Election 2014: In conversation with Prakash Karat, Full interview

“The coming together of these 11 parties makes this election a three-way contest”

Sanjay Kapoor and Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

With the possibility of a fractured verdict in the coming 2014 elections, the Left Front is playing the “linking role” to stitch a coalition of 11 regional parties. The idea behind the alliance, according to Prakash Karat, CPM General Secretary, is to provide an alternative to the Congress and BJP that strengthens democracy, fights communalism and protects secularism. Critical of neo-liberal economic policies that are behind corruption scandals, Karat also dwells on the alternative path of development that is pro-people. 

He says that the 2014 General Elections is much more than just a fight between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. He believes that Modi’s popularity is a mirage confined to the middle classes which had thronged to vote for the Congress in the last elections. And that the Left needs to be strengthened to ensure that there is an alternative to the two main parties.   

In this politically significant interview with Hardnews, the CPM General Secretary talks about the factors behind the rise of Narendra Modi, the debacle after the 2008 civil nuclear deal, and Mamata Banerji. Karat also slammed the AAP for its lack of ideological clarity, saying that its influence will be confined to urban pockets and it could end up becoming like other bourgeoisie outfits.

You have tried to put together a third front as distinct from Congress and the BJP. But I remember, not too long back, you had asserted that there was no space for a third front. What has changed since then?

What we are trying to do is get various non-Congress, non-BJP parties, at least the major ones, together so that we can present an electoral alternative to both the parties. This is not a third front, in the sense that this is not going to be a full-fledged alliance based on a common programme. What we want to do is to declare before the elections that we, the 11 parties that are getting together, will fight these elections against both Congress and the BJP, and provide an alternative that is based on strengthening of democracy, fighting communalism, and protecting secularism, putting in place an alternative path of development, which is pro people or people oriented. And restructure Centre-State relations for a more federal setup where the rights of the states are assured. Broadly, this will be the common agenda or the approach of these parties. 

But you are also saying that this is not going to be the common programme as such.

Sure, but the parties are going to declare broad guiding principles around which we will be getting together. Because it is with these issues or principles that we are demarcating ourselves from Congress and the BJP. 

How do you propose to put this front together? There are people with very different approaches to politics.

Again, as I said, it is not a front. This started with a Convention where we got 14 parties together to fight against communalism and to protect people’s unity. Out of the 14 parties, one is in the UPA still. That is the NCP. And of the remaining 13 parties, 11 are represented in the just concluded Lok Sabha. So these 11 parties met at the beginning of the session and decided that they should work together and have a common approach in Parliament. Following that, it was decided that we should meet on February 25, where leaders of these 11 parties will sit together and  issue a joint declaration expressing our resolve to fight against both Congress and BJP and to present an  alternative based on the four major principles, which I mentioned earlier. 

How do the numbers stack up? You have an alliance, or a pre-poll alliance with Tamil Nadu to start with.

These parties are mainly state-based and enjoy substantial support there. They won the assembly elections and formed government after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. We have the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha, the Samajwadi Party (SP) of UP, and Janata Dal JD (U) of Bihar. All four are running governments, besides the Left-run government in Tripura. That means these are five state governments run by the parties coming together. All I am trying to say is that there need not be an electoral alliance between different constituents of this combination because they do not exist in other states. So there is no question of saying that BJD and the JD(U) cannot have an electoral alliance, or the BJD and the AIADMK. Between these parties, the linking factor is the Left parties as we have had relations with most of these regional parties in the past, and even in the present. The regional parties coming together along with the Left parties give it a national character. Some of these regional parties will be having an understanding with the Left parties in their respective states, not in all the states. All these parties, which are strong in their respective states, are pulling their resources together at the national level. So in a sense, the alliance already has a federal flavour. Different constituents are coming together at the all-India level to say, “Yes, we are together, and we will fight both Congress and the BJP, and present an alternative platform.” That is the basis. 

But how does the alliance stack up nationally in numbers?

