“But it is a political blunder.
It is a historic blunder.” : Jyoti Basu
Interview taken by M J Akbar
published on 2nd January,1997
Q. In my view the high point of the year was not the appointment of the Prime Minister, but the disappointment on the day on which you refused to become Prime Minster.
A. (Laughs) Some people say that....including Hasina (Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minster of Bangladesh). Q. One of her aides said that you were the only Indian politician that Bangladesh trusted.A. (Smiles) I have known her for a long while; I knew her father... One good thing has happened. Earlier when I went, for the first time, in '87, Ershad was there, he invited me and I saw my ancestral place, my mother's house. But President Ershad used. to say that unless you are anti-India you have no place in Bangladesh politics. I said, why? Our Army and people helped you in 1971 for liberation. He said, whatever be the arguments you might give, this is the position. But this time when Hasina came to Delhi - I was with her of course before she made a very good speech at the formal banquet. I think for the first time in many years she talked about the sacrifices of the Indian soldiers, and how the Indian people gave shelter here to refugees from Bangladesh. It was a very, very good speech and recognised what happened at that time. The Indian Army even trained their boys. The boys also fought: there is no doubt about that, but the Indian Army trained them. So this is a big change in the political view. And at the SAFTA meeting the Bangladesh trade minister spoke very well. So there is a perceptible change. Now we have to follow up by action in trade, commerce, culture. I told them that we (the elders) know about the true culture of Bangladesh, because our ancestors were from that side but our younger generation does not know anything. That is bad. They have done so much for the Bengali language. We are going to start, I think, a bus service from Calcutta to Dhaka and Dhaka to Calcutta. We have calculated that it will also mean profit for them- But the young must meet one another. Do you know that they do not wear burqa and all that, and these girls in Bangladesh sing Rabindrashangeet better than us. I was surprised. I made this point when I spoke at Stratford-upon-Avon (while unveiling Rabindranath's bust in Shakespeare's birthplace) that there is no other case like this in history where one poet has written the national anthem of two countries.
Q. 1971 was a people's liberation movement in Bangladesh, but the Establishment was pro-Pakistan. And the Establishment bided its time and took revenge upon the victors of 1971.
A. But even now I am told that the situation is not, well...
Q. We can come back to this later, Sir, but I would like to jog your memory and ask you what precisely happened when you were offered the chance to become Prime Minister India.
A. Well, you understand - it is not good, but in India we have reached a situation where, knowing fully well who I am, what my philosophy is, what my beliefs are, they invited me, all of them together, unanimously, to sit on the Prime Minister's chair. Because there was nobody else, they said, to stop the BJP and so on.
Q. Who were "they"?
A. All of them. We said no, our (party) policy has been different. But they said, 'You have been talking of a Third Alternative, your party has been the main architect of this concept, and now you are saying that you will not take this responsibility.' In fact, in the midst of the election campaign, at the later stage, they sent us a message that we should not go on saying at every meeting that we will not join the government, that people are talking about a Third Alternative and we will think about it when the time comes. Then we said we can't do it because our central committee resolution (preventing us from joining a government in Delhi) stands. So we called an emergency meeting of the central committee and there, by a majority - I don't know how many votes, 35 to 20 or something like that - the decision was made (to keep out). I was in the minority. Surjeet (Harkishen Singh Surjeet) was also in the minority, I can tell you that.We went back to them (the United Front leaders) and said this is the decision. They were waiting. We said, we will help you. We will have a Steering Committee, we will have a Common Minimum Programme which we did not have during the Janata days. They were not convinced. They said, you please discuss again. I said that already eight central committee members have left town. I said, very good, I know who voted for who since I was presiding, so we reconvened the meeting. I told the committee, we have come back to you. We counted, some few people changed their minds, but even then we were in a minority.
Q. What were the arguments used by those opposed to you being Prime Minister, like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat?
A. The usual things (short laugh) like these are bourgeois parties... But we are with them... When V.P. Singh was there it was the same thing: BJP was there, and we told him that we cannot share a platform with you, but we will support you from outside. This lime the argument was that we have disparate elements, from various regions they have come, good thing 13 parties have got together. They have fought the BJP and Congress. We thought: do they have any differences? We say at the moment they do not have any differences, but at some point they will have to have differences. See that they have a common programme. That was our argument. Deve Gowda has not that experience. He may be a good man and that sort of thing...
