Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
"There was always was a communal undercurrent in India. The degree would vary on how stronger or not but there's always been an undercurrent there. And that is something that is part of your history, your historical, psychological makeup - the British rule, the policy of divide and rule," said Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) leader and former Rajya Sabha MP Sitaram Yechury.
Speaking to The Quint ahead of the INDIA alliance meeting in Mumbai at the quaint library of the party's office, Yechury was unfazed by but not unaware of problems behind the reduction in the party's electoral strength in the past two decades.
Pushed to the sidelines after a three-decade long rule in West Bengal and several troubles in Kerala with Pinarayi Vijayan at the helm, the party merely has three Lok Sabha MPs, a substantial reduction from the 43 tally it got in 2004.
"Yes, you're right that our strength in the Parliament has reduced significantly. But the other yardstick is also the ability to influence the national agenda through populist struggles. Now, on that score, if you look at it, the communist relevance has in fact increased," said Yechury, citing the example of the farmers' protest that was heralded by Left parties and associated organisations that eventually forced the Narendra Modi government to bend.
On 'Badi Badi Baatein!', Yechury reflects upon the changing state of students' protests in India from his time, the dangers of any attempts at a Uniform Civil Code, the rise of communal agenda in mainstream politics, his recent visit to violence-hit Manipur, and the need of a PM face for INDIA alliance.
What does the term 'Badi Badi Baatein' mean to you politically today?
Well, the 'choti choti baatein' becoming 'badi badi baatein' is what is politics all about. And that is what I think we have to focus on, because small things are the ones that are directly connected with the life and death issues of our people, which unfortunately are actually badi badi baatein but they are treated as choti choti baatein.
So, to convert these choti choti baatein into badi badi baatein is the first thing that comes to my mind.
Speaking of a little history. We all have known and have read about your speech that you have given before then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, your protests, days in the JNU as well are well documented, well spoken about. Today in the present times, how do you see student politics and how do you see the dispensations respond to them?
Well, the way I see it as far as students' politics is concerned, they are as concerned about issues the way we were concerned about issues when we were fighting the Emergency for our democratic rights, for the restoration of democracy, etc. Students today are fighting for their own rights the institutions, in the universities.
And they are under assault, which was not as widespread in our time, though you had an official emergency, a declared curtailment of democratic rights. But here you have an undeclared curtailment, infringement that runs across a variety of higher education institutions in very, very different forms. When the victims of these attacks are the ones that actually face the persecution of the state... And such attacks come out of sheer hatred.
In and educational institution for that matter, it is basically a battle of ideas, a battle of exchange of ideas. And it is through this battle of ideas, actually, creativity emerges. Now, instead of having these exchanges, if you have blows and physical exchanges, then then the whole purpose is destroyed.
Speaking of hatred, we are currently living in a time where we are seeing an overlap of religion and mainstream politics like never before. Many say that we always had hatred in our minds. You know, these things have always been said in the four walls of people's homes but never allowed to be normalised or popularised. Do you believe that there was always this undercurrent in the country?
Well, there was always was an undercurrent. I mean, the degree would vary on how stronger or not but there's always an undercurrent there. And that is something that is part of your history, your historical, psychological makeup - the British rule, the policy of divide and rule.
But the question is whether you remember it and its acts or you are made to remember it? Today, you are reminded to remember it and therefore act. There is a big, vast difference between the two and what is happening today is that you are made to remember these animosities. And therefore, you bring in that sort of hostility into normal behaviour.
Speaking of divide, the CPI(M) is vehemently opposing, the left party are vehemently opposing any talks of a uniform civil code. You have said that it is only being brought to create more divide in the society, especially between Hindus and Muslims. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Look, the point is, what is this uniform civil code that you're talking? What uniformity? On one issue that the CPI (M) has been consistent and we have relentlessly campaigned for is the equal rights for women and on the question of gender justice and gender rights. But the UCC is much more than that.
Uniformity does not mean equality. Uniformity on what? No, you have every single community which has its own version of personal rights and laws which govern their societal behaviour, even within the large section of what you call the Hindus. Now, I come from a Hindu family background. My maternal uncle can marry his sister's daughter. But that's not allowed for somebody next door within the community. There are communities where you can marry your first cousin. Then, are you going to bring uniformity to all of them? Are you going to now say that there cannot be any khap panchayats? Then, you also a large ambit of laws and practices that are related to tax laws. You have the Hindu Undivided Family. Will that be abolished? A chief minister of a northeastern state after meeting the Union Home Minister comes out and says the Union Home Minister has assured that the Uniform Civil Code will not apply to the tribals.
