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‘Our assessment now is that we will win the elections’

CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat. File photo: M. Vedhan

CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat. File photo: M. Vedhan  

The Full Text of an interview by Karan Thapar, with Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat, for the programme ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ telecast over CNN-IBN on March 27.

How does the Left view its prospects in the forthcoming elections? Let’s start with the forthcoming elections in West Bengal and Kerala. There’s a widespread expectation that the Left will lose both. Can you accept that the wind is against you?

No, I think these expectations will be belied. In the case of West Bengal we have seen this in the last two elections, in 2001 and 2006, also. They said we’re facing a very difficult fight, and we proved that we could win quite comfortably.

All right, let’s for a moment focus on [West] Bengal, I’ll come to Kerala later. Last year, in 2010, you lost the provincial polls; in 2009 you lost the national polls as well as State byelections; in 2008 you lost the panchayat elections. Isn’t there a clear trend against you?

No. Indeed, [in the] Lok Sabha elections and the municipal elections we lost ground. We’ve taken note of that, and in the last one year, since then, we’ve made efforts to recover the ground.

But when you say you made efforts to recover the ground, just concentrate for a moment on the sweeping nature of these three electoral defeats. In 2009 you collapsed to your worst-ever performance in a national election in your party’s 47-year history. In 2010 in the provincial polls, you won just 18 out of 81 [local bodies], whilst the Trinamool [Congress] and the Congress won 40 together. The ground that you’ve to make up is huge.

We’ve made up ground, and the response we’re getting in the last few months in particular show that we’ve recovered ground quite a lot compared to the situation in 2009.

But are you really telling me that you’ve recovered enough ground to be able to claim that you can win the State elections?

Yes. Our assessment now is that we will win the elections. We know that there is a very strong combination against us. There is an anti-Left combination which stretches from the right to the extreme left. But despite that we are confident of winning the elections.

I’m going to make you repeat it. You’re really saying to me, sincerely, and this is not bravado, that you believe you can win the elections in Bengal?

Yes.

But look for a moment at the collapse of your party, not just your party, the Left’s image in the State. Nandigram and Singur have battered you. In contrast, Mamata Banerjee’s simplicity, integrity and her stand on Nandigram and Singur are being praised. Your negatives have become her positives.

No, no, it’s not so. As far as Singur is concerned, I don’t think the people of Bengal are going to blame us for the loss of that [Tata] automobile project.

You mean they’ve forgiven you, or they’ve forgotten?

No, they’re not going to blame us, I say. They’re going to blame the Trinamool Congress for this.

But what about the impression that has been created that you were land-grabbing at the cost of the poor. That’s the real problem that you face?

I think that propaganda against us has been dispelled because they will look at our record for the last 34 years — that this is the State which has distributed land to the highest level in the entire country.

You know, you say that it has been dispelled, and in fact you call it propaganda. But let me quote your colleague, the General Secretary of the CPI, A. B. Bardhan. He says, and I’m quoting that: “After 34 years in power the Left in Bengal has become swollen-headed, arrogant and alienated.” Then, he added: “It seems to me that there is some alienation between our cadres and our activists on the one hand and the people on the other.” Are you saying that he’s wrong?

The statement was made…

… roughly eight months ago.

That’s what I was going to say, more than six months ago. One aspect is that if there is alienation among many sections of the people with our party and our party organisations, we’ve identified that and taken steps to remove that alienation.

What steps have you taken?

Well, at the party level, at the government level, we have taken steps. We’ve reached out to these people, we have forged links again with people who may have turned away from us.

You may have taken steps and you may have reached out. How do you know that it has actually had the desired affect on the people? Because everyone is saying that the Left is heading towards its first defeat in 34 years.

We’ve won elections [in West Bengal] seven times. We’ve a party organisation which makes an assessment of our support, of the type of links we have with the people. And we will rely on that organisation again to make an assessment.

But isn’t that one of the problems you’ve faced: that after 34 years in power there’s a certain boredom, or at least an ennui, with you, people want a change? You’re battling against anti-incumbency.

