Mohammed Salim, 65, was elected West Bengal State Secretary of CPIM (Communist Party of India Marxist) in March 2022. He is also a member of the party's highest decision making body, the Politburo, at the national level and a former Lok Sabha MP. He took charge of India’s main Left party at a time when the party's performance was the worst in the last 50 years. Salim is traveling all over West Bengal to strengthen the party and the Left movement. He spoke to Prothom Alo’s Suvojit Bagchi in Kolkata about the party's main challenges and plans.
We find there is a renewed interest in CPIM in West Bengal. More people are attending CPIM’s public meetings. In the past few years, people have moved away from CPIM. Why did they move away? And why are they gradually returning?
There are three types of people who are showing interest. One, are those who are very young – the new faces. There has been a campaign for the last 10-12 years to prevent the Left from reaching them. The campaign was conducted to make people believe that the Left is dead in Bengal. Now, what is particularly exciting for us is that workers of other parties leave one party to join another. In our case, fresh faces are joining the CPIM. Besides, a very large section of those who left the party for various reasons are back. Maybe they left because of our party’s approach, maybe they left on their own. There may be various other social factors. Many did not renew their membership. We have been contacting them throughout the month of October. Since the independence movement, West Bengal had a socio-cultural leftist ideology, in which the leftist movement found its means of survival. It was destroyed over the last ten years. There is no such thing as a civil society. There are just some names who receive government awards.
But there is an empty space. We are trying to establish relations with those who are active in social spaces and can communicate with people socially. Also, one way of communication now is digital media. We are trying to communicate through digital media with those who are far away. This work started in October because October is the month of revolution.
You also have a role. You have experience of working at both a state and at the national level. That counts.
Of course, but I was selected by the West Bengal State Committee. For the first time in the history of the Communist Party, one-third of the State Committee has fresh faces. Large numbers of young people were brought in. The people also started thinking more intensely as they witnessed the rise of Hindutva and fundamentalism, spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They have experienced how Mamata Banerjee has brought them (RSS) to this state. She said in the past, they are ‘natural friends’. Now she is saying RSS is ‘not bad’. When she went with the BJP (1999), the minorities or a section of Dalits did not trust her. She then changed her politics and left the BJP and aligned with the Congress.
This is precisely one version of politics that happened in North India over the last three or four decades. Old socialists, old Congress, Gandhians, civil society members were used in North India by RSS to strengthen themselves, whereas in West Bengal they joined the camps of the RSS or the BJP through Trinamool.
But when the 2021 assembly elections arrived, there was a fear among the people of West Bengal that BJP would come to power in the state. People and the voters thought, now only Mamata Banerjee can stop BJP. In such a situation, CPIM could not provide an alternative.
That is our party’s observation too.
The question then is, who is the main enemy of CPIM – Trinamool or the BJP?
There is nothing new to discuss about this. Where is the existence of Trinamool Party? Trinamool is a platform. The main fight is with those who want to turn the country into a fascist state. This organisation is RSS. BJP is working as its main party. RSS has various approaches to give the society and politics a shape and the creation of Trinamool is one of those.
Do you think that is correct from common people's point? When the elections arrive, Trinamool campaigns against BJP in such a way that it seems that they are the main opposition of BJP. Votes get polarised.
In the political theatre, such events take place. You confuse the enemies and the friends. I am not saying that Trinamool and RSS are the same organisation. That is not so. But there is a history of how we got here. After the Trinamool was formed in 1998, it contested elections along with the BJP. Did we do that? No.
Then, before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Congress aligned with the Trinamool overnight. BJP was defeated then. Congress, led by Pranab Mukherjee, accepted Trinamool's offer to join hands. BJP's entire vote went to Trinamool’s alliance which was a RSS's plan. Their common goal was to dislodge the Left Front. Mamata Banerjee created an alternative image with the Maoists, some left-wing parties and the media. Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, Muslim League etc – the minority organisations – aligned with her to create an image that Trinamool is a minority-friendly party. It created an image that she is the only anti-BJP force. Even a section of our supporters too thought that the Left Front ruled for three decades and now let there be something new. Nothing new has happened in West Bengal.
Many people voted to stop BJP in the last elections. What was the voter's fault?
We are not blaming anyone. At that point, during the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections, everything happened at once. A situation was forced. On one hand, CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens) etc. were floated. On the other hand, Dilip Ghosh (state president of the BJP in 2021) said, he will push 20 million (two crore) Bengalis out of Bengal. Narendra Modi said, everyone can be identified by their clothes etc. Amit Shah (the Home Minister) and other BJP leaders started visiting the state in large numbers.