Q. The real Prime Minister of India is being described as Mr Surjeet.
A. (Laughs) No ... (Turns assertive) Being in a minority what could he do (in the central committee)? What happened was that we formed a steering committee; he is a member, I am a member too. I can't come to Delhi so often, so he is active ... However, that was the argument of the majority of the central committee. The minority thinking was: since we have the experience, we know these people, we can keep them together for as long as possible. If we were there we would see that the programmes would be some what carried out, much better than what they would do if we were not there in the government. This was the main argument: that. they would not be able to carry out the programme. because their thinking is different. Our argument was: this cannot last rive years. If we are there, much more than the others we can make them accept some policies, put them before the country, whatever the limits are. You can't remove every obstacle, that is not possible: but we could do something for self-reliance, for the countryside, for panchayats, all that we can push through. Anti-poverty programmes: it is there but it does not reach the people. That is what is happening in India. So we can do that much better. Of course, personally, I tell you (genuine relief in laughter), the majority has saved me, personally, because this would have been too much of a burden for me. Because of my health, nothing else. But it is a political blunder. It is a historic blunder.
Q. You have taken the next question out of my mouth.
A. I said in a BBC interview: they asked me this question. I said, what can I do? I am in a minority... I told Buddhadev Bhattacharya, you show this interview in the book fair we are having on the 29th of January...
Q. Was not the CPM aware that the whole strategy of the Indian Marxist movement has been since 1967 to first cooperate with the bourgeoisie parties: in Bengal you cooperated with Ajoy Mukherjee and Pranab Mukherjee...
A. For many years we had to do it.
Q. You evolved from United Front to Left Front.
A. If there is a division among them, whatever be the state, we can utilise that in the interests of the people. That has been our party congress resolution. But unfortunately in our party programme we talk about states: in section 112. Earlier we thought they would never allow us to function even in the states, but things changed. But we never discussed about the Centre, we thought it was absolutely a dream now, it would come later. But things have happened since then: in the Centre also we have to play a part. That is not in our party document, so we said we have to update that programme. Then the argument came: how do we support a central government, that is not in our programme.
Q. Today the situation is this: the Central government cannot survive one day without you, and you want power without responsibility.
A. We thought that such a combine cannot last for five years, so we cannot implement our programme. Then, we do not accept many of their (our partners') policies, they do not accept many of ours. But the minimum programme was there, and we could have implemented it much better than others. Because we have the experience, nothing more; nothing personal. We have been running a government with so many parties for the last twenty years. Earlier also we worked with Ajoy Mukherjee who came out of the Congress.
Q. Why did V. P. Singh refuse to become Prime Minister? He was the first choice, apparently.
A. Very ill.
Q. Cancer of the eve ?
A. And some-thing else with it. I think he is having dialysis every day. In fact I had sent him, as a last resort, a homeopathic doctor, Bhola Chakravorty. I think he has gone to America for treatment.
Q. How did Deve Gowda emerge suddenly? He was the darkest of the horses. Did you not think of someone who has been in national politics longer, like his rival Rama Krishna Hegde?
A. Here the difficulty was that even before the election campaign Hegde, made a statement that we must get together with the Congress. And you know they have a rivalry, they have two groups and so on. When we met in Delhi I said that you could have also taken up this job, but I don't know, you have your local differences ... this (statement about the Congress) went against him. He said that we must join the Congress to form a government at the Centre. Later on he said he had changed, but we don't know. Gowda also has the majority in Karnataka, there is no doubt about that. Hegde is a very intelligent person, I have known him for a long, time. But there was nobody else.
Q. Didn't Laloo Yadav make a bid to become Prime Minister?
A. (Voice drops a little) Nobody thought of him.
Q. If the statement sabotaged Hegde, then is not there a contradiction because Deve Gowda is also lasting because of the Congress.
A. No, that was to stop the BJP. That is also part of our programme. The Congress also issued a four-line statement that we will not support the BJP. Then we went to the President. There was also... there were some difficulties there. We said, this is the statement, and these are our numbers, so you call Deve Gowda to form a government. He said, no, this is not enough: the Congress has said we will not support the BJP, but has it said that it will support this formation? (Laughs softly).
Q. Was the President using a technicality?
A. Quite legitimately. Then a message was sent to the Congress: I think Deve Gowda himself took the message. The President also told Deve Gowda to meet Narasimha Rao, ask whether Congress will support him. But it should be unconditional support, otherwise nothing happens. Deve Gowda went, then at half past one they passed this resolution. It is a mystery what happened to that resolution for a few hours. Within these few hours, the first party, the BJP, was given the opportunity to form the government. We told the President, very good, you have given them the opportunity but why have you given them so much time? He should have given them only seven days time to get a vote of confidence. That, he (the President) didn't reply to us. So the 13-day government was there. And then the Congress gave unconditional support.
