A four-time MP from the Katwa parliamentary constituency in Bardhaman district of West Bengal, he was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 when he was the Vice-President of the Students Federation of India. He was re-elected from the same constituency to Parliament in 1984, 1989 and 1991. Subsequently at the Chandigarh Congress of the CPI-M in 1995 he was inexplicably dropped from the party’s Central Committee and denied a ticket for the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Later his name was struck off the membership rolls of the party in October 2000 as he had desired ‘honourable dissociation’ from the party. His was the solitary case of not being expelled from the party; the decision of the party’s State Committee in this regard was approved at the Central Committee meeting.
Thereafter Choudhury set up the Jana Chetana Manch (Platform of Mass Consciousness) the same year (2000) before launching his party, the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), the following year. He unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections from the Jadavpur constituency of Kolkata in 2009 as a PDS candidate.
He remained a Marxist till his last breath but relentlessly fought for inner-party democracy throttled by the Stalinist CPI-M. That was at the root of his differences with the parent party. He was a close friend of Mainstream. He gave the following interview to this journal’s editor in New Delhi on November 8, 2000; it appeared in the Mainstream Annual Number (December 23, 2000). We are reproducing it here as a token of our tribute to his abiding memory. The following year, after his party was formed, he explained its basic ideological position as its President in an article “Why PDS?” that was published in Mainstream Annual Number (December 22, 2001). This article will be reproduced in one of our subsequent issues.
Our Search for a New Path
Interview with Saifuddin Choudhury
Q: What is your attitude to the Congress? I is common knowledge that your are being dubbed as pro-Congress by influential sections within the CPM in particular as well as the Left parties n general.
A: I know some people say that I am pro-Congress. This is a travesty of truth. There is no need for me to be pro-Congress, anti-Congress or for that matter pro-or anti- any particular organisation per se. I have had experience of the deeds and misdeeds of the Congress. At a very personal level, in 1972 I was driven out by the Congress hoodlums from both my home and college. Several times those hoodlums raided my village home at Memari in order to abduct and torture me. So many of the comrades from my erstwhile party were killed and maimed; and the Left and other democratic parties came together and unitedly fought against the Congress and removed them from power in West Bengal in the past.
There is nothing wrong in visualising a weakend Congress and a stronger Left, secular alternative. I am all for that and this is natural in democracy. There have to be good alternatives all the time.
But we should nver do anything that would directly or indirectly embolden the naked communal and fascistic forces. Here you have to adopt a different approach. If there could be a political formation which would take on both the BJP and Congress simultaneously and extract the desired political results. I am all for that. But you should not allow your mindless allergies to prevail such as to help the rabid reactionary forces.
Q: How do you view the present political situation on the national plane in the light of the Prime Minister’s wholesale endorsement of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement at Ayodhya?
A: I never had any illusion that an individual at the helm of affairs is so devoid of the policies, programmes and ideology of his party that people should flock around him for good governance and strengthening the noble values in society. Those who have such an illusion are victims of self-deception. What Atal Behari Vajpayee has said regarding Ayodhya is anathema to secular democracy. No head of government can, directly or indirectly, lend credence to the construction of a temple, mosque, church or any religious shrine. These are private matters of the people of the communities. But that the Prime Minister chose to associate himself with such an activity in relation to Ayodhya is a violation of secular principles and should help his allies and partners in the NDA, who were earlier part of secular democratic combinations, to realise what harm they have caused to the country by installing such a government in power. Therefore the sooner they part company the better would it be for the country.
Q: It is reported that you were victimised in the CPM for taking a particular stand on the issue of introduction of the no-confidence motion in Parliament against the Narasimha Rao Government following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. You had opposed the move at that time arguing that such a step would reinforce the BJP and other communal elements. Because of that you had to suffer and were unceremoniously thrown out of the party’s Central Committee. But suppose you were not a victim within the party for having taken a position on that or any other issue, would you have still launched the campaign for democratisation of the CPM’s organisational structure that eventually compelled you to sever your links with the party and led to your subsequent expulsion?