Now, that has been said for the Christians also. The Sikhs and the Parsis already said that they have been assured this doesn't apply to them. So, whom does it apply to? Who's left?
Not Christians, not tribals, not Sikhs, not Parsis. Then, who is it? Only Muslims that are left. The aim is very clear of what they want. They want to foment polarisation in the run up to 2024. So, they have again raked up this issue without any concrete draft. We are saying, give us a draft.
Many who are arguing or speaking in favour of the UCC cite polygamy, especially in the Muslim community as one of the reasons saying that it is to abolish polygamy, it is about rights for women. Do you think that issue won't be addressed via something like a UCC?
Polygamy under the law is already illegal. All your census show that there's more polygamy among the Hindus than among the Muslims. Now, if you want to reform these personal laws and personal practices, the way it should be done is by bringing them together and discussing these issues with them, not by creating a conflict.
And I'm sure those who just take the initiative and call them and say that in this modern society, according to Indian law, polygamy is not allowed except when your personal practices be permitted. But that is something which works against this law so once again, that'll have to be reformed. You bring in men, women, all of them from the community and democratically discuss with them.
Speaking of laws, the Union Home Minister the last of the Parliament, introduced a Bill reforming the criminal justice system and brought in the Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita. Now, he specifically mentioned that there would be no provisions for sedition, but when you read the fine print, you have Section 150 which I would just like to read also highlights of -
One is the words like 'electronic communication or by use of financial means'. Another is the concept of 'encouraging feelings of separatist activities'. How do you see this section?
I think it made it was that the original sedition. Sedition law itself should have gone when we became independent. But what has come in its place is actually more draconian. I mean, it enlarges the ambit and draws in various other areas into its ambit through which people can be persecuted.
So I think, it's more draconian indeed. That is what I said - all these changes that have been brought need to be subjected to much more intense, not merely discussion, but scrutiny.
Talking about the CPI(M) - In 2004, the party saw its highest tally in terms of number of seats. Today, the tally has substantially been reduced to three. Where do you think the party lacked over the past two decades? Do you think there was some improvements that could be made?
Of course, there are improvements that could be made and there always could be made. And the other aspect which you mentioned - yes, you're right that our strength in the Parliament has reduced significantly. But when you measure the relevance or the impact of a particular political point of view on the society as far as the communists are concerned, one yardstick is the electoral presence that's important, there there's a decline, undoubtedly. But the other yardstick is also the ability to influence the national agenda through populist struggles.
Now, on that score, if you look at it, the communist relevance has in fact increased, whether it's the farmers' struggle that you had and probably the only thing on which Prime Minister Modi was forced to withdraw, the only thing that he had to step back, that they had no other option. Because what is happening is that there is mega loot of national assets, the large-scale privatisation of public property and public services, and now even utilities are being privatised. There if you look at it, it is the communists and the other organisations that are actually setting the agenda.
But do you think somewhere these populist struggles are not getting converted electorally for the left?
Of course, it is. They are getting converted into electoral successes of those who are standing firm against these policies of the Modi government and in areas where there are other regional forces or the regional parties who are playing that role.
Even the Left vote goes to them. Therefore, I think the stage where we independently would do the polling for our party and our policies, except that in our system itself, such situation is no longer as it used to be earlier.
You visited Manipur last week. How is the situation there right now?
Terrible. It is difficult to describe it. There is a complete divide. You actually feel that you are visiting two countries.
The airport is in the Meitei area, you land in the Meitei area if you want to go into the Kuki area, no Meitei can go with you. There are three levels of checkposts, not manned by the security forces but manned by the people who check to see if a Meitei is going into Kuki area, likewise whether a Kuki is coming into the Meitei area.
So, when I had to travel, we visited both areas, went to relief camps in both. You know, the conditions are very appalling. And when we had to cross into the Kuki area, we had to leave. We had to leave behind the Meiteis with us. My party's Manipur secretary is a Meitei.
