'Electoral defeats don't affect us. We fight back'
Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, is busy as ever.
Holding meetings with trade organisations, planning strategy to sharpen the party's attack against the government in the Rajya Sabha, speaking to students about the history of the 'ultra-Left' (Maoists) versus the organised democratic Left (CPI-M) and travelling often to Kerala and West Bengal, two of the three states where his party is in power -- Karat is desperately trying to ensure that his party survives with dignity in what looks like a losing battle in the Bengal and Kerala assembly elections in 2011.
Karat agrees that in Bengal, the CPI-M and its allies confront three decades of anti-incumbency. The Left government led by the CPI-M's Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, is trapped in a political swirl. The popular Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress seems unstoppable, so far.
Historically, Kerala's voters have a habit of sending home the incumbent government, so the Leftists know how to sit in the Opposition and keep the rulers on their toes.
In Kerala, even while losing power, the base of Left voters doesn't shrink dramatically. But in West Bengal an undercurrent is building up against the CPI-M.
Karat and other members of the CPI-M Politburo know that if they do not put in their best efforts the rout in West Bengal will be as historic as their rule of more than three decades. It will be a no holds bar political fight to a finish. The CPI-M won't easily give in to the maverick Mamata, now India's railway minister.
Last weekend, when Karat met rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, the CPI-M general secretary was quite relaxed while discussing the defeat in the Lok Sabha election.
Smiling, he inquired curiously, "What's wrong with the BJP? They are out of power for just ten years and there are question marks about the future of the party. It doesn't work like that in our party. Electoral defeats don't affect us. We fight back, we organise our cadre and rectify."
Image: CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat during an election rally
Photographs: Jayanta Dey/Reuters
'Congress has the advantage, but it's a temporary phenomenon'
We are not facing any intra-party problems.
Isn't the Opposition becoming too weak and giving the Congress a free run?
Obviously, after the election the Congress is the dominant party. And the United Progressive Alliance government is run mainly on the Congress's direction. That's a fact. But it will be wrong to say that we are going towards any unipolar situation.
All that the Congress got is 2 percent more votes than the last election. Just 2 percent!
The Congress benefited from various factors in states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The Opposition votes got divided due to emergence of the parties that took away chunk of the votes, like (actor and Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam founder) Vijaykanth (in Tamil Nadu) and (actor and Praja Rajyam Party founder) Chiranjeevi (in Andhra Pradesh).
It is not that the Congress has made some big deals. The party benefited from specific factors in various states.
Yes, in a present political situation, the Congress has the advantage because the BJP is in disarray. Anyway, at the all India level, regional parties cannot project a strong opposition on their own.
In the post-election situation, the Congress has the advantage but, according to me, it's a temporary phenomenon.
But the temporary period can mean five years.
I am not talking in terms of government. I am talking in term of political forces and issues.
Take the recent decision to divest 10 percent shares in Public Sector Units. We remember how the Left parties were up in arms on the issue of divestment just a couple of years ago. Now there are no dissenting voices.
Yes, they have decided to disinvest all profitable PSUs -- listed and unlisted. Earlier, they had given a commitment that they won't touch the Navratnas when the BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) issue was raked up. Now, only NTPC (the National Thermal Power Corporation) is left out. The government has gone back on its promise.
Second, the government had said that whatever money received from the sale of the shares will go to a National Investment Fund. The UPA government said they will not touch the corpus; only the interest will be used. Now, they have suspended that for three years. That means the money will go straight to meet the fiscal deficit.
One of the statements by the concerned minister said that the money would go to meet the expenses of the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme.
They are saying money will be diverted to the 'social sector'. But earlier they said that the money will go to the fund. Now, directly they will utilise the huge fund to meet the fiscal deficit, they may label it a social sector.
You will find big resistance to it. You will see big resistance to it. We are going to fight. You will see many strikes. There will be working class struggles. We will organise PSUs labour. We are organising a get together of all PSUs.
Every single major disinvestment decision will face resistance.
Will you be able to fight effectively?
I think so.
Image: Congress chief Sonia Gandhi during an election rally in Maharashtra.
