Interview/ shok Mitra
The interview began with Dr. Ashok Mitra talking about the native place of the interviewer, which he was able to ascertain by his family name. It was continued in a similar vein.
Q. The mainstream press had begun questioning the relevance of the Left, post its debacle in the general elections 2014. What is the relevance of the Left today?
Whether the Left will remain relevant in Indian politics or not depends primarily on the decisions the Left takes from here on. Even the rise of BJP in the centre, and an autocratic party of anti-socials in West Bengal being swept to power with a singular majority post elections, is due to the Left’s own actions and misdeeds. It must also be said that the new policies on economic liberalism have problematized the course of collective resistance. Earlier whenever there were attempts to cut jobs in the name of modernization and technological improvement, almost all the workers’ unions would rise in protest and the state apparatus would at least remain impartial. Nowadays, that isn’t to be. It is not easy to protest even as corporations go about cutting jobs. Protests are leading to a violent clamp down. Therefore, collective movements have suffered.
But at the same time it must be said that the Left had remained immune to such things at one point of time. I was in the Rajya Sabha for a while. The Congress had just come to power back then. They would talk a lot about delivering on their promises from public distribution to other things. But the funny thing is whenever there was any bill which had to be passed on the opening up of the banking or insurance sector, or catering to foreign finance capital they would not even look at the Left as an option. They would readily use the BJP to get these bills passed. Even after witnessing all this, the Left had maintained their almost unflinching support for the Congress. In the 2004 general elections, their strength in the Lok Sabha was above 60 and it was impossible for the Congress to run the government without support from the Left. Except for the opposition to the Nuclear deal in 2008 and the subsequent withdrawal, the Left had blindly supported the Congress. And this, when there was ample scope in 2004 to point out the conditions on which they would support the Congress.
A section of the left also began to come to terms with what they saw as the changed reality of the world. Given that the scope for revolution seemed uncertain in the near future, they entered into tacit understanding with industrialists so as to provide some economic relief in their respective constituencies. This attempt actually led to the alienation of those who have stood by the left for the past four or five decades.
Q. The CPIM alone has managed 22.7 per cent of votes only in Bengal while the Left front together has got a mere 29 per cent of the votes. The BJP’s votes has risen almost 10 per cent from the 6.14 per cent it received in the previous Lok Sabha elections. RSP moved out of the LDF to join the UDF in Kerala and rather than the BJP’s eating into the Trinamool Congress’ share it has actually made more of a dent into the vote share of the Left in Bengal. What is going wrong for the Left?
Why did RSP move out? Without sitting down for talks, a party decides to claim a particular seat for one of their politburo members, as if without it all hell would break lose. RSP obviously was not ready to accept this and moved into the Congress’ fold. This resulted in us losing at least 4 to 5 seats. Yet popular support for the Left has not declined in Kerala like it has happened in West Bengal. The state leadership of West Bengal is not only suffering from an ideological crisis but a Zamindari mentality, which is reducing their support base, a little, every day.
Q. It is not the first time that the parliamentary Left has suffered a debacle. Previously it has always bounced back. You have identified corruption, high- handedness, to which many would add a certain degree of parliamentary cretinism. Should the party start with re-jigging its ranks or begin by being more responsive to criticism? What should be the roadmap going ahead?
There are signs of irrational decision making and a lack of common sense. The novel policies that the Left had adopted after coming to power in 1977, nobody talks about them today. To give a few examples, the Left Front was the first to implement an unemployment wage benefit. It was also the first in the country to provide free education till the 12th standard. It had started the first three tier Panchayati Raj system. It was able to ensure that through elections, this system would disburse power, giving it back to the hands of the impoverished and the poor. And most importantly widespread land redistribution, which had in a sense, begun from the days of Tebhaga. The laws it had adopted to implement this, revolutionized the agricultural sector, winning it widespread loyal support in the rural areas.
