The Left Front may win another election, but the time has come to look beyond Basu.
The communist government of West Bengal may have managed to become the longest-serving popularly elected government in the world, but if the lack of enthusiasm among the common people for its 22nd anniversary is any indication, longevity is probably the only distinction it has managed to achieve. Spontaneous celebrations were absent both in Calcutta and elsewhere in the state in the month of June which marked the completion of 22 red years in West Bengal. The festivities remained confined to receptions and get-togethers hosted by the government. The masses were left to despondently contemplate an uncertain future.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) captured power in West Bengal in 1977 heading a coalition of broadly socialist parties known as the Left Front, in the first post-Emergency elections held in India. Its performance in the intervening years has been nothing to crow about. In education, West Bengal has slid from 6th to 17th position in the country. Contrary to the government’s tall claims, the state lags behind others in business and industry, occupying the 14th position in the industrial table. Investors, once driven out by the militant Left-backed trade unions, are refusing to return fear-ing a repetition of the turbulent 1960s, and this despite chief minister Jyoti Basu’s all-out efforts to lure big industry into the state.
The question, however, remains as to how the communists, “tamed and co-opted” as they were by political realities and constitutional norms of behaviour, have managed to maintain their hold over West Bengal, winning election after election against an established national party like the Congress. And also how the party’s helmsman, Jyoti Basu, has emerged as India’s longest-serving chief minister, heading the government for five consecutive terms since 1977. The answer may lie in a deeper look at the Jyoti Basu phenomenon.
JB, WB and CPM
Not too long ago, an advertisement for J&B whisky went “ingle ells, ingle ells… Christmas is just not the same without J&B”. One could almost say the same about West Bengal without JB—Jyoti Basu.
The man who failed in the Indian Civil Service examinations and subsequently returned from London with a law degree from the Inner Temple, to then embrace communism, has become a cult figure over the last two decades and more of chief ministership. He in fact has virtually replaced the hammer-and-sickle as the CPM symbol and provides a pan-India respectability to the party. Even his refusal to smile in public, his bored and disinterested look, have added to his personal aura. “Apart from being its charismatic leader, Basu is the central force that draws together the coalition’s warring factions,” says Aveek Sarkar, editor of the Anand Bazaar Patrika daily. “Without that central force, the personal ambitions of the Front leaders would tear the coalition apart.”
Parallels have been drawn between Basu and Deng Xiaoping as leaders who abandoned ‘class struggle’ to emerge as flagholders of the market economy. Says columnist Shankar Ghosh, “Like Deng, Basu does not mind the colour of the capitalist cat as long as it is prepared to invest in his communist state.” Not surprisingly, West Bengal’s search for foreign investments long preceded overtures made in that direction by the central government in the early years of this decade. Few communist leaders have rubbed shoulders so often with the international bourgeoisie as Basu has, or solicited capital and advocated free market reform. And he has done it with the red badge on his chest, telling industrialists how they had failed to grasp the importance of land reforms in giving a boost to industrialisation: “Seventy percent of our people live in the villages. Unless their purchasing power improves, who will buy your things?”
Basu’s admirers are legion. They are indignant that his own party, the CPM, prevented him from becoming prime minister not once but twice. He was chosen to lead the nation by 12 squabbling political parties in 1996, and then in 1999 he was the consensus choice once again, with an even more disparate group pleading with him to accept the hot seat. The party overruled his ascension in both cases. With Basu now announcing his retirement from politics, it seems the 87-year-old communist is destined to go down in history as the best prime minister India never had.
There were periods when his popularity plummeted, but his recovery was swift. A long-standing criticism has been that members of his family have not exactly been squeamish about exploiting their connection, with son Chandan Basu leading the way. In a society where commerce and trading are looked upon with distrust and contempt, the pursuit of profit by the chief minister’s family is grist for established prejudices.
Questions have also been raised about his sagacity in allowing a bunch of wheeler-dealers to hover around him. But these are probably barnacles that latch on the ships of state the world over, since the patriarch himself appears to be impregnable. “His absence is going to be a major loss, as there is no similar figure of authority in West Bengal. But Basu or no Basu, realistically speaking, there is no reason why the Left Front should not romp home again in 2001,” says Partha Chatterjee, director of the Centre of Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta.