We cannot go by the numbers in the past Lok Sabha elections. But if you look at the states, these are major states – UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and so on. It’ll be clear very soon that those who thought this will be an election between Congress and the BJP, Narendra Modi  vs Rahul Gandhi, thought wrong. The coming together of these 11 parties, which are strong at least in a dozen states where we can expect them to get a substantial number of seats in the Lok Sabha, makes this election a three-way contest. In light of the political situation in the country where the Congress is losing ground steadily, the assumption that this will be gained by the BJP is wrong. In many states, the fight is between Congress and these regional parties. The BJP is nowhere in the picture. Where is the BJP in Tamil Nadu or in West Bengal or in Odisha or in Kerala? The battle here will be between the Congress and a combination of these regional parties or platform. All the analyses that say Congress is losing and BJP is gaining are missing an important dimension. 

But many of these parties, we have seen in the past, have gone with the NDA. For example, Jayalalithaa or even BJD. There are people who are saying that the Left is just helping these parties to win so that they can ally with the BJP.

Well, the BJD broke with the BJP in 2009, and subsequently, the record of the BJD is that they have effectively fought and isolated the BJP in Odisha. At the national level too, BJD has been consistent in steering a non-Congress and non-BJP course. The same with JD(U), when they broke up with the BJP. That is more recent. But they are determined not to have any truck with the BJP. They are also taking a political position against the Congress and the BJP. Going by past records, some of these parties have had had an understanding with the Congress but they have now broken with that. Today there is a clear-cut political alternative before the people: neither Congress nor BJP. These parties are making this possible. The credibility of a party like the BJD today, that is fighting the BJP, is not questioned by anyone. We know what has happened in Odisha in the past five years since they parted ways with the BJP. We can’t question the intention of the JD (U) or say, Nitish Kumar in Bihar either, who is determined to fight and tackle the BJP there.

So they can be trusted to stay with the so-called secular political alliance?

No. We are saying that they can be trusted to stay out of the BJP. 

But the same would not apply to Jayalalithaa?

Why? In the case of Jayalalitha, she had broken with the NDA much earlier but she had never shown any intention of having any understanding with the BJP. 

She is seen as very close to Narendra Modi.

Many people are seen to be close to so many people but that is not how politics works. In Tamil Nadu, she has made it clear that she will have nothing to do with the DMK or its alliance, possibly the Congress and the BJP and its allies, whoever they will be. 

So for the last five years, the political narrative has largely been over the Congress’s scams, corruption, and has less to do with the issues like communalism and social inclusion. Do you think 2014 election would be like the Delhi Assembly – post ideology, post caste?

No, I think what happened in Delhi is basically a Delhi-based phenomenon. Corruption is a major issue in the sense that the Congress has been discredited because of its record of corruption in the last 10 years of its rule. The anti-Congress mood in the country today is not just because of corruption, it is because of price rise, economic difficulties that the people are facing and they blame that on the Congress party and the Central government. These are also major issues. For the bulk of the people, when they see the prices of vegetables shooting up, when they see the price of petrol or diesel being constantly raised, when they see the continuous increase in the cost of living, they realize it is not because of any state government, but a result of the policies pursued by the Central government.

These issues will be at the fore as far as the people are concerned. Therefore, I don’t think the Delhi elections or Delhi phenomenon was about corruption alone; it is because the AAP took up some issues that directly affected the people, electricity rates or water supply, etc. They found support among the poorer sections of the people. Before that, the anti-corruption movement was predominantly a middle class phenomenon. 

But again, the Left has been taking up these issues for the last 65 odd years.

That is why we are strong in the places where we are. We are not there all over the country in strength. But corruption does not become an issue in West Bengal or Kerala because our governments have been relatively corruption-free. Corruption is actually a symptom of the economic policies of the government. We’re fighting those policies, not the symptoms. If you talk corruption, and then allow the loot of natural resources through the policies of the government, that’s not right.

The AAP now says we are against nationalization of the mineral resources of the country. But it is just the opening up of the mineral resources to the private and foreign companies that has led to the loot and all the attendant corruption. We do not talk about corruption alone, without detaching it from the nature of the regime and the policies that are being pursued… 

You think the AAP is not shying away from addressing the root cause?

