Q: What are the differences between the contexts of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections?
A: During the 2004 elections, the situation was different because we had six years of BJP led Government. It was the first time that the BJP had remained in office continuously for six years, if we don’t take into account the thirteen day Vajpayee Government in 1996. This six-year rule posed serious problems: communalization of the state apparatus and the pursuit of reactionary economic policies by the BJP with large-scale privatization of the public sector. Also, this was the Government, which proclaimed that the US was a natural ally; said so by none other than Vajpayee himself. Then, the main thrust of our Party was that the BJP must be defeated and the BJP led NDA Government should be ousted from power. This constituted the central thrust taking into account the six-year rule of the BJP led NDA Government.
We succeeded in this task in the last Lok Sabha elections when the BJP was voted out of power. Then, we have had five years of the Congress led UPA Government. It is a changed situation now. The record of the UPA Government with respect to their policies in certain key areas has shown no real discontinuity from the earlier six year rule of the NDA Government. With respect to economic policies for instance, not withstanding certain pro-people measures of the UPA government mainly undertaken because of the pressure from the Left Parties, the UPA Government continued to pursue privatization and liberalization with a renewed thrust to open up the economy to foreign finance capital. This is an important marker of the last five years.
We did sincerely think that the UPA would not waver from its commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy. This did not happen either.
With respect to the conditions of the people, there has been an acute agrarian crisis affecting large sections of the rural poor, growing unemployment, and continuous rice in prices of essential commodities, particularly food prices. The global economic crisis and consequent rapid deterioration of the economy will have its adverse effect on the working people.
It is in this context that the Lok Sabha elections need to be seen. It is because of these reasons that both the Congress and the BJP need to be defeated in this election. The BJP is a more reactionary alternative to the Congress and naturally, if we want to defeat the Congress, we cannot allow the BJP to come back to power. This is the context in which, we are facing the 2009 elections.
Q: How do you rate the performance of the UPA Government during the first four and a half years when the Left was providing outside support to the Government? Do you see any change in the attitude of the Government after the withdrawal of support by the Left?
A: Taking the last five years in totality, the Congress led Government has displayed its true class character. It has not in any way relaxed its efforts to push through neoliberal policies. It is because of the resistance put up by the Left Parties, that some of the measures they wanted to bring could not be adopted. But they were determined and tried their best. There was a constant struggle – on the one hand, the CPI (M) and the Left parties tried to pin down the UPA Government in forcing it to implement some of the pro-people measures in the Common Minimum Programme. On the other hand, the Congress leadership was constantly trying to circumvent Left pressure and push through their policies.
We had no illusions that the Congress would change its basic course. All we hoped was that the Congress would stay within the limited framework of the Common Minimum Programme. But even in that, when they were thwarted in the Parliament in getting legislations through, for opening of insurance, banking and financial sector to foreign capital or in the case of pushing through pension fund reforms, they took recourse to executive decisions through the Cabinet. By and large, the record of the UPA Government, with the exception of the NREGA or the Tribal Forest Rights Act, which were adopted primarily because of the continuous pressure of the Left parties, there was no real shift in the direction of the economic policies, which the Congress party was committed to in the last two decades.
The Left parties supported the UPA for just about four years. After the withdrawal of the Left support in July 2008, they tried to push through some of the measures. But even then, they could not push through certain policy measures in the Parliament. This was evident in the case of the Insurance Bill, which was meant to increase the FDI cap from 26 percent to 49 percent, which they introduced in the Parliament. Same was the case with the Pension fund privatization measures. But certain things they did through Cabinet decisions like in the case of relaxing the FDI guidelines, where they went ahead in removing the restrictions of FDI caps across sectors.
The other major aspect is that they went ahead in their agenda to forge close ties and links with the United States and Israel, to which we had put up resistance. Huge military orders were placed with the US, some of which could not be completed. However, like in the case of the order for 126 fighter planes, the process has begun by placing orders indicating closer collaboration at the military level. We know the case of the nuclear deal, which has to go through various stages for completion, but the process is on. Ties with Israel have become closer and deeper in the recent period. So, in matters of foreign policy, where the Left acted as an important check in their pro-US and pro-Israel orientation, they have got relatively greater freedom during this period.
