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Don’t wear Lenin on my sleeve: Yechury on Communism, the Emergency and more

Different strokes: A look at the other life of CPI(M) general secretary, Sitharam Yechury.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2018 12:01 IST
Kumkum Chadha
Kumkum Chadha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sitaram Yechury,CPI(M),Communism
(Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)

For someone who is a firebrand communist, the name Sitaram does not quite fit. That his parents named him is a given but there were enough opportunities available for him to change it to something else. Yet he retained it even while dropping the caste title in his name. “I was named Sitaramarao, after my grandfather, but I dropped the caste appendage and carried on with my name. So Sitaram it has remained. In any case as Shakespeare said what is in a name?” says CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury.

But Yechury was not so comfortable with retaining the sacred thread that had been bequeathed to him when he was barely eleven years of age. He let it cling to his skin for nearly a decade before hanging it in his hostel cupboard amid unwashed clothes. When he went home for vacation his father thought he had lost it and offered to give him his, as is the tradition. Without meeting his eye, Sitaram minus Rao mumbled that he had put it away, skipping the detail of where he had actually put it.

“To tell my father that it was hanging in my cupboard would have been blasphemy,” he says.

Of student politics and the Emergency

A Telugu-speaking Brahmin, Yechury spent the early years of his life in Andhra Pradesh. Till he left his home for Delhi and later St. Stephen’s college for Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Yechury was like any normal student. “A regular kind of guy” whose goal was to study, excel in academics and land a job.

Instead he took to politics, starting off as a student leader.

“Being the first generation of post Independence youth, political awareness was there but the churning began during my JNU days,” Yechury recalls.

During the Emergency, he went underground. He was twice lucky. Once when his father was in hospital and Yechury was spending nights taking care of him. The cops looked everywhere but not at the hospital, the “most unlikely place for anyone to hide,” Yechury remembers.

But when the doctors told him to take his dad home, Yechury developed cold feet. “It was both good and bad news. Good because my father was well enough to go home and bad because my hiding place, the hospital, was gone. I did not want to go home.”

Expectedly, the next morning the cops came to get him but luck was on his side yet again. The SHO who arrested him made a mistake and instead of charging him under MISA he charged him with a bailable offence. Taking advantage of this, Yechury got out soon enough, while the poor cop got it in the neck, as it were.

Tryst with the 70s

That Yechury is a smoker is well known. During breaks between daily proceedings of the Parliament session,Yechury is among the few who would make a dash to the smoking room. What, however, is little known is how he got into the habit.

“I belong to a generation where smoking was associated with manliness. There was not a single film, Hollywood or Bollywood, where the protagonist did not dangle a cigarette between his fingers. So if you had to graduate from being an adolescent to a man, the first step was to start smoking.”

Yechury says that he took his first drag way back in 1971. And that was the beginning of a habit that continues to date.

Politics has taken away his me-time, but he does try and snatch moments to listen to songs by Shamshad Begum like Kajra mohabbat wala, even while he eats out of a dabba, his chapattis rolled in newspaper. He couldn’t care less about the clothes he wears or his socks having a hole. Having converted his official residence into a party office, Yechury lives in Vasant Kunj where even as an MP he has queued up at a water-tanker when the taps went dry.

The years in Parliament

Trivia apart, Yechury emerged from the shadows, during his two terms in the Rajya Sabha. As member, he was counted among the best speakers raising substantive issues and often putting the government on the mat. Yechury soon emerged as the face of the party.

So when his party’s Central Committee voted against him getting a third term, it was dubbed as a ‘historic blunder’, quite similar to CPI(M) blocking Jyoti Basu to head the United Front government in 1996. Yechury’s absence in the Upper House, apart from reducing numbers, would rob the Rajya Sabha of one of its most effective and forceful speakers. For the CPM, it has been a sure setback.

Apart from the principle of not letting anyone get a third term, it was internal rivalry that did Yechury in. In the past decade, Yechury had emerged as the face of his party and one who has friends across the board. In fact, his friendships within the Congress Party have been a subject of much debate, with many dubbing him as pro-Congress - a charge that Yechury dismisses as “utter rubbish”.

Nationalist Congress Party’s D.P.Tripathi once compared Yechury to former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao terming him a polyglot because he can speak Telugu, Tamil, Bangla, Hindi and English. Yechury’s fluency in Hindi, in fact, has been a surprise to many. The ease with which he gave speeches in Parliament led many to ask whether he had engaged a tutor to master the language.

The ‘House’ conundrum

Till he did not take oath as a Rajya Sabha member, Yechury did not even know what ‘House’ meant. In Parliament parlance, House is a terminology used for the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. But when he was asked to go to the ‘House’ to take his oath he was puzzled. “I was wondering why they were asking me to go home,” he reminisces.

Another time Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked him why he was not being seen in the House. If Yechury was puzzled, Vajpayee too was ignorant that Yechury was not an MP at that time. Yechury’s first brush with Parliament was in 2005 as a member of the Rajya Sabha. And he has not looked back since.

Unlike some of his party colleagues who are comfortable reading Lenin’s Collected Works over and over again,Yechury neither hurls nor shouts Lenin, a strong point with those not ingrained in Communism. Neither does he carry his party’s philosophy on his sleeve. Instead he uses his skill to make others see his point of view and warm up to the ideology.

“Why should I hurl Lenin at everyone? The point is I say what Lenin said and find that more effective. One should be able to argue with facts and put the opponent in a position that he no longer finds it tenable to hold on to the position he is holding.”

That Yechury is smooth with words is a given. This coupled with his unwired mind and candid manner has won him friends across party lines. If there are enemies, and there are several, they are because they grudge his rise and rue the fact that Yechury is here to stay.

First Published: Oct 14, 2018 07:16 IST