New Delhi: Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, no longer sees the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, as enemy No. 1. His party will work towards defeating both the Congress—with which it parted ways in July 2008 over the Indo-US civil nuclear deal—and the BJP in the coming national elections. The CPM won’t project any leader from non-BJP, non-Congress parties as a prime ministerial candidate, Karat said in a rare interview, and also ruled out any chances of the CPM joining the next government. He conceded that his party had learnt some lessons from the Nandigram controversy in Left-ruled West Bengal, where 14 people were killed in police firing in 2007 during an agitation against land acquisition. The 60-year-old Karat, however, says the CPM won’t go back on West Bengal’s industrialization drive. Excerpts:
With elections around the corner, how does the CPM plan to appeal to the younger generation, which forms the bulk of the electorate, given that it is a rather materialistic generation, contrary to the CPM’s image, at least among the youth?
The fact that the CPM has got these many seats in Parliament shows it is obviously by getting a substantial section of the youth vote. We don’t fight in a large number of seats. Normally, we fight 72-75 seats to the Lok Sabha. But our success rate is generally higher because we win at least 50% of the seats that we fight. Our appeal for the youth comes not by any youth-specific platform but because we are constantly fighting on the issue of education, on the question of employment…we are demanding relief for unemployed people. Most of these are of concern to the youth.... Our party’s programmes intrinsically have issues that are of concern to the younger people.
Straight talk: CPM general secretary Prakash Karat says his party will work towards defeating both the Congress and the BJP. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
The CPM is largely confined to the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and the latter two are not very large states. Why have you not been able to break into the “Hindi heartland”?
We don’t plan to do it only through elections. As I told you, we plan to contest only around 75 seats out of 542 (total Lok Sabha seats). We don’t think we can develop our party by fighting elections. We develop our party by building an organization, taking up people’s movements, building organizations of different sections of the working people. When they get developed, it will get reflected in terms of electoral support also.... Today with the recession and downturn in the economy, a lot of young people are worried about jobs. Large sections of young people don’t see much hope of employment. What we put forward as our economic policies is of direct concern to the younger people.
What are the broad contours of the economic policy that you would offer?
We already have an alternative economic policy. Basically, what we say is these neo-liberal policies don’t work in a country like ours. We will say that you have to go for an alternative model of economic development. We will put this forward in the elections. I think only the Left parties will have a common viewpoint in these matters.
What are the central issues that would drive the national elections?
The Congress-led UPA government’s policies, performance and record for the past five years would be a major issue, what they have done or not done, what is the result of their work in government, how they have affected people, development etc…all this is one area. The other would be, we would campaign for the defeat of the Congress party and this alliance on the basis of its record in government, whether it is domestic economic policies, its foreign policy, social policies, etc. This will be one area, which would be key in a national election like this ... we would campaign that the BJP should not come to power.... So we will call for the defeat and rejection of the ruling coalition and we will tell the people the BJP is no alternative to the Congress and its policies are equally bad, or worse. There are a number of important political issues in this period. One is communalism, and related to it is terrorism. According to us, these cannot be de-linked. You have to fight both together. In our country specifically, terrorism has not fallen down from the skies. We have a situation in our country that has created a climate for terrorism. We have to talk about these problems and how they can be dealt with politically. It is not only an administrative question that you strengthen law and order and the police machinery, though of course that is also important. But we also must be able to understand what causes terrorist outbreaks in our country ... as far as we are concerned, we will make foreign policy a key issue. Political parties in India don’t take foreign policy seriously and they think it should be left to the foreign office. But we take it to the people and we will attack the Manmohan Singh government on foreign policy strongly.
Do you believe it will make an impact when the economy is in a downswing?
We link that to our domestic policies also ... it is your total world outlook. If you look at the USA for everything as a model, like they say fight terrorism like they do, then you have to do what (George W) Bush did and you will be in serious trouble. So I am talking about foreign policy in a broader sense…. Do you think allowing foreign capital into retail trade is a good idea? Our foreign policy dictates we must allow all this because we want to have a strategic alliance with the US. We think FDI (foreign direct investment) in retail trade is a bad idea. It destroys jobs for small shopkeepers and traders.
Who do you think is your enemy No. 1 – the BJP or the Congress?
We have decided there is no enemy No. 1. We have decided we have to go into these elections asking people to reject both the BJP and the Congress. And the corollary of that is that you strengthen the non-Congress, non-BJP parties or elect them and we will work towards creating a viable non-Congress, non-BJP platform. Otherwise Congress can say we are fighting the BJP so why should you do the job? We are saying we don’t want the Congress or the BJP.