Q. Did you ever feel that the Tamil Manila Congress would go with the BJP during this period?
A. No. The BJP has nothing there in Tamil Nadu. There may be a question of them going back to the Congress, but they have not decided.Q. Did you know that when your name was proposed for Prime Minister, the Congress was very upset and was in the process of getting MPs to say you would not be acceptable?A. Why? I thought Narasimha Rao was a good friend of mine (laughs). Because he thought the government might get permanency or something....It may be that; I don't know...
Q. Do You think the CPI compromised the Left by joining the government?
A. I do not think so. But again this is a minority view. (Short laugh). But it has not affected our Left Front. In Delhi we often meet; that has not been adversely affected. But what is happening now is: the other day Deve Gowda called me, for some personal discussion and I told him, why do you bother how long you will be there? What you have promised the people in the minimum programme, carry it out. He had two good meetings, one with the chief ministers on the basic needs of the people, the other on public distribution system. There are many others: power, roads, health. This should immediately be done. Reduce the prices by fifty per cent; this will be a good message to millions of people.
Q. His finance minister will not allow it.
A. No, no, no: this he will allow. He has to. This is a unanimous decision. And all the centrally-sponsored schemes should be transferred to the states along with the funds: in the Congress time also there was such a decision but it has never been carried out. Now that has started happening. Just started: I don't day that the process is complete. So I told him this time when I met him, you do these things: it will have a big impact on the vast majority of the poorer sections, and they are the majority. And I told him, why do you have so much fear of foreigners? When they come for business they come for business. Why is America doing business with China? They come for profits. Now if it helps us, we accept that: we have not got the technology which we need; we don't want to be backward, all that is all right. But we should not be afraid of them so much and listen to their advice. They tell, us for instance, about not giving subsidy. Why does America give subsidy? Hundreds of millions of dollars to its farmers.
Q. To come to the larger question: how long do you think the Deve Gowda government will last? Minority governments do not have a history of survival in Delhi.
A. It cannot: that we are clear; about the negative part we are clear. But how long it will last, the positive part, that I cannot say. I told Deve Gowda, why should you bother. This is a very critical situation. Let the Congress combine and put its house in order. But in the meanwhile, budgets are coming; you have a very good Planning Commission, very good people. Madhu Dandavate is in charge. The Ninth Plan is coming soon. It is ready; yesterday we were supposed to get it. A meeting has been called on that. I said, you carry on with all this. Later on, if you are thrown out, you are thrown out. If we are still together then, then it is a sort of election manifesto for you.
Q. Can you envisage a coalition with the Congress?
A. That we cannot think of at the moment. The Congress - some of them I know very well; sometimes they telephone me and so on. I say, 'Look, in the earlier days, in Nehru's time, sometimes even in Indira's time, there were discussions in the Congress. On economic policies, politics, social policies and so on. But nowadays you people don't discuss anything. I can't understand this.' (Laughs) they say Narora or something like that... I said, discuss, let people know where you stand. I tell Congressmen, you have a lot of experience on economic policies, from '91-'92: what lessons should we draw? Some negative things are there; maybe some positive things are also there. Let the country hear. And then only can we think of talking to you. Otherwise if you don't change your policies, if you think all your policies are all right, then how can we discuss. And you are wholly divided; your only point is that someone wants to become minister, get hold of the government: this will not help. Discussion on policy matters is very, very important, I have been telling them. I don't know what they are going to do now: unanimous resolution or something...
