Veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu once jokingly told Sitaram Yechury during a trip to Beijing that he was a “very dangerous person”. The multilingual Yechury was speaking to different party comrades in different languages — in Bengali to Basu, in Telugu to M Basavapunnaiah, in Tamil to E M S Namboodiripad and in Hindi to Harkishen Singh Surjeet, prompting Basu to remark in jest: “Sitaram, you are a very dangerous person. With each of us you speak in a different language. I don’t know what tales you carry about us to one another.”
On Sunday, soon after being elected party’s fifth general secretary, Yechury’s multilingual skills were on display once again. Having given his speech in English, he was then urged to speak in Hindi as well as Telugu. After speaking in all three languages, Yechury jokingly said in Bengali that he shouldn’t be asked to speak in that language as well.
The 62-year old CPM general secretary, known for his relaxed demeanour and sense of humour, has an approach to politics that is often described as far less rigid than that of his predecessor Prakash Karat. His ability to reach out to various political outfits beyond the party and his networking skills, besides the advantage of being an eloquent orator in several languages, all worked in his favour in getting him the top post in the party.
Yechury, who went to school in Hyderabad, studied economics at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, followed by a masters course at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 1974, while studying in JNU, he joined the SFI, the CPM’s youth wing, a year after which he joined the party. He would be imprisoned soon after, during Emergency. Later, he was elected president of the JNU students’ union in 1977-78 and became all-India SFI president in 1978, from where began his steady ascent in politics.
Comfortable with and accessible to the media as a politician, Yechury entered the central committee of the party in 1985, and the politburo in 1992, along with his colleagues Prakash Karat and S Ramachandran Pillai. Party leaders say the crucial party congress in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw both Karat and Yechury being groomed by the then top leadership for larger roles in future. While Karat presented the political-organisational report at the congress, Yechury presented the resolution “On Certain Ideological Issues”.
Party leaders, while stressing how Yechury does not confine himself to the strict discipline of the party and is more flexible than several of his colleagues, say this could prove an advantage for the party at a time when it is looking to reinvent itself. Karat and Yechury are said to have differed on many issues over the party’s line in the recent past.
His ability to engage with a broad spectrum of people and an “eclectic mind” are what some party leaders point at. Over the years, Yechury has debated on a wide range of issues, from the Vedas and Upanishads to imperialism and neo-liberalism.
His wit too is often talked about. At an interaction with students at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College a few years ago, when asked how he dealt with the BJP, Yechury replied. “I really don’t mind the BJP criticising or attacking me. I, in fact, ask them to attack me more. You see, my name contains the name of both Ram and Sita. So, when they take my name, it is a pious experience for them. And as long as they attack me, I know I am going in the right direction.”
Yechury was closely involved with developments in Nepal at a time when the country was in transition and when its underground Maoist party joined mainstream politics.
One of the best known faces of the Left, Yechury has a keen interest in playing tennis, besides following his other interests — writing and music.
New in politburo
Mohammed Salim: Lok Sabha MP from Bengal. An avid football fan, educated in Kolkata, he became an active member of SFI while in college. He is now one of the most active Left politicians on Twitter.
Mollah: Eight times former MP from Bengal. A CPM member since age 16, now general secretary of All India Kisan Sabha and joint secretary of All India Agricultural Workers’ Union.
Subhashini Ali: President of All India Democratic Women’s Association, former MP from Kanpur who lost two subsequent polls and once from Barrackpore in West Bengal. She has also acted in films.
G Ramakrishnan: Tamil Nadu state secretary. A lawyer, with SFI from 1969, full-time CPM member from 1981, central committee in 2008.
The other 12
Yechury, Karat, S R Pillai, Biman Bose, Manik Sarkar, B V Raghavulu, Brinda Karat, Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, M A Baby, A K Padmanabhan, Suryakant Mishra
Out of politburo
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Nirupam Sen, K Varadarajan.