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‘Modi Government Has Legalised Political Corruption’: Interview with Sitaram Yechury Part-I

Secretary General of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) talks about 2019 polls and optics.

This is Part-I of a two-part interview with Sitaram Yechury. Part-II of the interview can be accessed here.

In an exclusive interview with NewsCentral24x7, Secretary General of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury speaks on a range of issues, including the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls, problems facing the CPI(M), post-truth etc.

Edited excerpts:

NC24x7: We live in times of simplistic analysis, simplistic solutions. There is a large section of the Indian public which believes that the CPI(M) is a party which loves China, hates America, wants to keep everyone poor, fight for the tribals now and then and is now being convinced that Left parties are “Urban Naxals” or support Naxalism or (want to) overthrow the Indian state (using arms). My first question to you is what do you want to say to people who have come to believe these things about the CPI(M) not due to political opposition. 

Sitaram Yechury: First of all you have to realise that it is simplistic, you are right. But it is not only simplistic. All these impressions about the communist and particularly the CPI(M) are also impressions that are being fed. And they are being fed by the vested interests who do not want us to achieve what we set out to do i.e. to end the exploitation of men by men in India which is our objective. There should not be human exploitation of the nature that we see today. Now, that objective naturally runs against the vested interest. So, you have to feed a lot of imagery which is something not acceptable and which s completely against the truth of what we stand for.

On the question of pro-China, anti-America, etc. you see, the birth of CPI(M) in India has a certain historical background. In India, the communist movement was divided into three sections initially. What was the major communist movement played a big role in the Indian freedom struggle, was a part of the AICC sessions and we moved, the communist moved, the first resolution in the AICC in Ahmedabad in 1921, giving a call for Poorna Swaraj. So, when people used to ask us what are we, so we said we are pro-Indian. So, that is it. We are pro-India. So, what is in India’s interest is what guides our policy. If it is in our interest to be friendly with our giant of a neighbour that is China, which we think is in the interest not only with China but with all our neighbouring countries.

First of all, India’s stature in the world will depend on how we relate with our neighbours and how our neighbours look upon us. Now, unfortunately, in the last five years or so, I mean there’s no country in our neighbourhood which does not have a degree of hostility towards India. Now, that’s a separate story why it happened. So, the question of being pro-China, pro-America, etc that is not the issue.

Thirdly, the point you said we want to keep people poor. I mean that runs against the grain of our own philosophy. I mean, in order to achieve a degree of equality among human beings, we require the size of the cake first to expand. It is only when you expand the size of the cake, you can distribute it equally. While the cake is not expanding, like it is happening today, in fact when it is shrinking, when your economy is in a retreat and when the cake is shrinking, you get all these conflict situations. When everyone, including the castes and sub-castes whether there are religious communities or regional people, all of them want their share of the cake, but everyone can’t get (it) because the cake is small. So, it runs against our philosophy, to keep people poor. Unless you expand and generate wealth, you cannot distribute it equally, and you cannot have an egalitarian society.

NC24x7: Right sir, but I think, the fact remains that it is quite ironic that I believe that the CPI(M) is able to converse fluently with the farmers, with the person standing last in the line, with the oppressed and marginalised, and the CPI(M) is also able to converse fluently with the academics, but the fact remains that this is a battle of narrative and imagery and in this battle, the CPI(M) is way behind. Do you have a plan to reach out to these people to say no we don’t want to take your Pepsi away, we don’t want to keep you poor. We are not pro-China, and we are pro-India. What is the plan of the CPI(M) to reach out to these people?

Sitaram Yechury: First of all, this section, when you talk about these people (they) are the ones which you normally call the middle-class section. Like you said correctly, all the struggles of the Indian farmers in the recent period, all of them, have been, if not all, most of them have been, predominantly have been under the CPI(M) and under the communists. If you see the struggles of the working class or you see the struggles that are now embarking, today the youth are going to… marching today… asking Mr. Modi where are their jobs. So, this section… So, when I first told you there are also things that are generated and fed about us… But, on the ground, those who participate in all the struggles that we have, they do not share this impression. But, what are we going to do about it?

NC24x7: Can the CPI(M) do without the vote of the middle class?

