Indian leftists hopeful of staging a comeback

We will continue to work for the ordinary people, says Vijayaraghavan

By Siraj Wahab in Jeddah,

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As India’s communist parties reel under their most severe election drubbing in recent history, A. Vijayaraghavan, a longtime member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), sees a prominent role for the leftists, even in their diminished capacity. Vijayaraghavan is a member of CPI-M’s Central Secretariat and represents the south Indian state of Kerala in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament and was his party’s chief whip in the last Parliament. Active in Indian politics for 35 years, he spoke to this journalist during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia. According to him, a variety of factors had combined in the recent parliamentary elections resulting in the Left Bloc losing 27 seats. It had 43 members in the last Parliament. That strength has now been reduced to merely 16.

“The left parties played a significant role in the previous government,” said Vijayaraghavan. “We stopped rampant privatization. We stopped the Congress government’s move to privatize the public sector. Naturally, this was not to the liking of the pro-privatization and the pro-US lobbies in the country. They all ganged up against us. So there was a consolidation of all reactionary forces and vested interests against the left parties. They did not like the idea of the left’s involvement in the country’s policy-making process.”

He dismissed contentions that the party had lost its Keralite Muslim constituents and noted numerical gains in terms of voters. “In fact, more Muslims voted for us this time,” he said of Kerala. “In comparison to the 2004 elections, our share of the vote registered an increase in nine constituencies. In those nine constituencies we got 300,000 more votes this time. Of these 300,000 votes, 150,000 came from predominantly Muslim constituencies. However, this increase in Muslim votes did not reach the expected level of our party. In West Bengal, however, we lost a sizable section of the Muslim vote because of a vociferous campaign against us led by extremist groups among Muslims and other reactionary forces led by the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee. All extremist forces joined hands against us.”

Vijayaraghavan said that despite winning three of four seats in predominantly Muslim northern Kerala, adverse opinion about the left government’s “well-intentioned” legislation regarding control of admissions and fees in educational institutions led to a backlash in Christian-dominated southern Kerala. “The Christians mostly run these educational institutions,” he said. “They took umbrage at the Kerala Professional Colleges (KPC) Act that was unanimously passed by the leftist-run state government in 2006 … The legislation was only meant to enforce government control in private educational institutions which were collecting huge capitation fees. And so the church mobilized the Christians against us and out of 11 seats in southern Kerala, we won only one.”

Vijayaraghavan said some of his party’s tactical decisions had boomeranged in Kerala. “A party known as the PDP or People’s Democratic Party, led by Abdul Nasser Madani, extended its support to the left,” he said. “We did not have any political alliance with him. He was campaigning for us. This association affected us to some extent because the media projected it in a different way. They communalized the whole issue. At a time when extremist forces were emerging as political forces all over the world, they — the media — projected Madani as a symbol of Islamic extremism. This was done at a time when our political rivals, the centrist Congress party, had an open alliance with another extremist force in the state, the Popular Front.”

Vijayaraghavan also said the party had problems with media coverage in West Bengal. “We realized that the industrialization of the state was lagging behind when compared with the all-India average. So there was an attempt to have more industries in West Bengal,” Vijayaraghavan said. “In order to start more industries in the state, the government needed more land. We had to take agricultural land for industrial purposes. The state’s leftist government made all efforts to give sufficient compensation to the affected farmers. However, this was projected in a completely negative way by the media and then all extremist forces rallied against us.”

Vijayaraghavan refused to blame the CPI-M politburo chief Prakash Karat’s “obstinate behavior” for the electoral drubbing. “We are a totally different organization. We never take individual decisions. Whatever decisions were taken by CPI-M and implemented by us were a collective decision. So if we suffer defeat, we take joint responsibility. I agree this is the biggest defeat that the left parties have suffered in the country’s history. We have only 16 elected members now. This was never the case in the past. We always won between 25 and 35 seats. In the last elections, however, we had the maximum number of MPs: 43. This is the first time we lost in both our strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal.”

On Karat being a Keralite and being out of sync with West Bengal politics, Vijayaraghavan said: “Karat was born in Rangoon, Myanmar. He was educated in Chennai and Edinburgh. He was the president of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. A political leader who has never worked as a politician in Kerala — how can anybody say he is out of sync with the country’s politics? Comrade Karat knows the pulse of West Bengal which is a leftist bastion.”

In the wake of the CPI-M’s significant setbacks, Vijayaraghavan said the communists would remain a vociferous opposition committed to defending the common man. “The living conditions of ordinary people will be adversely affected by the policies of the present government because Congress is a pro-rich party. Congress is a pro-American party. Congress is a pro-liberalization party,” he said. “Naturally, their policies will have a negative impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Seventy percent of Indians earn less than half-a-dollar a day. There is an ample scope for our party to highlight the issues of the toiling masses. We will fight for them. Also, communal forces are still strong in India. We have a role to play in order to protect the secular ethos of India. We will play our role.”