Despite failing health, eyesight and hearing, Ashok Mitra prefers to pour the tea for his visitors himself. The mind of the “highly subjective, unconventional, passionate and often emotional” 87-year-old Marxist economist, former chief economic advisor to the Union government and former finance minister of West Bengal is still sharp. Still writing a regular column for The Telegraph, Mitra’s pen is sharp and he is not known to mince words. While pouring tea, he says he learnt the practice from Communist leaders at rallies. “Imagine, leaders would be sipping tea and the toiling masses waiting to hear them would be fed with lectures,” he says. He spoke to Kumar Rana for Outlook. Excerpts:
Do you regret the failure of the Communist movement in West Bengal and in large parts of India?
I do not blame the Communist party. The failure can be attributed to the inability of global socialism to develop the true socialist individual. The downfall of the socialist state of the Soviet Union and the developments in China also happened because of this failure. What impressed me the most on my visits to Cuba was the total absence of any form of arrogance or superiority complex in the party leadership. At an event at the Independence Square in Havana, a young girl clearly coming from a poor peasant family was moving freely all across the amphitheatre. One moment she would be at the top row and the next she would come down and speak freely with the top leaders of the party. The failure to recreate this kind of freedom is what I regret most.
Any other specific failures of the party in India?
I would single out the distrust and suspicion with which the leadership treated suggestions from people who may not have been associated formally with the party, but who were devoted to the cause. The party often treated these suggestions as if enemy agents made them.
How do you see the Left parties in India coping with this crisis today?
But does the BJP today pose a bigger threat to communal harmony?
In a sense, the Congress is a spent force. And the installation of Amit Shah as BJP president is a clear indication of the BJP’s intentions and its close, incestuous relationship with the RSS. For tactical reasons, it will wait a few more months before it bares all its fangs.
What kind of foreign policy do you expect from this regime?
I think it will try to adopt the soft line previously followed by Vajpayee. Given the high consumption levels India’s rich and middle classes have got used to, the country would need to import high quantities of petrol and derivative petroleum products. Unless exports increase spectacularly, India will have to approach Iran for oil and pay for it in rupees. Therefore, despite pressure from the Americans, the BJP government will have to remain ambivalent on delicate issues like Israel’s inexcusable violence in Gaza.
How do you think relations with Pakistan will pan out?
It will require a great degree of finesse and statesmanship to handle our western neighbour. The Taliban today occupies strategic positions in Pakistan’s civil administration as also in the military sphere. Once the civil government collapses, the Taliban would certainly not be satisfied only with this capture. I expect them to look with coveting eyes across the border, and not just at Kashmir.
What about the economy?
At this juncture, the BJP wants a degree of tranquility in the economy so that the corporate sector delivers what it has promised the RSS.
What of its economic policies so far?
The government, I think, is already in a jam. The masses believed the BJP would lower prices, revive agriculture and ensure rapid industrial and infrastructure growth. But because of its commitment to the corporate sector, the BJP dispensation continues to take anti-people price policies, which have been a major feature of the Indian economy in the past decade or so. The budget indicates it will go for measures that hopefully attract foreign investment and provide extra profits to the corporate sector. Both the Congress and the BJP have jointly sponsored a development policy that is heavily dependent on expanding exports.
How does that pose a threat?
Many Indians believe they can live comfortably forever by exporting raw materials, minerals and semi-manufactured products to rich countries in Europe and North America. Stagnation in Europe and the US will not necessarily lead to the collapse of the capitalist system because they have attained a certain level of prosperity and can afford to carry the heavy load of unemployed citizens. In the UK, the unemployed receive a monthly payment from the state that is almost two-thirds of what they would have received if they had been employed.
What will be the impact on India?
If exports cannot be sustained due to stagnation of economies in Europe and North America, we will have nothing to fall back on—I mean the Indian corporate sector—and social tension is bound to increase at the first sign of such a crisis. This can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences. It is, thus, no bed of roses for the BJP. And if it panders to the mad fringe of Ramjanmabhoomiwallahs, then the country will descend into anarchy.
