A bitter fight for power in Kerala has not barred the CPM from working with the Congress in the rest of the country. Even as the party tries to forge a broad-based opposition to the BJP to regain lost ground, it found himself the target of criticism in its last remaining stronghold. Memories of the Sabarimala agitation have come back to haunt the ruling party in Kerala.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury spoke to Onmanorama in the backdrop of assembly elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, West Bengal and Assam.
• The CPM no longer sees the Congress as its main opponent. Has the Congress become an unavoidable ally?
Left parties go to every election with a primary agenda – who should be forming the government. We decide according the prevailing conditions. Our goal was to defeat the Congress in every election since the Emergency. Today, the BJP is trying to undermine the nation’s constitution and secular foundation. They are also trying to weaken the people’s livelihood sources. They brutally oppress all forms of dissent. Such people should not be in power. All democratic secular parties should unite against them.
Yet, the method will depend on the prevailing situation in each state. We have to take into consideration India’s diversity and complexities. So there is no change in our stand of cooperation with the Congress. We said in 2004 that the Vajpayee government should not get a second chance and we would support a secular government at the centre. It was clear that only the Congress could lead a secular government, yet Kerala gave us 18 seats while the Congress drew a blank. Of the 61 seats the Left won in the Lok Sabha, 57 were at the expense of the Congress. We still supported the Manmohan Singh government in the nation’s interest. BJP should not be allowed to form a government in any state.
• What I meant to ask was about the situation where the Left can’t live without the Congress.
That is not because the Left has weakened. We supported the Congress at the centre at a time when we had the largest share of MPs, in 2004. So, support is not necessarily linked to influence. It is not correct to conclude that we are supporting the Congress because our position has weakened.
• The BJP owes their victories to a scattered opposition. The CPM is opposing both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal even as the BJP is going from strength to strength.
Each state has different conditions. The BJP was able to score big in the last general election in Bengal only because of the anti-incumbency feeling against the Trinamool Congress in the state. The Congress, the Left and other parties fought the election separately. BJP benefited from anti-incumbency.
Now we have a definite three-cornered contest. The secular front led by the Left parties keeps the secular opposition parties together. Such a secular option was not present in 2019. Whatever secular votes the Left can expect will be at the expense of the BJP.
• You are splitting the secular votes, which are anyway against the BJP.
There are anti-BJP votes and anti-Trinamool votes. The BJP got all the anti-Trinamool votes in 2019. Now that is going to split. We are going to get the most of it. Even the anti-BJP votes would split, but that loss would be smaller taking into account the fall of the Trinamool Congress – 32 Trinamool sitting MLAs have switched to the BJP. The Trinamool has lost its capacity to gain anti-BJP votes. Most of their prominent personalities have joined the BJP.
• Has the Left been able to regain the people’s confidence in such a way to guarantee it a major share of the secular votes?
The BJP vote share decreased for the first time in the 21st century in 2016. It dipped from 17 per cent to 10 per cent. That happened when the Congress and the Left were in a loose alliance. Even then the Congress and the CPM gained about 40 per cent of votes. That share decreased in the Lok Sabha election. Whenever the Left allied with a credible alternative, our vote share went up. We regained our support base. The same thing will happen this time, but more strongly. Everything from the crowds at our rallies in Bengal to the agitations points to that. So does the higher representation of youngsters on our candidate list.
• Do you think that the Left can regain its glory in West Bengal overcoming Nandigram and Singur?
Not glory, we will regain our support base. Singur and Nandigram are histories for the latest generation. You have to take into account the changes in demographics. When the people of West Bengal wanted a change in 2011, when we lost power, most of the voters were born after the Left Front came to power in the state. They had only seen the Left Front in power. They had an obvious question: What is the point of a democracy if the same set of people come to power every time? You can’t ignore that feeling.
• The Sabarimala issue took centre stage in Kerala during the general election of 2019. That was a setback for the LDF. Now the same issue has blown into a controversy during an election campaign.