Let’s see what the people decide. As far as we are concerned, we are confident that the people of Bengal will judge us and judge the Trinamool Congress alliance by what they stand for and their respective records.

Let me give you one other reason why people believe that actually, within your hearts, the Left is terribly scared. Look at the nature of your candidates. You’ve dropped 91 sitting MLAs including nine Ministers, over 50 per cent of the people.

It’s not [about being] scared, it’s a part of party policy. In the last election we dropped as many candidates.

Well, actually this time you have 8.9 per cent more new faces than you had in 2006.

I hope it’s good. We wanted it.

But, in fact, you’ve gone even further. You’ve increased Muslim representation by 33 per cent, women’s representation by 35 per cent. In fact, overall over 50 per cent of the faces you’re fielding are new and untried. Most people say that when a party takes such radical reforms, it’s a clear sign of desperation.

Well, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Because on the other hand they say we keep repeating the same old faces and they don’t bring any change, or don’t bring any new people.

So your bottom line is: you’re going to win in [West] Bengal and surprise everyone?

Our approach is that whatever reverses we suffered we’ve learnt the lessons from that. Our Chief Minister has again and again said that we have learnt form those mistakes and we are confident that the people will support us.

On Kerala

Let’s then come to Kerala. Now this is a State where for over 40 years since 1970 at each election a new government has been formed in Thiruvananthapuram. Do you really have the confidence to say you’re going to buck a 40-year trend?

No, I think this is overrated, this five-year cyclical change. There have been instances [where] elections have been won by the same party again.

Not since 1970.

But in 1991 there was an aberration because… we would have won the election but an abnormal situation developed after Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. So I’m confident that here also we can break this five- year pattern.

But look at the handicap that you face when you go into this particular poll. Your party goes in torn between the Pinrayai Vijayan faction on the one hand and Achuthanandan on the other. That’s a huge handicap.

In fact, this is exactly what they said in 2006, when they said our party’s riven by factionalism. And we won the highest number of seats ever in Kerala.

But you’re forgetting an important fact that in 2006 the LDF was new, the UDF had been in power. You had anti-incumbency in your favour. This time the anti-incumbency [factor] is against you.

As far as we’re concerned, there is no real anti-incumbency in Kerala against the LDF government.

But the problem is that you’re creating your own problems. Look at the flip-flop over the candidature of Achuthanandan. It happened in 2006, but because circumstances were different you survived it. It has now happened in 2011 when anti-incumbency is against you, and this is going to underline to everyone what a divided house you are.

No, it’s not that. Our party held consultations at all levels before finalising the candidates.

And then reversed it.

No, we didn’t make any changes. The final list of candidates was announced on March 18. There was no change in the list.

Except that the State Committee had announced — and it was on every front page — that Achuthanandan would not be a candidate. Two days later you changed it.

We expected that in the media it would come in this way. That’s why the final list of candidates was not finalised till the State Committee sent it down for opinions, down below to the party committees, and then they made the finalisation.

But even beyond this controversy, there’s another reason why people say that Achuthanandan’s candidature shows that you’re out of touch with the mood of the people. He’s 87. Ordinarily at his age he should be happy to retire. Yet, you’re fielding him again at a time when polls by Deccan Chronicle show that 42 per cent of young Kerala voters between 18 and 25 prefer the UDF and only 31 prefer your alliance, the LDF. He’s the wrong man for these people.

In fact, everybody says that the strongpoint of the LDF has been Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and his record as the Chief Minister for the past five years.

Then it’s even more bizarre that you should have actually seriously considered at the State level not fielding him.

No, there was no such question at all. The discussions inside the party culminated in a final decision by the State Committee, which announced Mr. Achuthanandan as the candidate.

Except… the problem is that the discussions inside the party had been published outside the party.

The information the Malayalam media is speculating [over] is why from the Polit Bureau I did not go and take a decision there. We did not do that because we wanted the State Committee to take the decision.

