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House Privileges Committee Can and Should Suo Motu Take Up the Issue of MJ Akbar’s Membership: Sitaram Yechury (Part-II)

Secretary General of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) talks about 2019 polls, Mahagathbandhan and Ram Mandir.

This is part-II of a two part-interview with Sitaram Yechury. Part-I 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, political narratives, the Mahagathbandhan, MJ Akbar and more.

Edited excerpts:

Sitaram Yechury: But as far as the 2019 elections are concerned… the EVMs that you raised… you see the point is that the original EVMs and the original design, we went and we participated… and you know with experts went and all that… that is correct the code that is there in the chip, that is already installed inside, that cannot be tampered with. But there are several other problems. The other problems are if you know that code, it is being manufactured through private companies globally. Now, which one gives that code to whom, we don’t know. And that is one question mark area. Second one, most of the installations nowadays, are being done also in our public sector, like the DRDO; those laborites etc. The ECIL, I think. They, the people who are handling it, what are they…

NC24x7: Would you prefer the ballot paper?

Sitaram Yechury: No, again. Ballot paper also has other problems — which we have gone through, earlier. What is the way out of this? Is it the third problem — I think the people should know what are the problems — the third problem is the government claims that we have manufactured EVMs in order to help democracies in other countries of the world. We said that we’ve given some to Nepal. Nepal, of course, says “we’ve not taken anything”; so it’s only the ballot paper that they use. But some countries in Africa, etc… Now, who’s manufacturing these EVMs? How many of them are coming into the Indian system?

NC24x7: Have you raised these questions with the Election Commission?

Sitaram Yechury: We’ve raised all these questions and we’re not satisfied with the answers. And we continue to pursue this with them. But what is the way out now?

NC24x7: But there is very little time between now and then…

Sitaram Yechury: There is very little time between now and then. That’s right. These answers may come, but by that time the elections will also come.

NC24x7: Or maybe not.

Sitaram Yechury: Or maybe they won’t. But for this election, then what is the alternative? Many parties are saying “go back to the ballot”. We all know the weaknesses of the ballot. And the Election Commission has said no they’re not going back to the ballot. Now, therefore what are we suggesting? There should be a paper trail for every election.

NC24x7: Which the Election Commission is open to doing…

Sitaram Yechury: Yeah, but then what have they done so far? Under our pressure, they said, “No we can’t do it for all the machines.”

NC24x7: We can do it on samples.

Sitaram Yechury: Then we said, “Do it for 20 per cent”… ideally, it should be done for all. If you can’t do it for all, do it for 20 per cent.”

NC24x7: But why can’t it be done for all?

Sitaram Yechury: Exactly! Why can’t it be done for all? That’s precisely our point. It’s simple technology.

NC24x7: But even if there’s a certain expenditure attached to it, money is being spent on so many things — statues, advertising etc. The integrity of the electoral process should be absolutely important.

Sitaram Yechury: Absolutely! Why only statues? A statue is one-third of what Nirav Modi ran away with. Or is one-fourth of what Mr Mallya (Vijay Mallya) ran away with. It’s not only statues. It’s also what the loot that this government is permitting. But the point is: see, what is the cost? It’s virtually like a Xerox machine. That’s it. In every booth. And which already exists in all the government offices. They can be taken on loan during the election process. You press the button. You get the printout.

NC24x7: Let’s say the Election Commission says “No, we’ll stop at 20 per cent,” then what? Is that an acceptable outcome for you?

Sitaram Yechury: At least, ensure the 20 per cent. Last time they said they’d do only 10 per cent. And what did they do? Per constituency, one booth. And even that ran into so many problems because of the sort of photochromic paper they were using; once you have a light on it… suddenly vanishes… the print. Before the voter can see where his vote went, it vanishes. This won’t do. What is our idea is that you have it for all and you put this printout that comes out, every voter puts it in a box. In case there’s a dispute, you count form the box; not from your machine. Try and tally 20 per cent in every constituency — assembly constituency. You’ll know the discrepancies and if the discrepancies are high, then you have a proper reelection.

NC24x7: Even in the 1950s, India could attempt, even with the ballot paper, the mammoth scale of exercise that we did in town to town, village to village then now with all the technology etc available, it shouldn’t be a problem

Sitaram Yechury: It shouldn’t be a problem at all. In fact, our conduct of elections is an exercise of a dimension that no other country in the world is doing… even the most advanced countries. That’s why I had to politely remind President Obama when he came to address us in the Parliament. There’s what is called a Golden Book that is kept in the Parliament where they write a comment. He wrote: “Greetings from the world’s oldest democracy, to the world’s largest democracy.” Sounds very good. It’s Obama style, you know, this one-liner. So then, later in the evening, during the banquet, we politely had to convey the information to him that “It is not correct that you are the world’s oldest democracy.” The African–Americans were allowed to vote universally in the United States of America a year after Mr Obama was born. If that didn’t happen, he wouldn’t have been the president. But we had universal suffrage — one man, one vote — from day one. And you had it in 1962. We had it in from 1952, when the first elections took place. So, therefore, we had to correct this. Our election exercise is a humongous one. And now with these technological advances, the same expertise that we have, this should be no problem at all. That is why suspicions arise that there is a motive behind this not being allowed.

