Sitaram Yechury's interview to Karan Thapar for the programme Devil’s Advocate
Karan Thapar: Prakash Karat has accepted that the election results are a major setback, but the truth is actually much worse than that. Can you deny that this is the worst electoral performance in your party's 45-year-history?
Sitaram Yechury: Not at all. I don’t deny it. This is the worst debacle we have had. Soon after we were formed in 64, the first election we contested in 1967 we won 19 seats--today we won 16.
Karan Thapar: So you have literally gone back below your starting point.
Sitaram Yechury: And this is a serious matter. It is a matter which the politburo has admitted is a very big debacle and we have to understand why this happened and seriously introspect.
Karan Thapar: Let’s for a moment pause over the statistics of your performance. You have gone from your best ever electoral performance to your worst ever in just five straight years. This time around you have lost 63 per cent of the seats you had, or to put it differently you have lost 68 percent more seats than you have won. Those statistics are worrying and actually they are appalling.
Sitaram Yechury: Statistics are statistics and you can always manipulate them but that is not the point. The fact is that you cannot escape from this reality that this has been a very big debacle for us. It’s been the worst performance electorally by the party.
Karan Thapar: Let’s then come to why you did so badly. To begin with, can you accept that breaking with the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) was a mistake? The voters didn't understand why you did it and worst of all it made CPI-M look like a party which was promoting instability.
Sitaram Yechury: All these issues we have decided will be discussed--both national and state-level issues—introspected upon and a very serious, honest, self-critical review will be made by us.
Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you what your defeated MPs are saying. Prashant Pradhan, your defeated MP from Kontai, says: "People have not taken kindly to the withdrawal of support from the UPA government. The poor and the farmers never understood why we wanted to topple the government."
Sitaram Yechury: You see these are points of views which have come across. As I said all issues will be discussed by us and on all of them we will come to some honest, self-critical conclusion.
Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you Amitabh Nandi, a defeated MP from Dumdum. He says: "From day one of withdrawing support from UPA our slogans, our activities have proved we are against stability."
Sitaram Yechury: These are opinions that have come and as I said all these issues will be discussed thoroughly and that process has already begun. By the middle of June I think we will come to our conclusion.
Karan Thapar: But can you accept that these are very valid opinions?
Sitaram Yechury: These issues will be discussed, definitely.
Karan Thapar: These are not inexperienced, foolish people talking. These are some of your most senior, cherished MPs, now defeated. They know what they are talking about.
Sitaram Yechury: They have been our leaders in Parliament. There is no way we are going to discount anything anybody says within the party. Everything will be taken seriously and discussed.
Karan Thapar: Now the second problem with breaking with the UPA was that you forced the Congress into the arms of the Trinamool Congress, thus creating a coalition that was able to attract the anti-Left votes in West Bengal at a time when you were yourself suffering from Nandigram, Singur and beginning to realise that the Muslim population could be disaffected. Rather than divide your opponents you ended up uniting and strengthening them.
Sitaram Yechury: But remember that the Congress and the Trinamool always had a ground-level understanding even without an alliance. What happened this time was that the de facto converted itself into de jure.
Karan Thapar: Which was a disaster for you...
Sitaram Yechury: This had its impact, definitely. There’s no doubt about it. We anticipated that this would have an impact on the marginal seats, but there are other reasons why this defeat has occurred in Bengal and those have to be seriously examined.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely. No one denies there are other reasons in Bengal. But given those other reasons, the worst tactic for you was to unite your opponents on a single platform. You should have divided them, not united them.
Sitaram Yechury: Like I said we will review all of this.
Karan Thapar: But can you accept this was bad tactics?
Sitaram Yechury: Not just this, all other questions will be discussed and reviewed. All that I can say right now is that on any one of these issues we have not come to any conclusive decision.
Karan Thapar: But you accept that given that you already had problems in Bengal, devising a strategy that unites your opponents was a pretty silly thing to do?
Sitaram Yechury: But it could well be that our opponents were going to unite any way?
Karan Thapar: Maybe but you prodded them into it. If you hadn’t broken with Congress they might not have gone with Trinamool and then you would have faced a divided opposition not a united one.
