100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
Sitaram Yechury (left) and Paul Zacharia

As Communism completes 100 years in India, prominent Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia talks to CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury.

The special interview via video conference touches upon a variety of issues, such as the split in the Communist Party, chances of their merger, why BJP is ruling India, why CPM did not accept the offer of Prime Ministership in 1997, the notion that Communist Parties could not project a pan-Indian plan convincingly, opposition unity at the national level and the CPM's rule in Kerala.

Here is the edited excerpts from the interview.


Q: The Communist Party in India turned 100 on October 17 and the BJP is just 40 years old. The Congress ruled the country alone and with allies for nearly six decades because it spearheaded Independence Struggle. It also had the Gandhi-Nehru lineage. The BJP didn't have any of these advantages. And the Left has been here for all the time. Despite this, how come Narendra Modi ruling us today and not your party or Congress?

This is a larger question. The BJP may be 40 years old. But remember BJP is another avatar of the Jana Sangh. So, the RSS was founded 95 years ago. Whether the Jana Sangh or the earlier Hindu Maha Sabha or the BJP all these are its political friends. As we are talking about the centenary, in 1920 the Communist Party was founded, 1925 was its unity conference and it started working in India. In 1925, the RSS was born and in 1928 Congress-appointed Motilal Nehru Commission came out with an understanding that independent India's character should be a secular democratic r epublic. Communists had a different vision. We did not contest the secular democratic republic. We still think we are the biggest defenders of secularism even today. But we extended this to convert political freedom to economical freedom of the people, which is socialism. That was the vision and that was the whole struggle. Opposed to this, during the same period, a different vision emerged. That vision was that the country's character must be determined by the religious affiliations. So, the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was born and finally the Islamic State of Pakistan. The RSS's concept of Hindu Rashtra was not accepted by the National Movement, which led to the unfortunate assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Remember, the concept of two nations inside India was first articulated by Hindu Maha Sabha's leading figure Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Even before the RSS, they were talking through the Hindu Maha Sabha about two nations within India - an Islamic Nation and a Hindu Nation.

Savarkar coined the term "Hindutva". So it had been a struggle till now. So it is not as though suddenly after Independence, they could establish the Hindu Rashtra – its counter to the Islamic Nation. Since then everybody thought that we defeated that vision or ideology. No, that ideology continued to make efforts to replace the secular democracy within the country, with their fascistic Hindu Rashtra project.

Q: While the RSS and affiliates were engaged in promoting their particular vision and ideology, how come the Communist Party did not address it or get to know about it? Especially in the North Indian states.

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to a portrait of Veer Savarkar at Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

We knew about it. Right from the beginning, we have been articulate about it. And we have been fighting it. This was articulated by the Communist Party from when it was founded. I think the actual question here is if they could succeed in 100 years, why you didn't.

Q: Why you did not?

See Marxism is a creative science. It's not a formula or dogma. Creative science is based on one fundamental principle – that is concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If you take the concrete conditions and if you don't assess them properly, mistakes happen. If you analyse them wrongly, mistakes happen. That is what happened for the Left during the Congress rule. You got to admit it.

Q: Compared to Congress and BJP, the Communist Party was unable to address India as a whole. For, it was hesitant or unwilling. For example to address caste. What was the hesitation to address the whole diversified India? For not seizing the moment when Prime Ministership was offered to the Left? As a citizen, my question is: Couldn't a Communist PM for India even for a day would have been a revolutionary step?

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
Jyoti Basu addressing a gathering of party workers.

A: There are two questions. One is addressing a nation and the caste issue. There is no class vs caste in India. There is a caste-class overlap. Most of the exploited classes come from the most oppressed caste. Even today, nearly 80% of our agricultural labourers belong to the Dalits or the backward marginalized sections. So therefore, what we said for the caste struggle in India, stands on two facts. One is economic exploitation, the other is social oppression. Unless both are combined and integrated, you can't go forward. The last two Party Congresses refocussed on this. And therefore you see today, the social oppression and the economic exploitation combining together. There were shortcomings in implementation. That has been corrected.

On the question about Jyothi Basu (being offered PM post in 1997). The point is, because of the circumstances in which our party played, suddenly we found ourself in a position where we have been offered the post. The choice came up before the party. You know there was a big division in the party. The choice that came up in the Party was, we have 32 members in the Parliament. You require 272 for a majority and to form the government. So it's naturally going to be a coalition where your strength is just 32. Now the dilemma was, whether with these 32, we will be able to implement what we have promised to the people in our manifesto. If we don't implement, you are betraying the people. So as the Prime Minister, if Jyoti Basu implemented the coalition's agenda, again people would be betrayed.

This was one side. And the other side was if Jyoti Basu became the Prime Minister a Communist would have become the PM in India. That would have become an international Communist movement. It would have also given the opportunity for us to project the Left agenda. And then say, since they won't be allowing us to implement this, we would need a greater majority. So this was the division. And it went up to the Party Congress. After that, of course, the Central Committee said no to the offer.