Does the Left have a future in India?
Can the Left can reinvent itself?
It will depend on the ability of the thousands of devoted Left workers to begin to reorganise protests and continue resisting to the onslaughts of the prosperous sections. Despite persistence of starvation, illiteracy etc, there is not enough awareness even among the unemployed classes that it is only bold confrontation that could save them.
You have had an eventful life. What have been your highs and lows?
Meeting Che Guevara was a high point. Indira Gandhi making a personal attack on me at a meeting of the NDC in 1984 was another and I relished it thoroughly. One of the most depressing moments was when a senior member of the CPI(M)’s highest policymaking body mournfully inquired whether I was aware that one of the ministers in West Bengal was corrupt. I felt sorry because despite being aware of that, the minister would not be thrown out of the party as he had equally powerful leaders to protect him.
Apropos the interview ‘Both Congress and BJP have passed anti-people laws’ (Aug 18), what precisely does the “highly subjective, unconventional, passionate and often emotional” Ashok Mitra, even allowing sufficient latitude for his “failing health, eyesight and hearing”, mean by saying that “the installation of Amit Shah as BJP president is a clear indication of the party’s intentions and its close, incestuous relationship with the RSS”? RSS is the leitmotif and soul of the BJP. Amit Shah and Narendra Modi still remain quintessential RSS pracharaks.
Col C.V. Venugopalan (Retd), Palakkad
If, as Mitra says, the Congress is a spent force, so are the CPI and CPI(M). So steeped are they in the philosophy of dialectical materialism that their politburo meetings are nothing but theoretical exercises of discussing India’s economic and social problems in an infinite loop of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. They are out of touch with reality to the extent of becoming irrelevant.
Ramesh Ramachandra, Bangalore
Thanks Outlook for publishing the interview of Ashok Mitra. How forthright he is in rating both Congress and BJP who do sail on the same economic boat. The former veteran Marxist is unhesitant in his inference that RSS is driving the government vehicle from the backseat. His views on the prospects of Marxian ideology on Indian soil could be ignored by the Left movement only at its peril.
C. Chandrasekaran, Madurai
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
In 1995, Benoy Choudhury, one of the architects of the land reform movement in WB said about the CPM government that "this is a government of contractors, by contractors and for contractors". Benoy Choudhury was among the rare netas who did something for their poor voters - he (along with Hare Krishna Konar) did a lot to undo the damage done by Zamindari land-grab during the British era and empowered millions of landless farmers and sharecroppers by giving them pieces of lands, peacefully and bureaucratically. This also ensured successive CPM victories in the elections. And all the while Jyoti Basu and his retinue kicked out all the industries, destroyed the work-culture thoroughly and completely sickened the economic health of the state.
Mr. Mitra can give a lot of gyan, but being over three decades in power has reduced CPM to being a lazy, incompetent and intellectually dishonest party who deoxidized the state to a poor shadow of its former self and reducing Kolkata to a second rate metropolis.
7/D-105 George, London> "Chandan Basu made millions abusing the position of his father."
He lived up to his name - "chanda" is the traditional extortion of money from the public in the name of Puja celebrations in West Bengal.
"The failure can be attributed to the inability of global socialism to develop the true socialist individual."....touche comrade, I salute this wtsdom.
If, as Ashok Mitra says, the Congress is a spent force, so too are the CPI and its clone the CPI(M). So steeped as are they in the philosophy of dialectic materialism that their politburo meetings are nothing but theoretical exercises of tackling India's economic and social problems by discussing them in an infinite loop of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. They are out of touch with reality to the extent of becoming irrelevant.
Thank Outlook for publishing the interview of Ashok Mitra. How forthright he is in rating both Congress and BJP who do sail on the same economic boat. The former veteran Marxist is unhesitant in his inference that RSS is driving the govt.vehicle from the backseat. His views on the prospects of Marxian ideology in Indian soil could be ignored by the Left movement only at its peril.
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