When Prakash Karat succeeded Harkishan Singh Surjeet as General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2005, it was seen as a historic transfer of the party’s leadership to the post-Independence generation. But he had the image of a hardliner, which indicated the party would still undertake changes in a slow and calibrated manner.
Karat was General Secretary till 2015, took over as Editor of party mouthpiece People’s Democracy and has been a senior member of the party’s apex body, the politburo. Karat started in politics in his student days and was elected the third president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union.
In this interview to DEEPAK RAZDAN, Karat answers questions on the current political developments, the working of the Constitution and the economic situation.
Q: We have just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. How do you think it’s working has been?
A: The Constitution set the course and direction of the Republic. We have seen how this Constitution has been framed based on secular democratic principles which were infused by the values of the freedom struggle. The Constituent Assembly also chose this direction. However, after seven decades of the working of the Constitution which has been instrumental in India becoming and remaining a Parliamentary democracy, the Constitution itself is faced with serious challenges today.
I think all the basic principles on which the Constitution was premised are under threat, whether it is secularism, democracy or federalism. Under the present Government, we have seen a concerted effort during its previous five-year term and in the first year of its second term to undermine the basic premise of the Constitution. The latest example is the amendments which have been brought to the Citizenship Act, 1955. There are other instances also. As far as secular principles are concerned, we have already seen a steady erosion of that in the last six years.
As far as democracy is concerned, the democratic set up today is being insidiously undermined. Take the question of political funding, the electoral bonds have been pushed through by this Government in a very surreptitious way because it was made a Money Bill, introduced as part of the Finance Bill and most of the amendments to the various laws were made through that. The electoral bonds are going to allow black money, illegal money and even foreign money to come into the political system.
This is contrary to our whole concept of democracy and it is also harmful for the sovereignty of the country if foreign funds can flood our country and are used to finance our parties. So, there are various challenges before the Constitution because we have a ruling party which does not really, in letter or spirit, want to adhere to the Constitution.
Q: What do the Maharashtra developments indicate?
A: Maharashtra happenings show how persons in authority under the Constitution have failed to act upon or live up to the Constitutional principles. The way the Governor has acted, and the way the Prime Minister and the President acted, three Constitutional functionaries, I think, all of them, failed to abide by the Constitutional practices and principles.
As for the political part, Maharashtra underlines the increasing impunity with which the ruling BJP is willing to go to any length to capture power, using defections or money power, popularly called horse-trading. All efforts are made by the ruling party to retain power or to grab power. Maharashtra has also seen the real first break in the NDA alliance, its oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, has parted ways with the BJP.
The other aspect is that the Opposition parties, the NCP and the Congress, and some of the smaller parties, have shown a rare consciousness of the fact that they should remain united. I think these will have implications for the country’s politics. It also shows the regional factor. In all States, there are regional and political identifies. The BJP’s efforts to override them or ride roughshod over them will not succeed.
Q: Does a strong Centre in India mean an authoritarian regime?
A: I think it is not a question of a strong Centre or a weak Centre, or that a strong Centre is equated to authoritarianism. I think it is a Centre which tends to centralise all powers or a Centre which undermines the powers of the States, or their rights, shows an authoritarian character. In India, today, we are seeing that in all aspects. Take fiscal federalism, the Centre is now trying to change the whole terms of sharing of financial resources between the Centre and the States.
The Finance Commission is being given new terms of reference which are not Constitutional. The latest is that you have told them that you have to take into account expenditure on Defence and internal security in your calculation of division of taxes. This means the States will get much less. The second is GST. They are not paying to the States what is their due as per the formula decided.
They are delaying, there are arrears. This is the fiscal side. The strong Centre does not mean you can use Governors to ride roughshod over Constitutional principles or decide who should rule a State, going outside the Constitutional framework. A strong Centre also means strong States, they go together. You can’t have weak States and a strong Centre. Today the effort is to have a strong Centre at the expense of the States and that is definitely an authoritarian feature.
Q: The BJP Government had its way in Kashmir, but there is question mark on the restoration of the democratic system, including Assembly elections.
A: The Government has abolished the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Now you have two Centrallyadministered Union Territories. This is another instance of an authoritarian onslaught when an entire State has been dismantled. The legality or the Constitutional validity of the new setup has been taken up by the Supreme Court. But the way they went about annulling Article 370 and dismantling the State is a Constitutional fraud. Jammu and Kashmir Assembly will be a Union Territory Assembly like Puducherry’s, not a full-fledged Assembly.
The main aspect is as far as people of Kashmir are concerned, the ordinary citizens, their rights are still suspended, even three-and-a-half months after President’s Rule and the new set-up. There are restrictions on their movement, communications, the use of mobile phones, Internet. You have many political leaders and activists under detention. So, the holding of Assembly elections will be meaningless when you have such restrictions on the basic rights of the citizens. All these rights must be restored fast, and all restrictions removed.
Q: The Citizenship Bill is being amended with the belief that it will help genuine refugees and stop illegal migrants.
A: Our objection to the legislation is that it is bringing a new definition of citizenship which is related to religious affiliation. Certain people belonging to certain religions will be eligible for citizenship if they have come into the country illegally, but others are not similarly eligible. They are bringing in a new area or a new definition of citizenship which goes against the Constitutional understanding that all are equal, nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste or creed.
Q: Despite tax and interest cuts and faster clearances, industry leaders claim an atmosphere of fear?
A: It is a well-known secret. Everybody knew that sections of the industry and the corporates are feeling very uneasy about the present economic scenario, they have not been voicing their concerns because they are afraid of the Government’s reaction. The Government is intolerant of criticism. Industry can see how they are dealing with many dissenters, in academia, intellectuals, etc. They know this Government is using the agencies to intimidate them, whether it is the income-Tax or the ED, etc.
Q: The hundredth year of the Communist Party has begun but the Left and democratic alternative remains a challenge.
A: If you look at the one century of the Communist Party, we have played a role in shaping the national agenda on many issues. The Communist Party brought to the fore before Independence or just after Independence, the question of land reforms, the old feudal set up, where there was concentration of land in the hands of few and the vast mass of peasantry did not have land.
Similarly, on federalism, it was the Communist Party which played a major role in the Fifties to see that States are formed on linguistic lines. So, you will see on a number of issues, and the fight for social and economic equality in this country, the Left took the lead. All this is within the framework of an alternative vision. What we call the Left and democratic alternative, we think this is the alternative to the current set-up and the current policies which favour the few in the country.
No political party can avoid these issues. But we have not yet reached the stage where we can have the political heft and the strength and the mass influence to see that a Left and democratic front comes into being. Looking back, we have some satisfaction of the work we have done. But we are also aware of the large distance which we still must cover.