It was voted upon in the Party Congress. Finally, we came to the conclusion that if such an opportunity ever comes again, then the Central Committee at that time will take a decision, taking into consideration all these aspects like how much we can influence the policy development of the government. That was the dilemma.

Q. Marxism-Leninism failed in identifying the driving force of Indian Nationalism. Would you agree? Did the British read India much better than the Communists?

They were using the complexity and perfecting the art of divide and rule. What is Indian Nationalism? How do you define it? If you or I go abroad, we are Indians. If both of us came back to India, you are a Malayali and I am a Telugu speaking person. And if you go to Kerala, you belong to the South or the North or the Malabar or the old Travancore. If I go to Andhra, I belong to coastal Andhra or Telangana or other provinces. So each of us has multiple identities. So when you talk of Nationalism, there is Indian Nationalism and there is Hindu Nationalism, Islamic Nationalism and so on. So the Communists were in the forefront talking of an inclusive Indian Nationalism, which has finally come in modern times with the expression of the idea of India. So it's not that we didn't understand. We understood the complexity. Why did the Communists lead, for instance, the struggle for linguistic reorganization? The Communists were spearheading the "Aikya Kerala" movement. For "Samyuktha Maharasthra" Dange was in the forefront, Pottara Sreeramulu for Andhra and the Vishal Andhra idea was articulated by P Sundarayya, who was the CPM general secretary. Why did we take this stand? Because we were recognizing India's diversity. If you want to build on Indian Nationalism, you have to understand the sub-text in India. We understood that, but we were not using these differences for grabbing power. That is the point. We were in that sense very honest to people.

Q: But the BJP seems to have undercut the whole approach using religious identity.

That was the true basis of the RSS. There is only Hindu Nation and Hindu Nationalism for them.

Q: Are you saying that you could not project a pan-Indian Nation plan convincingly? Or did you make a mistake somewhere? At that point of time you were fighting Congress, not the BJP?

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
E M S Namboodiripad and A K Gopalan

You see, pan-Indian Nationalism was an idea from the Indian National Movement. So Communists were also part of that. If you remember, A K Gopalan had hoisted the National Flag in the Vellore Jail on August 15, 1947. I I can give you so many such examples. So the point is, Indian Nationalism was the cry of national movement. We were part of that. We were emphasizing on the economic agenda. Therefore, a conflict with Congress also emerged.

Q: The Congress got the better of you in projecting as the true representatives of Indian Nationalism at that time?

They would talk about collectivization through democracy. The public sector concept also came from the Soviet planning process. So they used all that. But in reality, they were building capitalism. That's why the conflicts are there.

Q: Right now, no single party can defeat the BJP at the national level. Why are the Opposition parties unable to think of unity, a common platform to defeat BJP?

Again, you have asked two questions. One is on the larger unity. Second is the Communist unity. You see, unfortunately there have been various efforts. First of all, there have been fundamental differences for the parties, which is always very difficult to surmount. We have done it in 1996 and we have done it in 2004, but it is difficult. The BJP is using a combination of its money power and misuse of CBI, Enforcement Department etc. You are seeing it everywhere. So if you are with the BJP, you can loot and you will get protection. If you do not agree with the BJP, you will be facing CBI, ED etc. In that sense, they intimidate the leaders of the Opposition parties. This is a fascistic tendency.

Q: Wouldn't you say some of them are in a position to be intimidated because they are not clean?

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
The Bihar Mahagathbandhan

I totally agree. I have no problem in accepting that. The opposition unity is happening. You have seen it in Tamil Nadu. And now you see it happening in Bihar. In Bihar, you have the Mahagatbandhan – the RJD with the Congress and with all the three Communist parties. This is a good development. Also during the COVID period, 22 Opposition parties have met periodically on various issues like Article 370 and cash transfer or free food distribution. A joint delegation of all opposition parties had met the President. You know it is happening and we are making all efforts to make it happen.

Q: When it comes to polls, egos come into play and people only fight to keep their territory safe. Why so?

You are right, but we are trying to break it. There is also another factor, immense money power that the BJP has. Now the general feeling is, whoever wins the elections, the BJP will form the government. They have done it in Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. They tried it in Rajasthan, but failed.

Q. In the current situation, shouldn't the Communist parties think of uniting?

The point is the issues on which the Communist Party split. Now, to bring those issues for discussion among the Communists in the present situation will be a big distraction from the fight against the BJP. Because you go back to all those ideological issues. I don't think this is the time for it. But your point is right. There should be greater unity among these Communist forces in treating the current challenges. And that is happening. The coming together of CPI-ML, the CPI and the CPI (M) in Bihar is a very positive development. In joint struggles, we are all there together. Like sharing power in Kerala, for example. But that is one aspect of it.

