Interview : `We are happy but not complacent'

FRONTLINE, May 20 - June 02, 2006

Q:What are your feelings on the Left Front's huge victory in the Assembly elections?


I am extremely happy that we have got a two-thirds majority, with more votes and more seats. Before our State secretary Anil Biswas passed away... I was very happy to hear him say that we would win this time with more votes and more seats. I took up his statement in the meetings that I addressed... I told people that I wanted to see the seventh Left Front government and requested voters to make it happen... Seven times in a row - this has happened nowhere else in India before. ... But first of all, I am thankful to the people of West Bengal, and not just to those who voted for us, for making it such a peaceful election, like all elections since 1977, and we have been praised by the Election Commission.

But why five-phased elections, I haven't yet understood. I feel it was an insult to the people of West Bengal. And we maintained that they would give a fitting reply to the E.C. [Election Commission]. That has also happened.

I have also been saying in speeches that in parliamentary democracy, the Opposition is very important, whether big or small. But it should be a responsible Opposition. I have requested the Opposition in my speeches that we should get together to pass resolutions unitedly the Assembly. But being the Opposition of course it is their duty to oppose the policies they think are anti-people. We in our turn will go to the people to tell them of our programmes, and finally let the people be the ultimate judge. But of course, we don't have a responsible Opposition yet. With this huge mandate, our responsibility has grown.

We are happy and rejoicing, but we are not complacent. We were able to implement 90 per cent of the projects we undertook in the last government. The remaining 10 per cent, for one reason or another we could not achieve - maybe [the] Central government was responsible, maybe we were. That has to be seen to. You see, we never hide anything from the people, even our negative points. We ask our workers to listen to the criticism against us and if there is anything positive that can be done, then it has to be done. If not, then the people should be told so directly. This is the job of the people's representatives in the panchayats and municipalities...

After we won the election in 1977 a huge crowd had gathered to greet us. I told them then that we would not rule from Writers' Buildings [the main State Secretariat] alone but also with the people. The same policy is being pursued. When I decided to retire on grounds of my failing health we created the post of Deputy Chief Minister, which went to Buddhadeb [Bhattacharjee]. He has done well and has led the team properly. He has been accepted not only by the party, but also by the people.

Q: When neoliberal policies are being pursued at the Centre, what challenges will the CPI(M) face in both supporting the UPA government at the Centre, and protecting the interests of the working class, trade unions and the small farmers?


This is a peculiar political situation in India now. The Congress - we have been fighting it for 45 years. We are now supporting it at the Centre - but on condition of implementing of the Common Minimum Programme [CMP]. Unfortunately we are not happy with all their economic policies and foreign policies. We have always supported the Congress non-aligned foreign policy from [Jawaharlal] Nehru's time down to Indira Gandhi's.

But we feel they have abandoned that way, and dependence on America is growing. We don't like it at all. We have said, for example, in profitable industries, foreigners must not get the majority share. [Prime Minister] Dr Manmohan Singh, earlier when he was the Union Finance Minister, started following the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [IMF]. That must not happen, for these organisations are not always correct in their assessments. Some of the Congress recent economic policies, such as the privatisation of airports and so on we find to be anti-people. Now that the elections are over, we will meet and review how much they have digressed from the CMP, both in economic policies and in foreign policy.

It is clearly written in the CMP that we will pursue an independent foreign policy, but they are leaning on the side of the U.S. [United States], the World Bank and the IMF, who are not always correct. As I have said, there are always conditionalities attached. While we want foreign investments, which will be of mutual interest, generate employment and spread knowledge, we will not accept any conditionalities.

To give you an example, when I was Chief Minister, we asked the World Bank to lend us Rs.900 crores for infrastructure and road development. At that time I went to Washington. They gave me a good lunch, spoke very well, and I thought that the project was happening. But after three months a World Bank team came and asked the Finance Minister to show them the finance budget. He said they were welcome to see the budget that has been passed, but it would be illegal to show them the State's future budget. So we didn't get that money, and had to borrow Rs.500 crores from the Asian Development Bank.

In 1994, when I was Chief Minister, I placed a statement on our industrial policy on the floor of the Assembly that was accepted by the Left parties, and we have been pursuing that. We emerged first in agriculture, fisheries and social forestry, but we were not progressing in industry, where we were the best among the States at one time. Now I think we are fourth. But we are not to be blamed for that. It was the Congress government's licensing policy and freight equalisation policy of iron, steel and coal, the foundation of all industries, that set us back.

Q: What are your views on the reformist agenda followed by the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government?


I don't know why newspapers go on writing that some of us are against reforms. We are not against reforms. Buddha, in the time of the last government went abroad a few times to get investments into the State; I went to Munich twice to get Siemens here; I went to Holland to [see] Philips for them to expand their activities here. Abroad too, I found, there was propaganda against us; industries should think twice before investing in West Bengal because they strike work all the time.

This is very incorrect. It is true, we have given the right to strike not only to workers, but also to government employees, which is prevalent nowhere else in India. But there have been no major strikes in the last 30 years. We keep telling the workers that it is in their interest to look after the industry, if you have demands then place them in front of the management. If there is no agreement then come to the government. Our Labour Department will look into it. But if the management does not listen to legitimate demands, then you can go on strike. We shall never send the police to break up a justified strike.