NC24x7: There is a lot of talk about a Mahagathbandhan. Yesterday Mr Chandrababu Naidu has also come forward and he met you also and he met Mr Rahul Gandhi and some other leaders. There’s a lot of chatter about it that people are not sure what is the nature of this so-called, imagined, Mahagathbandhan. In Chhattisgarh, Mayawati Ji says I’m not going with… there’s no Mahagathbandhan at least. In Madhya Pradesh, all sorts of noises are being made. Now, I think Mr Kushwaha is also saying I’ll also contest independently. In U.P. perhaps… U.P. is perhaps the only place where there is very little noise and therefore one can hope that the most is being achieved. What does this Mahagathbandhan look like? What are its chances? Will it have the capacity the stand up against this behemoth of the ‘Chanakyas and the corporates?

Sitaram Yechury: You see, the Mahagathbandhan is a concept that is operative at the state level. It happened in Bihar; which was broken later of course, but that’s a separate thing. But it’ll happen in various states. Remember, India’s diversity being what it is, there are different parties that command the confidence of the people in different states. They would be totally irrelevant in other states. So any Mahagathbandhan, at the national level, coming up and saying we’ll fight the elections together, doesn’t work.

NC24x7: And yet the BJP was able to get 282…

Sitaram Yechury: … On their own. But what will emerge here — remember, 2004, when we were all saying that we will work for the defeat of Vajpayee (Atal Bihari Vajpayee), same arguments were made… saying, Who is your face for PM? What is…

NC24x7: Vajpayee was no Modi. Vajpayee did not have this kind of advertising and PR machinery.

Sitaram Yechury: Therefore they had an advantage then which they don’t have today. What you’re saying is absolutely correct. This polarised figure is what will lead into the polls. So, this polarised figure will be less acceptable to the non-polarised section than Vajpayee was.

NC24x7: So what you’re saying is Modiji believes, or there are some who believe that 2019 elections is going to be fought only one issue, which is “Are you with Modi or not?” There are whispers and murmurs that people will actually be asked through advertisements and other campaigns that do you trust Modi or not. And the BJP is perhaps hoping… because there’s very little other than that they have been able to do… Are you, in fact saying that this, in fact, is an advantage for you?

Sitaram Yechury: It is in the sense there will be an orchestrated, conducted campaigns that will be done… “Modi vs Who”… Various names will be given and will be said, “Oh, the highest percentage for Modi!” That will be the nature of the campaign. I think by now all Indians are used to this propaganda machinery. The point is what needs to be built, is a political narrative against Modi — against this government. That is what was built in the leading up to the 2004 elections against the Vajpayee government. Now, Shri Chandrababu Naidu is coming here, and what I told him and I think most of the other leaders also with whom I’ve talked and I’ve also said is: First, come together and create a political narrative — why replacing this government is necessary for the country and the people.

It’s not a question of alliances. And politics, remember, is not arithmetic. Two plus two in arithmetic would be four. Two and two in politics — you keep them together — it could be twenty-two, it could be zero. So politics is a different ballgame than arithmetic. And all that depends on the narrative you create.

That’s precisely what I told Mr. Chandrababu Naidu yesterday, and he agreed with me. I said remember the narrative we created in 1996? We formed the United Front post-election. That is when the historical blunder you were talking of… And Mr. Chandrababu Naidu was the convenor of that United Front formed post-election. In 2004, the UPA was formed the post-election. And those who said who is the alternative prime minister to Vajpayee — did anybody think that Dr Manmohan Singh would be the prime minister; and not only the prime minister, but the longest-serving prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru uninterruptedly for two full terms. Even Mr Indira Gandhi had breaks, but he (Dr Manmohan Singh) continuously served for ten years.

So, in India that is perfectly possible. But what is important is the narrative. The political narrative has to be built. So that is why the Mahagathbandhan, who will fight for what seats, etc. in my opinion, is secondary. That will happen in the Assembly elections. And that will happen more in the local body elections. But when you have the national picture in mind…. this arithmetic will follow, once the narrative is built.