On all the big struggles going on now like the movement against farm bills, the Left is united.

So the question of merger is not on the agenda, but unity in action is definitely there.

Q: Merger could be long drawn exercise also?

No, no. You see that's why I am saying it's happening. The projection in the country today is the Left alternative. You can see Left parties coming together. All these five parties have the common approach. So the Left has an alternative that is emerging.

Q: Historically speaking, Communist regimes all over the world have turned into dictatorship. Is that the most important reason why Communism collapsed all over the world?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was an intense discussion within the party. We came out with a document on certain ideological issues. There have been some serious distortions that happened in practice of building socialism. Socialism had no blueprint. It was a completely new system. That is where what we discussed earlier, concrete analysis or concrete conditioning. That was more important. If we go by dogmas, mistakes happen. And you are right, dictatorship of proletariat is dictatorship of class. Like any single capitalist country whatever be the form of government, the content is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. But they don't make it feel like a dictatorship. What was conceived as a dictatorship of the class became the dictatorship of the vanguard of the class. Slowly, leadership replaced the party and individual replaced the leadership. And this distortion was a grave mistake. We all have to guard against it. This was all part of our ideological analysis. In India, we will not let it happen. I can tell you that. There is a tendency for regimentation.

That has to be fought with the vibrant movement to uphold democracy. You see, democracy in that sense is people's involvement.

Q. Anyway Looking back, do you wish the split should not have happened in 1964?

No, I would disagree. Because of the split, the Communist Party is alive and relevant in India. I will tell you why. You had a much stronger Communist movement in Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan and in several other countries. The slogan was-- Marxism, Leninism, Nasserism and Marxism, Leninism, Sukarnoism. Here in India we didn't have slogans like that. But in reality it was-- Marxism, Leninism, Nehruvism. So the moment you start collaborating with the ruling class, those Communist parties were decimated.

If CPI-M was not formed, like the Congress was decimated after the Emergency, the Communist Party also would have had a similar fate.

The split is not the mistake. It was inevitable. But the need of the situation is the unification of all these forces to mobilize the people. That is happening.

Q: Narendra Modi is also making many things happen. That's why I am worried.

Yes, That's worrying. That's why I am saying removing them from the control of state power is essential to save India today. Otherwise, India won't just survive.

Q: Even if they are removed from power, do you think the party that comes to power will cleanse the system from top to bottom?

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury
Manmohan Singh

It can be done, but it is a very big challenge. I still remember Manmohan Singh's UPA government. We were urging them to cleanse the system. Then we realized the gravity of the problem. It is not easy. It will take time. Till then the danger is there. A mere change in government is not going to help.

Q: The Communist Party Of India has become the Communist Party of West Bengal or Communist Party of Kerala and perhaps that is one of the reasons it missed the bus at the national level. Do you agree?

I won't agree. The Left Front government in Bengal and Kerala were products of the all India line of the party. The thing is that they implemented it more effectively in these places.

Why football is the most popular game in Bengal and Kerala and why not cricket? Because football is the game of working class. And cricket is the game of elite. Similarly, there are historical reasons why Communist party grew up in these places.

Q: I feel that Communist Party of Kerala does not have a national vision. They are constrained by their issues. This is not about the present government. The Congress is better in this regard may be due to historical training?

Congress functions through the High Command. They don't function in a democratic way as we do. So they are not better. But Kerala has made many contributions in the field of federalism, GST etc. Kerala played a very big role in creating consciousness about communal harmony.

Q: Coming to Kerala, I feel there is little difference between CPM and the Congress once they are in power. Corruption, disrespect for women, nepotism, communal double speak etc. Power corrupts everything. Is this inevitable?

100 years of Indian Communism: Paul Zacharia interviews CPM secretary Sitaram Yechury

Not at all. I don't agree with you that there is no difference between CPM and Congress-led governments. If at all there is a case of wrong doing, the party is not sparing anybody. The party will take action. We are very strict. Everything is transparent in Kerala which is really good. Even Congress' culture in Kerala is entirely different from its culture in national level. It is true that we also had a role in creating that culture. We will take action and try to correct mistakes.

Q: How do you see the future of India which is of course a continuation from the present? Will we remain a democracy? Will fascism become an all conquering force? There is 63 per cent of India against 37 per cent of BJP. And 55 per cent of India against NDA's 45 per cent. Will there be a miracle in which this majority will assert itself and turn to vote?

See it all depends on people like you and me. As political parties and leaders, in our capacity to mobilize the people to face this challenge.

Q: Are political parties really committed on this or are they waiting for the golden moment?

Unfortunately, there are tendencies of opportunism in other parties. They are underestimating this danger. If India does not survive, nobody survives. What's the real challenge? RSS-BJP wants to take India back to the darkness of the past. We have to take India to brightness of the future. For that we have to protect India today.