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Karan Thapar interviews Prakash Karat: Full Text
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Text of an interview with Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), by Karan Thapar, broadcast in "India Tonight" on CNBC TV18 on May 11.

Interview with Prakash Karat

Let's start with Pakistan and Afghanistan. As one looks at Pakistan today, one sees the spread and the rise of the Taliban. They've already controlled 11 per cent of the country. They've the capacity not just to carry out terrorist strikes in Lahore, but 10 miles from the Indian border. How concerned are you about this?

Yes, I think Pakistan has a serious problem with the growing strength of the Taliban and the other fundamentalist, extremist forces. But I think we should not exaggerate the threat to say that Pakistan is going to be taken over by the Taliban. I think that the Pakistani state and government will have to come to terms with this threat and they will have to try and tackle it. I don't think everything is lost, all hope is lost.

Let me pick on something you said - that we mustn't exaggerate it, we mustn't believe that the whole of Pakistan could fall under the Taliban. Just three days ago, Ahmed Rashid, who arguably is the world's authority on the Taliban, said in this very channel that it is not inconceivable that in a few months the Taliban could become a national movement. He said that what he initially thought. creeping Talibanisation had become galloping Talibanisation. He therefore thinks it's possible that a time could come when the Taliban ends up as India's western neighbour 25 miles from Amritsar.

I believe that if the civilian government in Pakistan is supported. The United States of America I think is sending out mixed signals. At times they say this government is fragile, they seem to be putting all their backing behind the Pakistan Army - I think that's the wrong step. I think that the civilian government, the democratic system, must be supported fully, and I think history has shown that whenever religious groups and parties have contested elections, they've not done well. So I think the political forces, the democratic forces and the civil society in Pakistan can be geared to face this challenge.

This is very interesting. Let me ask you two quick questions. You're first of all saying that the civilian government, which means in fact Asif Zardari's government, is the best bulwark in Pakistan against..

And Prime Minister Gilani and whatever government is there. Bulwark means, they are the only ones who can tackle the situation. You cannot prop up the military again in Pakistan, as if the military alone can face the situation and only they can deal with the situation.

If after May 16 the Third Front is in power, then you are in a position to determine and influence Indian foreign policy. Would you find creative ways of strengthening the civilian government.

I think that there is no escape. We've the problem of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, we have the post-Mumbai situation, we must continue to press upon Pakistan to take firm action against these elements, and at the same time we'll have to resume the dialogue with Pakistan, the composite dialogue with Pakistan. We must talk about other confidence building measures and we must understand that if you're talking about fighting the Taliban, then it is in our national interest to see that the Pakistani state and the present government is able to take a firm stand against them.

So you've said two important things. One, you'd take steps to strengthen the civilian government to the extent to which India can.

We can't strengthen. we are supportive of.

Supportive. And secondly, you're also saying that the present standoff, whereby the present outgoing government has refused to carry out the peace process, will end when the Third Front comes to power.

No, no.the standoff came because of the Mumbai attack and we wanted the Pakistan government to take steps and I said that we've to continue on that track. But at the same time, I think steps must be taken for the resumption of the dialogue.

So you won't make one the hostage of the other.


You'd do both together.


Push action on the Mumbai front but at the same time start talks.


Let me ask you, how do you view Asif Zardari? Frequently in his interviews and speeches, he says very reassuring things.You think he is sincere or is it clever political rhetoric?

No, I think they are in a very difficult situation and I have no real, direct way to know what the role and the assessment that we have of President Asif Zardari. But I think in the present situation, any setback to the civilian government will be an overall setback in Pakistan and [it] will speed up a process of polarisation in Pakistani society, which will be very harmful.

So, if I read you correctly, what you are saying is, I think we've good reason to distrust him, we should actually believe what he says.

And we may be critical of the Pakistani government and the Pakistani President in whichever issue, but we would like the Pakistani people and society to work out and sort out their problems in a democratic fashion.

What about General Kayani? Because he is also a very important and critical player in the Pakistani situation. Earlier, both General Kapoor, our Army chief, and head of the NSA Mr. [M.K.] Narayanan, in this channel have said that they believe he is a professional soldier who won't push his way into politics as many of his predecessors have done. Do you share that analysis?

