Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad, Kerala, is arguably one of the most sensational developments of this election. The Congress chief’s move, political pundits contend, is a setback for the Left Front, which is hoping to win the majority of its seats from Kerala. Gandhi’s decision also undermines the idea of Opposition parties pooling their votes to vanquish the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the media, the move has been projected as a snub to Sitaram Yechury. That is because, for one, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary was seen as being close to the Gandhis. For the other, he was said to be pushing for an electoral understanding between the Left Front and the Congress.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Yechury says the media has got it wrong: he was merely pursuing the line that his party had decided upon. He also talks about the relationship between the CPI(M) and the Congress, competition between regional parties and the grand old party, why the Left is unable to translate popular struggles it spearheads into votes, and what fielding student leader Kanhaiya Kumar means for the communists. Excerpts:
What do you think drove Rahul Gandhi to contest from Wayanad?
It is a question only they can answer. Since the days of Indira Gandhi, it has been a Congress tradition that they (the Gandhis) contest from a seat in the north and one seat in the south. Indira Gandhi contested from Chikmagalur (in October 1978), Sonia Gandhi from Bellary (in 1999). It is, therefore, not unusual for the Congress president to contest from both the south and the north.
What is unusual is that Rahul Gandhi has chosen to contest a seat where the main opponent is the Left. Fighting against the BJP is one thing, fighting against the Left sends an entirely another signal.
Can you decode the signal Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad sends?
In my public meetings in Kerala, in fact even today morning (April 3), I said that on one hand the Congress president and the UPA chairperson (Sonia Gandhi) keep calling meetings of 21 parties in Delhi at regular intervals and keep expressing their resolve that it is in India’s interest that the Modi government goes. They invite the Left to these meetings. Yet, Gandhi has decided to contest from a constituency where the principal opponent is the Left.
It is a contradiction?
Yes. Only they can explain why.
Is it a sign of the Congress’s desperation to increase its number whichever way it can?
Whatever it may be, the decision sends the signal that the Congress considers the CPI(M) and the Left as its principal adversary, not the BJP and the prime minister.
Does not the Congress’s Wayanad decision reinforce Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s narrative that Opposition parties will keep fighting against each other?
No, it won’t. For that you have to understand the very basis of India and its politics. The nature of India is extreme diversity, whereby every region or state has a party which has no presence outside it. After the defeat of Indira Gandhi post-Emergency, the government was formed by the Janata Party, which came into existence after the 1977 election.
In 1989, the National Front government of VP Singh required the support of both the Left Front and the BJP. The Left said if the BJP were to become part of the government, we will not support it. So, the BJP was forced to sit out, for which they have never stopped being angry with us. This arrangement, too, was cobbled after the election.
In 1996, again, the United Front government was formed after the election. In 1998, the National Democratic Alliance was formed after the election as well. If you remember, they were kept waiting for J Jayalalithaa’s letter of support.
I remember BJP leaders chewing their nails, wondering if her letter of support would come.
(Laughs). In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance was formed after the election. In 2019 also, a new arrangement will emerge after the election.
Are you saying that Modi’s narrative will not have an impact?
In fact, Modi’s narrative is a repeat of the narrative that all of us heard in 2004, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was leading the campaign. Then too, they would ask: Vajpayee versus who? They claimed there was no one in the Opposition who had the stature of Vajpayee.
The BJP would point to the Left and the Congress fighting against each other in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and say, “How could there be a government post-election?” Whatever they said then is exactly what Modi is saying today.
Yet, the UPA government was formed in 2004?
What was the reality of 2004? Of the 61 seats we won, 57 came after defeating the Congress. After the election, we supported the UPA. That is the Indian reality.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad will make regional parties nervous that the Congress may try to undermine them and will therefore be wary of supporting a government led by it?
All that is happening between the Congress and regional parties is related to a choice between the 1996 formula and the 2004 formula. In 1996, a non-Congress government was supported by the Congress from outside. In 2004, it was a Congress-led government supported by the Left. The question, therefore, is: Who will lead the government? If the combined Opposition other than the Congress gets seats more than the Congress, then such bids to lead the government could come. If the Congress is larger than all regional parties together, then the 2004 situation will recur. Both these options are there.
But the bottom line with either of these options is that Modi and the NDA will not come back.
