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'Nothing Before Polls': Sitaram Yechury on Grand Coalition and Rahul Gandhi as PM

Among those at the forefront of the Opposition is CPI(M)’s General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, who wants to save the country from BJP’s ‘serious assault’.

Rupashree Nanda | CNN-News18

Updated:July 3, 2018, 11:27 AM IST
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As we inch closer to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, opposition parties are busy trying to cobble up a third front to defeat the BJP, which stormed to power after a landslide victory in 2014.

Among those at the forefront of the Opposition is CPI(M)’s General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, who wants to save the country from BJP’s ‘serious assault’.

From Congress leading the Federal Front to the possibility of CPM working with its close rival, Trinamool Congress, Yechury shares the prospects of his party and their game plan for ‘Mission 2019’ with CNN-News18’s Rupashree Nanda.

Here are the excerpts of the interview:

Earlier this year it was seen that you staked your position as general secretary on an understanding with the Congress. Why is an understanding with the grand old party so important for you, especially when Congress is at a historic low?

Our immediate task is to save the country and its constitutional republican order, which is under serious assault by the BJP. And to achieve the larger objective, we have to keep all our options open. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) is moving towards the fulfilment of their vision – conversion of a secular democratic republic of India to a ‘Hindutva Rashta’ – and this is certainly disastrous for the country and the people. Hence, putting an end to such a thought is our priority, and in this scenario we cannot close our options.

Even when we know what Congress is and what they have done in the past, we have to consider the larger issue first. We have been the worst victims as well as the foremost fighters against the Congress policies. That struggle to bring in a policy alternative in the country will continue. But even for that battle, it is essential to ensure that this government (NDA-led by BJP) does not remain in office.​

But when it appears that Congress is losing ground, what makes you feel that they could help make a difference? Do you see Congress party is occupying a leadership position in an alliance of opposition parties? Do you see Rahul Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate?

A fact which everyone must under understand that whatever front is formed, it only emerges after the elections. At least from my political experience in the last three-four decades, an alternative government is formed after the polls.

Even during VP Singh's regime, his elevation as the prime minister was decided post-election. In 1996, the United Front was formed after the poll results when Deve Gowda became the PM, while the UPA was formed also formed through a similar method in 2004.

So at the moment, our basic task is to ensure that maximum anti-BJP votes are pooled in through state level arrangements and through parties which command people’s support in their respective states.

As far as the question about Rahul Gandhi being the prime ministerial candidate if Congress emerges as a single largest party goes, I would again cite my experience. I didn’t get the post inspite of the entire role that I played in 2004. I didn’t think that Manmohan Singh would become the Prime Minister. I don’t anybody had a clue about it until the name was announced.

In fact, Singh went on to hold the position for the longest period, only next to Jawahar Lal Nehru.

But sir, you're not answering my question sir. What if Congress Party emerges as the single largest party?

I have already told you my answer. It all depends on the post-election situation.

So does it depend on numbers or on Gandhi’s acceptability among other Opposition leaders?

It will depend on both, and number of course is crucial in a democracy.

But do you think that any other regional parties would get more number of seats than the Congress because it is a pan-India party?

At the moment it doesn't appear so. I have full faith in Indian people. When everybody thought it is a doomsday, they come up with a solution. They did it during emergency, they have done it in 2014…(correcting the slip of tongue)..I mean 2004.

But do you feel that this is an unusual moment in Indian politics? Do you feel that considering that all parties now are thinking of coming together just to keep the BJP from coming to power?

No.

Like you see the SP and BSP coming together in Uttar Pradesh and you also see Pinarayi Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee in Delhi CM's residence together. So do you feel that it's an unusual moment and there's some sort of a breakthrough which is happening?

You see, SP-BSP coming together is an electoral alliance. Pinarayi Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee coming together is not an electoral alliance. It was on an issue of Centre-state relations, which is very dear to us, and for (safeguarding) Indian Constitution.

But for that also they had to overcome the animosity, isn't it? Wasn’t it significant for both of them to come together?

The significance lies in the issue. Like say, for instance, you may dislike me thoroughly, but if you enter into a train compartment where you have a reservation and I'm already there inside the compartment, will you get down the train and stop your journey? You don't.

But the other question that you posed earlier that is important to us and, why is it that all these parties are together now wanting to keep the BJP out? Now it is not the parties themselves, I think.

You must understand that there's public pressure; people want to get rid of this government. Look at what is happening, in the name of cow protection? Dalits and Muslims are massacred. In the name of moral policing, our children are being told what to wear, what to eat, whom to befriend and whom to speak. If one defies it, he or she is assaulted.