With regard to change in attitude, it was a Government that constantly tried to break out of the confines of the Common Minimum Programme. They have now found it easier to take some of the steps. But they have not fully succeeded, yet.
Q: How do you assess the significance of the role of the Left at the national level over the last five years?
A: If you look at the two decades from 1990s till now, we have said that there is a rightward shift in Indian politics, as discussed in our 14th Party Congress in 1992. This rightward shift continued in our national politics as evident in the pursuit of neoliberal reforms and in the rise of communalism, in the success of communal politics as seen in the rise of the BJP. That rightward shift has continued in the 1990s and during the early years of the 21st century. However, there was a break in 2004.
A party with the same class character as the BJP, a bourgeois-landlord party led by the big bourgeoisie, in this case, the Congress came to power. But the circumstances in which it came to power did not allow them to have a free hand in whatever they wanted to do. This definitely did put some breaks in the momentum that was gained in the pursuit of neoliberal policies and further communalization of Indian society. There is definitely a difference when BJP is in power and when a party like the Congress is in power. It is not that communal politics has ceased to exist or that the communal forces and their political, ideological and organizational activities have ceased. What was the plan of the RSS? To keep the BJP in power at the center so that step-by-step, the Indian constitution and the Indian republic as such can be reordered according to their Hindutva ideology. So, 2004 was a major break. This cannot be underestimated.
On the other hand, the Left was in a position to mount an opposition and resistance to the continuous thrust of neoliberal policies. We could stop to an extent the mindless pursuit of disinvestment and privatisation of Navaratna PSUs and check financial sector liberalization. These have protected the people from the worst impact of the global crisis we are witnessing today. Some of the measures like the NREGA, the implementation of the Tribal Forest Rights Act and a limited increase in public investment and expenditure went against the overall trend that was developing since the 1990s. But the role of the Left in this period should not be seen only in terms of its intervention on individual policy issues. But it should be seen in line with our assessment about the change in course of Indian politics towards a rightwing shift, characterized by a confluence of the deadly mixture of rightwing economic policies and rightwing communal politics. This to some extent was checked in this five-year period. The role played by the CPI (M) and the Left parties in this has been crucial.
But the major confrontation with the UPA Government came vis-à-vis the third pillar of the whole right wing architecture, the greater imperialist penetration and influence in our society. Although this actually began during the Narasimha Rao Government in terms of greater collaboration with US imperialism, it came to the forefront and proceeded apace during the tenure of the UPA regime. Frankly, we had not anticipated this in 2004. Because, we had an agreement in the Common Minimum Programme where it was assured that the Congress Government will not pursue the pro-American line or go in for a strategic collaboration. But we saw that there was a major priority accorded to this agenda. The clear hint was evident when the Defence Minister signed the Defence Framework Agreement in June 2005. So the Left had to wage struggle against this.
Finally, if I have to sum up, in this five-year period, the Left was successful after a long time in two decades, to intervene in social and economic processes, and check the movement towards a right wing and reactionary direction.
Q: Why do you think did the Congress-led UPA government insist on pursuing with the Indo-US nuclear deal, despite it not figuring in the NCMP? Were you left with no option but to withdraw support?
A: As analyzed in the ideological resolution of the 14th Party Congress, the model of capitalist development after the Independence, with greater emphasis towards self-reliance, or what is now called the Nehruvian path, changed since the 1980s onwards when the ruling classes decided to collaborate with imperialism and foreign finance capital. This collaboration did not remain within the economic sphere alone. It became a political collaboration, with concurrent ideological aspects too. The nuclear deal cannot be seen in isolation from this. It has to be seen along with the military and economic collaboration, including the borrowing of the ideological baggage that came along with this. Do not forget that much before the nuclear deal, we had started singing praise for the American model of spreading democracy across the world, when we joined the Community of Democracies, even during the times of the Vajpayee Government.
So, we had accepted the entire baggage. As Americans themselves say, democracy and free markets go together. When you accept free market, then you accept everything else. It all constitutes part of the baggage. The nuclear deal is just one aspect of this overall shift towards imperialism. Now, this is not in the CMP. In the draft presented to us, there was a reference to strategic relations with the United States. But after discussions with us, it was dropped. You will find no reference to strategic alliance with the United States in the section on foreign policy and national security. But, obviously they had not forgotten it. In the first President’s address to Parliament in 2004, it came back.
