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Devil's Advocate: Brinda Karat

Nandigram has not only damaged the credibility and authority of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, it has also dented the image of the Left Front as a whole.

Worse still, it has created serious differences within the Front. Karan Thapar grills CPI-M Rajya Sabha MP and politburo member Brinda Karat on the fallout of the Nandigram crisis in an exclusive interview on Devil's Advocate.

Karan Thapar: Mrs Karat, let me start with a simple question. Do you accept that Nandigram has created serious differences within the Left Front and damaged the credibility and authority of your Chief Minister?

Brinda Karat: Well, there are two questions here. So far as the first question is concerned, there were problems. There was some public criticism, made by the other Left Front partners. There was a meeting held in Kolkata on March 17 and an eight-point programme has been reached. I think, if all of us try and stick to that programme, the problems which are there will be resolved.

Karan Thapar: Can I pick up on that before we talk about the Chief Minister? You say that if you pick up in the meeting of the 17th, things will be resolved. I point out to you that to begin with, you and your allies cannot even agree on the seriousness of what’s happened. The CPI said, after that meeting, “Never before has there been such a brutal police assault.” And they called it “unbelievable” and “traumatic”. The RSP calls it, “nothing short of barbaric”. In contrast, the General Secretary of the CPI-M dismisses it as “merely regrettable” and “unfortunate”. There is a world of difference in the way you see things.

Brinda Karat: I think the CPI-M and our government have expressed its deep regret over the incident. We are deeply distressed because it’s poor people who died in the firing. I don’t want to reduce it to semantics. The point is we have taken responsibility for it. It was a horrible thing that poor people died. There is a context to it.

Karan Thapar: Can I ask you a simple question? You don’t want to reduce it to semantics I understand, it’s too important to be reduced to semantics. But can you accept that it is much more than just unfortunate? You see, what’s “barbaric” is “unfortunate”, but what’s “unfortunate” is a lot less than “barbaric”. So, can you accept that it was barbaric and it was traumatic, which is what your allies want you to accept?

Brinda Karat: I don’t think that is what our allies want us to accept. There is an agreement of March 17th - an agreed statement was issued after that agreement and we stick by that.
Karan Thapar: Except that I am quoting Mr Bardhan of last week...

Brinda Karat: Mr Bardhan is the General Secretary of his own party. I am talking about what was agreed in the Left Front meeting.

Karan Thapar: It’s not just the manner in which you see what’s happened, there is even a bigger difference. The General Secretary of the CPI-M says that the allies were consulted and they agreed on the action. The allies angrily and loudly said that they were never consulted and they completely disagreed. Let me quote Mr Bardhan from New Age of last week. He says, “The Chief Minister and some of his colleagues felt that they could carry through everything without the need for any consultation with or help from other partners of the Front.” They, the other partners, remain in the dark about everything that was happening. Once again, you and your allies are completely at odds with each other.

Brinda Karat: Well, this is the Left Front in West Bengal. And the Left Front in West Bengal, again I would repeat, met on March 17, there were many issues which were discussed there. An agreed statement was issued and one of the points in the agreed statement is that we will not make public criticism of each other.

Karan Thapar: But they were already made public.

Brinda Karat: Well, you will have to ask those who are doing it.

Karan Thapar: You keep talking about the meeting of March 17. The problem is Mr Karat said the allies were on board at the last meeting on March 10. Now, let me quote to you what D Raja told CNBC: “With all the authority at my command,” he says, “my party leadership in the state was not present in the so-called March 10 meeting.” Abani Roy, he says clearly, “There was no such meeting on March 10 in Kolkata, in Alimuddin Street, no meeting at all.”

Brinda Karat: He is quite right to say that. There was no meeting…

Karan Thapar: That means Prakash Karat is wrong?

Brinda Karat: No. He was right to say that there was no meeting in Alimuddin Street. There was a meeting at the district level, called by the district administration, in which the plan for going into Nandigram to assure the rule of the administration was discussed and decided. Now…
Karan Thapar: Who was present? D Raja said, CPI was not present.

Brinda Karat: No, the record shows that they were present.

Karan Thapar: I quote to you, “With all the authorities at my command, my state party leadership was not present at the so-called 10th March meeting.”

Brinda Karat: That may be so. I am not saying his state party leadership was present. At the Nandigram district level, there was an all-party meeting and the CPI and everybody else were present.

Karan Thapar: The question at heart here is, were your allies properly consulted? Even Jyoti Basu seems to suggest that the allies weren’t consulted. This is what he told India Today last week. “Popular perception is that this is a one-party government. I also have that perception. This lack of communication and mistrust of others was a mistake on our part.” You see, even Jyoti Basu disagrees with Prakash Karat’s claim and he agrees with Bardhan, Raja and Abani Roy.