That is what we have been saying: spell out your basic programme and your policies. Arvind Kejriwal had taken up a fight against privatization of water, I remember earlier. But today he is only talking about better regulation by the government of private companies in these basic services like electricity and water. According to us, that is a myth or a misnomer, because regulatory agencies are set up under the neoliberal regimes precisely to serve the interests of the private sector and private companies. That is why you will find every time the regulatory authority always favours the private sector and companies that are distributing or producing electricity. So I think the AAP is not really coming out with a clear-cut alternative approach to its policies yet. 

Do you think this is deliberate?

We do not know.  We hear they are going to bring it out; they have set up some group to bring it out. We have said we are going to come out with our full-fledged assessment only when we see their basic policies. But bits and pieces, which have come out recently, are not very inspiring. 

But they openly say we are neither Left nor Right. You cannot pin us to any of those places…

They do not believe in any ideology also. So this non-ideological approach, well I am afraid, will make them into another variant of a bourgeoisie party. Maybe an egalitarian-bourgeoisie party. That is something to be seen. 

Do you agree with the BJP’s assertion that they are backed by the CIA?

Well the BJP claiming that has no credibility. It is coming from the BJP, which when in government, forged the closest security and intelligence ties with the Americans. In fact Mr L K Advani visited the CIA office when he was Home Minister and Deputy PM – the only Indian leader to do so – to meet the CIA director. 

BJP has a muscular PM candidate in the form of Narendra Modi. Why is he getting such popular groundswell?

The fact is there is a large-scale discontent against the Congress and the UPA. Those sections that had lionized Manmohan Singh and the economic reforms he embarked upon in 1991, those very sections have turned against him. Today, they are all Modi acolytes, Modi supporters. So the strongest support for Narendra Modi comes from the big business and the corporate sector. This is his greatest strength if you put it in one way. 

So why has the corporate sector dumped Manmohan Singh?

The neo-liberal policies have themselves created a crisis in the economy and the country. This is now being blamed on the PM and the UPA government, which has been very faithfully implementing these policies. In order to get out of this crisis, the big business and corporate sector want more reforms, that means more concessions, more opening up of the economy to them, and foreign capital. They feel Modi will deliver on this. This is in essence the Gujarat model: unrestrained, untrammeled catering to the corporate sector and big businesses. 

But Modi is getting huge crowds too.

As far as the other aspect, Modi has an appeal among the same urban middle classes that had thronged towards Congress in the last elections, in 2009, and among the sections of the educated youth belonging to the middle class. So this has generated certain hype about his popularity. But what is not being seen is, for example, in UP, every rally that Modi has held, the SP has held an equally bigger rally. You can find out the size of the rallies in Gorakhpur, Bareilly, Varanasi, Azamgarh etc, which the SP held, and the size of the Modi rallies. So it is not a question of determining the support through rallies. Rallies can be organized through lots of resources, which Modi and the BJP have at their disposal to organize and ensure maximum media coverage. 

But the surveys also show that there is great attraction for him.

In UP, for instance, where the BJP has been getting only 10 seats in the last two elections – it has not gone beyond that – it is possible that they could gain some more seats. Again, as I told you, in urban areas, the shift had taken place even before Modi was projected as the PM candidate. So you cannot get the total picture. Even in a state like UP, you will see that there are parties like BSP, SP, which are well entrenched, and voting in UP will take place not necessarily on the lines that Modi projects. 

Post the Muzaffarnagar communal riots, it is a highly charged polity…

In certain parts of Western UP, there has been a certain impact of the communal polarization after Muzaffarnagar. But that is not the situation in the rest of UP. 

BJP is trying to turn Parliament elections into a Presidential contest. Do you have a candidate in place in case of your alliance winning a majority?

We are against such a concept. The parties that are coming together strongly believe that in a Parliamentary system, the question of PM candidate will be decided in the post election period, when the situation so arises. This is what we have always done, in 1989 with the formation of the VP Singh government, and in 1996 with the formation of the United Front government. The question of who should be the leader was decided after mutual consultations, after the elections among the various constituent parties and their leaders. 