A: The point is not my position on the no-confidence motion. There may be hundreds of such issues on which one takes a particular position and the others a different stand. But the question is: how do you deal with an opinion which does not conform to the party’s official line?
Here again you just cannot explain away certain things to suit your convenience. It has to be realised by the people that in your organisational structure there is room for such divergent opinions which are honoured and not trampled upon.
Now, politics is not a private affair of any party. It is a concern of the society at large. It’s immaterial whether an individual is in a committee or not. But the people have a right to know why one is in a committee one day and why he is removed from it the next day. This hush-hush conduct, which was perhaps relevant a hundred years ago, is no longer relevant today.
Q: Especially when one is functioning in a democratic environment all around.
A: Yes, precisely so.
Q: However, what you are doing now—trying to set up another organisational framework outside the CPM—by that won’t you be weakening the Left and democratic forces in the overall context?
A: In many countries the Communist Parties were the ruling parties. They had absolute power. There were no other political parties to challenge their authority. Now tell me: why did they get alienated from the people? Why did nobody come forward to defend them when things were collapsing all over? Only food and lodging do not constitute human existence: you need freedom, you need liberty, pluralism in society and a climate to fearlessly express oneself. All these were absent in the former socialist countries. And these alongwith some other factors brought about the downfall of the ruling CPs in those countries.
After the downfall many former Communist Parties are forming parties professing the demcoratic path towards socialism. Those who are trying to retain some of the features of the old party and thinking, they too are discarding a lot of the harmful attributes. Don’t you think if all these could have been encouraged and assimilated in a proper scientisfic manner in the past then such disasters could have been averted?
So the search for a new path can never be debilitating to the greater cause.
Is it not a desirable thought that the ranks of socialism as a whole, including and in particular the Socialists and Communists, forget their past bitterness and experience of mutual destruction and contribute jointly to the progress of society?
Q: You mean you are thinking in terms of a historic compromise?
A: That’s not the correct term, it’s not a historic compromise—it’s a historic coming together.
Q: But by your activities won’t you be weakening the cause you are espousing today?
A: When I was in the party and you thought things were all right, even then the popular support for the Left was declining. Where was that support going? In the absence of another good alternative it was going to the negative side. Do you want that process to be accelerated? If that is what you want I can’t help you.
In a democracy there have to be a number of good alternatives for the people to choose from among them.
Q: All the established Left parties in our country have declared socialism as their basic objective. But they have side by side called for either a National Democratic Revolution or a People’s Demcoratic Revolution in the interim phase towards reaching that objective. The platform that you have set up and of which you are the convenor, where does that stand vis-a-vis these propositions?
A: The controversy over National Democratic Revolution or People’s Democratic Revolution on the path towards socialism dates back to many years. There is a long history behind it. And even now this controversy crops up at times. At the moment I don’t want to go into that controversy. I feel we have to proceed towards a socially organised democratic revolution. It is impossible today to seize power by force or coercion. That is all the more impossible in a country like ours where the democratic environment is so well established. Taking the widest sections of the people with us we have to open up every closed door of democracy—this struggle itself will pave the way for the new revolution in the modern age. Whoever seeks to resist the growth and extension of democracy will have to be removed, and the struggle to bring about that removal will constitute the path of revolution in the new age.
Q: How relevant is socialism today?
A: The old thinking of socialism was not relevant even in the recent past. Dictatorship, command system of economy, rigid structure of organisation accompanying those old ideas associated with socialism had lost their relevance. That’s why it could not survive.
Q: Rabindranath Tagore had forecast such a possibility in his Letters from Russia. While drawing inspiration from the highly positive features of the Soviet Revolution, especially in the spheres of education and literacy, he was appalled by the fact that coercion was one of the principal motive forces behind implementation of the policies formulated. And therefore he was certain that the system could not last.
A: That’s true.
But then socialism is relevant in the sense that there have to be equal opportunities for the people, there has to be an end to the exploitation of man by man, there has to be the breaking of barriers seeking to impede the creative advancement of humankind, there have to be ever expanding horizons of democracy. And all obstacles to these have to be done away with.
Q: What you are saying reminds one of Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings on socialism.