Sitaram Yechury: No, no, no. We are reaching out to the middle class. We are trying to disillusion them of this sort of impressions that are continuously fed into them and these are fed in multiple ways, through your television channels, through media reporting, (in) general, I mean, nowadays social media reporting (too). This is what we are trying to tell them, you see, without (the) land reforms that we have done in West Bengal, the market for Pepsi would not have been there. When you are saying, we are not against your drinking Pepsi, I mean, people have to buy Pepsi also no and Pepsi does not survive only on the middle class, I mean it cannot. So, if it has to go into the rural areas, enriching the rural people, enriching the rural market and that can only happen through radical reforms, which is what the CPI(M) espouses. So, in reality, what happens is… This leads to a very situation that is happening in our country today. What you have is a propaganda machine, or you have such an issue which (has) now become one of the most fashionable terms that is being used. We won’t say fashionable, but a more accurate term, therefore, we can just call it the post-truth society, that’s how the dictionary defines post-truth as the word of the year 2016. And what is that, that it is the is the entire campaign, entire propaganda, entire information, that is fed into the people, which is (has) completely diverged and completely alienated from the actual ground realities, based on emotional appeals, and the creation of a personality cult.

NC24x7: So, you are saying that truth is not prevailing at the moment?

Sitaram Yechury: At the moment the entire information transfer or opinion transfer that is being done by the people with the literati or the chatterati as some would call it (smiles) is exactly what is contained in the content of what we define as post-truth.

NC24x7: But, some would say that you know, fine there is a certain ideology or a certain group of people may be engaging in falsehood, etc, but ultimately it’s the failure of… if I may use the word, liberal parties across the world to speak to people, to master the idiom “to speak to people”. I mean one would think that it is the communist parties which should have been able to master the idiom and talk to the masses as well as the middle class in a language that they understand and not organisations being funded by corporates heavily or organisations interested in propaganda. Is it just a question of ‘evil is so great’ that you are helpless or has there been a genuine failure also?

Sitaram Yechury: I won’t say that there is a failure or success, I won’t use those terms. But, what I would say is there is always, with everybody, and communists, in particular, which is more pronounced that we have to keep pace with changes that are technologically taking place in order to reach out to the people.

NC24x7: But you have not been able to do that? 

Sitaram Yechury: We have not been able to keep up that pace.

NC24x7: Even after 2014?

Sitaram Yechury: Yes. And secondly, why we have been not able to keep up the pace is that keeping up with the pace of the technological innovations and the technological medium to reach out to the people is also an expensive proposition. It requires resources of a tremendous order which the communists, unfortunately, do not possess. So, our traditional methods of word-of-mouth, of house-to-house campaigning, of reaching out to people with our traditional leaflets and all that, I mean, these things today have become… are really on the back burner, in terms of reaching out to the people with ideas. If we call for meetings, hundreds and thousands will come, but then they are bombarded with propaganda through WhatsApp, through social media, through various other things which continuously goes counter to that. Now we have to match that, to match that (we need) the resources.

Now the system of political funding has so changed that this government has actually legalised political corruption and who would finance? Corporates do not finance as charity, they finance as an investment, they see little investment in us and naturally, you would like to invest in a party that would likely form the government and return the favours. So, this is a real problem, we have to overcome this, I am not using these as excuses. These are issues that we are trying to overcome.

NC24x7: The reality is that corporates will only fund parties which will engage in quid pro quo and are not going to go away. But, on the contrary, there are cases of parties like the Aam Aadmi Party which rose from the street, or some believe rose from a movement and normalised quickly and captured the imagination of the people. See, liberal parties or communist parties are not going to get money in a hurry that is not going to change. The mutating nature of corporates and their attempt to hijack political narrative and politics is not going to change. What does the CPI(M) do here?

Sitaram Yechury: So see that’s why the AAP example that you have given is definitely a positive example, but remember the AAP also heavily relied on this technological medium of messaging.

NC24x7: But, they claim they did not have money. 

Sitaram Yechury: Well, that is something for us to… let’s not dispute over it. But, there is also the method of crowdfunding that goes on and in the name of crowdfunding what sort of funding will come. That’s all a different ball game altogether, but the question is that they did not succeed in other places Punjab, Goa, etc. So, don’t generalise from one experience. I mean there are flashes in the pan where we have tremendously succeeded in some places. But, for the moment and then we go back.

NC24x7: So, it’s not that you are waiting for the time where corporate rule the roost to come and go, you do have a strategy in place to reach out to the middle classes even in this war of narrative. 

Sitaram Yechury: Absolutely, we do and we are reaching out, but that does not get reflected in the national media. I mean that’s about it. And if they are going to set the agenda, (the) big battle is to break this stranglehold of the national media, both electronic and the print media. Setting the agenda before the country and the people and that agenda can only be set through the people’s struggle. That is what we are doing.

NC24x7: I’ll come to the media in a moment. But, just to finish with the practices of the CPI (M), you just spoke about how the CPI(M) wants to increase the size of the cake, stand for the marginalised, etc. One of the most prominent criticisms against the CPI(M) is people ask how many of those marginalised identities find (a) place in your Politburo or in your organisation, what do you say to that?

