Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary and Politburo member Sitaram Yechury says there is an authoritarian attack on democratic rights underway at a time when the govt’s single minded focus should have been to battle the pandemic. The telephonic interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
Question: The demand of the Election Commision changing polling rules, is best raised in Parliament. Have you asked that Parliament be convened?
Answer: Yes, the CPM has already demanded that the Parliament must be convened. We said that it is possible even for physical convening of the Parliament because the Lok Sabha can meet in the Central Hall and Rajya Sabha in the Lok Sabha chamber, this way physical distance can also be maintained, with masks and all the necessary precautions like sanitisation of all the spaces. This can be done and we think this should be done. There are many countries in the world that are meeting despite lockdowns and discussing very important policy matters.
But here in India the government decides,unilateral announcements are made and there is no debate, discussions, that undermines our democratic order. I think it’s perfectly feasible to maintain all the precautions while we are facing this pandemic, wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing. I think this can be, and should be done. It is not about discussing procedures for voting, but it is also important to discuss all other policy matters that are currently being unilateral announced and implemented.
It is essential to uphold the centrality of our Constitution, which is, the sovereignty of the people exercised by those whom the people elect, who demand the accountability of the Executive that is the Government. The entire Constitutional order collapses if the Parliament is paralysed. This cannot and should not be allowed.
Question: What according to you is the best alternative to facilitate voting under Covid-19 circumstances?
Answer: The best alternative is to organise the voting in such a manner that there is no crowding. Physical distancing is maintained, masks have to be compulsorily worn. Sanitizers provided at every point so that people maintain hygiene. It is perfectly possible if you have multiple polling stations within a booth, it is perfectly possible to have voting done in a manner adhering to all the necessary precautions.
Question: Is postal ballot the most vulnerable ballot/ polling system?
Answer: No, postal ballot is not the only vulnerable ballot system. You also have suggestions for electronic voting, which can be grossly misused, and postal ballots as well we have seen, our past experience has shown. Therefore the best method which has evolved in India during the last seven decades and has been efficiently implemented is the physical verification of the voting and that is something that sanctifies the democratic process and the electoral system. So that should be maintained at all costs
Question: The ECI’s move is also an indicator that Bihar will go to polls soon, maybe earlier than scheduled. Should these polls have been postponed/ deferred?
Answer: Well the indicator for Bihar elections has already been given by the BJP. You have seen the public meetings addressed by the union home minister where 72,000 LED screens were ordered, bought, and one each, displayed in every polling booth area in Bihar. It is being announced by the BJP that 72,000 WhatsApp groups have been created. Close to 10,000 IT cells have been created. So it is very clear that the government is determined to go ahead with the Bihar elections. But we will insist that all the precautions must be maintained scrupulously.
Question: The Lockdown was also an opportunity for the entire Opposition to unite, and push back many policy changes the Govt has brought about. Why according to you did that not happen so far?
Answer: In the lockdown period, there is a nationwide imposition of Section 144. And for the opposition to unite and push back these policies, the possibility of any united actions is therefore grossly limited. Virtually a campaign is being done by the government, completely stifling any democratic movement or space outside and they are going ahead with implementing their real agenda. That real agenda is the aggressive pursuit of these policies of economic reform, privatisation, loot of the country’s national assets.
Secondly, sharpening communal polarisation, along with rousing jingoism, and this is leading to a situation where there is grave threat being posed to the country’s social harmony. And in this process [after] all the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR peaceful agitations, people are being targeted and there is communal profiling taking place, which is a clear indication that this process of communal profiling is being intensified.
Thirdly, any dissent under this government is being clamped down under draconian laws like Sedition, UAPA, etc. We have seen a number of activists who have been supporting the cause of the marginalised like the Dalits in the Bhima Koregaon case who have been in jail for two years now without even the charges being framed. So this is an authoritarian attack on democratic rights.
Finally, you have this government, completely surrendering India’s sovereign interests to the United States of America. This is not in the interests of India, and our standing in the International Comity of Nations. So you have the real agenda being implemented while the single minded focus should have been to combat this pandemic, and address the problems created by the unplanned lockdown for crores of our people. We have seen migrant workers walking on the road for two months. These sort of issues need to be tackled and relief provided to the people, while combatting the pandemic. Instead of that, they are going about implementing their own agenda. Which is the core communal agenda that BJP-RSS has.
Question: The United States saw mass protests on the streets to oppose the killing of George Floyd even in the face of Covid lockdowns. Why has the lockdown succeeded in suspending protest and dissent in India, even as arrests of activists and students continue?
Answer: Yes, the United States saw massive protests and they continue on the issue of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd. Yes, despite the lockdowns it’s happening there because there is nothing called Section 144 which prevents gathering in the US. But in India you have that. That is all designed to suspend or paralyse the opposition from raising their voices. That is why you have a situation where anybody who gets out to protest is being arrested and put under such conditions in lockup where the possibilities of contracting this deadly virus is very very high. That is the reason why this sort of protest action is not taking place. Not because people are not angry, it is because the circumstances have been such, the clampdown on democratic space and the authoritarian attacks has been such that it is physically not being permitted by the restrictions that this government has imposed.
Question: There is insecurity even among the salaried middle classes, who are vulnerable due to contractual jobs, a characterisation of neo liberal economic policies. Is this not the most opportune time for the Left to address this issue, and argue for greater public money on health and more jobs in government? Why has that demand not been made yet?
Answer: Yes, this is the time when there is absolute insecurity among a large number of people. There have been many job losses. Those who thought they had secure jobs as well are now very insecure because there have been massive pay cuts, many job losses and it has been estimated that between 14-15 crore, that is between 140-150 million people have lost their jobs since the lockdown was imposed. The most vulnerable have been daily workers, contractual jobs and the casual workers. This is the actual impact of the neo-liberal economic policies. The Left has been raising all these issues and right now when I am talking to you the three-day coal strike is going on. The trade unions have protested all over the country against the changes that have been made in the labour laws, and the attacks that are coming on the livelihood because of these neo liberal policies.
These demands have been made and continue to be made and in fact The Left has proposed an economic roadmap, and we have sent it out to every political party [and] to the President of India, and Prime Minister.
What is needed today is for a massive hike in public investments, that should be used to build a much needed infrastructure which will at the same time also generate a large number of jobs.
And when the people who earn their salaries by doing this infrastructural work through public investments, start spending there will be a demand for the growth of the economy. That will lay the basis for an economic revival. This has been raised by the Left, continues to be raised by the Left. Now in the next two weeks you will see very big protest actions that are taking place. A joint call of the kisan sabha, of the trade unions and of the agricultural labour organisations that will take place all over the country. This is something which is [an] ongoing agenda of the Left.