The Congress was seen as the main alternative to the communal forces at the centre in 2019. That was a major sentiment, not the reasons cited by the media. The people voted for who they saw as a strong alternative to Modi. The same people had acted differently in 2016. Then they were more interested in who will be able to govern the state better.
• So Sabarimala was not an issue in 2019?
Sabarimala is not an issue now. That is a manufactured controversy. I am sorry to say, but the media has played a large role in it. The issue is before a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court. Nobody has anything to do until the court gives its verdict. So there is no controversy. We have already said that we would consult everyone once the verdict is out. There is nothing controversial on that front too. Where is the controversy? There is none. It is being manufactured.
• The Congress and the BJP were not very successful in raking up the issue yet again. The devaswom minister’s apology made it active. So the controversy was created by the CPM.
The chief minister has replied to that. When you have nothing else to talk to people, you create controversies. When you do not have a clear welfare programme and policy, you have to create such controversies.
• Has the devaswom minister been asked to explain his statement?
The party will decide it. They will handle it.
• Even the general secretary was drawn into the controversy.
Who can escape being drawn into controversies by the media in Kerala? They do that when they do not have anything better to do.
• The Sabarimala issue is before the nine-judge bench but the Supreme Court has not stayed the earlier order. The bench is considering larger issues related to women and religious freedom, including Sabarimala.
Any controversy in this issue was caused by the Supreme Court order. There was an order and that is being reviewed. That is sub judice until a final verdict is out. I do not think anyone should comment on that until the verdict comes.
• But the CPM does not take a stand based on a court verdict.
Is there anything new as far as gender equality is concerned? Don’t you know the party’s stand. Why is it being made into an issue now? That is being linked to a particular issue now.
• The LDF manifesto mentions the protection of faith. Is the party stand in matters including gender equality changing in the poll season?
The CPM has a clear stand in the protection of faith. Religious belief is a personal affair. The Constitution of India ensures total protection of that right. Individual decisions about faith should not transgress into the politics of affairs of the government. That differentiation is secularism. The CPM is committed to it. There is no change in it. It will continue so.
• Let us set aside Sabarimala. What is the CPM’s stand on gender equality?
The Supreme Court is considering that issue. There is no point in commenting on it until the verdict is said. Any verdict will apply to the legal system of the country. Let us wait for that. Why hurry?
• The opposition wants the government to correct the affidavit filed before the Supreme Court. Will you consider that?
The state government should answer that question. Not us.
• Even before the CPM’s candidate list was announced, some party workers hit the street in protest. The party that swears by democratic centralism readily changed the announced list.
Don’t you know our party’s internal democratic setup? The leadership prepares a list based on the suggestions and sends it down to the districts and constituencies for feedback. A final decision is made only after receiving the feedback. We keep deliberating until then. We receive a lot of opinions. Since the Kerala unit is a large one, many of the opinions become public. That is part of decision making. Democratic centralism comes into the picture after a decision is made, not before that. We work in accordance with internal democracy. That is what you had seen. The Kerala Congress wanted us to take back the Kutiadi seat. That was based on their evaluation of the situation. The LDF took a decision accordingly.
• When you implement the two-term norm strictly to give opportunities to fresh faces, the leaders in most states are aged over 70 years.
We always need a mix of experience and youth. Everything depends on the right mix. That is what we are doing. Two-terms is a condition. You made such a big fuss when I did not contest to the Rajya Sabha again. But a condition is to be adhered to.
• The public protest over the party’s selection of candidates is a sign of weakening of the party’s organisational structure. Critics say that power and decision-making are being concentrated in an individual.
This is a normal process in our party. There is no point speculating over it. We seek opinions before making decisions. There is no point interpreting it as a concentration of power or someone gaining control.
• So there is no tendency of power concentration in Kerala?
No. We have our own functional structure. We have committees. Our methods are collective work and individual responsibility. We adhere to it. There is no question of concentration of power.
• Critics say that the Kerala chief minister is more powerful than the party general secretary.
Critics are critics. Let them say what they feel like. We have our committees and system. They are functioning as they should. Others can say whatever they like. That is not our concern. We are going forward on the basis of the party constitution and style of functioning. That is working normally.
