Sitaram Yechury, the CPI (M)’s General Secretary since 2015, had set his party’s goals in the Lok Sabha elections 2019 as defeating the BJP alliance, increasing the strength of the CPI (M) and the Left, and ensuring an alternative secular government at the Centre. None of these goals were realised. The BJP came back to power with an even greater majority on its own, the CPI (M)’s Lok Sabha tally was reduced from nine to just three, and its companion CPI added another two for the Left total.
The dream of an alternative Government at the Centre, became even more distant. West Bengal, where the CPI (M) ruled for over three decades and gave the party its national identity, yielded a shocking zero. In fact, the party’s voter base collapsed in its other two “strongholds”, Kerala and Tripura too, and the party which controlled coalition politics in the not too distant past, and played a kingmaker more than once, was left gasping for breath.
Starting his political career as a student leader in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, in the mid-1970s, Yechury, 66, has been member of the Rajya Sabha for two terms. In this interview to DEEPAK RAZDAN, Yechury answers questions on what went wrong for the CPI (M) and the Opposition in the just concluded general elections. Excerpts:
Q: Do you think the Opposition completely misread the people’s mood?
A: I don’t think it is the question of reading the people’s mood. The results clearly show the BJP has succeeded in changing the narrative of the elections away from the livelihood issues of the people. This they managed to do by whipping up emotions, passions on and around a communal jingoistic nationalism and coupled with the question of the fight against terrorism. The post-Pulwama Balakot situation permitted them to utilise it fully for changing the narrative. So, the change in the narrative is what swayed the people through emotional appeals, rather than the actual day-to-day concerns, which were the dominant feature till then. It was this success that the BJP achieved that is reflected in the results.
Q: Modi’s personal attraction shows the 2019 poll was in the ‘Presidential’ mode, and the Opposition had no central figure to offer?
A: It was not a question of any figure to offer vis-a-vis another figure coming from the BJP. The issue here was this entire change of the narrative was accompanied by the build-up of the Modi persona. This build-up of the persona was done through use of huge money, technology and messaging techniques, and big data analytics, and where individual preferred messaging was done to every person in various locations. This use of technology, buttressed by the media campaigns – unfortunately the media also projected this as Modi’s election, and everything was reduced to Modi vs the Other – also helped them, and many other factors played into the build-up of the persona. The manner in which the Election Commission dealt with the violations of the Model Code of Conduct also permitted it. So, it was a build-up of such a persona, and not the Presidential form, whereby individual candidates in constituencies were relegated to backward positions.
Q: Don’t you think this election showed that people in the future elections, will be looking forward to personalities, as much as to programmes?
A: Eventually, you cannot sustain any campaign or any pattern only on the basis of emotive appeals. People will have to earn a livelihood, and when they have to do so, first of all, they will have to live before they vote. When they have to live, the conditions of livelihood would be the most dominant. I am sure, even now, within weeks, you will see, concerns over livelihood conditions are going to erupt.
Q: Coming to West Bengal, the CPI (M)’s performance shows it is totally alienated from the people, whose support made it once a political force to reckon with?
A: It is a big setback for us, and given the background of the history of West Bengal politics, this performance of the Left is one of the worst-ever. There are various reasons why this happened. Over the past eight years or so, there was complete unleashing of politics of violence and terror which had alienated a lot of people against the ruling party, the Trinamool Congress. The Left was the primary target and we lost 180 of our crucial comrades who were the links between the party and the people. The people’s urge for ending this repression found expression in support to the BJP. On the other hand, Bengal has a very large catchment of secular and democratic vote. They saw the defeat of the BJP was essential to save India, to save what we have in the Constitutional order, and therefore rallied behind the Trinamool. There was also competitive communalism between the BJP and Trinamool. It was the Trinamool which legitimised the BJP and allowed it to enter Bengal. Having been in an alliance with the BJP in the past, they gave legitimacy to the BJP. The Trinamool’s rant against the BJP did not sell. There was intense polarisation and in that situation, no force in between could actually gain anything.
Q: The BJP seems to be scoring on ideology as well as on personality?
A: It is not scoring on ideology, it is scoring on whipping up communal passions, emotive passions. The question of livelihood is eventually going to be the basic question before every human being in India. And that is going to reassert itself, I am very confident.
Q: Jobs, agriculture, economy, attacks on minorities, Rafale, all these issues were there,and still the BJP got a larger vote?
A: All these issues are there and will remain there. The solution for these issues was required and demanded by the people. But in this election, having shifted the narrative and appealed to the emotive response of the people, they could succeed in garnering electoral support. The complete absence of any agenda, or any policy direction to tackle these problems, would be the main issue in the days to come.
Q: Don’t you think, in the last five years, Modi has been able to project himself as a man of action?
A: Modi’s projection, the way it was done, is a reality. But, a man of action? On terrorism, you go by the record, any actual figures. The number of terrorist attacks has grown under Modi, the number of deaths of civilians has grown during his five years, the number of security personnel martyred in terrorist attacks has grown. You had the Uri attack, followed by the surgical strike, the country was told now terrorism could not raise its head. After the surgical strike, there was Pulwama, and now you say terrorism has ended. Now, after Balakot, a large number of our security personnel have been killed in terrorist attacks. The track record is one aspect. The build-up of the persona, aided by all the factors I mentioned, that created this sort of illusory image, is another.
Q: The Opposition failed to convey a united picture, it was fighting among its various components.
A: The fact the Opposition could not come together was definitely a factor. I admit, and it’s unfortunate that didn’t happen. But, remember, politics can never be arithmetic. In 200 seats, the BJP got more than 50 per cent of the vote, so even if everybody comes together, they would have got it.
Q: Sometimes, coming together brings additional credibility, raising chances of success.
A: That is correct. Politics is not arithmetic, you are right. It is possible. But the fact it didn’t happen was unfortunate, and many parties would have to reconsider how and why and what are the interests they put before them. That is a process of introspection, I am sure, all parties are going through.
Q: Don’t you think the time has come for pre-poll projection of a leader?
A: I do not agree that this is going to be a fight between leaders. It is always going to be fight on issues. We have failed in not projecting the issues, and the others have succeeded in changing the narrative, and simultaneously building up of the persona. There, the point is, that they tried to create a similar situation in 2004. Who was the leader then to match Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and what was the argument that you don’t have a leader of that stature. What happened after that election the country knows. That is history. Finally, the effectiveness comes on the ability to put before the people the people’s agenda, rather than an illusory agenda, that is whipped up by a communal nationalist jingoism.
Q: What is your view on the suggestion for a unification of the CPI and the CPI (M), which has been made time and again?
A: The question of any merger is not on the agenda. Greater and closer cooperation between the Left, definitely yes, that process is on, and I am sure that process will continue to strengthen. In the coming period, the people of India have extremely grave challenges to meet. Our secular democratic Republic Constitutional values are under threat. Our institutions, Constitutional institutions, are under threat. The people’s rights and civil liberties are continuously being encroached upon, and people’s livelihood issues, the misery of that is going to mount.
Q: Considering the low point the Left and the CPI (M) have reached, how will you revive them?
A: This is nothing new. Everybody has been writing obituaries of the Left often. The Left can never perish as it has its links with the people.