Well, I'd like to put it in this context, that. you see that the Pakistani government and Army are facing a difficult situation because United States' intervention in Pakistan and Afghanistan is widely disliked by the people in Pakistan. And the way they're going about micro-managing affairs within Pakistan today is also resented largely by the Pakistani people. So I hope that the Pakistani army is able to stand up and take an independent position against pressures on them.

That's your real concern about General Kayani, that he must have the capacity to stand up to American micro-management.

I'm talking about both the Army and the government.

I want very much to talk about the role America is playing in Afghanistan. But before I come to that, let me ask you one other thing. Both our Prime Minister recently and a couple of months ago former Pakistani Foreign Minister Mr. Kasuri revealed that India and Pakistan have made extensive progress on back channels. In fact, our Prime Minister said that they were very, very close to an agreement to sort out. when General Musharraf's political problems came into the picture. If the Third Front were to form a government, would you be able to pick up from where they left off and take it forward?

When we were supporting this government, we had always told them that they must start with things which are doable - which are Sir Creek, Siachen -- and also take up Kashmir. And we know that there were talks, there was progress, we know what Musharraf was saying and what Dr. Manmohan Singh was saying. But unfortunately the situation changed after that. But I think we should build on that when the new government comes.

Very interesting that you mentioned Siachen. Many people believe that in fact the reason why the government was not able to move forward on Siachen is because in effect the Indian Army had a veto. They wanted the Pakistanis to sign off., which the Pakistanis were reluctant to do. Would you be able to, if you come to power, to stand up to that?

The present government could not make progress. I know that.

Will you be able to?

Well, I can't say. But we were of the clear opinion and we had told the Prime Minister you should try and go ahead and solve the problem.

And that'll certainly be your intention if you come to power as well.

If it can be worked out, yes.

What about the second issue on which the two countries came very close to, the question of sorting out Kashmir? Progress was made around the concepts that weren't thought of before: self-governance and joint determination. Can you pick up those pieces?

I think we should build on that.

It can be done.

Yes. yes.

And you'd be happy once again to trust the Pakistanis?

Well, we've always held that the key to solving most of our problems in the subcontinent, in South Asia, is to make progress in India-Pakistan relations. Unless we bring about a change in India-Pakistan relations, we cannot bring about peace and stability and prosperity in this region.

Presumably that means we've to break the mindset of distrust. You have to learn to trust.

Yes. yes.

And you would be.

And I think it would require not just the composite dialogue; we may have to initiate high-level political exchanges. So that people can talk and learn to understand each other's problems and trust each other.

Whether you are in government or not, if the Third Front forms the Government, or is one of the influential mentors of the government, would you, Prakash Karat yourself , be prepared to take the initiative to push this forward? Perhaps by yourself going across and meeting Zardari.

I cannot say I can play such a role, but definitely our stand and our approach would be what I have just spelt out.

But you are not averse to playing such a role.

No. no. I am not in a position to say whether I could play such a role.

Let's come to Afghanistan. The Americans have toyed with the concept of Good and Bad Taliban. They seem to believe that good Taliban can be co-opted into the Afghan regime and made to work with President Karzai in some way. Do you think that such a thing as good Taliban exists, or do you see.

Let me put two points at first. I think the situation in Pakistan is integrally connected with what's happening in Afghanistan. So, in fact the situation in Pakistan cannot be settled or solved without the Afghanistan matter being settled. And I think President Obama has taken a major step which is in the wrong direction by stepping up troop involvement, the surge in Afghanistan. Because a U.S.-NATO occupation will help the Taliban. Afghanistan has a history and tradition of fighting foreign invaders and occupiers. And you are going to create a situation which will help the Taliban.

Well, this is your criticism of what President Obama is intending in his AfPak strategy. Very interesting, because through Richard Holbrooke, the Americans are trying hard to keep India informed, perhaps involved and maybe even supportive. If you come to power and Holbrooke comes to Delhi, inevitably he will, what are you going to say to him?