But the problem is that all of this has been on the front pages, it’s been on television. Hasn’t it underlined the belief that this is a divided party quarrelling within itself?

As you said, this is what was done in 2006 also. It didn’t matter at all to the results.

So just like Bengal, you’re saying to me that you’re confident you’re going to win in Kerala?

We’re hopeful, we’re expecting a good result in Kerala too.

Is that confidence, or are you being careful with your words?

No, we’ve made an assessment. The issues that will dominate the Kerala elections will be price rise and corruption, in which the Congress and the UDF will stand indicted because of the record of the Central government.

So, I’m going to get you to repeat, just for clarity, what you have already said a couple of times. You’re saying to me as General Secretary of the CPI(M).

Yes.

And the most important person in the Left as a whole. That you believe that the Left will retain power in both [West] Bengal and Kerala, that’s what you’re saying?

Yes, yes.

You really mean it?

In both [West] Bengal and Kerala.

You’re sure this isn’t going to end up being famous last words?

No.

WikiLeaks revelations

Let’s come to WikiLeaks and let’s first talk about allegations that MPs were bought in 2008. In your eyes, is this just an opportunity to embarrass the government, or do you really believe Congress MPs like Satish Sharma would boast to unknown, unnamed junior employees of the American Embassy, that they had not only bribed four RLD MPs but that they had a stash of Rs. 50 crores to bribe more?

First of all, I think it should be clear that these are cables sent by the U.S. Embassy in India to the State Department, and they’re reporting something which is confidential. It was not meant to be made public. So I don’t see any reason why U.S. Embassy officials should fabricate something which is not there. Secondly, we don’t see this as the first proof available of such bribery or votes-for-cash having happened, because all of us who were there involved at that time in the vote of confidence… On the day before the vote of confidence, the days preceding that, every party got reports of MPs being approached by ruling party persons offering money, or other forms of intimidation, etc.

I won’t deny that contemporaneously…

So we’ve all gone public. We all held press conferences saying this is what is happening.

I won’t deny that contemporaneously there was bribing happening or about to happen. The problem is in these leaks. It’s not Stephen White, the Deputy Chief of Mission, who actually saw the money or who had this conversation with Nachiketa Kapur. It’s an unnamed junior employee of his Embassy, so junior that he can’t even be defined by his designation. Now, that man may have been misled, he may have been actually making up a story, for all we know. Stephen White was simply relying on what he was told. And that’s why I repeat: do you really believe the revelations?

No, I think the person involved — and we have a fairly good idea — is at the level of the Political Officer or the Political Counselor.

We don’t know that the junior employee is a Political Counselor.

Nobody said that it’s a junior employee.

Well, he’s described as an employee of the U.S. Embassy. He’s not described as a Political Counselor.

We know the type of people who maintain contacts with political parties and political leaders. Generally it’s the Political Officer or the Political Counselor.

Let me bluntly put it like this. Are you really prepared to believe the word of an unnamed employee of the U.S. Embassy over the word of the Prime Minister of India?

We believe this is additional confirmation of what we already know, and the case is not only of three MPs inside the Parliament producing cash. There were innumerable instances of money being offered to MPs, and I can give you a whole list of them because we compiled them at that time.

All right, so you’re saying to me that you believe the credibility.

And this was done by the Congress leadership and I don’t see how the Prime Minister was ignorant of this.

So you’re saying to me that you believe the cable which says that there was money.

I’m saying that it is an additional confirmation, that’s all.

Additional confirmation. It fits into a pattern?

It fits into what we already know.

Cabinet choices

Let’s come to something else that WikiLeaks has revealed. David Mulford, the American Ambassador, says that he believes that the Cabinet reshuffle in 2006 where Mani Shanker Aiyar was replaced by Murli Deora as Petroleum Minister was done to enhance Indo-U.S. relations. At that time your party was supporting the government. Is this true?

It’s 100 per cent true, and that same cable says the Left is going to be infuriated by this reshuffle.

How do you know it’s 100 per cent true?