This particular arrangement you following has two components – a pre-poll and a post-poll one…

The difference between now, and say 1996, when the United Front was cobbled together after elections with the single aim of preventing the BJP from forming the government, is that we don’t have a front or a pre-election alliance. We have only arrived at some broad understanding about working together before the elections. Essentially, this is to pave the way for a post-poll alliance. If you have seen the history of these parties, after the collapse or the dismantling of the United Front in 1998, we were all scattered and went different ways. It is for the first time that a bulk of these parties has come together, with the exception of the TDP. 

There are some members of the so-called broader Left who have been insisting that Congress should also be a part of this anti-communal front. They are wary of the AAP, thinking it is being helped by the BJP itself. Do you subscribe to this idea?

No, this is not an anti-communal front alone. It is an anti-Congress and anti-BJP combination. There is a combination in Bihar like that of the RJD, the Congress and the LJP. Congress is part of such a combination. We are going into this election opposing the policies of the Congress, pursued under the UPA government, I want to make that very clear. 

Do you think the policies that allowed you to support UPA-I have become different now?

That is not so clear-cut. Even under UPA-I, we fought against many of their policies. That was the whole struggle then. If they wanted to sell shares of BHEL, we had to fight against it. They wanted to push for privatization in certain sectors; they wanted to open up the banking sector and insurance to more foreign capital. All that we had to fight. We were in a better position to block some of those policies, resist them. But they have speeded that up after UPA-II. Today, when we go into election, we can’t forget that people want a change in the policies that have caused price rise, caused farmers distress, unemployment. So when you say Congress is a part of this, then you are accepting that the old regime should continue. The Congress is going to be rejected by the people. The mandate will be against the UPA government’s policies. So there is no question of us going with the Congress and this alliance. 

You may have taken a principled stance against the civilian nuclear deal with United States but the Congress seemed to have benefitted from the rupture that took place between you and their party in 2008. Do you think you misread the situation there?

I do not think they benefitted from that. In UPA-I, they benefitted from the implementation of the NREGA Act, from the Forest Rights Act, the waiver of loans to the farmers by banks, the RTI and so on. These were all the legislations passed under the UPA-I. So in one sense, we helped them by pushing for these measures to be implemented. The civilian nuclear deal, they only took it seriously when the Congress said we would be providing cheap electricity to all. I do not think this was any issue in the elections. Subsequent developments show that this was a dud deal, India had nothing much to gain from it. Au contraire, we had to give many other concessions to the Americans. We were hurt not because of the nuclear deal break up with the UPA, we were hurt in the elections because of the situation in West Bengal where we lost the Parliament elections for the first time from Trinamool Congress; the electoral setback in 2009 had nothing to do with nuclear deal. It was not an issue for the people in the elections. 

But what were the reasons for the failure of the Left parties in the 2009 elections?

The failure was mainly in West Bengal, because the CPM and the Left get the bulk of their seats from this state. More than 60 percent of the seats we win in any elections in the Lok Sabha come from West Bengal. Our loss there pulled us down. Kerala never used to give us so many seats, except in the 2004 elections where we got an unprecedented 18 out of 20. The problem, as we analyzed in detail, was that the Left government had been running there for 34 years. We had undertaken plenty of work in that period – land reforms, Panchayati Raj, decentralization, ensuring that the working people get benefits, etc. But when a party is in power for such long years, the negative factors do pile up. That is what determined the election outcome, not the nuclear deal. The Trinamool Congress succeeded in eroding some of our base in the long period of our being in government. There are other reasons too, which we have explained in the review of the elections. 

You think you are in a better position to fight the aggressive populism and politics of Mamata Banerjee?