We'll say two things to him: within Afghanistan, let many of these matters be sorted out by the people and the forces within Afghanistan. Let there be an intra-Afghan dialogue, so that there'll be some national reconciliation. As for Good and Bad Taliban, I aim to put it differently - the Taliban consists of different streams of people. You've just seen how hundreds of people have died in aerial strikes. There are people who'll join the Taliban if you kill hundreds of people, women and children. So you've to ensure. and that. it is a tribal society, bring everyone together, and try to create some situation where they can solve their problems themselves.

The second is the regional role in which India, instead of dealing with U.S.-NATO forces, we must get Russia, we must get the Central Asian republics, Iran, all of them involved for a regional understanding on how to tackle Afghanistan.

In other words, you're going to attempt to completely unravel and undo the AfPak and put in its place a completely different strategy.

Well, I think the Americans, if they really are far-sighted, they'll have to deal with Iran, because Iran can help a lot with Afghanistan.

To come back to something you talked about earlier, which is actually part of the AfPak strategy. you do believe that Pakistan has to fight the fight against Taliban internally, that the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani civilian government [have] to fight this fight. They often say, they will have a much easier time standing up to the Taliban if India were to reduce the number of troops on the border along the Line of Control? If not reduce, at least pull them back a little. Would you be more understanding of the fact.

Well, that's what I said, when you've talks, when you start talking to Pakistan, the leadership. and saying in your dialogue bring in Afghanistan.They look at us in suspicion, what are we doing in Afghanistan? So, let us talk's about it. Let them understand. We need to understand their concerns, and they'll understand our concerns regarding Afghanistan.

You're saying two very important things. First, you're saying that you will go out of your way to assure the Pakistanis that Indian consulates in Afghanistan, which they see as a threat, are not a threat to them. And you do this by talking to them, by speaking to them and sharing with them the details that will reassure them. And the second thing, you're saying that you are also prepared to talk to Pakistanis, about giving them assurance, that they can move the troops from the East to the West.

That I cannot say. Because I don't know the details of what the plan is. But what I'm saying is that we should discuss the Afghanistan situation with them also.

In which you can also discuss about the situation on the border, so that they get an assurance that if they move the troops to fight the Taliban, they won't be.

But India is also concerned about infiltration across the Line of Control even now. So I think all these matters will have to be discussed with them.

How much of a priority will this whole issue, AfPak if I may call it, or Pakistan, Afghanistan and Taliban, be to a Third Front government?

I think it will be important and we will shift the focus to the regional factor which I mentioned. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation must be brought in.

What you are indicating is a fairly marked shift in focus and a fairly marked shift in priority of the foreign policy under the UPA government.

Yes, that's what we mean by getting back to the basics of an independent foreign policy.

I want to talk about the nature of relationship in any government that you form or any government that you influence, will have with America. But first, let me ask you directly about Barack Obama himself. Many people in the world and many people in India. admire him, respect him and see him as a sort of an ideal President. How do you, Prakash Karat, view Barack Obama? Are you enamoured of him, or are you wary and.

No, I think like the rest of the world we should really look to the Obama presidency with some expectation. That there'll be a change, a marked change, from what we had earlier during the Bush administration. And I think it is paradoxical that in India, the Indian establishment, the present government, is viewing the Obama presidency with deep disquiet. There seems to be a mourning that President Bush is no more at the helm of affairs.

You don't share that?

No, no, I think it has opened up a new opportunity, I see that India-U.S. relations can be developed at a new level now.

You just told me for one that the AfPak strategy Obama is following is going to be a problem for Pakistan, and presumably for India as a next-door neighbour. So there's one area where the expectations have been presumably dashed.

No, despite such areas, I think that the Obama presidency will help India to reset our relationship in a better fashion than the type of relationship we had with the Bush administration.

In a sense, that was the central criticism you had of the outgoing Congress government?


Not just after the nuclear deal was signed but even during the run-up to it. You really think the Manmohan Singh government was subservient to Washington? What steps will the government you influence upon take to correct that balance?

I think we'd engage with the United States and the new administration on a wide range of issues on which I think they will be open. now.because they have a new President.

What sort of issues are you talking about?

I'm talking about. Obama made a very big speech on nuclear disarmament, for example. I think that has not been noted here seriously. I think that gives us an opening to discuss about the nuclear cooperation agreement, the whole relationship with the United States, on a fresh footing.