Sitaram Yechury: In the last elections, remember, of the 61 Left MPs 54 came to the Lok Sabha defeating Congress candidates. So going into elections with the Congress was never the issue.
Karan Thapar: But the problem was that this time, by breaking with the UPA, you pushed the Congress into the arms of the TMC and thus created a platform of unity against you which otherwise would have been two divided parties.
Sitaram Yechury: That is the reason why I am saying that what was de facto has become de jure.
Karan Thapar: And that was a disaster...
Sitaram Yechury: We will review that...
Karan Thapar: Is it true that Jyoti Basu advised the CPI-M leadership not to break with the UPA?
Sitaram Yechury: He may have had his opinions within the committees but there is no advice that has come to us.
Karan Thapar: What opinion did he express in the committees?
Sitaram Yechury: That I can't tell you. That is something which even he won't tell you.
Karan Thapar: Can I infer that within the committees he expressed a measure of dissent about breaking with the UPA?
Sitaram Yechury: You see breaking from the UPA was not a one-time decision or which happened one-off. It was a series of developments which were taking place as a result of which it culminated in our withdrawing support. On various steps in this process he had some issues to tell us which he told.
Karan Thapar: So there were various moments when he expressed his opinion; there were issues he had to speak about which he did speak about.
Sitaram Yechury: Yes, definitely. Inside the party all of us will give our opinion but once we collectively decide that is our party matter.
Karan Thapar: Thank you, I think you have said it all. You can't confirm it but within the party at various stages he had opinions to express and he did express them.
Sitaram Yechury: He conveyed what he felt at a number of times.
Karan Thapar: He conveyed what he felt at a number of times, not (just) once or twice.
Sitaram Yechury: Even today he does.
Karan Thapar: The second biggest mistake was in fact the Third Front. We all knew what it didn't stand for--it was anti-Congress, anti-BJP—but no one actually knew what it stood for. As a result of which it lacked credibility and it projected negativity.
Sitaram Yechury: We in the politburo have come to the conclusion that the Third Front …. you understand how this Third Front emerged? It was state-level alliances in various states. Now this was brought together as a national alternative, which people obviously found had neither credibility or viability. Both were lacking. Thus the result. That is what we have accepted.
Karan Thapar: Finish the sentence you half began before you interrupted yourself: “We in the Politburo have to come a conclusion about the Third Front” and then you stopped. What is that conclusion?
Sitaram Yechury: That it was neither viable nor credible...
Karan Thapar: Would you therefore say that it was a mistake?
Sitaram Yechury: The way it was projected was a mistake. I’ll tell you why. The CPI-M always had this opinion, which we still continue to have, that India requires a third political alternative. This third political alternative will have to bring about a shift in the policy trajectory in the country. But that cannot be a cut-and-paste job on the eve of elections.
Karan Thapar: This was a hastily put together cut-and-paste job?
Sitaram Yechury: A cut-and-paste job, and to achieve our objective of a third alternative there are no short cuts. It will have to be done through sustained, prolonged, popular struggles. .
Karan Thapar: This was an attempt at putting together a Third Front, not just by cut and paste but by short-cut methods and that was a mistake.
Sitaram Yechury: Yes. That is something which will be a subject of our review in the central committee (of the CPI-M).
Karan Thapar: But in fact it was not just the projection of the Third Front, it was not just the haste and the cut-and-paste manner in which it was put together. Even the composition of the Third Front was wrong. To begin with, almost all its members were former BJP allies. Two of them, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati, face serious charges of corruption. As a result of its composition this front undermined your cherished principles of probity and secularism. These people should have never been your allies.
Sitaram Yechury: That is why in retrospect we are saying that people didn't find it credible. They did not find this front credible.
Karan Thapar: No doubt the people did not find it credible. The election results prove that. But can you accept that at a prior stage you chose the wrong allies? You should not have approached people like Jayalalithaa, like Mayawati.
Sitaram Yechury: In the states we had electoral understandings—with Jayalalithaa it was an understanding in Tamil Nadu; with the TDP it was an understanding in Andhra Pradesh. But we brought all this together as a national alternative. That did not find credibility with the people.