So, as far as the Congress government was concerned, going ahead with the nuclear deal was a key link in their effort to forge the strategic alliance with the United States. So, that is the reason why we were left with no option. We had made it clear to the Congress leadership, that if you go ahead with this, then we have no option but to withdraw support, since this is a basic question for us. We cannot have a government supported by the Left going ahead and forging such a strategic alliance with US imperialism. There could be no compromise on that and that will be our bottom line.
Q: What are the issues that the CPI (M) and the Left Parties will focus on during the election campaign?
A: The necessity to do away with the economic policies that are harmful to the people of the country will be the first issue. What is happening to the people of India today? The latest figures indicate increase in hunger, malnutrition and unemployment and a steady decline in the purchasing power of the people. As a Communist Party, our first concern is about the living conditions of the working people. How do we change the material conditions of the people? The record of the UPA Government in the last five years has shown an unprecedented growth in the social and economic inequalities among the people. This will be our focus in the forthcoming election campaign.
When the Government repeatedly boasts about high GDP growth and prosperity, they are actually talking about the growth of the rich and the billionaires – four out of the ten richest people in the world are from India. Distinct from other parties, the CPI (M)’s campaign will sharply focus on this and our alternatives to such policies will be put before the people.
The second area will be the continuing threat of the communal and divisive forces, which includes terrorism too. Because, terrorism ultimately also divides people. We don’t agree with the way Congress and the BJP tackle the issues of terrorism. We have our own understanding as to how to fight communalism and terrorism. Communalism feeds into and instigates terrorism.
The third area will be the entire realm of social issues in India – caste and gender related discrimination and inequalities. The policies pursued by the successive Governments or State policies as a whole have not addressed such issues. We will also raise the issue of socio-economic upliftment of the Muslim minorities.
The fourth area will be foreign policy. No other party talks about foreign policy. Governments may come and go, but the issue of foreign policy remains the same for the ruling classes in the country. There is no basic difference between the Congress and the BJP on this. But to us, to stick to an independent foreign policy on the lines of the Non-aligned Movement is very important, because it is directly related to the task of changing the nature and the path of development to be pursued in our country. To break away from the strategic alliance with the US and to strive for multi-polarity as originally cited in the Common Minimum Programme will be at the center of our campaign. India’s role, as the second largest developing country next to China, with a potential to play a major role in international affairs, cannot be that of strengthening those forces that want to maintain imperialist domination and hegemony in the world. Rather, India can play a very important role in restructuring international affairs on more democratic lines, which will also impact our domestic policy.
Q: Could you please elaborate on the relationship between independent foreign policy and our domestic policies?
A: If you want a working Public Distribution System in India, for instance, you cannot have this strategic partnership with the US. Then you will have Wal-Mart selling essential commodities. It is as simple as that.
Otherwise, what is the contract that India has entered into with the US? It is about importing their economic model. When we started dismantling PDS, it was done under the pressure of the World Bank. I remember the setting up of a Committee during the Narasimha Rao government when the whole Targeted PDS was discussed and subsequently introduced during the United Front Government. If we continue to maintain this economic model then we will not be able to have a good working PDS in the country. If we align with imperialism, we will not be in a position to stop multinational corporations from entering the retail trade sector. Next to agriculture, the retail trade sector employs the largest work force in the country, which will be affected if foreign investment is allowed into the retail sector.
If one looks at the Indo-US CEO Forum for instance, it is ironic that the Vice Chairman of our Planning Commission is a member of that forum. We have seen the Ministers of Commerce and Finance attending the meetings of this forum. What was the agenda in these meetings? They wanted to further open up sectors like Insurance, banking, telecom, power, real estate, media and many others to American capital. They wanted to introduce foreign universities in the higher education sector, which the Government tried to do by brining in legislation in the parliament. Actually, each one of the CEO Forum recommendations was matched with legislative and policy initiatives undertaken by the UPA Government. We had done a study on this providing a checklist matching the agenda of the CEOs with that of Government policy.
