Around the world, the Left is having unexpected success. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, has won presidential primaries in the US; an old-school radical, Jeremy Corbyn, leads Britain’s Labour party; in Greece, the Marxist analysis proposed by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is taking Europe by storm.
If the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury gets his way, Communism’s deep political roots in India will yet yield a red electoral flower.
But here, things can happen in reverse. “It’s a characteristic Indian trait,” Yechury says, with a look of surprising satisfaction.
“Our resurgence happened prior to the economic crisis of 2008. We did it the other way round. After the 2004 election, no central government would have been possible without the CPI(M).” This is true: they had as many seats in the Lok Sabha as the Congress party holds today. At the last two general elections, they dropped votes.
“We were unable to take to the Indian people the reasons why we withdrew support for UPA 1 in 2008. We were unable to show our demarcation over, for example, the US nuclear deal. It was a bad experience.” The party now has its lowest parliamentary representation ever, and faces a challenge of key polls in two historically communist states, Kerala and West Bengal.
By the standards of politicians, the general secretary of the CPI(M) is affable and courteous, dressed for winter in a brown waistcoat and warm blue scarf. Now aged 63, he got married for the second time to journalist Seema Chishti on the last day of the 20th century.
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We meet in the party headquarters in New Delhi, where the office is marked with icons of the Left: a bust of AK Gopalan, a stylised picture of Che Guevara, a small statue of Lenin addressing the troops, cap in hand. Sitaram Yechury prefers theorising to gossip, politics to politicking.
When I ask him which other Indian MPs he admires for their professional talents, he answers after some pondering, “My concept of politics is to create social consciousness, it’s not about individuals.”
More than other Indian communists, Yechury likes to localise ideas that originated elsewhere. “My idea of the Left is rooted in Indian tradition,” he says. “From 1967-1983 we did not follow the Soviet Union’s line, or follow the Chinese, and so we were called ‘revisionist’ or ‘adventurous’ and were isolated from the main communist parties. That insulated us.”
His experiences abroad were not always happy ones. It was a particularly cold Russian winter in 1987. The Soviet Union was falling apart, the Baltic states were rumbling, political prisoners were being set free and general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev held a gathering of the world’s communist parties in Moscow.
Sitaram Yechury on the JNU row
“The Russians,” Yechury remembers, “were cursing Gorbachev because he had banned vodka at the final banquet.” As thick snow fell outside in Red Square, the CPI(M) delegation consisting of EMS Namboodiripad, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and a then 34-year-old Yechury approached the Soviet leader.
“We told him we were not in agreement with his thesis on the interpretation of contradictions between imperialism and socialism.” Sipping a soft drink, Gorbachev told them that in time they would realise he was right. Yechury was not impressed by the ideological deviation: “I thought, he’s not a communist if he’s saying this. The turmoil in the Soviet Union was an intense churning process for me. All the things that we took for granted in the world was being questioned.”
Yechury had cut his teeth in the intense radical turmoil of 1970s university life, part of a generation that was formed by revolutionary debate. “In Delhi I wondered, what is our role, the 4 percent, the intellectuals? When I joined St Stephen’s in 1970, 13 students had been expelled for being ultra-Left. On the roof of the chapel you could still see painted slogans – ‘CHINA’S PATH IS OUR PATH, CHAIRMAN MAO IS OUR CHAIRMAN’ or something like that.”
It must have been quite a sight, the privileged children of India demanding a Maoist revolution. “It was an infatuation. Most were disillusioned sooner rather than later. In three years you’re in the IAS or working for a multinational, selling soaps. That was a warning to me.”
So for Yechury, becoming a CPI(M) whole-timer at the instigation of ‘EMS’ was perhaps less radical than the alternatives on offer: it was a way to apply Marxist doctrine in an Indian context. Is he a natural conciliator? “I look for the commonalities, rather than the divergences.”
During the Emergency, as a JNU student leader, he dodged arrest for six months. His father was in hospital after surgery, and “hospitals are a good place to hide, since there are a lot of people.” But when he returned home, the police picked him up, only to release him because of an error by the SHO, who had arrested him for a bailable offence rather than under MISA. Now Yechury went on the run, travelling down to Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. His family was “aghast” that he was in trouble with the law, and his parents put pressure on him to leave the party.
