Incredible as it may seem, Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, is changing with the times as the 2009 general election approaches. If you thought he was an inflexible and dogmatic Marxist, an uncompromising comrade who practices politics devoid of realism, then you had better change the way you look at him.
Flexibility has taken over ideology within the CPI-M. Karat is trying to usher his party which was wedded to international proletarianism in the last century into the reality of the 21st century with a new kind of coalition, through the process of this election. He is interpreting Marxism-Leninism in the Indian context of parliamentary democracy.
Indeed, this is the first time since he took over the stewardship of the party that Karat is leading the CPI-M in an election year. To remain relevant in the tough unforgiving world of politics in New Delhi, his party has to win the maximum seats in West Bengal and Kerala, where they won 26 and 12 respectively in 2004.
The times are not just uncertain for the party, they are crucial.
In Bengal, Muslims are set to defeat the CPI-M, while in Kerala, Christians have declared war against the party.
Karat has put his bets on his colleague in Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan by underplaying charges of corruption against him.
And, look where the crafty politician Vijayan is leading Karat and the party. On March 21, Vijayan shared the election platform with Abdul Naseer Madani of People's Democratic Party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party calls Madani a terrorist, the Kerala police has 'slotted' him as an 'Islamic fundamentalist'. Madani had been arrested in connection with the Coimbatore blasts, which aimed to assassinate L K Advani. Madani has been acquitted of all charges by the court two years ago
In an era of assertive politics of caste-backed leaders and communal divide within the country, the CPI-M is experimenting with a new socio-political contract by taking the poor and the deprived, the working class and peasantry and the radical Muslims under its wing.
It is a known fact that in Kerala, the Congress is openly supported by the church in seven Lok Sabha constituencies in the south. A politically savvy Kerala TV channel recently showed an amusing show of CPI-M candidate Sindhu Joy in Ernakulam district having a dialogue with pro-Congress bishop of the local church and seeking his blessings.
The powerful Latin Catholic Church in Kerala had written to Congress President Sonia Gandhi to nominate Hybi Eden, chief of the Congress' student wing, as party candidate for the Ernakulam seat. The letter was signed by the Varapuzha Archbishop Daniel Acharuparambil, who is also president of socially-powerful Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council.
Against the backdrop of such complicated cross currents, Karat has supported Vijayan in banking on Madani to galvanise support for the CPI-M candidates in three to four crucial seats including Ponnani.
The Karat camp's defence is blunt. When CPI's A B bardhan dubbed Madani as communal, Vijayan shot back, "Madani has changed his opinions over the years and is now taking a firm stance against communalism and terrorism."
Vijayan asked, "Do our critics want us to rebuff him for changing his stance? Or should we tell him that we don't want his support?"
In essence, what the CPI-M is saying is: "If Madani offers his community votes to our party, why should we say 'no'?"
The CPI-M in its survival game has also rolled the dice to create the illusion of a third force.
If, the parties under the band of the third alternative get enough seats, well and good for Karat. Or else, there is nothing to lose because before the election when TV prime time is very costly, his party leaders capture millions of eyeballs for free.
In short, as the UPA and NDA are wobbling in attempts at forming pre-poll alliances in region after region, the CPI-M is playing its part of game without carrying the burden of what Karl Marx said. While assessing Karat one should not forget that after all, he is the disciple of the Late Harkishan Singh Surjeet, former general secretary, known for his mastery in backroom politics in New Delhi, who cobbled many anti-BJP alliances after 1990s. Karat's weakness is that in spite of his total grip over the party structure his party is facing internal fights, ego-clashes of his regional leaders and its cadre is shrinking. But, his strength is that he understands the unattended regional aspirations of unseen and silent India that New Delhi always ignores. Surely, a metamorphosis is taking place within the CPI-M and in the public personality of Karat. How far this change is meaningful and successful we will know only when the results of elections are announced.
Meanwhile, it was interesting knowing a nuanced understanding of current political affairs of Karat when rediff.com got an exclusive interview with him.
On comprising ideology while going for alliances
We are trying to gather all non-BJP and non-Congress secular parties. It was the party decision taken long back and it is not a sudden decision.
We have been pursuing it. We have been working systematically. Some success we have got in last two months. We were talking to Telugu Desam Party since the last two years.
We have been talking to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam since the last six months and recently, we have been talking to other parties. We were working to present an electoral alternative to the Congress-led and BJP-led fronts. Ours is not an opportunistic alliance. With all these parties, we have been working before too. With the AIADMK, we have had an alliance twice.
In fact, when M G Ramachandran formed the party in 1971, we were one of his first allies. We have worked with TDP and Janata Dal-Secular. We were always allies of the Biju Janata Dal. Only after the death of Biju Patnaik did the party go to the BJP. So, we are not at all shifting our position.
On having alliances with caste-based parties and corruption-ridden leaders
You are making a sweeping generalisation. We believe that the Congress and the BJP are the source of most of the problems of this country including corruption. Which party is the most corrupt? The party that has ruled for 48 years. They are the source of corruption.
You cannot expect us to play the role of cleansing Indian politics! Yes, we take a stand.
Our party tries to keep certain standards but we cannot expect everybody to believe and accept what we say. You are trying to say that on basis of corruption we must decide our election alliances. I am sorry to hear that. We can't accept it. You are talking of Mayawati taking support of caste. Go to Uttar Pradesh see how BJP organises all castes and sub-castes. BJP is using casteism in the most systematic manner. The RSS has promoted the BJP to concentrate on certain caste at certain places.
I have heard these theories 35 years ago of how the RSS can use certain castes, pick them up and promote them for electoral advantage. The talk of casteism makes no sense unless you see what is a reality of casteism in India, what type of caste relations are there, what type of caste oppression is going on. Because someone is fighting against the caste oppression because of their Dalit identity you can not automatically call them casteist. You will have to see the context.
Sweeping everything under a casteist label won't help you. You will have to see which castes are oppressed in society. Our allies in the third alternative will work out a common minimum programme. My experience is they (J Jayalalithaa, Chandrababu Naidu etc) can be relied upon more than the Congress. We had the United Front government where some of these parties were there. They were more democratic, they were more willing to hear each others views and they were more concerned.
On him becoming 'flexible' in Indian politics
I am glad that somebody is calling us flexible. Because they always call us dogmatic (laughs). In every election our party has adopted flexible tactics to gather as many forces as possible against the BJP and the Congress. We are pursuing that goal.
On CPI-M-led front taking the Congress's help to form a government after the election
I was asked by a journalist will you treat the Congress as untouchable. I said that there was no question of going with the Congress. We will not have any understanding with the Congress. Then another question was posed: Suppose the Congress declares support to your non-Congress government, then? I said, we will see. If any party wants to support then, we will see. But, I said we are not going to have any alliance or understanding with the Congress. If any party comes forward then why should I object to it? I have repeated many times that we have ruled out any understanding with the Congress. I have said it earlier also that we will sit in Opposition, otherwise. I AM NOT GOING TO BE A PART OF ANY COALITION OR UNDERSTANDING WITH THE CONGRESS PARTY.
We are looking at their record of governance in the past five years. We find the Congress has betrayed us by the way they have treated the common minimum programme, economic policies, foreign policy and people's welfare programmes.