Brinda Karat: No, I don’t think he put it like that at all. I don’t know the date of the interview.

Karan Thapar: April 2 issue of the India Today.

Brinda Karat: Again, I would refer to the March 17th meeting. All these issues were discussed in that meeting. They were trashed out in the meeting and an agreement has been reached. What I want to state very categorically is that we are committed to the Left Front. There are ups and downs in our relationship, but everybody knows that the Left Front is crucial, not only for Bengal, but for national politics.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely. This is why I am doing this interview. You see, you keep saying that in that meeting of 17th March, everything was sorted out. But A B Bardhan, writing in the New Age last week, in fact, has accused the CPI-M of arrogance and conceit. He said, “Self-conceit and arrogance could be the undoing of the Left Front. Its biggest partner has to give up its self-complacence. It has to mend its way.” And worse, Manoj Bhattacharjee of RSP almost withdrew his ministers from the government. So, I put it to you, is you party complacent? Is it conceited? Is it arrogant?
Brinda Karat: Well, as far as my party is concerned, what I can say is that we are committed to the Left Front. If people would like, if they think they will help the Left Front by making such public criticism, well, it’s up to them. As far as we are concerned, we are committed. Ours is the largest party in the Front with a greater responsibility to keep it going.

Karan Thapar: Are you arrogant?

Brinda Karat: Look, the people of West Bengal don’t think we are arrogant.

Karan Thapar: Well, we don’t know as yet. They will tell us in four years’ time when they vote.

Brinda Karat: They have just voted.

Karan Thapar: Your allies are saying that you are arrogant.

Brinda Karat: Look, I really don’t give much credence to these things. What I do say is it is important to have a coordination within the Left Front, between the Left Front and all its partners, whether it’s with two parties, whether it’s with all the parties together. And we are going to find out if there has been any problem, which our partners feel. The Left Front in West Bengal is matured enough to deal with it.

Karan Thapar: AB Bardhan says this is one of the biggest crises that the Left Front in West Bengal has ever faced. Do you agree?

Brinda Karat: Well, there have been other crises when Mr Bardhan’s party actually had left the Left Front and gone with the Congress. So, there had been other crisis…

Karan Thapar: There’s a bit of tit-for-tat in your answer. You’re suddenly finding a need to hit back?

Brinda Karat: No, no, no. I am not. I am just recounting history, just for the record. Therefore, because there have been such great crises, there was another great crisis in 1975, when during the Emergency, we found ourselves…

Karan Thapar: You are not answering my question. Is this one of the biggest crises?
Brinda Karat: I don’t think it’s one of the biggest crises. As I said, there was a crisis when there was no front. Therefore, there is a Front, there was a problem. The problem, I believe, has been resolved in the meeting of March 17. We have to take that process forward.

Karan Thapar: Well, you say it’s been resolved, but your allies really don’t indicate the same. Let’s leave that issue there. You all will have just will judge whether there is a serious difference between you and your allies or not. Let me now turn to your Chief Minister.

I want to ask you, whether you think he has handled this issue adequately or not. Because Jyoti Basu said just last week to India Today that he is disappointed with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Is Jyoti Basu being unfair?

Brinda Karat: I really can’t say what comrade Jyoti Basu has said. But what I can say is that our Chief Minister is a leader of the collective…

Karan Thapar: Are you disappointed with him?

Brinda Karat: It’s not a question of my being disappointed with him or any disappointment…

Karan Thapar: Jyoti Basu’s?

Brinda Karat: I am afraid, I can’t answer that question in terms of what comrade Jyoti Basu has said. I can say, as far as I am concerned, we work in a collective. We have a collective responsibility and certainly in a situation like this, we are not going to be pinpointing this individual or that individual. I would like to say that there is a process of internal assessment, of a self-critical analysis - that is a process which is intrinsic to my party’s democratic functioning, which we will certainly be doing.

Karan Thapar: In that spirit, therefore, because you say you work as a collective, I want to point out what Mr Bardhan has said about the functioning of the Chief Minister. He says the Chief Minister’s style shows an over-dependence on the bureaucracy and the police. Jyoti Basu, his predecessor, the grand old man of your party, says, “Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee doesn’t meet me. It would have been good if he did. Even in the government, he doesn’t discuss things with others.”
Brinda Karat: I don’t agree with that…

Karan Thapar: Basu is wrong?