The Congress has projected Rahul Gandhi’s decision as an attempt to convey to South India that its way of life is deeply valued by the party. To quote the Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, “Their culture, their language, their way of life, their food habits, the clothes they wear, their entire way of life is important to the Congress as also to India as a unified country.” Do you think the south feels its way of life is not being respected by the BJP or is under threat?
I do not completely agree with that formulation. But the fact is that the BJP is a predominantly North Indian party. The slogan of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for a long, long time has been Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan. They have never abandoned this slogan. It is not only about the south, it is also a question of the east and the North East. The BJP is not as comfortable with them as it is with the north and the west.
But the BJP has made inroads into the east and the North East.
Well, even in the south, they had a government in Karnataka. Likewise in the east. But with the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens issues, let us see what happens to the BJP now.
Going by history, even the Congress has hurt the pride of the south. In fact, the Telugu Desam Party was born as a consequence of this.
Of course, the Congress has a lot of baggage. The disrespect shown to Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister by Rajiv Gandhi (he publicly called T Anjaiah a buffoon in 1982) was very effectively used by (Telugu Desam Party founder) NT Rama Rao.
Yet, at any point in time, you need to see what danger you have to protect India from. When there was an assault on democracy during the Emergency, we said we would cooperate with anyone who wanted to fight to save democracy. It is not that you have to join a front. We did not join with the RSS and the Jana Sangh. Yet, the point was that we were all fighting for the restoration of democracy.
The danger today is to secularism. So the same logic applies. To safeguard India from the curse of communal politics, we should join hands (with all those willing to fight for secularism).
Why did the Left react so strongly to Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad? Is it because it could undermine the Left Front in Kerala?
No, the point was the message that the Congress was sending out by its decision. In 2004, the CPI(M) declared that it would support an alternative, secular government. But such an alternative government sans the Congress was not possible. The CPI(M) said it would support such a government, with or without the Congress leading it, in the interest of the country and the Constitution. Knowing that fully well, the people of Kerala still gave the CPI(M) 18 of the 20 seats. The Congress drew a blank.
Why did that happen? It happened because the people of Kerala are mature. Their vision was that there would be an alternative government; yes, the CPI(M) would support it. But to put pressure on the alternative government to adopt policies that are pro-people, they thought the Left had to be there. What was the net result? From the Right to Information Act to the Right to Food Act, the Right to Education Act, the Forest Rights Act, all these laws were passed by the UPA at the Left Front’s insistence. This has been the thrust of my campaign over the last four-five days.
Do you think the Congress’s calculation is that since the Left will not get many seats outside Kerala, its numbers can be further reduced by Gandhi contesting from there. Then its support will not be required to form a government?
I don’t know what their calculations are. But if they want to limit the Left’s role, then the strength and credibility of the alternative will also diminish.
After Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from Kerala, it was pointed out that despite the CPI(M)’s 21st party congress in 2015 ruling out an alliance with his party, one was forged for the 2016 Assembly election in West Bengal.
That formulation [21st party Congress in 2015] was dropped at the [22nd] party congress [in 2018]. The final resolution replaced “no understanding or an electoral alliance with the Congress” with the formulation of not having a political alliance with the Congress.
What is the distinction between the two formulations?
The new formulation did not rule out an understanding with the Congress, only a joint political front with it. The formulation that there should be no understanding with the Congress was dropped.
Why did your party’s attempt to have an electoral arrangement or understanding with the Congress in Bengal for 2019 fall through?
This is again a question the Congress should answer. In accordance with our party congress resolution, we concluded our task in West Bengal was to maximise the polling of anti-BJP, anti-Trinamool votes. We, therefore, unilaterally said wherever in Bengal there is an anti-BJP, anti-Trinamool sitting MP, there will be no contest between the Left and the Congress.
In other words, the sitting MP fights the election.
Sitting MP or whoever their party chooses. The Congress instead wanted a full-fledged alliance. We said an alliance was not possible but maximisation of votes against the BJP and the Trinamool could be worked out. For a variety of reasons, the Congress unilaterally decided to contest the two seats where the CPI(M) has sitting MPs. We waited for 48 hours. They were obdurate and stuck to their decision. Then we announced candidates for two of the four seats they hold.
To the people of Bengal, it is clear the CPI(M) and the Left were sincere in maximising anti-BJP, anti-Trinamool votes. But the Congress backed out.
There is a very interesting parallel. After the formation of the Morarji Desai government in 1977, Assembly elections came in West Bengal. To continue the fight against the Emergency (meaning consolidating democracy), the Janata Party and the Left discussed fighting the elections in an alliance as had been the case in the Lok Sabha election.