As for reforms, what is the panchayat system? Is that not a major reform? More than 70 per cent of our people live in the countryside. Take the case of [the] Haldia Petrochemicals complex, a project worth over Rs.5,000 crores. I had to wait for 11 years to get permission from the Central government. That project is making huge profits now, and more than 70,000 people are getting employment in the downstream industries.

I remember there was an electronic project that Indira Gandhi had promised to help us with. After keeping me waiting for one year she said that her officers, who had set up a committee to look into this matter, unanimously told her that no investment in electronics should be made in West Bengal, because it is a border State. Ridiculous!

But there is no denying the fact that poverty is still here. Quite some time ago there was a report by the World Bank, which said that 53 per cent of the people of West Bengal live below the poverty line. This was brought down to 23 per cent a few years ago. I don't know exactly what it is now. Unemployment is a very serious issue all over India.

Our government has laid a lot of stress on dealing with this problem and the results are showing. The Salim Group has come from Indonesia, the Tatas will be manufacturing their Rs.1 lakh car here, Wipro is here. We are trying to promote small and medium industries to meet the unemployment situation. But our infrastructure is not that good. The seventh Left Front government will have to remedy this.

These are all reforms, and the whole process of reforms started from 1977. So I don't understand what the newpapers mean when they talk about us as anti-reformists.

Q: Soon after the victory you said that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's role at the Centre should increase. Could you elaborate on that?


We have won not only in West Bengal, but in Kerala also, and very convincingly. So the Left is strengthened, and the Congress-led government depends on the Left's support, because we are in a position to throw them out of power any time. But we don't want to do that, and we are having our Polit Bureau meeting [May 27 - 28] to discuss the situation. Personally, it is getting very difficult for me and I shall ask them to release me, but I know they won't do that. This time our meeting will be on our relationship with the Centre.

Q: You were the longest-serving Chief Minister in the country. Please tell us something of the changes that have occured in the CPI(M) and the Left Front since coming to power in 1977.


The Communist Party split in 1964, and our party, the CPI(M), came into being. Our policy was to unite Left forces. Earlier also we had formed coalitions to form governments with some leaders who had left the Congress and formed a new party called the Bangla Congress. That government lasted for nine months and then 13 months. In 1971, when the Bangladesh War was on, we put up a great performance, and that too at a time when Indira Gandhi's popularity was at its highest, and she was winning wherever elections were held.

At that time we tried to unite the Left parties and that had a great effect on the people. There has been a change in our party constitution. We are working in a capitalist system in a parliamentary democracy and we should take whatever little advantage [there is] from that system to come closer to our goals, which is of course far away. I don't know whether it will take 50 years or 100 years for a classless society without exploitation to come into being.

We are also looking at what is happening in China. The Communist government was set up there one year after our Independence. What they are doing is Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics. That is essentially Marxism, for nowhere has Marx said that the pattern should be the same everywhere. We are studying the Chinese system, we have been to China and met their leaders and we want China to come here too. In fact, China is setting up a power project in one of our districts, and the power [it will produce] is expected to be among the cheapest in the country. We want more trade between India and West Bengal and China.

The sixth government also laid a lot of stress on the diversification of agriculture and food processing. Though not much advance has been made in that field, the seventh Left government will complete that process.

Q: What is the future of the Left in Indian politics?


In the last party congress held in New Delhi, we got reports from all the States. It is very unfortunate that though we are very strong in three States, in some of the other States, even though we have good mass organisations, the party is not strong. We took a decision that, from the position we occupy in Central politics now, we should strengthen our party and mass organisation, for strengthening only the party will not help. Unfortunately, mass organisations are not there in most parts of India, but of late there has been some growth, for example this time in Tamil Nadu we got nine seats. But that is not enough. We have to advance in for instance, places like Uttar Pradesh and Madhaya Pradesh, [where] we hardly have any base.

Q: So how long do you think it will be before there is a Left government at the Centre?


I don't know if I will be alive to see that [smiles]. I don't think it will be possible in the immediate future, but an attempt has to be made to strengthen ourselves and also talk to other non-communal parties. The older generation has seen us in the Opposition here, they have also seen the amount of repression we had to suffer. Our party was declared illegal after Independence in 1948. Most leaders were jailed or went underground.

Then, after the High Court gave us legal status, we contested the first elections in 1952, and, without practically any organisation, we got 28 seats. I think at that time there were 280 seats in the Assembly. Since then we have been growing. There was a time when we thought that no Left government would be allowed. In fact, E.M.S. Namboodirpad was removed from office in Kerala by Jawaharlal Nehru and President's Rule was imposed. Indira Gandhi was the president of the Congress. But we never gave up. But our one defect has been that the Marxism-Leninism we talk about [has] not spread among the younger generation. But all that has started [to] change. It is very important to raise their consciousness.


Published on FRONTLINE, Vol. 23 :: No. 10

May. 20 - Jun. 02, 2006