NC24x7: One other threat that has been looming its head rather significantly and dangerously now and which will manifest itself — there’s a concerted campaign now with a renewed demand for Ram Mandir. In the last week or 10 days alone, suddenly Mr Aditya Bisht (Yogi Adityanath) has also spoken, Mr Jaitley has also spoken, RSS people have also spoken. They are saying “justice delayed is justice denied”. There seems to be an almost choreographed campaign to almost bully the Supreme Court saying that it must happen must happen… There is a talk of an ordinance coming in. What is your stance, in principle, on this and what do you think is going to be the electoral impact of this?

Sitaram Yechury: Is it surprising? The first point, before every election, the mandir issue is raked up to create a polarisation, which they hope will help them electorally…. The whole point is, this is the worst vote-bank politics that is being played. This is a consolidation of the Hindutva communal vote-bank. Now, in the last five years, if they wanted to bring the ordinance, etc, what were you doing… What were you doing when you had six years of the Vajpayee government… when you had the same slogan, the same thing, and the same crescendo was built up in 2003-2004… Now, the whole point is… ordinance and how you yourself said you will abide by the court orders. The court has said it’s taking its due course. What is the ordinance you’ll bring? That the court has said and you accepted that court order, the earlier decision… the government was asked to take over the land, trifurcate it…

NC24x7: All this looks very good on paper. That may be the law. But the law did not prevail in 1992. The law is struggling to prevail in Sabarimala. When these emotions are roused — in fact, let me take a smaller issue, in the Dahi-Handi case, the Supreme Court set guidelines. But certain politicians went out and said: nothing doing, we’ll do what we want! Even during Babri, undertakings were given to the Supreme Court and we all know what happened after that. So, is it safe and smart to repose trust on the judiciary?

Sitaram Yechury: Not at all. Not at all… I’m telling you only the situation… But the fact that these situations have been broken in the past can likely be broken today… That is not ruled out… The only insurance against that is the Indian people and their resistance. The courts and all that can come later.. But even that can be broken, they have been broken with impunity. We were all witness to 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid. We were all party to all the regulations of the National Integration council and the assurances of the courts and all that.

NC24x7: But, now in Sabarimala — on the one hand, the BJP says something about triple talaq. On the other hand, for Sabarimala, Amit Shah has been attributed to saying he’ll ‘uproot’, i think he used the words “State governemnt ko ukhaad phekenge,” if the devotees are arrested etc. The Supreme Court hasn’t been able to do much. I wonder if your government in Kerala is worried about the political repercussions…

Sitaram Yechury: Of course we are. It is only because of the Left government in Kerala that till now the temple is open, people and devotees are going in. And, whether a lady goes in or not is their individual choice. The Kerala government or any government; both the Supreme Court and the government are under the oath of the same Constitution. So, any government has to implement a court directive. Now, that is a given. The point is, this is being prevented. Prevented being you cannot stop devotees who want to go in and that is being insured there. Now, whether women are going in or not, that’s up to the women… who want to go in will go in… The state will protect them to go in. Protests are taking place… it is the democratic right, you protest.. But, you cannot stop the entry of anybody inside. They’re trying their best, but so far they haven’t succeeded.

NC24x7: Is the state government in control of the situation?

Sitaram Yechury: Absolutely. It is in control. And now Sabarimala temple, everyone knows, is open for a certain period. And now you are nearly coming towards the end of the closure of that period.

NC24x7: But we will not be able to achieve the implementation of the Supreme Court order.

Sitaram Yechury: No. Implementation in the sense that you cannot forcibly take a woman to go and enter.

NC24x7: Of course. But we’ve seen visuals of women being beaten up and vehicles being smashed…

Sitaram Yechury: Correct. And particularly of media women, of women media reporters… They have been the target in Babri Masjid. They have been target here also. So, that’s what they have been openly giving the slogans that this is the Babri Masjid.. this is the Ayodhya of the south. And this is their duplicity. Ordinance on triple talaq for the rights of a Muslim woman; but rights for the Hindu women not being permitted to be exercised because they think this is an opportunity to polarise society in Kerala.

NC24x7: What should be the priorities — let’s assume that the BJP is voted out of power and a government that does not have the same ideological inclinations, etc as the BJP is voted into power — what should be the top three priorities or two or one? What is the extent of the damage? What areas need healing?

Sitaram Yechury: There’ll be three areas where this healing has to be done. One area is the economic livelihood of the people; immediately. Many things that are being undermined, which provided succour to the people, like the Rural Guarantee Scheme, the Right to Food Security, the Right to Education; these various schemes, that are already in existence, that will have to be immediately revived to create better livelihood conditions for the people and then set the economy right. Slowly. All the damage that’s been done.