Today, if elections are held in WB in a fair and peaceful way, we will likely improve our tally compared to 2009. The two-and-a-half years of Mamata Banerjee’s rule have demonstrated clearly to the people that this was not the change, the paribortan, that they had hoped for. We held a rally on the February 9, which turned out to be the biggest rally the Left has held in the Brigade Maidan ever, according to our estimates. The question is whether all these people will vote the Left in the Lok Sabha polls. Our experience subsequent to the Trinamool Congress coming to power has been that elections are always rigged and violence perpetrated on the Left supporters. Our apprehension is that they will try to prevent them from voting. This has to be tackled. We have lost 147 people since the last Assembly elections. In areas of traditional Left support, the TMC has instituted a regime of terror where people are threatened, intimidated, forced to leave their homes if they continue to support CPM. Before elections, it was not the question of rigging in the polling booth – they won’t be able to do it as easily as they did in the Panchayat elections – it was the question whether the voters will be able to come to the polling booth and vote in many areas where they have decided to target us.  

What kind of social coalition of Mamata is unleashing violence on the Left cadre?

For one, it is encouraging the hoodlums and anti-social elements to take up the Trinamool flag and attack us. They wave the banner when they attack. Secondly, even though the administration and the police intervene when the attacks take place, the charges are lodged against our people. There are thousands of cases against the CPM and Left front activists and leaders. Recently, two women were gang raped in Howrah district; they were punished as that area had voted for CPM in the local body elections. Trinamool got very few votes and the police arrested our candidate in that election. If such terrorism is allowed to continue, how will people exercise their choices? 

Under no circumstances will you take the support of Congress? In a situation where you are short on numbers to form the government…

I will repeat that we cannot have an alliance with the Congress. 

You are talking about the pre-poll alliance?

We are not having an alliance with them. Support? First, let us fight the elections and see. The whole question of having an alternative front will arise only if we succeed in the elections. Yes, a situation may arise where the Congress, having been defeated badly in the election, will have to consider what role it has to play in order to ensure that there is a secular government in keeping the BJP out. That question may come at that time. That we have to see. 

For the Left as well, it is a do-or-die scenario, in the sense that if you don’t perform you become irrelevant...

No, for us, elections are only one part of the struggle – in fact, it is not really the main part. Of course, politically it will be important for the Left to be successful in this election because we have to recover the ground we lost. Without strengthening the Left, an alternative will not emerge so easily. Increased strength of the Left is a guarantee for such an alternative. 

You were not impressed by the AAP alternative?

No, it is just an alternative in Delhi. We have to see. I doubt very much that it can emerge as a national level alternative in this election. I think their success or their electoral impact will be confined to Delhi. 

What do you think about the FIR that AAP filed against Reliance on the issue of gas pricing in the K-G basin?

Well this is an issue that we have been raising for more than a decade now. I remember Dipankar Mukherjee, Rajya Sabha MP and chairman of the Standing Committee, raised this matter comprehensively and again and again. Why are you consistently going on gold-plating and increasing the price of natural gas, which is being extracted by Reliance in the K-G basin? I am talking about the first time when the price was increased from $2 to $4. This is an issue on which the UPA government has consistently rigged the price in favour of Reliance – it’s a well-known fact. There is a petition in the Supreme Court filed by Gurdas Gupta and others regarding this. So if any inquiry is held, an independent inquiry, the truth will come out. But I am not sure what exactly this FIR is going to lead to. Because all this material is there, the CAG reports are there, so the question is proper investigation and inquiry into the whole pricing of natural gas must be done. I am not sure whether the FIR filed by the Delhi government can solve it, but the issue is very much vital. 

Lastly, there are those who claim that after the court verdict on Godhra, which has gone in favour of Modi, he should be allowed to breathe easy. What is your opinion?

No, the matter is very clear as far as we are concerned. The Special Investigation Team’s investigation was flawed. Subsequently, it went to court. The trial court has dismissed the petition of Zakia Jafri. But an appeal will be filed that will go through the judicial process. But the wider question is very much there, which is the involvement and the complicity of the Modi government in what happened in the 2002 riots. So that is a political question which will remain and which will be raised and it will continue to come up in various relevant contexts. We have to see how this can be taken up.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014