“I gave him shelter and some guidance,” recalls his uncle Mohan Kanta, a child movie star in films like Pelli Chesi Choodu, who later became chief secretary of undivided Andhra Pradesh.
“Although he is my nephew, we are only seven years apart. His mother wanted me to get Sitaram out of this communist way of thinking. In the end I said to his father, ‘I’m failing to convince him but if you don’t take him away, he may end up convincing me’.”
According to those close to him, Yechury was as influenced by his family background as he was by 1970s radicalism.
“Especially on my father’s side, they were strict orthodox Brahmins,” he agrees. “My mother’s side were more cosmopolitan and well educated, and both families were part of the big Telugu population in Madras. When I was 11, I went to my father’s ancestral place to learn the Vedic rituals and slokas for the thread ceremony. It was a Brahminical indoctrination ceremony. I revolted against this because it had no connection with what I was seeing at school: it was a missionary school with mixed Hindu, Muslim and Christian pupils. It was the time of the Telangana agitation. Brahmin exclusivity didn’t gel in the world in which I was living. I was the first of my family to become a communist, which was something that was alien to what they knew.”
When I asked Mohan Kanta if family members had followed Sitaram into the party, he said, “Absolutely not.”
“In India, all families including mine are rooted in religion,” says Yechury. “We have a philosophy of liberation, but we need a theology of liberation too.” For an Indian communist, it is an unexpected opinion, maybe reflecting the fact that his social and regional background is different to that of many of his comrades.
“It was a statement of Marx that set me thinking as a student. ‘The principles of justice can never rise superior to the economic conditions of society and the cultural development conditioned by them.’ Feudal landlordism had been abolished in Andhra – but you could see that it was still in place. I was inspired by books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the beginnings of liberation theology in Latin America.”
The irony is that today, at a time of global flux and financial uncertainty, India has done the opposite of other countries by electing a government that is at least nominally in favour of neo-liberal economics. The communists in India presently show little sign of pulling off a revival in the voting booths.
“We are seeing the decline of the Modi phenomenon,” he says hopefully. “They only got 31 per cent of the vote in 2014, and [in their subsequent election campaigns] in Delhi and Bihar they made reckless promises. That’s the ground reality that will bite them.”
Buoyed by faith in his ideology, Sitaram Yechury takes a longer-term and more theoretical view of the democratic process than most politicians, who concentrate on manoeuvering. “I said when I was elected that I sought to integrate classical Marxist analysis of struggle against economic exploitation with the India-specific condition of social oppression.”
Does he mean caste? “Yes, I mean caste. In 1970 at St Stephen’s, I removed the sacred thread and hung it on a clothes hanger in my hostel room.”
Sitaram Yechury on Fidel Castro to Bajrangi Bhaijaan
What keeps you awake at night ?
Thinking about my work.
What is your first memory?
I was aged perhaps three, and we were staying in a flat in Bombay, with members of the extended family. It was a new thing to me, a flat. My father had lost the key and I remember him climbing across on the 4th or 5th floor from a neighbour’s balcony.
If you weren’t a politician, what would you be doing?
I might be an economics professor, or a pronounced political academic. i would be — in the Gramscian sense — an organic intellectual. My family wanted me to join the IAS but I was more interested in an academic career as an economist. I was diligent in my studies and topped an all-India exam.
What one law would you change in India?
I would amend the fundamental rights in the Constitution to include the right to health,
employment and realisable education.
What will you do when you retire?
What book are you reading?
I read a lot of different books. At the moment I’m reading the selected writings of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, who were murdered. It’s titled The Republic of Reason: Words They Could Not Kill.
Which non-Indian thinker or political figure do you admire?
The Marxist icons. Out of living people? Fidel.
What music do you listen to?
It’s eclectic. Hindi film music from the Sixties and the Seventies. Mozart, Vivaldi, jazz.
What films have you watched recently?
Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Interstellar. I don’t watch news channels.
Do you believe in God?
No. I’ve been an atheist since my twenties. Spiritual upliftment
is not confined to religion. I believe you can have atheistic spiritualism.