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
'We failed to create a third force, but we will try again'
But the last session showed that the government could not have their way. Now, this new ordinance on sugarcane price (it requires state governments to bear the expenses if it fixes sugarcane prices lower than that advised by the Centre. It would discourage the state governments from announcing a higher state advised price)...
The government will not be able to pass it in the Rajya Sabha. The entire Opposition will oppose it, even those who are supporting this government are going to stand against the ordinance. In the last session also, on a number of issues the government could not get support from its own allies.
One of the serious charges against your party is that before the last election the manner in which you pushed the Third Front created an atmosphere of instability. You created a fear of instability amongst the middle class so they voted the incumbent government. They said, 'Oh God, we don't want the Deve Gowdas and Gujrals again!'
(Laughs heartily.) That's one way of looking it. As far as we are concerned we were trying to create a third force in this country as distinct from the Congress and the BJP. Yes, we failed, but we shall try again.(Laughs!)
But wasn't it inherently a flawed idea?
It was flawed because we could have electoral alliances only in four states. So, at the all India level we could not project an effective or credible alternative. The lesson we have learnt is that we should do a better job and prepare ourselves better.
We should not come out only on the eve of elections. I think we should come out with some clear cut programme.
Do you think J Jayalalithaa failed to deliver?
Both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where we expected to defeat the Congress and its allies, we failed. Both were crucial to us. In Andhra, the Congress government is notorious for its corruption, but it has also pumped in money into various social welfare measures which garnered support for them.
One observes that voters tolerate corrupt leaders who deliver them services.
But this won't last. In the earlier stages corruption doesn't affect people directly because it is done at the higher level. Eventually, it hurts people.
Don't you frankly agree that the Congress campaign worked out well?
We did a very objective review of the election. We believe several factors helped the Congress. Politically, the failure of a credible third force helped them directly. When the third force could not pose an alternative, those against the BJP went to the Congress.
When those voters who wanted a secular alternative saw that we cannot provide it they voted for the Congress.
Secondly, all those steps that the UPA took for which the Left parties fought hard like the NREGA and the Tribal Rights Act worked well, but the benefit accrued to the Congress. The got the support of the middle class.
A section of the middle class also benefited in this period.
Image: Vaiko, D Raja, A B Bardhan, J Jayalalithaa and Karat at a Tamil Nadu rally
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
'We didn't comprehend the depth of feelings farmers have for land'
There are two aspects. Now, in our party there is greater unity because of the steps we have taken. Second, in Kerala there is a high degree of consumer spending. A lot of remittances are coming from outside. So you cannot judge the standard of living in Kerala with many other states.
Not only in Kerala but at the all-India level our central committee has adopted a document for rectification of wrong trends in our party. That will cover lifestyle, maintaining our ways and not what we call 'Congress standards'. We should identify with the people.
Will it work?
We will start from the top. We will not start from below.
In West Bengal, land is the biggest issue that turned the trend in favour of the Trinamool Congress. It is a paradoxical situation because all these years one of the reasons that your party survived in power was because of the land reforms your earlier government adopted. How do you see challenges before Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya?
Our party fought for and implemented land reforms and that also got us support in rural Bengal. But in the last two years, after the question of land acquisition came up for industries, there was resistance. It has damaged us, particularly, what happened in Nandigram.
The Trinmool Congress and others took up the issue in such a manner to create a divide between our party and a section of the movement. That has benefited them.
Mamata Banerjee looks unstoppable.
Let's see what is stoppable and what is unstoppable. The main thing is that we have recognised what mistakes we made and we are trying to rectify it.
Like on the question of land acquisition, we didn't adequately comprehend the depth of feelings the farmers have about land. We thought if we pay adequate compensation and other things it will help them.
After all, in land acquisition West Bengal is far below that of Maharashtra, Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh. Even, now, we are distributing land to the landless.
Last year, we distributed 11,000 acres of surplus land to landless farmers. But the image went around that we are taking away land. That caused us damage. But we have stopped acquiring land.
It is interesting to see that in West Bengal your party is attacked more by the Maoists than the Trinamool.
