The Left has usually been the pivot for regional groupings in India. But lately the political landscape has changed with a reduction of Communist strength and the emergence of new regional players. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat looks at the political possibilities, gives his views on Mulayam and Rahul Gandhi, explains his party’s positions, and convolutions, in a conversation with Saba Naqvi and Panini Anand. Excerpts:
How do you view the decline of national parties?
The two major national parties, the Congress and BJP, together have not even garnered 50 per cent votes in the last Lok Sabha polls. They are not growing essentially because the policies and platform of these parties will not get mass support. I think that major issue for my party, the CPI(M) and the Left as a whole, is that we are not advancing when the two national parties, whose policies we oppose, are shrinking. There is general perception that we have gone down in strength. It's mainly because the losses we have suffered in West Bengal, which was our stronghold. But I don't think the same thing applies to Kerala, because in the assembly elections we performed well and lost very narrowly, with just a one per cent difference.
Do you believe the future belongs to regional parties? And will you play a role in any third of fourth front?
We see the growth of regional parties as a positive development. We have always maintained that there can't be a two-party system in India and we see the multiplicity of the political parties as healthy and positive for the Indian political and democratic system. Having said that, and the fact they are the major factor in Indian politics, the difficulty with these regional parties is that it's difficult to make an all-India coherent front. That's why in our recent party congress, we have not talked about the third alternative or an alternative of regional forces. We may have electoral understanding with them but that does not mean that electoral understanding is an alternative.
So you will not be a sheet anchor for a third or fourth front?
No, we are not interested. We have decided that we are not into that game. We don't want to forge any alternative because alternative for us means policy and programmes. In the immediate context, fighting against the Congress and BJP, we will cooperate with some of these parties. We will fight together for issues from time to time, without any illusion that we are a third or alternative front.
Do you think that there is need of a consolidated, comprehensive Left?
I agree that the need is there. But need is for what? Not for formation of a non-congress and non-BJP front, which has no common programme or perspective. That proves to be very unstable. So, over a time, we feel there is no other way but building the movements and struggles, by mobilising people on an alternative platform of policy. Only then can Left be a reality. The need is there but today it's unreal to think about a third front.
Why did you break ranks with other Left parties and support the Congress presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee?
We have been doing this for the last two decades. Our consideration on the presidential elections has been to give primacy to a candidate with firm secular outlook and this we have followed consistently since the 1992 presidential poll. After the BJP became a major force and the main national party in opposition, this has been the criteria which we have kept in mind. This is not the issue on which we oppose or fight with the neo-liberal policies of the Congress-led government. When that comes, we will take up that. So as far as the presidential election is concerned, I have explained it earlier that with the exception of Mr Kalam's candidature, in all other elections, we have always supported the Congress candidate.
If secularism is the criteria then shouldn't you be helping the Congress in the future...
We have seen six years of NDA government and now eight years of the UPA government. For us, the main question will be neo-liberal economic policies. We oppose them and we don't want a government in future supporting these economic policies. There is no question of us having any kind of political understanding with the Congress or the BJP.
Do you see the regional parties creating a front?
With our limited capacity and strength at national level, we will in principle work for a non-BJP, non-Congress formation. We have seen in last 2-3 years that many of these parties have taken a stand asserting states' rights, which is a positive development. For most regional parties, the primary concern is their region, their state. Their interventions at the centre are governed by concerns about their states. This situation sometimes create problem in making an all-India platform. Now, as far as we are concerned, though we are strong enough in two or three states, we have a pan-national outlook in our policy matters and issues. That gives us a greater commonality with the various regional parties.
Don't you think the regional parties also follow neo-liberal policies?
No, I don't think so. Because they run state governments and they are elected by the people, they are more responsible towards the people. To sell rice for one rupee a kilo is not a neo-liberal policy. If they were neo-liberal, they would curtail the Public Distribution System, cut subsidies on rice and wheat and let the market prevail. But because they have to maintain their support at the base, they are the ones who are actually moving against neo-liberal directions and providing subsidies themselves. Look at Andhra (even when the TDP was there), or you take Tamil Nadu and see the PDS there. There are issues on which we don't agree. But it was regional forces who opposed FDI in retail. Mayawati did not even allow Reliance stores in UP.
A young leader like Prasenjit Bose, and some of your student's wings have opposed the support for Pranab Mukherjee. You have acted harshly against dissenting SFI leaders....
There are some individuals who are critical but they are not in the party leadership at any level. There were questions in 1992 about our support for the Congress candidate, Shankar Dayal Sharma. After the Babri masjid demolition, when the government was sleeping, the prime minister didn't take any action, the president issued a statement. Then people understood why we supported a secular candidate. In my party it is the district committees that are important. I have not received a single opinion from any of the party committees questioning our decision; or saying that it was not correct.
There are so many problems in your Kerala unit....
In Kerala, at the state level, there has been a particular problem. We have taken action in that matter. We have intervened, not now, but for more than a decade. And we are continuing our intervention and you will see the results very soon because central committee is going to meet shortly to discuss this matter.
One of the strongest critiques of the Left is that you are insensitive to caste, that the leadership is upper- caste in an age where the social profile of other parties changed after Mandal.
This is baseless. You see our membership details. We scientifically analyse our party membership. There is improved social composition in our party. The people who come to our movement are primarily from the working class. It takes 15-20 years of full-time party work to be part of the leading cadre. We give Rs 3,000-4,000 on an average to a married person in our cadre. So, actually, the poorest section is there in our party but they can't afford to be full-timers because it's not easy to survive on this small amount. Here, middle class people become full timers. We are trying to improve our wage structure so that we get more whole-timers from the poorest section of society, because it is only whole-timers who get the opportunity to be part of the leadership.
How do you see the upcoming 2014 elections? If the BJP emerges on top won't the secular principle propel you to support the Congress?
Supporting the Congress is ruled out. Experience has taught us that it's very difficult for us to extend that kind of support in future. Unless Rahul Gandhi declares himself a socialist and comes out with a new economic manifesto, then we will see (laughs). It's a time of political churning that will lead to some re-alignment among the political forces by the time of the Parliament elections.
Are you supporting Hamid Ansari as Vice President?
I was not given any name. I was asked by the Prime Minister about my view on the Vice President Election. I said my opinion is that since the president is going to be from the Congress, it would be better not to have a Congress leader as the candidate. There should be someone with a distinguished background for this position.
So is the candidature of Hamid Ansari OK with you?
Why not? All I said is that the candidate should not be a leader from the Congress.
And what do you have to say about your old friend Mulayam Singh, his moves and counter-moves?
Well, he thinks that there is a serious possibility that he could become the Prime Minister of this country.
Can he be trusted by any of the other regional parties?
Ask Mamata Banerjee that question (laughs).
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print