It was also the case with the Indo US Agricultural Knowledge Initiative. This was all about weakening of our public research institutions in agriculture. The position that India takes in WTO that affects our farmers, intellectual property rights etc. are all affected by our strategic collaboration with the US.
Therefore it is very important to understand how foreign policy directly impacts our domestic policies. We cannot have an alternative policy while continuing with the link with imperialism, neither will they allow that to be done. This is true for all sectors, including health and education where privatization has been rampant. In fact, the scale of privatization in health in our country is much more than in the advanced capitalist countries, who have retained their public health infrastructure to some extent. Therefore we say that independent foreign policy is very important.
Q: What is the progress so far in forging a non-BJP, non-Congress alternative? Do you think it is possible to form a non-BJP, non-Congress Government at the Centre after the elections?
A: Our position on this was clarified in the last Party Congress that we want to build a third alternative, which will not merely be an electoral platform. It is a longer term effort for the Left, democratic and secular forces to come together and work, to build a third alternative on common policies and issues, which will be distinct from that of the Congress and the BJP. This requires time, and in fact, we reviewed our experience on this task, where we had stated our understanding that such an alternative cannot be built only by electoral alliances. We will have to continue to build on that.
If elections come in the meanwhile, yes, we will have to enter into certain electoral alliances but it does not necessarily constitute the third alternative, as we understand it. Popularly, in the context of the elections, the third alternative is viewed as the coming together of some non-Congress and non-BJP parties. But we have not used the word third alternative at all in matters of electoral understanding.
We have now entered into an understanding with certain parties, which are mostly regional in character, as in the case of the TDP, AIADMK and the JD (S), based on certain shared views. In Orissa, the BJD has walked out of the alliance with the BJP and the NDA. We will work with them. Some of the parties have stood and worked with us, like in the case of the TDP who have cooperated with us against the nuclear deal, price rise and in issues faced by the farmers. There is no national alliance, but the CPI and the CPI (M) have reached an understanding with certain regional parties.
With regard to the second part of the question, we will have to wait. But, anything might be possible. For instance, if we look back at 2004, the BJP and the Congress put together got 283 seats out of the 543, Congress 145 and the BJP 138, making it 56 percent of the vote share. The rest went to other regional parties and the Left. After every election we have seen how the electoral space of the Congress and the BJP has shrunk. We don’t expect it to grow significantly in this election too. We can therefore conceive of a post-election scenario, when some non-Congress and non-BJP parties might come together. We are working towards that by trying to rally these forces in the run up to the elections. We also know that there are parties both in the UPA and the NDA who are keeping their options open, to realign their position after the elections. So, we will have to wait and see.
Q: Are they really keeping their options open?
A: That is the impression that we have based on our interactions with these parties. Also, don’t forget that it was the Congress after its last CWC meeting, which announced that there would be no national level alliance. In a sense the Congress itself has dismantled the UPA since none of the parties in it are bound by a national alliance and are free to go in for regional alliances. This has opened up possibilities, not because we did anything, but because of the Congress itself. The regional parties now feel liberated from the Congress party.
Q: How do you see the electoral prospects of the CPI (M) and the Left in States other than West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala?
A: We are clear that we are fighting elections to register our politics and positions among the people. In states where our party is weak, we will be fighting one or two seats, to take our politics and message to the people and also, to gather support for our non-Congress and non-BJP electoral alternative. Even if we don’t win seats, when certain number of people votes for us, we are gathering support for our politics, which is the political struggle to gather more and more people in support of our political stance for alternative policies. This will be our main thrust in our campaign in states, where we are not a major electoral force.
But there are states, where we hope to win some seats. Apart from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the two states where it is important for us given our political role and strength, are Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In both, we are in the process of finalizing seat-sharing arrangements. In Andhra, the TDP, CPI, CPI (M) and the TRS will have to work out seat sharing. In Tamil Nadu, as of now, it is the AIADMK, with whom the discussions are going on.
Q: In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP, TRS and the Left Parties have come together to contest the elections – but the TRS is in favour of separate statehood for Telengana. What is the CPI (M)’s stand on the issue?