All of this was then forgotten. We worked so well for the first 10 years. With the Congress decimated, the Janata Dal fragmented, there wasn’t a single party which could compare with all that had been achieved then. Within the party too, changes were taking place. Some leaders passed away, some moved on and newer faces were put in place. Amongst them complacency soon began to creep in that West Bengal is our bastion and no one would be able to dislodge us from here. They chose to forget that we work within India’s constitutional framework. The central government can sack a state government even without proper reasons. They chose to forget that we are in the midst of a multi-party democracy. They had begun to think that in West Bengal one party rule would remain. That this was a misconception is probably something they realize now.
Q. In recent years many intellectuals sympathetic to the left or identifying themselves within the left fold, such as Javeed Alam, Prabir Purakayastha and Prabhat Patnaik, have critiqued the practice of Democratic Centralism. Even today that what was meant to be a process of building consensus and aiding the decision-making within the party, after assimilating views from the branch level, is often reduced to majoritarianism thereby stifling dissent and giving rise to factions. Do you think that instead of Democratic Centralism being the problem, perhaps it is the practice which reduces it to a form of centralism?
Lenin had initiated democratic centralism at an important juncture in the history of the movement in Russia. The communist party was banned in Russia. Most of the leaders were in hiding or away from Russia in Europe. On the other hand the party was preparing itself for a revolution and they were carving their organization on these lines. Secrecy in this scenario became imperative and the need to have a discipline, indispensable. Therefore, it was necessary then. If we were to announce that this coming Thursday we would launch our revolution, enemies would obviously be better prepared. Secrecy and discipline is necessary in such contexts.
But then in the last 20 years, I have not heard ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ in a single convention or rally, at least not in this state. It is as if, revolution couldn’t come, so forget it. When we have already forgotten about revolution, we are making it clear that we are partaking of parliamentary democracy and would like to come to power through electoral success in it. Now if we are to compete with the other parties in such a situation, it is important for us to know what the other parties are saying, what their supporters are saying, what our supporters are saying. But in West Bengal what is going on in the name of democratic centralism is a mere reconstruction of the age old Bengali Zamindari system. What Lenin had reiterated was that everybody in the party should be allowed to speak, decisions would be arrived at only after everyone had expressed their opinion and a consensus reached. But after the decision is taken everybody has to accept it and this very decision would also pass on to the higher level, where the same process would be followed. This way it would finally reach the leadership at the highest level where the decision would be passed, and then everybody would have to abide by it. But this isn’t what is happening in West Bengal.
The scope for dialogue at every level had begun to gradually reduce. I can cite many examples of the same, because I have been there and witnessed the same. A convention would be called, some leader would make a long lecture on what is to be done, and the moment questions were raised, pat would come the reply, “there is no time for it today, send in your letters”. What has happened due to this is that people in the lower levels have lost their inspiration and their urge. They think that their leaders would work according to their whims whose decision has only got to be accepted. These leaders have their loyalists calling the shots at every level.
Q. Even with a pre-Independence history of communal violence, for the past few decades Bengal has been free from communal violence. In the Lok Sabha elections 2014 BJP has received a vote share of 16.8% and bagged two seats from the state. RSS has also widened its base through an increased number of sakhas and sammelans all over the state. Does this worry you?
Yes, but intricately connected with the rise of the BJP in the state is the dwindling fortunes of the Left. The person who was the Chief Minister of the state for 10 years suddenly announced at a public rally that if the need be they were prepared to support the Congress. But the problem is the economic despondency that common people have suffered from in the last 15 years, due to economic liberalization, such as inflation, subsequent shutting down of industries, is chiefly due to the Congress.
We used to support the Left because they opposed the Congress’ economic policies. Now they are talking about supporting the Congress so as to pave the way for further assaults on us. We would rather vote for this eccentric woman or the Bharatiya Janata Party. There are many like this; many who vote for the Left front but have voted for the BJP this time around. In the elections of 2006 the Left Front had won almost 50% votes, the 43% in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, in 2011 this was further reduced to 41% and in 2014 this has been further reduced to a mere 29%. There has been a loss of 12% votes.