Q. But how is Deve Gowda any different from a Congress prime minister?
A. As I said, in economic thinking and all that I don't think he differs that much.
Q. And the finance minister, Mr Chidambaram, sounds more rightwing than Dr Manmohan Singh.
A. He is a little rigid, according to me. Of course, I don't know him personally, but I have met him on some issues. In some ways of course he has helped, but he tends to be rigid. On Centre-state relations, a committee has been set up: Sarkaria report is there, our documents are there. This is very important for India. And Kashmir: I said, give them whatever they want, within India. What is wrong with it, nothing is wrong with it. Karan Singh came to me the other day. He has been made chairman of some committee that is dealing with autonomy. I said, you please don't recommend for different parts of Kashmir to become separate states. One Kashmir, and within that the other two regions should also get autonomy, as much autonomy as you can give them, keeping one or two subjects with the Centre. And some restoration of what was taken away earlier, what you had given to the Kashmiris. Kashmiris have lost faith in India and Congress is responsible for that. Unnecessarily in 1983 Indira drove out Farooq. I told her this man - I came to know him just now, after he became the chief minister, we had meetings in Srinagar and so on - is saying that I am an Indian, I don't belong to Pakistan, I will never go there, I am willing to say that from the housetops anywhere in India. Why don't you utilise what be is saying. She had other ideas. I said, if you don't have one government somewhere, just as you don't have a government in West Bengal, what does it matter? In a parliamentary system, in a federal system, things change. But she said, it is not that, whatever he tells you, he is doing something else. I said, you tell me, what is he doing? I'll go and tell him because I know him very well now. She wouldn't tell me. She said, I have some report... this, that. Then they start buying MLAs and make the worst person chief minister, G.M.Shah.
Q. Are you going to intervene in the Kashmir situation personally? You have the credibility to do so.
A. Personally, what can I do? I have not really met Farooq after he has won. I met him once, but not for long. Karan Singh has some other ideas: I told him clearly, look at the situation I am facing in Darjeeling just now. We had 'settled it long ago; it was a very good settlement which we thought would be a model. Then somebody makes a statement on Uttarakhand and passions are aroused.
Q. Even the CPM unit re has gone over to the Gorkhaland movement?
A. The majority has gone but some remain with us. A new committee is there.
Q. To go back to the national scene: Around the budget session there could be a serious effort to create a coalition government with the Congress. Parts of the United Front could merge with the Congress.
A. (Laughs) In India anything may happen, but we are not in it. We will see out position..
Q. There is a thought, vis a vis Kashmir that rather than taking away Article 370 the time may have come to give all states provisions of 370.
A. Maybe not Article 370. But that is what Centre-state relations mean; that is what we have been talking about. That is why we are not very satisfied with Justice Sarkaria's report, except the financial part. The political part remains to be resolved. And unless you have trust in the people, nothing positive is going to happen: India will break up. You see the North East, it is Army rule. Terrorism, insurrection, has resurfaced again. Once again it is the. Congress government which is responsible. They have succeeded in corrupting the North East. The tribal people are really not corrupt, but this is what has happened there.
Q. The last year has seen the courts, in a sense, set the agenda. How do you react to this development?
A. This is another point in parliamentary democracy: we have three wings, the legislature, the government and the judiciary. Now, like a military take-over it is a judicial take-over. For the time being it may be good, because there is no other alternative for anybody the way corruption is going. But in parliamentary democracy it is not correct. The balance must be there.
Q. You have a problem with the Congress, but not with those who left it, and in fact they are beginning to rejoin it. If today the Congress accepts the Common Minimum Programme of the United Front. will the CPM support a Congress government.
A. It is a big 'if.'
Q. The Congress will do anything to come to power Their MPs have not come to Delhi to drink coffee.
A. I can't discuss that because, as I have been telling you, why don't they spell out what their policy is? In Delhi they told their previous finance minister Manmohan Singh to write a document, a critique of what has been happening during this period of the United Front. It seems he wrote something which they did not like, because he said that it is a sort of continuation of what the Congress started. So they didn't like that; they wanted the government to be condemned. But he did not do it; he is an honest man. The Congress Party must tell us what is their policy, what are they going to do? You see the condition of the economy; they started all this. They thought it will advance the cause of India, but it has not. The rupee has gone down, exports have gone down, nothing is happening in the countryside. As for self-reliance, where is it? Nothing is there. That is why I say, Congress is they biggest party today even though its votes have gone down: if they discuss politics, economics, and this period - what has happened, what is to be done, where are the lessons from their experience, then one can think of talking to them.
Q. Do you take the Bengal -Congress seriously?
A. Bengal Congress we don't know.... groups...
Q. Do you see them as a serious force or as a collection of mavericks?
A. They still have votes there is no doubt about it, about 38 per cent of the votes.But again, no policies. Where is their manifesto? What will they do if they form the government? Nothing They don't tell the people. But even they get votes because, according to me, those people lack that consciousness. And negatives votes are always there: we have been in power for 20 years now. We can't solve everybody's problems.
Q. Twenty years: quite remarkable. Do you think the Bengal Congress will do a bit of a double cross and attack you in Bengal on the Farakka waters settlement with Bangladesh?
