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Special: Sitaram Yechury on polls, Third Front and economy

March 09, 2009 13:39 IST

Bank nationalisation happened because of the Left, CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury tells Saubhadro Chatterji in an interview.

What are the issues that will dominate the Lok Sabha elections?

India's economic condition. Even otherwise, it would have been a big issue. But the global recession has intensified beyond expectation and in India this has become a bread-and-butter issue.

Kerala and West Bengal governments have come out with their own stimulus packages while presenting state budgets. What is the Left message through these moves?

Our basic message is: The only way to fight recession is by forcing the state to invest in infrastructure in a big way. There should be a big leap in investments by the state. Some measures have been taken but these are inadequate. The UPA government's measures amount to around Rs 40,000 crore, which is less than 1 per cent of the nation's GDP. It is peanuts. In Kerala and Bengal, what we have earmarked as stimulus expenditure turns out to be more than 5 per cent of these states' respective GDPs. So, we have increased it five times -- this will be our message. Bail-out packages for corporate houses may be important to some extent but you need a judicious mix of fiscal and monetary policy. The emphasis should be on public spending, creating jobs, increasing the people's purchasing power, and thereby increasing domestic demand.

Government managers say that while many developed countries will record a decline in output, India retains a seven per cent growth rate.

Well, I think this seven per cent rate will also decline. Even if the country manages 5.5 per cent growth, that will be fine. But how have we been able to do this? For this, the devil must be given its due. The Left prevented at least four initiatives which, we think, were very important in protecting our country from complete devastation. One, we blocked the capital convertibility of the rupee that they wanted. Second, permission to foreign banks to raise their equity in Indian private banks and to have directors in proportion to that equity. If that had happened, with the foreign banks collapsing, many of our Indians banks would have gone down the same road. Third, preventing privatisation of pension funds. And lastly, ensuring that FDI caps in insurance were not raised. These steps provided strength to the economy.

They (the Congress) claim that the credit for nationalising banks should go to Indira Gandhi. But remember, bank and coal mine nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses happened in 1969. All these measures were the Left parties' condition to support (Indira) Gandhi and her presidential candidate, VV Giri, against Sanjeeva Reddy. When the Indicate-Syndicate battle was going on in the Congress and she was in a minority, she required the support of the Left to remain in government. That's when these things happened. So if bank nationalisation happened, it happened because of the Left.

You have been the main interface between the Congress and the Left in the past five years. What has been your experience of handling the Congress? And if, after the elections, there is again a need for a coalition, what precautions you will take?

As far as the second part of your question is concerned, the election schedule has been announced and we have entered the political battlefield. My objective is to win the battle to achieve a non-Congress, non-communal alternative. So, let's not get into what will happen after the battle.

About the other part, yes, we worked with the Congress on the basis of a common minimum programme (CMP). But all through this period, there was an undercurrent of a neo-liberal agenda which the Congress wanted to pursue. When we put our foot down on some issues, they tried to have them done through the back door — FDI in retail, for instance. Once you allow FDI (in retail), millions of people will lose their jobs. And we said that no FDI can come to India that will reduce jobs. But the government tried to bring it via the back door. First, they said, it was for wholesale, then for single-brand products, then for sports products. In this way they smuggled in FDI.

Two years ago, you were trying to set up a third alternative on an ideological platform. Then, before the elections, you tried for an electoral arrangement to cobble together some kind of a third force. But even that didn't happen beyond a few states in the South. So, the third alternative effort falls flat on its face again.

On the face of it, you may be right. But remember, in India, after every decade, you have a third alternative government. And all these alternatives have been forged after elections, including the UPA. This means the urge to look for an alternative government has not vanished in our polity.

Recently, you lost an Assembly by-election in West Bengal by over 30,000 votes. Do you think the upcoming Lok Sabha elections will be a referendum on the performance of your state government, especially on the land issue, in West Bengal?

The general elections will not be a referendum on the state government. People have developed this maturity. Due to Nandigram and Singur, our outlook towards land and development figures is on the radar of the people. I think people of West Bengal are fast realising that the advantages of land reforms are eroding and without industrialisation there is no future.

As far as the Bishnupur seat is concerned, it has always been with the opposition. Last time was the first time when the Left won it, that too by a slender margin. You should not view Bishnupur as a signal for the future. Remember, one barometer of what Kolkata thinks is the students' union election in Presidency College. For the first time, after many years, the Student's Federation of India (the CPI(M)'s student wing) has won.

How will you overcome the problems of infighting in Kerala?

Yes, there are some differences we are trying to resolve. But please remember one thing, whatever may be the differences within the party, when there is a political challenge, the party gets united. Factionalism will not have an impact on the results of Kerala. Differences in the party in Kerala are not entirely unhealthy. Having differences is a sign of life. It is very clear that this is not a high command party. People can express their views here.

Somnath Chatterjee has announced his retirement from politics. Do you see any chance of his returning to the party?

It depends entirely on him. All that I can say is, I wish this situation, where he had to leave the party, had not arisen.

He says, till July 20, the only instruction he got from the party was that it was up to him to quit the Speaker's post.

Well, interlocutors will be able to answer this better. But the party had decided that it would be untenable for him to continue after the party withdrew support to the government. The party expected him to follow this decision.

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