Mamata Banerjee started saying 'Nadda-Gadda' (BJP All India President JP Nadda) to stir up the political arena and this intensified the contest. As a result, the issues – political, economic or corruption – took a back seat. The polarisation had become so natural that even the revolutionary and experienced leftist parties could not sense that it was an orchestrated situation. The voters were confused to the core. The fight turned into a Trinamool vs BJP one.
Here, it needs to be understood that even though Trinamool is in the forefront in West Bengal, BJP is behind the scenes. In fact, there are three types of parties in India now — three allies of the BJP, so to say. Potential partners of the BJP, (BJP) estranged allies and the present allies. Trinamool can fit in all three categories.
You recently came second behind BJP in some elections, including an assembly by-election. Can CPIM break the politics of polarisation that you are talking about?
Of course, the effort is ongoing. A potentially explosive situation was created a few days ago when Nupur Sharma (BJP leader) made a comment (addressed against Prophet Mohammad) and BJP provoked the people. The situation was heating up. We tried to connect with the people and did our best to do so and for whatever reason the tension diffused. The issue did not snowball in West Bengal. It needs to be said here that from 2016 to 2019 when the Left failed to win a seat, if you look at the map of the communal riots and the map of the poll results, you will see that wherever the CPIM was strong, communal conflict was created. The votes of the left decreased a lot. We tried to break this binary (politics of polarisation).
Now the question is, how did this Hindu-Muslim thing take shape in West Bengal? As soon as I say something, the question arises, is he a Bangladeshi? If Faiz or Iqbal's poem is quoted, it is said, why are Bengalis are speaking in Urdu? This is not being said in Bangladesh, but it is being said in West Bengal. Earlier West Bengal had a different position altogether. A country was created fighting against Pakistan in the name of Bengali language. After the 1970s, a new consciousness of Bengalis was formed, and an independent and undivided Bengali ethno-nationalism took shape. But today people are being separated in the name of language and religion. This is Trinamool’s contribution to this state. Along with this, there is the issue of corruption which we have repeatedly highlighted. It is true that BJP is also talking about it, but BJP is also conniving with it.
On the issue of national elections, there seems to be no possibility of any alliance at the national level.
No, it is not visible now and will not be visible either. There is a different reality existing in each state of India. We have said, at the state level, wherever an opposition party is strong (against the BJP), it should move forward accordingly on its own. The process took off in various states and the Trinamool Congress got distanced from others as soon as the process started. Because Trinamool’s politics is to prevent anti-BJP alliance coming together.
If Mamata joins this alliance, what will the role of the left be?
She will not enter it. She has to get instructions from RSS headquarters in Nagpur. In that case, her basic politics will be messed up.
Muslims are being attacked endlessly in India. Their political space is gradually shrinking. Do you think that the CPIM has not yet done as much as it needs to do to address the problem?
I don't agree. It has been two years since (student leader) Umar Khalid was in jail. Which other political party other than CPIM has come out and talked about it? Article 370 of the constitution was removed in Jammu-Kashmir. Mamata Banerjee said she did not know what happened in Jammu-Kashmir. Not only her, other political parties did not take any stand, except CPIM. Congress did not take a stand either. Thirdly, when Jamia Millia-Shaheen Bagh attack took place in Delhi or bulldozer politics started in Uttar Pradesh, which party other than the Communist Party spoke about these and protested?
So many people of PFI (mainly the Muslim party Popular Front of India) were arrested. Nothing was said about that…
So many people of PFI (mainly the Muslim party Popular Front of India) were arrested. Nothing was said about that…
Salim: We are fighting against PFI from the beginning. It is not only a fundamentalist but also an extremist organisation. We have and we will continue to oppose all forms of fundamentalism. But we immediately raised the question, why was the Anti-Terrorism Act used against them instead of using the sections under general criminal laws. There are adequate provisions in those.
To wrap up, what will your top three goals be in the coming year?
The first is the village council or Panchayat election. The Panchayat system which was created to provide relief to the people has completely broken down. Corruption is rampant. Panchayat elections are due early next year. We will try to engage with it and try our best to do well. Secondly, in order to save the country from the hands of the BJP, we eventually have to find a way to ensure an overarching alliance.
Thirdly, our objective is to win back the democratic and secular space in West Bengal by fighting against both the BJP and Trinamool. We have to do politics consciously. I said ‘consciously’ because if there is an (bomb) explosion tomorrow in West Bengal then we will again see the politics of polarisation coming back with added power. People have to be conscious or aware of this communal politics and how it works.