The entire social fabric of our country is being destroyed in front of our eyes and people are responding to it saying that this should stop. Every single institution, Constitutional institution is under attack today. And this is a sort of institutionalised emergency - from the Parliament itself to the Judiciary, to the Election Commission, to the universities (research bodies).

NDA is going to have a very strong leader in terms of PM Modi and they'll have a very strong face but opposition parties, the non-Congress, non-BJP front or with Congress - they do not have such a face.

That is why we are a parliamentary democracy. People are today saying ‘desh ko neta nahi desh ko neeti chahiye’ (Country does not want politicians, but policies). What the country requires is not leaders. What the country requires is alternative policies which are for people.

But don't you think that's a disadvantage —- not having a face for an alliance?

Not at all. I mean Atal Bihari Vajpayee was seen as a colossus in 2004. It was said who can defeat Vajpayee, who can defeat the BJP and its shining India campaign? You saw what happened. So people will respond to what is happening with their daily life. That is completely disrupted in terms of economic burdens, in terms of social harmony, in terms of everything — so that is what they're going to protect now.

Last time when we had spoken, you had said that Sonia Gandhi was the glue that binds opposition together and you did not see Rahul Gandhi yet occupying that position but post Gujarat and post Karnataka do you feel he is acquiring those skills?

Last when I spoke to you we were talking about Sonia Gandhi being the glue that kept the UPA together. Now it’s a new situation. That glue will emerge ... Rahul Gandhi... it shows. I mean inside I think it is a very big moment for the Congress to accept a junior partner as a Chief Minister in Karnataka.

I mean normally, by the rules of democracy it’s the numbers that matter. But, here in order to achieve that objective of keeping the BJP out, the Congress went that distance. That's a new development. So, that shows some thinking which can lead to a situation. But, as I said now, concentrate on the state level alliance and then we'll see eventually what happens.

NCP leader Sharad Pawar also said and, he's an important ally of the Congress Party, that he does not see a ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) before elections at all. He says it is very impractical and he also says that regional leaders will become more powerful. How would you respond to that?

Anybody who's got experience in Indian politics will say that. I've been saying this since 1996. When the people said that this is a regression in Indian democracy that you have fragmented verdict, I said no, this is a maturation of Indian democracy.

So maturation is that every part of India which has a distinct identity, they will elect their representatives. It’s only natural and, then the combination gels subsequently. That is India, like VP Singh, who then conferred with me to say, and he went a step ahead to say India itself is a Grand Coalition. And that is true, it has to reflect in politics.

So, all this arrangement will come only post elections. I think Pawar is correct. He's an experienced politician and, he knows that this sort of a thing will happen only after the elections.

Would the CPM be ready to work with the TMC because Mamata Banerjee is clearly working towards a federal front, a possible non-Congress, non-BJP one?

Our assessment of TMC is very clear. Trinamool Congress and the BJP play politics in tandem. They are today indulging in competitive communalism. Whoever had heard of celebrations Shyama Prasad Mookerjee's birthday earlier? But the ruling party in West Bengal did it. It is a clear indication that they are competing to spread this communal polarization; deepen it in order to gain electoral advantage —- which is playing with fire as far as India is concerned because people forget. This generation, for instance, does not remember that Mahatma Gandhi was not at the Red Fort when India was unfurling the tricolor.

But nationally, are you willing to work with the TMC?

No. I mean in this present circumstances that is not feasible. At least, I won’t be a part of such an alliance.

When you saw what happened in the Delhi Chief Minister's residence earlier with 4 chief ministers going there - Congress very conspicuous by its absence - do you feel that Congress lost a bit of advantage over there?

I think the Congress party should have kept their difference away — whatever their relationship is with the Aam Aadmi Party. What was happening in Delhi was an issue of Centre-state. You have seen the gross misuse of the offices of the Governors and Lt Governors. That's why I went to the national capital in support of the elected state government, which was being obstructed from discharging its responsibilities. I'd also said that the same thing is happening to the Pondicherry Congress government by the Lt Governor. So, I did not discriminate between the AAP and the Congress. Our solidarity is both of them as with other states in which Governors have hoisted minority governments at the behest of the BJP from the Centre. So, at least on the Centre-State relations issue, Congress should have demarcated their views.

So they lost an advantage?

Yes. I think on this issue their coming out in defense of the Constitution would have actually enhanced their political position.

HD Deve Gowda had said recently that the process of building a third front should be speeded up because there is an inkling that general elections might be advanced to 2018. How would you respond to that? He goes on and says in the same breath that the six political parties who came together for Kumaraswamy's swearing in ceremony need not fight elections together.

He is again an experienced politician. He knows the reality. On an issue we can all come together, but politically there are certain problems. For instance, in Kerala our main fight will be with the Congress. In Bengal our main fight will be with the TMC and the BJP. So this will remain.