Q. The previous BJP led NDA government had tried to further their ideological intentions of hindutva through its own version of history being taught in schools, and people supporting the same being approved as heads of state run institutions. There are already reports from Gujarat that Dinanath Batra, associated with the network of schools run by RSS, has had his books prescribed as compulsory reading in schools there. Is this ominous?
It certainly is. A judge recently said that had it been in his hands he would have made reading the Gita compulsory at schools in the primary level. People are angry. More than being angry on the Bharatiya Janata Party they are angry on the Left, because it is the Left they had placed their trust on, who got them on the streets.
Q. You have previously written on the flaw of misconstruing the secular narrative as embracing all religions, whereby somebody committed to the secular ethos like Nehru would not prevent religious rituals being linked with government’s activities. In Bengal today, there is again a politics of pandering to religious sensibilities and the Sangh Parivar has always banked on this. Can this effect the government of the day?
Well, this had begun in the Congress era. A ship was to set sail from the Kidderpore docks and a minister comes down to break coconut shells and mark it as a ceremony. Hindu customs soon began to dominate these occasions. Our constitution is clear on the terms of secularism. It simply means that the state is averse to all religions and would maintain equidistance from them. What Jawaharlal Nehru wanted was to embrace all religions. What happened as a result was that with majority of the people being Hindu, in most cases he ended up adopting Hindu ways and customs. There were visits to Mandir, Masjids, Girijaghars and Gurudwaras but at the end of the day Hindu ways and customs remained dominant.
Let me cite the example of Jawaharlal’s grandson, who came to power as an heir of the dynasty after the death of his mother. He was educated for a years at the Doon School and then went onto Cambridge, had no relation whatsoever with Hindu religion, his father being a Parsi. After becoming Prime Minister he would visit Mandirs with a bare torso to receive the blessings of the priests. Those pictures later came out in the press. Therefore, the Congress has provided sufficient fodder to the BJP’s politics.
In West Bengal there is no state, anti-socials are ruling the roost. Even judges of the High Court are feeling helpless.
Q. There have been a growing number of violent incidents being reported against women all over the country. Even in a state like Bengal whether it is with S alishi Sabhas ordering gang rape, women being raped while returning from work, insensitive comments by people in the state government, victim blaming, the situation seems to be spiralling out of control. We know the complex reasons behind this cannot be explained in a few words but how can the perpetuation of misogynistic patriarchal oppression be tackled?
In most other states there is at least a law and order framework. In our state it is the criminal elements which are taking a call on what is legal and illegal. That is the reason why crimes against women have only increased. They feel that they can get away with anything. And they have as well, been spared that is.
Q. Even though the BJP and the Congress got 50 percent of the total vote share nationally, majoritarian democracy didn’t provide much space for strengthening Indian federalism. Parties like the BSP received third largest vote share yet could not send a single representative to the Lok Sabha. The BJP has been able to win majority in the 16th Lok Sabha with a vote share of mere 31%. Do you think it’s time that a robust democracy like ours looks at proportional representation?
We follow the Westminster system that is first past the post policy. The one who reaches the mark first is declared the winner even if one was to win by a margin 0.001% . It has happened here as well. In the previous elections the Trinamool Congress had won about 90% seats.
Proportional representation does remain a constant demand. It is clearly better alternative than the present solution.
Q. India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel seems to be changing in recent years. Even though the previous government had also looked upon Israel as a potential supplier of military equipment, the government of the day has perhaps gone a bit further rejecting calls for a resolution and even a parliamentary discussion. They have, however, gone ahead and supported the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to probe Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and have also consistently maintained that they still favour a two-nation solution to the crisis. All this, while a recent Wall Street Journal article writes about the India-Israel Axis and how the new government’s world views are more in line with the Israeli state. Is this the result of a government furthering its ideological interests and catering to its own voter base? What do you think would be the repercussions of this globally?
This duality was practiced by the Congress as well. One of Israel’s biggest backers is the United States and it would not want India to oppose actions of the Israeli state. It is not in our nature to displease the United States. Neither did the Congress oppose it wholeheartedly nor will the BJP. Rather the foreign policy that BJP has adopted is more or less a continuation of its predecessors’.