Karan Thapar: You’re accepting that projecting a state level understanding into a national understanding was a mistake. But even at the state level it was a mistake. Just look at the speed with which Jayalalithaa left you. She left you immediately after the elections and before the counting. The TRS left you after the voting and before the counting. As soon as the counting was over the JD-S and the BSP left you. They showed no loyalty to you at the state or national level.
Sitaram Yechury: The AIADMK has not left us formally, but you are right about the BSP, JD-S and TRS. That is precisely the point I am making--the front was neither credible nor viable. This (election result) has only confirmed that.
Karan Thapar: One other thing. At a time when the country was yearning for a strong and stable government, no one believed that the Third Front could offer it and more importantly the prospect of Mayawati as Prime Minister put a lot of people off, maybe even frightened them.
Sitaram Yechury: I don't think it was only a question of stability that people wanted. If it was stability then they would have found little to choose between the UPA and the NDA. They wanted stability with a commitment to the secular, democratic foundations of India. This was the combination which they found the Third Front lacked the credibility to give. And Commitment to secular, democratic foundations the NDA would never give. Hence the result.
Karan Thapar: The reason you lacked credibility in terms of secular foundations of India is not just because of the composition of the Third Front. But if you look at what your party did in Kerala your alliance with (PDP leader) A N Madhani was another mistake.
Sitaram Yechury: There was no alliance with Madhani.
Karan Thapar: Your own local partymen in Kerala have called it an alliance and say it is a mistake.
Sitaram Yechury: In Kerala, not only Madhani, various other issues that have impacted on these elections, all of them will be reviewed.
Karan Thapar: Let us briefly talk about the manner in which your two bastions--of West Bengal and Kerala--undermined your performance. To begin with, how did you permit yourself to go into an election when your entire Kerala unit was not just feuding but acrimoniously tearing itself apart?
Sitaram Yechury: But remember in Kerala this sort of situation prevailed in the 2006 elections and that time there were street-level demonstrations (as well).
Karan Thapar: Except that the situation had got much worse. On the eve of elections your state secretariat wanted V S Achutanandan removed as Chief Minister.
Sitaram Yechury: No, that was not true. That was only a media-created rumour. But the point is in 2006 what was seen as acrimony between our leaders resulted in a two-third majority victory in the Assembly.
Karan Thapar: Except that by 2009 you were no longer the beneficiary of doubts in the minds of the people. They were convinced by then 3 years of feuding meant that you were tearing yourself apart and you were allying with people like Madani. You were losing credibility.
Sitaram Yechury: Remember the elections in 2009 were for the Central government not state government. In Kerala and Bengal people are very conscious, they know what choices they want and whom they want where (i.e. at the Centre).
Karan Thapar: All right let me quote to you Hanan Mollah, one of your defeated MPs. This is what he told several papers: "We have been severely punished. Did we lose touch with ground reality?" What is your answer to that question?
Sitaram Yechury: That is precisely what we are examining. That is the answer we will give in our Central Committee when we meet in June.
Karan Thapar: What is your hunch? You are a political man, no doubt a definitive answer will come after the analysis but what is your instinct?
Sitaram Yechury: Obviously we have lost touch otherwise this sort of result would not have come. But to what degree, why we lost touch, what were the inadequacies, that is something we are seriously examining.
Karan Thapar: But you agree that you lost touch?
Sitaram Yechury: Of course, the results show that.
Karan Thapar: Now let’s come to the question: where does responsibility lie. I want to quote to you what one of your defeated candidates, Amitabh Nandy, has said. He says: "When we complete our introspection it will certainly emerge that the party's top leadership has failed." Would you agree?
Sitaram Yechury: Please understand one thing that this has been a very big debacle for us. Also understand the fact that this is for the first time in the last two decades that a secular government is being formed in India in which the CPI-M has no role. This is a big setback. People, therefore, are expressing their disappointment. All these sentiments
will be taken into account by us.
Karan Thapar: When you say this is the first time a secular government is being formed in India for two decades without any role or presence of CPI-M, you are underlining how irrelevant or marginalised you have become. So let us come back to Amitabh Nandy. Will you accept that the party's top leadership has failed?