And as far as the preponing of the election is concerned, that is what the BJP is aiming at. They are suffering from an unprecedented anti-incumbency in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which are due for elections. They think behind the image of Modi, and think that anti-incumbency can be overcome. That is their calculation. If that happens, then very good. That's exactly what Vajpayee thought in 2004. He advanced the elections by six months and we all saw the result.

What about speeding up the process for the building of a third front?

Again the third front is a state wise arrangement, I'm convinced of that; beyond it anything else right now is not practical. And always it happens before the elections. Calls for third front, calls for fourth front, sometimes they call for a federal front. I mean all these things will happen. But the reality is what will actually happen is state level arrangement. And, finally, the numbers post-election will determine the possibility of forming the alternative front.

My other question is about the position of the CPI(M). For instance during the 21st Congress, the party's resolution was to build the independent strength of the party, not to ally with other political parties and to concentrate on grassroots and strengthen the political organisation. But 3 years down the line clearly that has not happened. So where have you gone wrong?

It's not correct. That is it not what happened. Building up the independent activities of the party and advancing the movements along with the 21st congress – that is what we decided. There should be a unification of the struggles against economic exploitation which is our staple struggle with also struggles against social oppression. And in these three years the unity of the Dalit movement protest and the Left protest have become much stronger.

You see, the slogans that have emerged- Lal Neel. You have seen the entire popular activity where people are there — with red flag in one hand and blue in another. I mean these movements are advancing. In these three years, we witnessed three big industrial actions by the working class.

You've seen the long march of the farmers. So independent presence and movements are going on. Our fundamental objective is to offer to the Indian people an alternative policy framework. But when election comes, we will focus on our foremost objective —- to keep BJP out of the government.

You said that you've seen the red flag and the blue flag coming together but you still don't have a Dalit member in your politburo? The long march happened just after the defeat in Tripura. So, why haven’t you been able to convert that support into votes?

Two things - one is correct: transferring the struggles into votes. We still have to work in actually integrating the struggles, economic exploitation and social oppression. Because what happens when you give a call on an economic problem or issues like bonus and wages, people are willing to face the police, get imprisoned jail and be lathi-charged; some are even ready to take on the bullets. But when it comes to elections, the same people will go by social pressures. This trend has to be broken. We are trying to dismantle it but it will take time, and that explains the mismatch of growing struggles and transferring of votes.

Looking ahead at 2019, how do you see your role because you are perceived as someone who has good relations with people across political spectrum and can negotiate well? So how do you see your role ahead of 2019? Both pre and post elections?

My role will be in consonance with my party's understanding where the priority is to get rid of this government. For that we have decided to work for maximising the pooling of anti-BJP votes. So, these two will define my role.

So you will be in touch with all political leaders to get them together for an alliances?

Right now, I will try persuade them not to go chasing a chimera of an all India front, but to maximise the anti-BJP vote at the state level and post elections that will eventually follow. We had a discussion regarding this with several parties when we were inn Bengaluru (for HD Kumaraswmay’s swearing-in). They are all concentrating on their state level arrangements.

Look at what happened in Bihar. There was a Magathbandhan; Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav came together to fight and then Nitish Kumar stepped out of it and went along with the BJP. Don't you think that's a deception on the people also? And whether Nitish Kumar is ever going to inspire that confidence among people?

It is most unfortunate thing and a betrayal of the people's mandate. The opposition also lost a face with Nitish Kumar doing what he's done. So in the ideal circumstances, a government of this nature should not be allowed to continue. That's why it comes to the question of Centre-state relations and governor's rule. The governors have called minority BJP to form government in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya.

Do you think that Nitish Kumar should go (out of power) or should have gone (from the alliance)?

I mean there should have been a popular government. If not, then we should go back to the people again and ask for their mandate.

Do you think Nitish Kumar will have that kind of credibility among opposition leaders again?

Unfortunately, it is not our doing, It is his own doing. I was very disappointed, I still am very disappointed that he's done what he's done.

But it seems that he is trying to reach out to Lalu Prasad Yadav again through phone calls. He is in two minds. So what will be the situation then?

I don't know whether he's reaching out or not but what happened was unfortunate and it shouldn’t have happened. But I think right now by-elections have shown very clearly in Bihar where the mood of the people is. It is against the BJP and because of Nitish Kumar's association with it, people are also against him.

Would he be welcomed back to the non-NDA fold?

I can't say, but that will depend on his talks with former partners first.

Looking ahead at 2019, tell us honestly what do you feel about BJP’s chances of coming back to power?

Very bright. BJP is not going to come to power. Nobody believed me when I used to say this in 2004, and similar may be the case now. But, let's wait for the results and I'm sure that it will be a non-BJP government.

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| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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