• You have said that concentration of power in individuals have led to the fall of communism in many countries.
We are now talking about CPM. I have never said that power is being concentrated in individuals in the CPM.
• How do you view the first election in which V S Achuthanandan is not active?
This is the first election since the formation of Kerala where V S Achuthanandan is not active. He is a legend of the party. He is one of the two people alive who walked out of the CPI national council. He is in a league with EMS and AKG. Yet there are laws of body and nature – he is not in a position to be active in the election due to his age and health conditions.
• The withdrawal of VS has led to a geographical imbalance in the CPM’s leadership in Kerala. South Kerala does not have any leaders of that stature and efficiency.
I told you, VS is limited by the laws of nature. That can happen to anyone. But other people will come forward. We have always maintained the balance you mentioned. It will be maintained in future.
• But we have not seen anyone like that in south Kerala in recent years.
What can I do if you decide to turn a blind eye? VS has a background of seven decades. How can someone grow so fast to match his stature? Many comrades can do so.
• A prominent RSS leader recently said that the BJP and the CPM have struck a deal in Kerala. It seems to fit into the BJP agenda of a Congress-free India and the CPM’s struggle for survival.
It is the other way around. So I do not have to respond to a baseless allegation. O Rajagopal himself has replied to the allegation. He said that the Congress let him win Nemom. In many states, more than half of the Congress leaders who left the party went straight to the BJP.
• What do you have to say about the BJP’s Congress-free India agenda?
We do not want India to be free of anyone. We are more concerned about a party’s principles, programmes and policies. That is what we take into account. No matter who wins the election, the BJP ends up forming a government nowadays – we have seen that in Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. The BJP sees it as a business, not politics. They make a deal out of everything.
• In West Bengal, things have come to such a scene where the Congress says that the Left is leading the alliance. The party’s relations to the Congress have undergone a sea change since you became the general secretary.
That change has nothing to do with my selection as the general secretary. That stand is the result of an objective evaluation of the present conditions of the country. When we see the things the BJP does to the Indian constitution and our institutions, we assessed that everyone who wants to protect the constitution should stand together. That is a reality. That is not related to who is serving as a party’s general secretary.
• When it comes to women’s representation on the candidates’ list, the Left parties are no different from the BJP and the Congress. The Left parties have always raised their voice for women’s reservation.
The situation will change; it already does. Last time, you all said ours was a party of old men. Now youngsters have increased their representation. I still think that the pace should accelerate.
• The same argument is raised when it comes to giving representation to Dalits.
It is not about arguments. It is a process. That is getting better. I admit, we have to accelerate the process.
• The BJP is increasing its presence in southern states too. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are the only states remaining.
Their incursions are not related to their policies and programmes. Politics should be based on policies. That is not what the BJP is doing. They either make the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation into their political agents and blackmail opponents or use money power. That is not political influence. It is pure business deals. They have turned politics into a business. That is against national interest.
• The CPM is known for its honest assessment of electoral results. What do you have to say before the Kerala election?
You should appreciate our expertise in the post-mortem of results. The other parties do not bother to do that. This time, the BJP will not make a government in three of the four major states. They are already in power in Assam. There is a strong fight over there. Many of the allies in poll-bound states are leaving the BJP. In Assam, the Bodo National Front has left the BJP alliance. That will be a setback for the BJP. The BJP is about to witness a setback that is in the national interest.
• Does your offer to support other parties to keep the BJP out of power extends to West Bengal too?
In case of a hung assembly, you should ask that question to the Trinamool chief minister, not us. They were with the BJP in many affairs for the past 20 years, including in the elections and forming ministries.
• What would you do?
What if they decide to go with the BJP as they had done earlier? We can only decide our plans depending on what they intend to do. Let them decide. They are more likely to ally with the BJP.
• What about Kerala?
We will continue to be in power. The reason is based on the government’s work. The work during natural calamities and the COVID-19 pandemic, welfare measures, the stand against communalism and the alternative we have put forward – these four elements will create a people’s verdict in favour of the LDF.