Will you revisit this post election, like it happened in 2004?
Well, I’ve been maintaining that 2004 election results won’t be repeated in 2009. When I say that it’s not in terms of we extended support and whether we would repeat that. I am saying that situation won’t arise because the results will be different. I don’t think it’ll be the same results. It is wrong to see these elections as a static phenomenon. The Congress has been in government for five years. The last time the Congress was in government for five years was between 1991 and 1996 and the result was the rejection of Congress at that time. I think there may be a repetition of that in these elections.
Do you think it is arithmetically possible for the other parties to form a non-Congress, non-BJP government?
I am not in a position to predict what the situation would be. All I am clear about is, it won’t be an exact replica of 2004. We will not be expected to play the role we did in 2004 because that was a politically different situation. After eight years of BJP government, we said we don’t want the BJP back. This time, we don’t want the Congress government back. People should know the difference in that. We will do everything possible to create a viable non-Congress, non-BJP force. Of course, there is still time. I cannot say how much we will succeed but we are working at it.
Political observers see an unseemly desperation on the side of the Left parties, especially the CPM, to cobble together a third formation against the Congress and the BJP. What do you think?
How is it that when we try to gather allies we are desperate? Everybody else is desperately looking for allies, but that is not being desperate! We have not been saying this suddenly, during the election season. This is the basic approach of our party that we must build up a third alternative or a third force. We have not yet been able to build it. But we have said, till we are able to build this more durable alternative based on a programmatic basis, we will keep working at it. But in the meantime, if elections come, I need allies immediately. I am not confusing it with my longer-term quest for an alternative. But for elections, I want some electoral alternative for which I am trying to gather some allies.
You have an alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) but didn’t you once say that you didn’t want to be a part of the UNPA (United National Progressive Alliance) because of the presence of AIADMK in it?
We didn’t want to become part of any hastily cobbled third front. We said we are not in any hurry to form a third front because our conception of a third front is different. They were in a hurry to bring together any party that comes together. We said we can see that at the time of elections but don’t create a permanent front giving the illusion that it is the third alternative. It is for that reason.... But for an electoral alliance, we have been with Jayalalithaa and AIADMK earlier also.
Didn’t you have reservations about the party after its alliance with the BJP?
Let’s face it. Most regional parties have been either with the BJP alliance or the Congress alliance and some of them have been with us also. Now we are interested in bringing them towards us. Now we are telling the non-Congress secular parties, who are in either of these combinations, that you are at the wrong place and you should reconsider. We are willing to engage anybody who comes out of that and try to see if we can come to an understanding.
Is it a part of your strategy to prevent such allies from going to the BJP?
My concern is I want my party to do well in elections and we need some like-minded parties to ally with to enhance my electoral prospects.
In the Rajasthan state elections, you contested 34 seats and did fairly well. Are you progressively looking beyond your traditional bastions?
We are trying to. It is not an easy task when in most states in the north, caste has become such a major tool of political mobilization and coalition building. It is very difficult for our party, which is organized on the basis of classes to be able to transcend the caste loyalties. But we are trying to. In Rajasthan, we have been able to make some progress after a lot of hard work. We are trying to see if we can expand this to other states where we are not so strong.
Are you seeing this kind of class being built in the northern states that goes beyond caste confines?
No, this is not so easy because there is no mechanical connection or impact. People sometimes rally on caste lines because they find the immediate source of support for them is through caste patronage or caste solidarity. And a leading caste politician is able to provide them with some temporary relief on the basis of kinship on caste lines. We are not able to provide that immediately. So yes, the potential is there. In fact, in the trade union movement, our experience now is that the bulk of our membership is coming from what is called the unorganized sector workers.
The Left had initially indicated that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati could be the prime ministerial candidate. Things seem to have changed since then. What happened to your alliance with the BSP?
We had talks with BSP president Mayawati. She has explained that she did not believe in any election alliance per say. This has been also the stand of the BSP from the beginning. There was no possibility of any election understanding with the BSP. What the stand of the BSP has been that they would take an anti-Congress anti-BJP line. If that is the position, they can be part of a broader non-BJP, non-Congress mobilization or platform. We will be discussing that with them to see if they can work on those lines. I don’t think that there will be any seat-sharing or any electoral alliance. As far as the prime ministership is concerned, if anybody asks about any of leaders who belongs to any of these third force parties can become prime minister, we will say “yes” ... why should we rule it out? Who are we to rule it out? We will say that it depends.. if a non-Congress, non-BJP government is going to form the government, this question will come up then. We should not rule it (any third front party leader becoming PM) out. We are not projecting anybody, nor have we endorsed anybody as prime ministerial candidate. I don’t think this non-Congress, non-BJP alliance should project any prime ministerial candidate.