A: The point is that you should not try to find similarities with one leader’s writings and discard others. The idea of socialism has persisted through the ages and many of our stalwarts have been influenced by this idea. But any attempt to narrow it down exclusively for party purposes is fraught with grave danger. Socialism is a social revolution. It has to be viewed in that perspective.
Q: It is being alleged that the country’s economic sovereignty is being mortgaged througth the new economic policies. What is your attitude to the new economic policies?
A: Mortgaging the country’s economic sovereignty or selling off the country is a political issue. Preserving our economic sovereignty is a political task. There is nothing wrong to remove the massive impediments blocking economic progress and clear the way for development. But we must simultaneously remain conscious of our strength. Being overwhelmed before a foreign economic power or recasting the country’s economy in accordance with the dictates of those foreigners amounts to a kind of slavery. One can never accept that. Advanced technology through foreign capital is certainly acceptable but that has to take place on the basis of our own regulations. There is nothing wrong in mutual give and take. But we have to see that is in mutual interest. We cannot allow the public sector to be damaged. We are opposed to the way in which even profit-making public sector units are being indiscrimi-nately sold off for a song. At the same time we have to expeditiously take some decision with regard to those public sector enterprises which are loss-making. Those among these that can be revived must definitely be revived. But in those cases where this is not possible we have to take a realistic decision by consulting all the relevant persons. If a state institution is running at a loss for a long time and if it has to be sold off then we have to ensure that it is done at the proper price. At the same the interests of workers associated with the relevant industries have to be protected. This work has to be carried out transparently. There can be no secret under-standing. A cardinal aim of the economy has to be to guarantee the generation of more and more employment for the common people of the country.
Q: Since you are laying stress on democratic ideas it can be assumed that you are in favour of decentralisation of political and economic power. Do you have any specific programmes for this purpose?
A: There is no doubt that we are in favour of decentralisation of power in the political and economic spheres. We have to gradually take the society towards decentralised self-reliance. We have to see that every self-governed unit becomes self-reliant. The Central authority which is there, its task should be to provide moral and material help to the units instead of setting up some kind of command system. In this sphere we have to generate a massive initiative among the different NGOs apart from the panchayats and municipalities. We will take an appropriate decision by consulting all those who are deeply aware of the issues and problems in this area.
Q: Are you planning to extend the platform (Jana Chetana Manch—Platform of Mass Coonsciousness) you have set up in West Bengal to other parts of the country?
A: It can very well expand to other areas too. But then right-thinking people have to come forward and take the lead. I also think there is sufficient scope for the formation of a scientific party of democratic socialism. No person alone can do the needful in this regard. But people—leaders and activists who feel and think alike and who are perturbed by the general apathy to politics now prevailing in society—should unite to make this party a reality.
Q: This development can have a positive impact within the CPM too, don’t you think so?
A: Now, what I do should not be linked to any other political party. I can only concern myself with the impact of the general principles of secularlism, democracy, socialism on the public and the influence of other noble values on society at large, and not get involved in the functioning of any other political party.
Q: This party you have in mind will it be a Left party?
Q: The fragmentation of the Left in India is plaguing the movement as whole.
A: You see, the point is that the many fragments coming together with a proper understanding can create a mighty force. On the other hand a large outfit riven with unmana-geable contradictions can prove to be a big weapon without any cutting edge.
Q: Would the organisation you have in view be Marxist in orientation?
A: You see, Marxism in the sense of dialectical and historical materialism is the core of social science. But then there are many other people who also contributed to the progress of society. You should also recognise their contribution.
Q: You will bring such persons in your party?
A: Why not?
Q: The Left establishments have failed to grow because of their sectarian outlook and approach on such isues.
A: No doubt the official Left has failed for this and other reasons…
Q: There is a definite void which needs to be filled at the earliest because of the Left establishments’ failure. Would your outfit try to engage in that exercise?
A: Look, our objective is not to occupy the ground currently under the control of any other secular democratic party. The point is to fill the void which you have mentioned, stem the desertion of people from the ranks of the Left and generate new enthusiasm among them. I am conscious of the fact that I as an individual am too small a person to carry out this major task. But if many others worried over the present crisis join hands, then of course good results can follow.