Because we knew it. We knew why Mani Shanker Aiyar was shifted out of the Petroleum Ministry.

You knew it at the time?

Yes, we knew why it was done.

What was the reason why you think it was done?

Because of the energy policy he pursued, which is said there in the cable. His efforts to bring the India-Pakistan-Iran pipeline to fruition. His efforts to bring an alternative energy grid. His talks in China. All this we knew, that’s why he was being shifted out.

So you’re saying to me, and you’re saying it as the General Secretary of the CPI(M)…

And they bring a pro-American person into the Ministry replacing Mani Shankar Aiyar. We strongly objected to that.

You’re saying to me as General Secretary and as a man whose party supported the government in 2006 that at the time, in 2006, you knew that Mani was replaced by Murli Deora as Petroleum Minister because Mani was pursuing an energy policy the Americans didn’t like.

Yes, exactly.

Murli Deora would have pursued a policy they would have liked? That’s why he was replaced by the other man?

That’s only part of this. But the entire Cabinet reshuffle or the expansion brought, as the cable points out… people are closely associated with United States of America.

So you believe all those other claims made in that cable that people such as Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal were all brought in…

The entire 2006 was the period we were having increasing problems with the UPA government for their adopting pro-American policies.

Let me put this to you. If you were aware at that time — and additionally, without your support the government couldn’t have survived — why didn’t you at that time protest?

No, we’re protesting all the time.

Why didn’t you protest in public?

Why should we protest in public? We conveyed our displeasure to the Prime Minister on the Iran policy, on the IAEA vote, we cannot interfere in the Cabinet-making but we made public responses…

But Mr. Prakash, never once in public did anyone from Left — not just you, anyone — ever say that these Cabinet reshuffles were happening at America’s behest, to please America and follow a pro-American line.

Let me finish, on policy matters we went on record from July 2005 when the Prime Minister went to Washington. On every issue which concerned policy. But individual Cabinet [issues] we don’t comment [on] publicly because we are not in the government, we are not the part of the coalition.

But you’re saying something very strange. This was a Cabinet reshuffle done perhaps at America’s behest to bring pro-American people and to follow an American line, and you were aware of it. You protested in private but in public you kept quiet…

No, not about the reshuffle. I said the policies we protested.

But if you were aware that the reshuffle was because of pro-American…

No, it’s not our government, it’s the Congress’ government. They can bring anybody they want. We’re not a coalition partner. That is why we withdrew support, because of the continuous pro-U.S…

But you did not withdraw support till two years later…

No, everybody knew from 2005, if you see every record from the military agreement to the nuclear agreement to the joint statement to the energy policy to the attitude to Iran, everything. Everybody knew for two years we were fighting the UPA government.

I agree that people knew what your policy differences were. But what I find bizarre is that you were also aware of the Cabinet changes happening at America’s behest and you said nothing about it, you didn’t even speak out in public about it?

Because the whole government is pro-U.S., headed by the Prime Minister himself, why should I talk about individual Ministers?

You could have brought the government down. You chose not to do so.

No, we brought the government down after they went ahead with all those policies.

But you acquiesced over the reshuffle?

No, you don’t know the two-year struggle was there… which everybody knew.

You have no conscience about this?

We fought it publicly.

You don’t think people will think it’s bizarre that you…

If you’re talking about conscience, we were the only people in this country… when the entire corporate media were pro-American, when the government was pro-American, when the Congress leadership was pro-American, surrendered to America, we were the only ones who fought it.

My last question, you are not worried, leave aside embarrassed, that people will say, he knew it is being done America’s way yet he kept quite about Mani [Shankar Aiyar] being removed?

It’s not about Mani, why are you saying Mani? I’m saying from the Prime Minister onwards they were like this.

All right, I’ll leave it there, but I think this is an issue that will probably attract greater attention in the future.

No, this is not an issue. This is a question on how we fought this government, and still the WikiLeaks show that they’re still following those policies.

Mr. Karat, a pleasure talking to you.

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