The second… and all three are equally important… the other area is to restore the confidence of people in communal harmony. That’ll be a tough thing. Even after losing elections…

NC24x7: Don’t you think there has to be a large-scale political educational campaign?

Sitaram Yechury: Absolutely. This has to be a social movement.

NC24x7: We’ve managed to convince people that Nehru did not go to Patel’s funeral. And, Martha Nussbaum has written this book called Political Emotions where she says that the liberals have ceded the domain of emotion formation or education to the right-wing, the liberals have taken certain values for granted.

Sitaram Yechury: Precisely. I mean you have taken values for granted; all of us have. Those born in Independent India have all taken these values for granted… They say “yeh toh hote hi rehta hai.” That ultimately you can’t change things. But this is a wrong thing. You are, today, in a situation where it is being changed; it is being fundamentally altered. So the second area, is an area that will require a tremendous amount of what you call concentration, trust; and it has to be collectively done. Because you have to set right your education system. You have to set right all your research bodies and your cultural bodies, whose autonomy has gone completely down the drain. You have to set right the confidence of the people among each other. These are not jobs that can be taken through an ordinance or a directive. It requires a social movement to be built up. And that is where the government must facilitate — it’s not like the government can do this job. The government must facilitate those who are willing, and there will be plenty — there already are — who are willing to do this job. And this job has to be done. That means… literally healing our society and bringing it back to proper health.

The other area which needs to be immediately addressed — and these will be my three top priorities — and the third area will be to restore the authority and the constitutionally mandated position of your constitutional authorities: your CBI, your judiciary…. the RBI. And what are the question marks raised on the Election Commission. These are the authorities which give the confidence to the people that you are living in a democratic system where your rights are protected. Today all that is being systematically ruined. That will have to be restored.

So, my three priorities will be these. Address these one, two three issues… And that I think is no easy task because lot of damage has been done to correct it and restore the confidence. But it can be done. I am confident that it can be done… And for that you require a government that will be able to carry everybody together. That is the task for the future.

NC24x7: Sir, you’ve been a parliamentarian. Today, a sitting parliamentarian, MJ Akbar, has been accused of sexual assault by at least 20 journalists. Today he has been accused of rape by a journalist in the United States. Do you think the Parliament has some responsibility? Do you think he ought to continue as an MP?

Sitaram Yechury: No, this is a matter that the Privileges Committee or the Ethics Committee of the Parliament. It is the Privileges Committee that will have to take up this matter.

NC24x7: Do you think they should take it up suo motu?

Sitaram Yechury: They should take it up. Privileges Committee has the right to take it up suo motu. We have taken up matters suo motu. When I was a member(of the Privileges Committee), we had taken up the matter of Mr Vijay Mallya continuing as a Member of Parliament after he fled the country on all these charges. And finally, we recommended that he should not remain as an MP. And I think that is what prompted him, before an action could be taken, he tendered his resignation… because otherwise we would have acted… Similarly, on this case, the Privileges Committee… it is completely under its ambit to take up this case.. and they should. Unfortunately, the chairman of the Privileges committee, I don’t know who it is today… belongs to the same party as Mr Akbar. There may be some reluctance. Actually, in terms of Parliamentary procedure, this merits. Both taken up in Ethics as well as Privileges.. Ethics (Committee) can only recommend, Privileges (Committee) can act on it.

NC24x7: Let’s assume the Mahagathbandhan wins, there’s a large motley of parties voted into power. After watching this interview and hearing your blueprint for the future, if they say Mr. Yechury you should be the prime minister, what would be your response to that?

Sitaram Yechury: It depends on the strength that you will command in the Parliament. And that will be determined by the elections and the results. So, let us see. But, the point is, Jyoti Basu, he continues to remain the longest-serving chief minister when he voluntarily stepped down… You had chief ministers in our country who continue to be chief ministers even when they were on ventilators… The point is no communist will share the responsibility. But, the point is communists would also want the opportunity to deliver on the promises that is being made.

NC24x7: Because one of the greatest criticisms against you is you want to put pressure, you want to criticise, but you don’t want to actually do the job.

Sitaram Yechury: No. That is what always they say, you want the authority, but not the responsibility. But, it is the other way round. Even without the authority, when we were not in the government, we continued to fulfil our responsibilities to the people and the mandate that was given, let’s say, in the 2004 election.

NC24x7: Holding you to the answer that if your party gets a sufficient or a significant mandate, we may see you as the next Indian prime minister.

Sitaram Yechury: As I told you earlier, that is the thing which the party has decided in its highest forum, the party Congress. If such a situation arises, the central committee of the day will evaluate the concrete situation and take a decision.

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

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

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