A. I told them in Delhi, your Congress had a Tin Bigha pact. It was an international pact between Mujib Rehman and Indira Gandhi, but you didn't do anything for years altogether. They would have gone to the United Nations. Then I told them, the then Congress government, to leave it to me. I don't want any police or anything from you,, but this must be done. Because we did not give them Berubari, so Mujib agreed that in lieu of it they should get Tin Bigha. That also created a difficulty for me before I went to Bangladesh, they were saying that Jyotibabu has done this Tin Bigha, he will solve the water problem also! (Laughs) I said, it is not so easy.
Q. What did Comrade Surjeet discuss with Mr Kesari when they met last week?
A. He has been meeting him: he asked whether Congress wanted to withdraw its support, or what....tell us. Until now, they have said that they are not in a position to withdraw. They (the Congress) say that you should also discuss with us, in Parliament and so on. Our view is: Surjeet and I both told Deve Gowda that in Parliament, if you are getting Congress support, and you are going to put the Budget; there is no harm in your discussing. In parliament politics, even opposition discusses with the government.
Q. So there will be co-ordination with the Congress in the next session?
A. In Parliament there should be.
Q. Just one point about the Farakka settlement: was your real problem in Dhaka or in Delhi?
A. I have been talking to our foreign minister, who wen to Dhaka. Our MPs also went, Somnath (Chatterjee) and Gita (Mukherjee). I have been telling them that you must look at it a little politically. And all these figures, this 40,000 cusecs and all that....Since 1988 you have not had any treaty with them. Up to 1988 you had a treaty on Farakka waters. Year after year you are talking to them. As far as the West Bengal government is concerned no on has talked to us. But let us look at this politically. Let us have some experts with us: how much of all this is true, what we are saying about how it will affect our Calcutta port. And there is no doubt that everything is drying up, in the Jessore area and so on. So, let us look at figures and options, why do we stick to these old ideas? So I said (to Delhi) I am going there, not as your representative but she (Hasina) has invited me, I am going. She has invited some of my other ministers also, I am taking them along and going. She sent me a message that she wants to discuss this Farakka water. That seems to be her main problem. Fundamentalists were after her blood. So, let us help her. Even now there are some 17 per cent Hindus there and they have some faith in her. So. let us see ... We took our experts, from here and from Delhi; our chief secretary, who has studied the issue very well. They carried on the discussion during the five -days we were there. and we saw from the figures that some people are talking things which are not correct. These 40,000 cusecs we got only once., we never got 40,000 cusecs except once. And now there is a guarantee for, us of 40,000 cusecs at least three times. And if the flow is less, an arrangement has been worked out. I told Hasina, for two years let us see what happens: how much you gain, how much I lose, let us see. She said, no, no this two year period will not help, let us have a longer treaty Ultimately it became one of 30 years.But then there is a clause that every five years it will be reviewed. Each has to suffer if there is less water, or gain if there is more water: but both have to share gains and losses. That two year period has also been included; after two years there will be review of what has happened. So my thing is also accepted. Let us see what happens. Then she said that after this other things will open out. You know, our industrialists went in a delegation to ask for the use of Chittagong port for supplies to the North East region. Other bigger things are there, but they won't come: gas etc ... very difficult. But trade has started very well, It is unequal trade of course; bound to be in the beginning: last year, I said at the Chamber of Commerce reception they gave me, we sent Rs 3470 crores worth of goods to Bangladesh, you sent only Rs 280 crores. I said, only eeleesh maach and jaamdani saree will not do; you have so many other things. They are very keen. But I hope our industrialists also behave properly. They have sent a memorandum to the government of India; they want the tariff to be reduced by 50 per cent on 40 or 50 items. That I think will be done by the government of India.
Q. If we have a government of India.
A. (Laughs.) As long as it goes on. That is our parliamentary democracy. What can you do about it?
Q. One last question, Sir. If you had become Prime Minister of India, who would have become chief minister of Bengal?
A. (Smiles.) That my party would have decided.
Q. But surely you would have had a view.
A. I cannot say... I told you the other things about our inner-party meetings, which we normally do not say (laughs) about who was a minority, who was a majority.But this I cannot tell you. It is the party which has decided whether I should be here, so I am here for twenty years.
Q. How many people in the world do you think would have so calmly, and without any rancour accepted a party decision and not become Prime Minister of the country?
A. (Laughs.) I can't take so much credit for myself.
Q. On that our case rests for naming you Man of the Year.
The Above Interview is Contributed by: M J AKBAR in 2nd January, 1997, Published in THE ASIAN AGE.