Sitaram Yechury: Now, in the organisation, 55 per cent or more of our membership is actually… the latest figure we will know shortly this year… but, it may be more, close to 60 per cent of our membership is from these marginalised sections. But, you are right. In the Politburo, there is no, let’s say Dalits, there are minorities, there is everybody else, but again our Politburo is not decided on the basis of representation. But ideally I agree, I mean, I am self-critical, so to speak that ideally there should have been

NC24x7: As a general secretary now, are you doing anything to change this. 

Sitaram Yechury: Shortly, you will see the difference.

NC24x7: Are we going to see greater, more plural, diverse Politburo?

Sitaram Yechury: There was a time when there were no women, there were no Muslims, now they do, there was a time when there were no Muslims, and there are two Muslims now.

NC24x7: I think one of the stark differences is that somebody like Modi ji would in your position say I am going to change this drastically tomorrow or I have changed it already, by the time you leave this interview this would have changed. And people feel that these people [CPI (M)] are not even willing to say it. 

Sitaram Yechury: (Laughs) No, no, no. I mean what is the point in saying all this.

NC24x7: Because by the time the following up on those promises come, there are a fresh set of promises. 

Sitaram Yechury: If Modi ji was there, what he would have told you in such an interview is that is already done and you are not watching it, or you are not noticing it. So, that is the post-truth that we are talking about. I mean, today, for example, he is claiming so many things, which are the ground reality here are absurd. But then that is the power of propaganda through which as you want to actually make people live in a make-believe world. And that is what has to be combatted.

NC24x7: Coming to the media — the national media — there is criticism that in 70 years, and some of us are waking up to the reality now that we were not been able to establish a let’s say an independent public broadcaster which could have acted as some sort of a shield in the time that we are going through. As things stand now, it is clear that various sections of the media, I won’t even say, are aligned towards different interest, but, I think, most of them are aligned towards a particular ideology, and either it’s a nexus of an ideology or perhaps it’s a nexus of the party in power and corporates, it’s difficult to parse and tell, but now how do you counter this, how do you deal with this. 

Sitaram Yechury: A public broadcaster is absolutely essential, you are right. I mean that is why whenever we had a say, in the government that was performing, though we were never a part of it, the pressure of setting up a public broadcaster, in fact, the Prasar Bharati, emerged under the pressure of the Left and it was conceived at that point. According to what we were demanding and asking (it would have been) something like the BBC in England and play that role and (would not have been) dependant on funding by the government, (but that plan) failed. But, that won’t be allowed in India, at least I have learnt because I have been personally as an interlocutor arguing this from the United Front government in the past through all that period.

In the absence of that, what is actually happening in India; look at the situation today, this government has spent, according to RTI revelations, more than 5,000 crores of rupees in advertisements into the media, that’s a huge amount of money. Now, which media house is going to do that, I mean say that no I won’t take your money, I will tell the truth. Now, if you take this sort of money, now this is only official, what else is happening behind the screen, we do not know, what are the other pressures there we don’t know, you have seen how the CBI has been misused and today, unfortunately, you have corporate media, not only corporate media, you are not even taking the precautions that many advanced countries have taken, including the USA and Australia of cross-media holdings. I mean if you own a TV channel, you can’t run a newspaper, or you can’t now run a web portal. But now there are media houses in India which do all of it, all of these things, some of them act as the political arm, some are cheerleaders, some are going to the level of pen pushers, there is the third level, which I don’t want to articulate, but you are increasingly seeing that as well. But, this is a bigger battle. Only when the ground reality changes, this will also change. But, to change the ground reality, what needs to be done is to distance the people from the impact of what they want to create as a mindset.

NC24x7:  How do you plan to do that?

Sitaram Yechury: That’s only through actual mobilisation of the people in their struggles on their basic issues. Now, you tell a long march farmer, who went to Bombay (Mumbai) in that heat covering hundreds of kilometres, and come and tell them the propaganda that all the media is showing, that this government has succeeded in doubling the farmers’ incomes, that won’t sell there. It cannot sell. That situation has to be created where the media reports are just not believed. You know that is what we have to reach. It’s a big battle a very big battle, that’s what we are engaged in and we will do that.

NC24x7: Sir, moving on from here to a very critical issue which is not discussed enough and is discussed in very limited aspects which is the health of the electoral process. Now, even in this short conversation, we have identified multiple threats to this process such as the extraordinary amount of money, financed by corporates, etc. And the other is media houses being aligned with certain interests and if they are in the business of selling falsehood, then the falsehood impacts the vote that every citizen is going to cast in the ballot box and that is a threat to the electoral process. Second, all over the world, people are waking up to the threat that either the organisations themselves or at least the manner in which they conduct their operations Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. In other parliamentary houses, etc committees are being set up to examine what the role is like (Mark) Zuckerberg has been summoned and probed instead of being feted and sitting with the prime minister, so far the conversation begins and ends at whether an EVM can be hacked or not. I would like your opinion on this EVM business and second are we prepared to say that the election in 2019 will be free and fair. What is the CPI (M), for instance, doing, with or without the Election Commission to ensure that the electoral processes in protected from these? 