Brinda Karat: I think the way he has been quoted, I really can’t guarantee that that is exactly what he has said.

Karan Thapar: He hasn’t denied it and it’s been a week since he allegedly said it.

Brinda Karat: I am not going to comment on that. As far as comrade Bardhan is concerned, as a General Secretary of CPI, I am sure he is very responsible in his statement that he is making. So I just leave it at that.

Karan Thapar: Let me ask you a critical question. Has Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee cut himself off or distanced himself from the people whose advice he needs and should be taking?

Brinda Karat: I don’t think so at all. Because there is a collective - and I want to stress - there is a collective in my party, it is not a one-man functioning…

Karan Thapar: But is it functioning as a collective? Because that’s the point these people are making.

Brinda Karat: As far as my party is concerned, we are very clear - it is a collective. The mistakes, the achievements - everything is collective. And therefore, what I would say is, the problems which preceded Nandigram, the problems which we face today, the things which the party is dealing with, it is a collective effort of the party to deal with the events both before and after Nandigram.

Karan Thapar: That’s what I am pursuing by pointing out to you that perhaps the worst indictment and charge against the Chief Minister is that he knowingly sent the police force into Nandigram, knowing that there would be lives that would be lost. Kshiti Goswami, your minister in your government, PWD Minister, has gone on record to say, “The government very well knew things will go out of hand and lives could be lost. They went ahead despite that.”

Brinda Karat: Well, what I would say that it is entirely unfortunate that anybody should ever think that the Chief Minister of West Bengal would ever knowingly fire.
Karan Thapar: His Cabinet colleague is saying so.

Brinda Karat: Well, there may be reason for him to say this. But what I am saying…

Karan Thapar: Do you think that the Chief Minister has made a terrible mistake, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not realising it? Do you think he has made a mistake?

Brinda Karat: I cannot at all say that. In any case, there is an investigation on. There is a CBI enquiry, there is a CID enquiry. We have to wait for the facts.

Karan Thapar: Very quickly. I am told by Abani Roy on a CNBC programme that Nandigram has resulted in a collapse of trust for the whole Left Front in West Bengal and perhaps for the Chief Minister specifically.

Brinda Karat: Well, I hope the events will persuade Mr Abani Roy that he is wrong.

Karan Thapar: You mean to say that all your allies, including Jyoti Basu, including Abani Roy, including Kshiti Goswami, including Bardhan, all their comments are wrong and only CPI-M’s view is correct?

Brinda Karat: I won’t put it that way. But I would say that after the March 17 agreement, I am sure, these very experienced leaders will be persuaded to work according to that agreement.

Karan Thapar: When you say “persuaded”, you mean arm-twisted and bullied by the bigger partner?

Brinda Karat: We never do that.

Karan Thapar: You never admit to it.

Brinda Karat: (laugh) Not on this programme.

Karan Thapar: Aah, not on this programme, but perhaps…

Brinda Karat: That’s a joke, Karan.

Karan Thapar: Mrs Karat, let’s turn to the statement issued on March 14 by Governor Gopal Gandhi. He asks, “Was this spilling of human blood not avoidable?” What’s your answer?

Brinda Karat: He is a Governor and Constitutional Authority.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely. But what’s your answer to the question?

Brinda Karat: I can't comment on that.

Karan Thapar: I am not asking you to comment. I am asking you to answer it. Was that spilling of blood not avoidable?

Brinda Karat: I'd prefer not to answer that question.
Karan Thapar: Because it's embarrassing?

Brinda Karat: Not because it’s embarrassing, because there’s a context to it and there's an inquiry and investigation which is on, which would answer the Governor's question.

Karan Thapar: But the Governor asked a simple question. You are treating is as if it was either rhetorical, or worse, as if it was done to politically undermine the Governor.

Brinda Karat: No. That’s what you are trying, to put a colour on that. No, I didn’t say that at all. I am very serious about it.

Karan Thapar: All right. The Governor went a step further. The Governor also said in his statement, “I leave it to the conscience of the officials responsible to atone for the events in a manner that they deem fit.” First of all, do you believe that atonement is called for?

Brinda Karat: I really couldn’t say. That's the honourable Governor's sentiment. As far as we are concerned, there's an investigation which is on. The investigation is expected to pinpoint responsibility. And we will take it from there.

Karan Thapar: No. But he is not talking about investigation. He is talking about an act of atonement done by the officials responsible. Clearly, that means the government of the day.

Brinda Karat: But we first have to decide who the officials responsible are and what they are responsible for. So, what I believe is that an investigation is on and I would not like to pre-empt that by making any comment on what the Governor has advised or suggested.