Equally. In fact, we say the Trinamool and the Maoists are attacking CPI-M cadres and leaders in collusion. The Maoists have been targeting us earlier also. This time after the election setback they have found an opportune time so they have stepped up their attacks.
Image: Intellectuals protest in Kolkata against violence in Nandigram.
Photographs: Rediff Archives
'We will not allow the Maoists to succeed'
The Maoists see us as obstacles in their path forward. Other political parties rely on governmental fight. We go to the people and mobilise them to oppose.
In three districts where the Maoists are attacking people, the CPI-M has a strong mass base. They want to stop development in those areas.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been practicing Marxist ideology since ages. He should know the Maoists better than Home Minister Chidambaram.
They (the Maoists) tried to assassinate him in a landmine blast. They claimed that they were responsible for this daring attack.
Their aim is to kill people, so naturally the police and the state machinery will work against them.
The Maoists have stepped up violence and there is no doubt that violence has to be curbed. You have to deploy police and security forces. But that alone won't solve the problems. These are the areas which are most underdeveloped.
Unless we provide them concrete development they won't be able to resist the Maoists.
How do you see the root causes? They also claim that they are being tormented.
They are not tormented. They claim to be working on behalf of the tribal people. In West Bengal a majority of tribal people are with the Left Front. They want to weaken our support. It is not a political struggle.
They are targeting CPI-M workers and killing them. That is no way to struggle. We will not allow them to succeed. They will not be able to establish their base in those areas.
Our party is not going to leave those areas. They are operating from remote areas or jungles so they have been able to sustain themselves.
Nobody is operating from outside. They have difficulty in operating even from normal rural areas.
Some people think that the Left parties didn't pick up certain issues so the Maoists are filling up the vacuum that you left behind. Is it so?
They are filling the vacuum only in thickly forested, remote areas. We are going to attend to those areas now.
What are your future plans? How will you take on your opposition?
We are going to take up the issues of the ordinary people. We will work against those economic policies that are hurting them. We will concentrate on them. We will cooperate with secular Opposition parties inside Parliament on policy issues.
Image: A ransacked CPI-M office in Lalgarh.
Photographs: Rediff Archives
'UPA wants to deepen strategic ties with US'
We don't look at individuals. In 2006, when I was general secretary we won a three fourths majority in Bengal and a two thirds majority in Kerala. Therefore, an individual doesn't matter.
Our party has understanding. We work collectively. Yes, we are facing electoral setbacks. We don't see that as an end.
For the Congress winning is everything. For us winning an election is not the only aim of our public life.
The BJP goes into a crisis just because they can't form the government twice. That is not the way our party functions.
Whatever happens to the party, I am as much responsible as the people of Kerala and Bengal.
Mamata is genuinely popular. How are you going to face Mamata's strategies?
We have to win back the people's support. We will win them back.
The Congress was so strong in Bengal for so many years. How do you think we won the support of people? We were working for their cause. We have rich experience.
Our party has got tens of thousands of dedicated cadres. We will put them to work amongst the people.
Once again, India-US relations are in the news. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to the US.
Well, the UPA government, obviously, wants to further deepen the strategic ties with the US. That was very evident when (US Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton came here and signed agreements.
The End Use Monitoring Agreement came into force. But there was resistance. Nobody supported it in Parliament.
We will see what the outcome of the PM's visit to the US is. On military collaboration, we will oppose any step to further deepen or strengthen it.
Do you think the government is deliberating on sending Indian troops to Afghanistan?
(Laughs.) I don't think our government is so foolish. I will put it that way. (US President Barack) Obama and his administration are in a dilemma about Afghanistan. They are thinking what to do about it.
If India helps in any manner by sending troops it will be the worst possible decision by India.
How do you see the new UPA?
It is the same. They want a more neo-liberal policy. They want closer relations with the US. They want to disinvest all profitable PSUs. They want to offer concession to foreign investors by opening up all sectors. Even in media they want to increase Foreign Direct Investment.
Image: US President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Pittsburgh, during the G-20 summit.
Photographs: Chris Wattie/Reuters