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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?
"If the Left is in danger of being obliterated, it’s due to the failure of those who’ve held power to introduce new liberal policies.”
Well, they are obviously in danger of total obliteration from the country’s political map. A major reason for that is the failure of those who have held power to introduce new liberal policies. I also blame the illusion that some Left quarters have spread about the nature of the Congress. While the Congress is believed to be more secular than the BJP, how can I differentiate between the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal violence that repeatedly occurred in states like UP, MP and Bihar, which were Congress citadels? When I was in Parliament, I would see both parties acting in collusion to pass legislations I deemed both anti-people and anti-national.
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?
"Any prospect of the Left regaining relevance depends on West Bengal, where the party in power consists of the lumpen proletariat.”
It is an iffy situation and any prospect of the Left regaining its relevance depends a lot on developments in West Bengal, where the party in power consists of the lumpen proletariat. They exploited the errors committed by the Left Front and assured the masses that all their miseries were on the account of Left totalitarianism. But in power, they are using state power to perpetuate their tyranny. They have shown utter contempt for democratic institutions, including the judiciary. Mamata Banerjee can get away with this because of a weak central government, which was unable to restrain her. Both Congress and BJP thought they might need her help at the Centre. Now that the BJP has an absolute majority, a lot will depend on how they choose to deal with her. It might decide to have the lumpen proletariat elements on its side to help suppress the Left. Or it might confront Mamata to grip power in the state.
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.