Sitaram Yechury: That is what we are examining. Of course the top leadership of the party will have to take the leaderships role, I mean play the leaderships role. That it will.
Karan Thapar: Will the question when you do your examination be raised:has the leadership failed? Will that question be raised?
Sitaram Yechury: Of course it will come. Of course it will be discussed. Remember a Communist party functions by what we call the Leninist principles of organisation, where it is collective functioning with individual responsibility.
Karan Thapar: Both the collective functioning of the leadership will be inquired into as well as the issue of individual responsibility?
Sitaram Yechury: Of course. Yes. All of this will come in to the review. Definitely.
Karan Thapar: Your allies have absolutely no compunction at all in pointing the finger of blame straight at the Delhi leadership of CPI-M. Debabrata Biswas has done it, Abani Roy has done it and now increasingly AB Bardhan is doing it. They say the CPI-M leadership was arrogant and it had lost touch with the masses.
Sitaram Yechury: We have also heard these comments but all of them were party to all the decisions that were taken together in the Left parties' meeting.
Karan Thapar: No doubt but is there any truth in their claim that your leadership was arrogant?
Sitaram Yechury: If our allies are saying all this we will definitely take that into account in our review. Definitely.
Karan Thapar: You won’t turn a deaf ear?
Sitaram Yechury: No, definitely not.
Karan Thapar: You won't sweep it under the carpet?
Sitaram Yechury: No, it is for our own survival to get back the people who have been alienated from us and to advance further that we have to be candid, honest and rigorously honest in this self-critical examination.
Karan Thapar: If you want to be candid and rigorously honest then I put this to you: after facing a similar disastrous electoral performance, LK Advani offered his resignation to the BJP as Leader of Opposition. Why in similar circumstances in the CPI-M has Prakash Karat not found fit to make a similar gesture?
Sitaram Yechury: Leader of Opposition is a position in Parliament and that Parliament has ceased - the 14th Lok Sabha. And that Parliament has ceased to be. So whether he resigns or not that Parliament has finished.
Karan Thapar: We are talking about the need for candidness, for transparency and for winning back the people you have lost. Surely therefore Prakash Karat must make the gesture of accepting responsibility as General Secretary.
Sitaram Yechury: The point again here is that it will have to be a collective assessment that we will make of these results, of why these results have resulted in this sort of manner. And remember, resignation also can be escape from responsibilities.
Karan Thapar: You said a very interesting thing. A collective assessment will be made.
Sitaram Yechury: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Now your Central Committee is due to meet in June. At that meeting what are the chances that Prakash Karat will either step down voluntarily or be stripped of his responsibilities.
Sitaram Yechury: Again let me tell you the Central Committee is going to discuss the reasons for our debacle.
Karan Thapar: And they are going into the question of leadership?
Sitaram Yechury: Leadership of course. In that process. But it will not be on the basis of who is going to resign or not--that is not the issue. The issue is what are the mistakes, why were they committed and how can they be corrected.
Karan Thapar: But can you rule out the possibility of Prakash Karat accepting responsibility at that stage and resigning?
Sitaram Yechury: The Central Committee, as I said, will comprehensively review. Beyond that I cannot go today.
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you. There is no doubt that the two issues on which you ended up losing seats were the break with the UPA and creation of a less than credible Third Front. Of both those Prakash Karat was the central architect. Is it not therefore the case that, as the Press is saying, he has the greatest measure of direct responsibility for this defeat?
Sitaram Yechury: Prakash Karat is the General Secretary of the CPI-M. These were the decisions of the CPI-M and he as General Secretary will articulate these decisions, naturally.
Karan Thapar: In most organisations when things go wrong the man at the top takes the responsibility.
Sitaram Yechury: But I think that is also one way of escaping responsibility.
Karan Thapar: Are you going to hold him to the job to punish him rather than let him go?
Sitaram Yechury: It is not a question of an individual. As I said, we will collectively assess what are our mistakes.
Karan Thapar: And therefore if you are going to collectively assess his future depends on the outcome and decisions of the central committee.
Sitaram Yechury: Well, the future of the party depends on it.