Karan Thapar: And there is something very interesting. You are saying, you need to go through an investigation to decide whether atonement is called for and who atone. If the Governor has asked for atonement in advance of that investigation, are you suggesting that he is jumping the gun?

Brinda Karat: Well, that’s for you to decide. But as far as I am concerned, certainly to answer that question, I would wait for the investigation and the enquiry.

Karan Thapar: If the investigation and the inquiry were to show that the official responsible perhaps all the way up to the Chief Minister himself have something to atone for, would we or could we expect a public apology?
Brinda Karat: I don’t believe in ifs and buts. Let’s wait.

Karan Thapar: Your Governor does.

Brinda Karat: I can’t comment on that, Karan. But what I would say is, I would wait for the investigation and we will take it from there.

Karan Thapar: All right. The third thing the Governor raises in his statement is the following. He says, “I also expect the government to do what it thinks necessary to mitigate the effects of this bitter March 14 and to do it visibly and fast.” What steps has your government in Bengal taken to heed the Governor’s advice?

Brinda Karat: Well, I really can’t say what the Governor actually meant. But I am sure he would have explained to the Chief Minister or let the Chief Minister know what was on his mind. They have met after that and I am sure the Chief Minister would have explained his point of view to the Governor.

Karan Thapar: The Chief Minister is a colleague of yours. Did you not ask the Chief Minister what the Governor said?

Brinda Karat: We don’t work like that. The point is, we have a plan forward in Nandigram and the first thing about Nandigram is to normalise the situation. And that is very very crucial.

Karan Thapar: All right. Let’s leave the Governor aside. Clearly it is too awkward, too tricky, too politically sensitive an issue for you to comment on although clearly, your party also is deeply embarrassed. Let’s come instead to Biman Bose, the Chairman of the Left Front in Bengal, the State Secretary of you party, the CPM. Mr Bose has publicly criticised the Calcutta High Court for ordering a CBI enquiry. He says the court has, I quote, “clearly jumped the gun. The judiciary has undermined the democratic framework of the state by playing an unnecessarily proactive role.” Do you agree with Mr Bose?

Brinda Karat: Well, the fact of the matter is that there is a case at present going on in the Supreme Court, which has been referred to a larger bench. Which is precisely the issue of whether a high court can, without even giving the state government a chance for a hearing, order a CBI enquiry. Because law and order is a state subject.

Karan Thapar: So, are you saying that you agree with Mr Bose when he says, and I quote, “undermining the democratic framework”?

Brinda Karat: No. What I am saying is that the Supreme Court also believes that there is an issue here. Which is why they are discussing the issue.

Karan Thapar: That’s another matter to criticising the Calcutta High Court. Do you agree that Mr Bose was right to criticise the Calcutta High Court?
Brinda Karat: Well, I won’t call it criticism. He has raised a question.

Karan Thapar: Oh, forgive me. According to The Hindu, he has even used language that many would consider objectionable. He says the court is like, and I quote, “a giant crab, trying to eat into the very foundation of democracy.” Is it fitting that the Chairman of the Left Front should talk of the Calcutta High Court “like a giant crab”?

Brinda Karat: Well, I am sorry. This is the first time I am hearing such a description. But what I would say is that there is a substantive issue. Even if we put the language aside from a minute, there is a substantive issue here.

Karan Thapar: Do you agree with the language?

Brinda Karat: Well, I won’t say I agree or disagree with it. It’s the way of speaking.

Karan Thapar: Could Mr Bose have phrased himself more felicitously?

Brinda Karat: No, I don’t need to comment. Why don’t you ask him? I don’t need to comment on that.

Karan Thapar: Aah, that’s the first hint that you don’t endorse it, when you say “ask him”.

Brinda Karat: No, it’s not a question of endorsing it.

Karan Thapar: People say that Nandigram and the manner in which CPI-M responded to Nandigram is the beginning of the end of the Left Front rule in Bengal.

Brinda Karat: Well, you know, we have had such dreams expressed again and again.

Karan Thapar: You sure this won’t become your nightmare?

Brinda Karat: I can tell you we are deeply distressed about the fact that poor people have died in Nandigram. We believe that it is essential to…

Karan Thapar: Is this the end of Left Front rule?

Brinda Karat: No, I doubt it. Because we are very committed to the people of this country.

Karan Thapar: “I doubt” doesn’t sounds like “no”.

Brinda Karat: It is N,O, no.

Karan Thapar: Brinda Karat, a pleasure talking to on Devil’s Advocate.

Brinda Karat: Thank you.