Over time, the CPM’s hold on power has had less and less to do with the appeal for communist ideology among the electorate. In fact, the party is communist only in token terms, for its ideology, policies and programmes are typically social democratic. As far back as 1977, soon after coming to power, Basu had said to a Reuters correspondent: “What we are saying to the people, is ‘Yes we call ourselves communists, but that is for the future’.”
The CPM’s repeated election victories have come through the party’s popularity among agricultural workers and peasants —whom Karl Marx once described as a sack of potatoes —who benefitted immensely during the first decade of the Left rule. This was the result of the party’s most successful programme, “Operation Barga” (see box), started the same year the Left Front came to power. The communist government also decentralised the flow of development funds to rural areas, giving sweeping powers to village panchayats. In the CPM’s first decade in power, the panchayats boosted production in small farms by providing subsidised loans and fertilisers, and by turning mono-crop areas into multi-crop fields.
But for all that, the CPM did not really take on the rural rich, adopting a nonthreatening approach towards the property-owning classes. With radicals in the party gradually marginalised in the power struggle with the centrists, and with just a handful of them in positions of leadership, the CPM failed to confront the dominant rural elite with class demands and programmes. It was a shocking about-turn by a revolutionary party that had broken away from a “revisionist” Communist Party of India.
Beyond ideological hair- splitting, however, the fact remains that the CPM’s development inroads in the rural areas, and its successful establishment of a village-level party infrastructure, has turned the state’s vast rural population of around 65 million into a vote-bank that has been impenetrable by any other political party. The penetration of the countryside, however, has not impressed analysts like research scholar Ross Mullick, who has written off the Left Front as a “failure”, citing that “even a Secretary of the West Bengal government when asking his Indian Administrative Service colleagues if they could think of a single successful programme the Left Front could claim credit for, received no suggestions, though they were themselves in charge of implementing policies.”
An even more damning indictment lies in an inner-party document of the CPM’s Burdwan District Committee, which candidly admits that “the Left Front has not been able to meet the aspirations of the people, who feel that even the limited powers at the disposal of the government have not been properly used”.
So what has been the singular achievement of the Left Front in its more than two decades in power? Political scientists like Partha Chatterjee are impressed by its success in containing popular discontent and keeping in check agitations along caste and communal lines. Says Chatterjee, “Compared to the turbulent situation in the 60s and the 70s, West Bengal is relatively quiet today, although its actual industrial economy has been rapidly declining.” The next stage of development hinges on the regeneration of this industrial economy, something that is recognised in the thrust given by the Left Front to attract investments and improve conditions in the capital, Calcutta. The success of this agenda would depend on how well it is pursued by the government. Without the towering presence of the soon-to-retire Jyoti Basu, it won’t be easy.
Land reform vs Industry
The Left Front’s revolutionary land reforms programme, which helped establish its electoral stranglehold over the countryside, has now come in the way of West Bengal’s rapid industrialisation, so says an official report prepared by the state’s Land and Land Reforms Department.
Since 1977, under “Operation Barga”, the Jyoti Basu government has distributed excess land of landlords to hundreds of thousands of poor sharecroppers (bargadars) and the landless, thereby creating a formidable vote-bank for the communists in rural Bengal. But now the government, which is according top priority to the state’s industrial revival, is finding it difficult to persuade the allotees to give up their tenancy rights on the land required for setting up plants and factories.
The official report, entitled “Background Paper on Tenancy Reforms: West Bengal’s Perspective” is extremely critical of the emphasis on land reforms, particularly Operation Barga. The paper bluntly points out that the legislation enacted to protect the rights of sharecroppers and to empower the landless is impeding the acquisition of land for setting up new townships and industrial units in the state. Land is also urgently required not only for factories and plants, but also for building roads, including the big-budget multi-lane north-south corridor linking Darjeeling district and Jalpaiguri to the industrial hub around Calcutta.
The official document proposes an amendment to existing laws, which do not have provisions for control reverting from the beneficiaries of Operation Barga. The antieviction safeguards were considered necessary two decades ago to protect the interests of the rural poor. “But today, when the emphasis is on providing infrastructure for setting up industries, the laws must be changed without delay.” The land reforms wing of the state government says the amendment will enable the beneficiaries to sell their land. This, it believes, should help encourage investors, as government agencies like the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and the Infrastructure Development Corporation will be in a position to buy land in any district for meeting investor demand.