A: Except for the CPI (M), all other parties have come out in support of Telengana, including the TDP and the Congress. Our party has maintained consistently that the creation of Andhra Pradesh on the basis of the linguistic state principle is valid and we stand for a united State.
In the forthcoming elections in Andhra for both the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly, our main slogan is to defeat and oust the Congress from power. The alliance is built around this slogan and Telengana cannot be the determining issue. We will maintain our stance for a united AP.
Q: The BJP is once again falling back on its Hindutva-agenda. What are your observations on the BJP and its prospects in the forthcoming elections?
A: The BJP is caught in a contradiction. LK Advani, their Prime Ministerial candidate and their leadership know very well that unless they have a broader alliance, they cannot win this election. For that, they cannot afford to harp on Hindutva. At the same time, we should not forget that the BJP is not an ordinary political party. It is an instrument of the RSS. So, it cannot really cut off its moorings from the Hindutva agenda. Then it will no longer be BJP, because it is not just a right wing party, but also a communal party. Their problem is that they have not been able to get a big response to their Hindutva agenda. In UP for instance, despite their repeated attempts, they have found that the Ram temple does not sell anymore among the people. They keep saying that they will build the temple, but are also compelled to say that it’s not a political issue. The problem for the BJP is therefore to build a broader coalition yet without abandoning its Hindutva agenda.
The NDA is not the same coherent coalition, as it seemed to be, a few years ago. There are already strains in that coalition and many have left. The BJD in Orissa is the latest example. Therefore, the BJP’s prospects are not very bright.
Q: Sections of the media continue to speculate about a post-poll UPA-Left adjustment. Would you like to comment?
A: Since our Central Committee meeting in October, when we spelt out our electoral-tactical line, I have repeatedly said that it will be wrong and misleading to look at the 2009 elections from the prism of the 2004 elections. Based on the issues before the people in this election, the verdict is going to be different. The conjuncture in the last elections, with the Left having won so many seats necessitating the Congress to seek our support will not be repeated this time. There will be a completely different set of alignments. The type of intervention that may be required from the Left will not be what it was in 2004. Why harp on something, which is not going to happen?
There are so many possibilities. So, why speculate? We will work to see that there is a secular Government, and we are confident about that. In 2004, we were not so confident because we thought it would be a tough battle to keep the BJP out of power. But this time, it appears relatively easier to put in place a secular Government. But we want a non-Congress secular Government which will pursue pro-people economic policies, defend secularism, strengthen federalism and follow an independent foreign policy. The post-poll alignments might favour that and in which case, we will play a role. Any attempt to form a non-Congress secular Government will require the role of the Left.
Q: Critics of the Left are predicting that the Left will become irrelevant at the national level after the elections. How would you respond to such views?
A: The trouble with the bourgeois media is that they see the Left’s role only in terms of the number of seats. Our relevance and irrelevance is not only dependent on seats. I remember we had played a very important role at the national level, when we had 20 or 30 seats. The role that we play will be dependent on our politics and the type of policies in which we intervene and how. What is important is that after the elections, it will only be the CPI (M) and the Left forces, which will continue to fight against imperialist penetration, against all communal and divisive forces and we will never give up our fight to reverse neoliberal economic policies and bring in alternative policies. How we perform that role will be decided on the basis of our politics and strength, and that will not be dependent on our electoral performance alone.
Q: A grand alliance of reactionary forces has been formed against the Left Front Government in West Bengal. What are your observations on the anti-Left opposition in West Bengal?
A: We had anticipated this in our Party Congress resolution. Our consistent stand against Indo-US strategic alliance and our consistent struggle against neoliberal economic policies have infuriated the ruling classes of the country. So, we know that there will be a concerted attack on the CPI (M) and the other Left forces. The grand alliance in West Bengal in the electoral sphere is one manifestation of that. There are efforts to isolate and weaken the CPI (M), particularly in the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. We have to face that and fight back. In Kerala too, it is a similar situation, where they try do the same; not necessarily through a mahajot of political parties but through a mahajot of various other reactionary forces; backed by the UDF. It is not that this is entirely a new situation for us. Through consistent mobilization of the people, we should be able to fight these forces.