Q. Universal health care is a burning issue yet accessibility to proper health seems to be the last thing on our lawmakers’ minds. Shelling out for major health care emergencies can often push families well below the poverty line. Shouldn’t we think of keeping aside a substantial amount of our Gross Domestic Product towards affordable health care for all?
Yes, and nobody talks about it. Not even those who believe themselves to be a part of the Left. The fact that such an exorbitant amount, almost 40% in our budget is allocated towards defense and internal security, is unjustifiable. How much of this is looted no one has any idea. But if someone was to so much as raise a question, he or she would be branded a traitor. Even the Left, wary after their stand in 1962 didn’t receive popular support, steers clear of such issues. What if this very amount was to be spent for education, health and providing basic food for all? The country would have changed for the better. Now, the thing is that, there is no basic class difference between the Congress and the BJP. One might chant Rama’s name a bit more than the other. Another might go to the extent of propping Rama and Rahim together. That is merely all that there is to separate them.
Q. There has been a marginal increase in the budgetary allocation towards education, drinking water and sanitation while Rs 200 crore has been allocated for the construction of Sardar Patel’s statue. Does this defy all logic?
Even in West Bengal 300 crores are being spent in building something akin to the London Eye. As if, a statue would bring liberation to our souls. From 120 feet one wouldn’t get to see the garbage strewn narrow lanes where hunger resides, the water logged streets which breed diseases… These people simply do not have the intention to fulfill the basic needs of the people, nor do they have the potential. You cannot hoodwink the masses with such gimmickry for long. For now, such tricksters unfortunately, seem to be having a field day.
Q. Increasing inequality has affected people the world over. This has given rise to the Occupy movements, the Chilean student movements, even though they are scattered across geo-political lines. Do you see a narrative of revolutionary politics emerging from these?
No, at least not in the Indian context. The revolutionary stage cannot come by itself but has to be brought about by sustained organized mass movement. At present there isn’t any organization in India that can organize something on such a massive scale.
Q. Finally, with all that is happening around the world neo-liberals would like to side with Fukuyama’s thesis. But there is still a lot of promise. Do you think Marxism is more relevant today that it has ever been?
As long as there is oppression in this world, Marxism is the only alternative. Marx has spoken the last word on breaking free from this oppressive structure – through class struggle that is. This class struggle can take various forms the world over. We have the example of Latin America where there is a clear trend towards a new paradigm even though we do not speak much about it. A land which was in the grasp of the US until a few decades back is politically independent today with a mind of its own. Today, except for Colombia the entire South America is against US policies. In most of these countries there were various political and social movements. The Communist Party did not lead in any of them. Even in Cuba, the Communist Party had opposed Fidel Castro branding him as insane. Only when he had successfully led the revolution did they accept his leadership. Venezuela, Bolivia and even Brazil provide brilliant examples of such social revolutions. In all these countries some other party led the movement while the Communist Party tried to latch on to them much later. At the time when oppression becomes unbearable if the Communist Party remains unmoved, resistance would take shape from parched soil.
[So, you repose your faith in Marxism]
I don’t have that many days ahead of me. The few days that I have left, I will live them embracing Marxism.
This interview was carried out on 18th August, 2014. Interviewed on behalf of JSHC by Rohit Dutta Roy.
From a stint as the Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, to various tenured faculty positions including one at the Delhi School of Economics, Dr. Ashok Mitra had already reached the pinnacle of an academic career when he joined the elected Marxist government in West Bengal with the dreams of providing interim relief to the working classes. It was under his stewardship as the finance minister of the Left Front Government in West Bengal, post the victory of 1977, that Operation Barga - the land redistribution programme aimed at the landless tillers, began. His pre-eminence as a political ideologue and economic thinker ensures his standing as a luminary amongst people of all persuasion, besides those of the Left. Though unable to move about as freely due to age related problems, he still maintains his engagement with Leftist politics.