The conditions in the stadiums, in relief camps is that children are being born with no immunisation, no nutritious food. How will the mothers and the children will be taken care of? Though we appeal to the governor and she has assured us that there should separate relief camps for such people in such situations. But then the question is, it's nearly four months now and the situation continues to worsen, naturally, because there's no initiative to resolve it. You have the Nagas also.
The second day we were there, there was an attack and three Kukis were killed. And then the Nagas had to respond, saying that this is happening in Naga's land. So, if you start doing these things on our land, we can't keep quiet. If this spreads into the northeast, then it's going to play havoc.
Coming to the INDIA alliance, what can we expect from the Mumbai meet?
Well, let's see. This is an ongoing process. The fact is that so far what is happening is a lot of hopes being raised amongst the people, a lot of support that is that it has received and it will set a political narrative of liberty, of the need to safeguard the character of the Indian republic, which is under assault. And that character being a secular democratic republic.
One of the allegations that the BJP or even the Prime Minister keeps making is that in West Bengal, the Left and the Congress are attacked by the party workers of the TMC. But none of these parties or even any of the parties of the INDIA alliance will say a word about it. How do you respond to that?
Why don't we say? Of course, we say it. Of course, we fight. In Kerala, it's directly between the Congress and us.
That is why the BJP doesn't even get a single MLA or an MP elected. So, this is something what the prime Minister's repeating is what we have been hearing for the last 30 years. They say 'Delhi mein Dosti, Bengal Mein Kushti'. And still, you had the UPA government, the united front government.
Where does the CPI(M) stand in terms of making a seat-sharing compromise in Kerala or West Bengal with the Congress or the TMC?
In Bengal, the question doesn't arise because there it's the Congress, the Left and the secular forces A lot has been won with the the Congress with it begins new bring all the thing that because Bengal is the CPM the Congress and the secular forces that take on both the BJP and the TMC.
The BJP wants to cooperate there with the TMC against them because then they will be the only ones reaping on the anti-incumbency of the TMC. Similarly, in Kerala, the voters to do do what they are saying because then they will be the only opposition party left.
Considering popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, do you think the India alliance, in order to counter the BJP, will have to come up with a prime ministerial candidate or a name or a face?
This is something, again, we have heard so much in the past. In the 2004 election, who was the alternative to Vajpayee? Did the Opposition have any alternative? What happened, alternative emerged after the election.
And the alternative lasted for ten years, Dr Manmohan Singh was prime minister for 10 years. People in India vote for their MPs and not for the Prime Minister, however much you may try to convert it into a presidential form. Eventually, when you press the button, the button you are pressing is for the candidate there.
If it comes to it, what do you think should be the criteria or the qualities that an INDIA Alliance prime minister should have?
First of all, being competent. Second, is actually getting down to doing the work and not only being publicity driven. And thirdly, and most importantly, work out a policy direction with the approval of the entire alliance, which is the common minimum programme we talk of and adhere to it by implementing it.
These are the three essential elements for good governance, and that is what has to be.
We have all heard what the alliance is fighting against - the misuse of central agencies, division, polarisation, etc. If the alliance wins, what would it, as a government, be able to offer the country that the BJP cannot and does not?
First of all, stop all this of the BJP is doing what you mentioned - the misuse, the assault on the Constitution, the assault on the people's guarantees provided by the Constitution, the assaults on the marginalised sections, particularly women and the Dalits and the tribals. The second is to address the basic problem - where are your jobs you promised 2 crore jobs, where are they? What is happening with this galloping price rise of essential commodities?
You see this entire question of taking India to the third position of the global economy - irrespective of who's the prime minister in 2027, India is going to be the third economy in the world. That is your statistical trend. It could be X, Y, Z as the Prime Minister. If you rule, you could do it.
You don't need an A, B or C. But then what is the gap? You're number 3 but you'll be 1/6th of number 1, you will be 1/5th of number 2 - USA and China - and then you will be the third with the per capita income ranking standing at 142 out of 180 countries. If that is going to satisfy you as being the third largest economy... But look at the standards of our people. So, the question is that in what way and how do you distribute the wealth that is generated.
Mr Yechury, thank you so much for your time. It was an absolutely insightful conversation and thank you so much for giving your time to The Quint and Quint Hindi.