. I’m suspicious of the term reinvention because the term has been used to obliterate the Left in many countries. In Italy, the Left party has reinvented itself so many times, today it is indistinguishable from a non-Left party.
So, the Left will evolve?
We will change.