You're absolutely right. That major speech was made in Prague just about a month ago and recently the Assistant Secretary responsible for that subject, Rose, has said that she wants India, including other countries, to sign the NPT, and there is no doubt pressure will be on India also to sign the CTBT. If you were to be in the government, would you be willing to sign?

No. We'll not be willing to sign the NPT or the CTBT but definitely if President Obama can come up with a timeframe for nuclear disarmament, which is what we've been demanding, India has been demanding, that is what the Rajiv Gandhi disarmament plan was about. I think then the whole framework will change. Let's see if we can get them to talk about real nuclear disarmament.

Of course, he is committed to that in his talks with Medvedev, the Russian President, And he has plans to take the task much further, possibly reducing nuclear arsenals and . to just a 1,000. If he does that, that's a big. If I can see, then, would the Third Front government be ready to sign the NPT and the CTBT?

No. I am saying that would be the basis for us to start talking about the whole issue.

The thing is, if you want to talk about the whole issue, but saying to him that CTBT and NPT is off the agenda, isn't it contradictory?

No. no. no. We'll talk about the NPT only if this timeframe is going to become a reality.

So, in all these areas, the onus is on him to open the door to give you an opportunity.

No, I am saying that he has opened up this issue. He has opened up the doors, you see.

Let's come now to what for many is possibly a particular flashpoint between any government you form and Obama. The future of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. Before the election campaign began, you were committed to scrapping it. You actually said so many times. During the election campaign you stopped talking about scrapping, began talking about renegotiating.

Reworking it.

What's your final position?

No, I think with a Democratic administration, Obama administration, we can talk about reworking this deal.

Which bits would you rework?

Well, I can't go into the details, but the Hyde Act brought in certain provisions into the 123 Agreement, which were unacceptable for us.

But the problem is, if it is the Hyde Act that you have a problem with, then you are actually asking the Obama government to change American internal law, rather than the 123.

No, no, no. 123 [agreement] according to us is based on the Hyde Act.

You think he'd be willing to rework it? Or would that become.

That's why I said, we look with expectation to President obama.

... If he is not willing to rework, and therefore to renegotiate, then would you accept the deal as done, or would you then scrap it?

I think that the understanding which was there with President Bush got this agreement through. I think there'll be no serious problems with the new administration if we can get things reworked.

So if I understand you correctly, you are fairly hopeful that when you knock on his door, assuming you form the government, and say, Dear President Obama, we want to rework the deal, he will turn around and say, Yes Mr. Karat, walk in, I'm happy to sit and talk.

No, I think the Democratic administration will be prepared to at least open up and discuss what we want done.

Sure this is not the triumph of hope over experience.

Well, there was a special situation, I do not want to quite go into it, when the Manmohan Singh government and the Bush administration got this agreement through.

So you think now that we have a new administration with a new party and..

Well, there'll be a new government and there'll be a new administration, they don't stick to the old dogmas.

So you do believe you could succeed and rework it.

Well, we'll try.

Let me put this to you. What about the big issue of protectionism? One of the great fears is that as the American economic crisis continues and American employment stubbornly falls month after month, that Obama will become protectionist, particularly with regard business outsourcing to India, and.

We've a different take on that. Everybody says no protectionism. But we say, we've been saying this from the beginning, in India, we must have some intelligent protectionism. We've to protect Indian farmers. We've been fighting with this government not to surrender our rights, which will harm the farmers, for example. So we will review the WTO-related decisions and policies and we will go in for some protectionism in certain areas.

In other words, if you go in for protectionism of your own, you could hardly object to Obama's protectionism.

There'll be protectionism practised by various countries. It's a reality and we have to see what type of protectionism is required which will be in the interest of our country and what we should not have.

It also suggests you will accept any protectionism from America, in terms of H1B visas.

No. we will have to negotiate that with them.

Let me end by putting a simple question. If the Left Front or the Third Front forms the government on May 16, a year later would you think the relationship with America would be better or would it be in the doldrums?

As I said, it'll be reset and it'll be on a better footing.

Will Indians be smiling or will they be saying Christ! What's he done?

India as a whole will see America as a partner and a friend, but in a new light.

And would Obama be happy, or .

I don't think he has gotten engaged with India so much yet.

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