Sitaram Yechury: There are two issues involved. One is the electoral process itself in our country which I believe apart from the 2019 elections require deep churning reforms. First is the first-past-the-post system.

NC24x7: What would you change? 

Sitaram Yechury: Proportional representation. A partial proportional representation. In India’s condition, it is correct, every group would like, every different, diverse group in India would like their representative to be in the Parliament, to take up their issues. So, the role of the individual is also important, but at the same time, you also cannot have a situation where not once since independence, not once, except once when the coalition was formed post-election. There you have, a government at the Centre which received, more than 50 per cent of the polled vote, forget the electorate, many countries of the world, unless you cross 50 per cent of your electorate you are not declared elected. Here nobody has crossed 50 per cent of the polled votes. This government today is in office with a majority in the Lok Sabha, with 31 per cent of the vote, 69 per cent of the people who voted, voted against the party in power today. Now, that is not democracy in the true sense. So, what we have to move towards is a partial representational system where one half of the seats are elected on the basis of the party preference that the voter has, the  other half on the basis of the individual who contests. It is perfectly possible. You have 552 constituencies that you have, divide them, I mean combine two constituencies each, give everybody two votes in that constituency. One for the individual, one for the party, in this sense you will get some degree of really the rule of majority, that is one.

The second is electoral funding. Now this is distorting your democracy totally, incompletely and parties like us find it impossible even to contest unless you can manage to get funds of such a nature. There’s a limit to what we can collect from the people. The genesis of political corruption in India is through this funding for the elections. Now, what we are proposing is ban corporate funding of political parties. Instead corporates must be like the Corporate Social Responsibility, make a law, where they will contribute for strengthening democracy and democratic processes in India and that would be a fund managed and utilised by a government agency, most likely Election Commission or some other thing and introduce a system of state funding. Now, you have this in Germany, you have this in various, what are called advanced democracies in the world.

So, once you introduce a system of state funding, the individual parties getting money, and therefore the quid pro quo etc. that happens (can stop).

NC24x7: I am thinking of somebody who is sitting on the fence right now, a voter, and the voter who divides parties between us and them or them and you, would say why did you not do all of this in 70 years. Suddenly now because you are out of power and how do we know that once you come back just like in the animal farm, you will say, we are in power, we will…

Sitaram Yechury: I can understand. But, this is not true for us, we have been saying it since Day 1 since the CPI(M) has been in power.

NC24x7: But, is the CPI(M) a serious contender of power at the Centre?

Sitaram Yechury: This exactly is the situation you are talking about. That stage where used to be the Jana Sangh earlier, the BJP, they supported us, saying that yes proportional representation system (is required). Then they were two members, three members, etc. Once they came close to power, you can see what they did.

NC24x7: So, how do you break this circle? 

Sitaram Yechury: You have to break it, only by having a government which is susceptible to be influenced by this understanding because we tried in UPA I, when UPA I was there.

NC24x7: And you didn’t succeed at that time? 

Sitaram Yechury: No. After four years, by the time when we withdrew as they say lagam chala gaya (laughs).

Now, we have all these electoral reform commissions set up by the Parliament. (In) all the reports, many of these solutions are there. So, have to get a government where we can pressurise the government to do this. So, that is a long process.

NC24x7: This is a very interesting sentence that you are speaking that we have to find a government which we can pressurise. Why do people in the CPI(M) do not talk about getting 280 seats in Parliamentary (elections) forming government, giving India its first Communist prime minister and getting an opportunity, why can’t you say that? 

Sitaram Yechury: It is at the moment. It [CPI(M) forming government] will be done eventually. To reach that stage also, this needs to be done.

NC24x7: Sure. But, if that opportunity comes again will you not repeat what was called “the historic blunder”. If you are in charge, the general secretary. 

Sitaram Yechury: If we are in that position, that is the party’s collective understanding, that if such a situation ever repeats, if it comes sometimes then the central committee at that point of time, on the basis on the concrete situation will take the decision. We are not ruling it out which was the case earlier.

NC24x7: So now Indians may see a prime minister from the CPI(M) one day. 

Sitaram Yechury: Well if the Indians support us, they will.

This was Part-I of a two-part interview with Sitaram Yechury. Part-II of the interview can be accessed here.

Also read: Modi All Words No Substance- Salman Khurshid

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