Friday, April 4, 2008

Prakash Karat: A Leader with a Difference

I WAS at the Talkathora Stadium in Delhi three years ago when Prakash Karat took over as the youngest-ever general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was an historic occasion because in fact what I was witnessing was a moment in history when a generation that saw the immense struggles for political emancipation of this country, was handing over the baton to a new generation to continue the struggle, for social and economic emancipation of millions and millions who were denied the fruits of this freedom.

It was a highly emotional, extremely meaningful moment: On the stage were those frail, battle-scarred veterans Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, both into their nineties. Their speeches told everyone that these two, the last of the original politburo members of the CPM –the party called them navaratnas as there were nine of them-- when it was formed after the split in 1964, were making their swan-songs.

And Prakash Karat in his first speech as the new general secretary made a direct reference to this rich history of the Communist Party in India: It was the inheritor of the tradition of a great and relentless struggle, carried through many generations, accepting immense difficulties and making great sacrifices.

Then during the next two days Prakash Karat gave interviews to scores of newspapers, television channels and news agencies from all parts of India and the world, and I was the last person to meet him on day two. I was one of the few Malayalee journalists representing a Kerala newspaper, who got the interview and as I walked up to his room he was already getting up thinking the gruelling ordeal was over. He was the person primarily responsible for organizing the party congress in Delhi, as the senior PB member in charge of organization, he was based in Delhi and he had completed extremely hard work in the run up to the party congress travelling to all states, and then the six-day-long congress itself and after that he had, during the past 48 hours, answered the same, monotonous and often moronic questions from hacks from all over country, repeating his party’s positions ad nauseam…

But he still looked fresh and quite affable. He sat there across the table and as I introduced myself, he said yes, I know...

That was indeed quite gratifying. Ever since I came to Delhi I was covering the CPM beat but I never made any attempt to meet him or any other PB members personally, except S Ramachandran Pillai. It was more than three years since I had met Prakash Karat, at the Kerala state conference of the party at Kannur that took place some time in late 2000. He was staying with other PB members like Surjeet and Sitaram Yechuri in a bungalow outside the town and I went there with a camera crew as chief of the news division of Kairali Television, which the CPM state leadership had launched only a few months earlier. I had joined the television channel in a fit of recklessness (which I regretted later as I found myself jobless…) and the conference had come for us as an occasion to show our significance as the only left-of-centre television channel communicating to Malayalees all over the world.

Before that, during the days of organizing the channel and training our staff, I had occasion to contact him a few times. We were hoping to get some support from NDTV, launched by Pronnoy Roy, a close relative of his, and I got hold of Prakash in the Chennai office of CPM on the phone and he promised me that he would try to get in touch with Pronnoy…Perhaps he could not get him, because I never heard anything from him on it.

Those were the few personal contacts but I had on many occasion interviewed him and had attended his press conferences both in Delhi and Kerala and was impressed by the deft way in which he handled even the toughest media guys and the trickiest questions. But it appears that just as he gave answers to questions -- always sharp, straight and to the point -- he often took his own lessons from them. I remember one occasion: During the Delhi party congress news came that for the first time the Sri Lankan Janata Vimukti Peramuna, once known as a left extremist Sinhala group, was being invited to the 18th party congress as honored foreign delegates. I was surprised about this decision and when I rang up SRP for his clarification, he told me the party viewed them as a genuine leftist organization and that they had eschewed their parochial, violent ways. But later in a press conference announcing the details of the party congress, some journalists from Tamil Nadu exploded, questioning the correctness of the party decision. It was clear even the Tamil Nadu comrades were none too happy about it. But the invitation had already been sent and there was no way backtracking…

But this time in Coimbatore, I saw that there was no representative from JVP.

Well, Karat is a politician who has now emerged as one of the most important in the post-Independence generation in Indian politics, and he has come to stay, because he is just past sixty. Too young by Communist standards.

Now about that interview I had with him three years ago at AKG Bhavan: He gave me 20 minutes, and then he got up and I asked him the final question:

Comrade, what was your role in that decision of the party which was later described by Jyoti Basu as a historic blunder?

He was unruffled.

“What is my role? It was a collective decision,” he said as he left the room.

But it was clear Jyoti Basu did not think so. In his last speech at the party congress, at the Talkathora Stadium, he spoke lovingly and proudly about a new generation of party leaders and he specifically mentioned the name of Sitaram Yechuri and not Prakash…

(Illustration courtesy: A Hameed.)

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