The Janata Party wanted the majority of seats. We said fine and offered them 52% of the seats. But they wanted two-thirds of the seats. We went to the people saying we were sincere but they were being unreasonable. The people responded and gave us two-thirds majority in 1977. After that, we won seven elections in a row. This time too, the same message has gone out to the people of Bengal.
I guess the Trinamool and the BJP will stand to gain from the votes being split.
It may not. You take the example of Chhattisgarh. Everyone thought that the alliance between Ajit Jogi and Mayawati will eat into the Congress’s votes. But the Congress won by two-thirds majority. What was the dynamic there? Jogi cut into the votes of the BJP in the Adivasi seats it held and Mayawati did the same in the BJP’s Dalit seats. The numbers they lost there were the numbers that the Congress gained. Politics is a different ball game.
I guess you cannot reduce human beings to statistics.
Yes. So with a four-way division of votes, with our votes intact, we will have to see the outcome. It is not an easy prediction. But the crucial thing in Bengal is whether our support base will be allowed to vote. That is the main battle. In the last battle (of the ballot), we lost 179 of our comrades.
Will the intimidation come from both the Trinamool and the BJP?
Earlier, it was just the Trinamool. But it will also be the BJP now. After winning Tripura, the BJP has learnt it (intimidating opponents) from the Trinamool.
Many people see you as having pushed for an understanding or an alliance with the Congress. And it has made them interpret Rahul Gandhi going to Wayanad as a snub to you.
There was never a question of forging an alliance with the Congress. The question was whether to preclude any understanding with it. As I said, an understanding with the Congress was approved by the party congress. That is how our arrangement in Tamil Nadu has come into existence. We are there with the DMK and the DMK has an alliance with the Congress. All seats are being jointly contested by parties constituting the alliance. That would not have been possible had the party congress not approved (the idea of) an understanding.
Similarly, the Congress has on its own declared its support for our MP candidate and sitting MLA in Odisha. We reciprocated by saying in the parliamentary constituency where our Assembly seat is, we will also support the Congress. All these things would not have been possible without the congress party’s resolution. So where is the snub to me? My intention was to only maximise anti-BJP votes.
So you don’t think you have been snubbed.
Not at all. To say I have been snubbed is an example of social media journalism.
Delhi’s grapevine says you are close to Rahul Gandhi.
That is again a media invention. The point is that I am not hostile to anybody. I never go by personalities, but by their policies and positions. It is their projection. It is not that I am close to them (the Gandhis). I am close to many others. That doesn’t mean any political affinity or political compromises as a consequence of it. This is all titillating sensationalism.
The Left has led many powerful peasant movements. Its movement in Rajasthan was an important factor behind the Congress’s victory last year. The Left led a powerful movement in Maharashtra as well. Why is it that the Left is unable to translate the energies generated by such movements into votes and seats?
In a proper democracy, it would have happened. Here, there is a massive use of money. Then there is the perpetual recourse to caste and religious polarisation. So the peasantry which participates in the long marches faces all the ordeals, faces the police, eventually, either because of the power of money or because of the politics of identity, are weaned away from the politics of struggle.
That said, when you measure the Left’s strength, the yardstick cannot be only electoral. I am not denying the importance of the electoral yardstick at all. But along with the electoral yardstick, there is the yardstick of the Left’s capacity to organise popular struggles to influence the country’s leadership. We led the farmer movement, the youth movement. This is why questions of agrarian distress and unemployment are issues that no political party can avoid in this election. These issues were brought centrestage because of the Left movements.
What meaning does Kanhaiya Kumar’s candidature from Begusarai, Bihar, have for the Left?
It has a very important meaning. The Left openly declared in Bihar that it would go with the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance but I don’t know what influenced them to deny seats to the Communist Party of India and the CPI(M). Politically, we find it irrational. Lalu Prasad Yadav has always understood that the red flag, over the decades, has been with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. We are an important factor in mobilising the downtrodden, the most marginalised. But now the Rashtriya Janata Dal has gone against its own logic. It is something completely unfathomable. I am sure Kanhaiya will win Begusarai. We will all go campaign for him.
Does Kumar’s candidature symbolise the Left being independent and fighting for its corner?
Absolutely. And at the same time going along with all those who want to save India today and tomorrow, change India.
Corrections and clarifications: This interview has been slightly edited for purposes of clarity.