How much can the BSP be trusted? It is a party which has flirted with the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the BJP.
On those grounds we can’t trust anyone.We had Samajwadi party, a close ally of us. Where are they now? So, I think more than trust it is the question of ascertaining whether we have a common interest and common view point on matters and try to work on those lines. Beyond that it is not be very pragmatic or practical to say that everybody will agree on everything 100%.
The CPM has been opposed to the idea of participation in the government. Now you have had almost eight years of experience in supporting coalition governments---first the United Front (1996-98) and now the UPA. Don’t you think that participation in government can enhance the sphere of your influence? Are you proposing a rethink of this strategy in the post-2009 elections?
We have enough experience of being part of a set-up in which we have supported coalition governments. We will continue to adopt that position. But we won’t join any central government because our strength is too limited. We would like to go into a government where we can make difference, to bring different policies to what has benn happening all these years. We can’t make any change in basic policies. Then what’s the point in being in the government? To bring a policy or making changes in policies, you need that strength and you can’t get that strength by having 35-40 or 45 seats. That question will come up when we are much stronger. In the present situation our party finds it very difficult to compromise on policy matters. Some people have told us that we should have joined the UPA government in 2004. Do you think we would have agreed to the Indo-US military collaboration? When we find it, it would have broken apart. We were more pragmatic, we said you run the government. We demand that you implement the common minimum programme. In that we can consult and exchange our views.
Do you regret withdrawing outside support to the ruling coalition?
Because of us, this government could run for four and a half years. Otherwise it would have lasted just for six months. The Congress and the CPM working together in a government is not concievable in the present political situation.
Issues such as inflation and terrorism have not had much traction in the just concluded state elections? Do you think the impact will be different in the national elections?
I think it is not correct to say that inflation has not played a role. All the ruling parties except the BJP in Chhattisgarh lost ground in terms of percentage and seats. Even in Delhi there was a 7% of vote loss. There was a swing against the Congress. Inflation and price rise have a role. There are other factors also. I think the price rise is going to be a major question for the people in the coming election. When you see the figures, the rate of inflation is going down, but the prices of food stuffs are generally up. When you go to the shop to buy essential commodities, people do not see much difference in the situation. Especially when the public distribution system (PDS) is not effectively functoning. Terrorism works in different ways. It cannot be put in one basket. Mumbai terror attacks led to the country to face it unitedly. But the BJP had miscalculated it. Other type of terrorist attacks which create divisive in the society and create communal polarisation may help some parties. It depends on what is the nature and type of the terrorist attack.
The CPM may lose several seats in the coming elections in states such as Kerala and West Bengal. Besides, there are internal issues. How are you going to deal with that?
I cannot talk of any specific issues. In Kerala, 2006 assembly elections were held when people said our party was divided. But that was one of the best performances put up by the CPM since its inception in 1964. So I do not think that is an issue. The issue is, yes, there is a determined effort to isolate and weaken the CPM in both West Bengal and Kerala.
The Left Front government in West Bengal is pursuing industrialization. As you progressively push for development, it creates contradiction. How do you deal with this?
... it is the Nandigram experience we have learnt from. Even when the land was not acquired, there was talk of land acquisition from the area. People got upset and they got agitated and the opposition took advantage of it. I think, in West Bengal, while we stick to our basic approach of pushing industrialisation, we have to rework our strategy, including the question of land. That is the lesson we have learnt. That does not mean that we will stop industrialization or try hold to industrialization. The situation there--they have very small land holdings which had come through land reforms movement, done well in agriculture and we developed agriculture productivity. It is a difficult situation because if we want to go forward, we must develop, but there is not much land available for industry. So we told our party to rediscuss the matter and think about reworking our strategy for industrialization or for acquiring land for industrialization. We are still working out the whole question of compensation. In Singur, we kept improving the compensation package. Various matters have been reworked. I think nothing much can be done before the Lok Sabha elections, because the opposition will oppose everything.
The industrial workforce defined by the new economy is very different. It is not uniform and unorganized. How do you plan to position your party among them?
I said about 40% of membership of the the unions affiliated to the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which is affiliated to the CPM) is from the unorganized sector. It needs to be done to strengthen the working class, which has strength and we have problems in organizing the unorganized sector. But we are making some progress there.