Beyond the debacle

From the ashes of the CPI (M)'s electoral defeat in West Bengal, a 'New Indian Left' can be born.

In the aftermath of the West Bengal elections, most commentators today are tracing the defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to its suicidal handling of the situations in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-07. Many have tended to discern signs of the beginning of this fall, first with the rout of CPI (M) candidates in the local-level panchayat elections that followed the public protests in those areas, and later in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. In other words, much of the public rhetoric today holds that it was only during the last phase of CPI (M) rule, between 2006 and 2011, that the party made the serious mistakes that alienated it from the people. On the contrary, I believe the roots of the disaster can be traced back much farther; Singur and Nandigram were merely the last straw, providing the trigger for the popular explosion of anger and frustration that had been gathering steam for multiple reasons and over many decades.

In fact, rumblings of discontent against the Left Front – the grouping that ruled West Bengal for three decades led by the CPI (M) – could be heard within a few years of its assuming office, though confined to a few particular areas of concern. One such issue was human rights. Although the CPI (M)-led government after coming to power in 1977 kept its electoral promise of releasing all political prisoners (the majority being its erstwhile enemies, the Naxalites), it failed to punish the notorious police officials who were nailed for atrocities from 1970 till the Emergency period – by multiple official commissions. Under the charge of veteran Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, the government merely reinforced the old system of using the same police force and its disreputable officers to suppress demonstrations of popular protest. The following years saw the re-emergence of the police as a trigger-happy force ready to suppress all manifestations of popular discontent. In the two-year period of 1980-81 alone, there were at least 248 cases of police firing killing 62 people, including women and children. During the same period, the number of killings of undertrial prisoners in police lock-ups and jails showed an alarming increase – recalling the days of the Emergency.

Despite its atrocious human-rights record, the CPI (M) made impressive advances in the agrarian sector during its first five years of rule. During this time, it distributed land to the peasantry, ensured the rights of sharecroppers, raised the wages of daily labourers, and decentralised power through panchayats. But by the beginning of the 1980s, it had reached a dead end of sorts. Several shortcomings led to a stagnation of the rural economy, including its failure to anticipate that the small size of holdings made available to the rural poor through land redistribution would yield inadequate income; its indifference to the need for state investment in agricultural inputs and infrastructure to help these small farmers; and its lack of a long-term plan of agro-industrial enterprises to provide jobs for the unemployed rural youth. The CPI (M) leadership turned deaf ears to each of these weaknesses, the cost of which was the alienation, over the next three decades, of these large sections of the rural populace, which were becoming increasingly impoverished.

End of ideology
The CPI (M) did indeed gain popular support from villagers for its promotion of the panchayati system. For the first time, the latter were being promised participation in policy decisions at the ground level, and overcoming the rules and hurdles of a bureaucratic administration. But this system soon degenerated into an institution dominated by local CPI (M) and other Left Front cadre, who diverted government social-welfare investment to build party offices as well as to develop personal property. Inevitably, resentment grew.

The roots of the corruption were embedded in the manner in which the panchayats were composed. In the first panchayat elections, held in June 1978, the majority of the successful candidates chosen by the CPI (M) and its allies came from the middle-class families of farmers (50.7 percent) and schoolteachers (14 percent). Among the rural poor – claimed to be the main base of the left – the sharecroppers constituted only 1.8 percent of the candidates and the agricultural labourers 4.8 percent. Given this inequitable class composition in the panchayats, it is no wonder that their pradhan headmen soon turned them into dens for the exploitation of the rural poor.

Let us turn to the industrial sector. The industrial proletariat are designated by the CPI (M) in its programme as the leaders of its proposed 'people's democratic revolution'. But during all these years, while factories closed down throwing thousands of workers on the streets, the Left Front government remained a passive spectator. It consistently refused to get involved even when unions sought to form cooperatives and run the factories that were about to close.

From the 1980s onwards, while the workers acceded to Chief Minister Basu's advice to refrain from striking, the factory owners were allowed by him to resort to closures and lockouts. The number of strikes came down from 43 in 1981 to 29 in 1982; during the same period, 54 factories imposed lockouts, affecting 53,000 workers, and industrial houses announced the closure of 13 units, throwing out 12,300 workers. The situation is no different today. According to figures collected by the Labour Bureau in 2005, West Bengal saw 26 strikes and 182 lockouts that year. The CPI (M)'s latest tilt towards the multinational Salim, or India's multinationals such as the Tatas and Jindals, can thus be traced back to industrial policies adopted as far back as the 1980s.

The other traditional constituency of the CPI (M), the Muslim community, ultimately discarded the party during the recent elections. West Bengal under the Left Front was always regarded as the safest citadel of the religious minorities, including providing refuge to victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat. Despite the memory of Mamata Banerjee being a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that was in power during the Gujarat violence, however, many Muslims of West Bengal voted for her, probably as a gesture of protest against the Left Front's indifference to their basic requirements, a fact substantiated by the Sachar Committee report of 2006.

One might have expected that the CPI (M), as a typical social-democratic party promising to create a welfare state, would at least have followed a few basic parliamentary rules, primary among which was tolerating political competition. In its narrow objective of clinging to office by any means, however, the party defaulted first by elevating its Kolkata headquarters into an extra-constitutional centre, thereby encouraging its local-level party bosses all over West Bengal to take over the reins of day-to-day administration. In the process, the CPI (M) leaders and their minions destroyed the state's educational and health infrastructure. Second, the party squeezed West Bengal's democratic space in order to serve its own partisan interests, by trying to eliminate its political competitors. The successive victories of the CPI (M) in West Bengal were due to the party's cynical mixture of coercion and persuasion.

In the 2011 election, however, this twin strategy did not work for two reasons. First, the party's coercive apparatus was kept on a leash by the Election Commission. Second, the CPI (M)'s persuasive appeal could not convince its rural electorate, which this time around began to see the Trinamool Congress as a viable alternative.

Boshey jaoa
Neither the CPI (M)'s central leadership nor its state units have shown signs of serious introspection over the causes of their elimination during the recent elections, nor do the top officials appear to have any intention of radically changing the party's methods of functioning. Despite being utterly disgraced, it is clear the leadership is in no mood to step down. As for the local cadre in West Bengal, the mercenaries (musclemen known as harmads) among them will seek patronage from the new rulers; the weathercocks among the middle-class professionals are already making a beeline for the Trinamool office; and the handful of ideologically-motivated old activists, both in the trade unions and peasants organisations, seem too demoralised to revive the party.

In particular, the grassroots groups are unable to find potential leaders in their organisations who could replace the mandarins who continue to run the party from New Delhi. Having watched the degeneration of their party, these honest activists will soon retreat into a state of boshey jaoa – the Bengali term for lapsing into political inaction. In other words, since the CPI (M) will remain saddled with its present leadership, which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge past mistakes and purge the organisation of corrupt and criminal elements, it looks set to be reduced to a non-entity in West Bengal politics in the coming years. The party's national leadership is also yet to take up the more fundamental challenges: How can it stem the erosion of moral principles brought about by its obsession with populism and opportunism as the principles of representative government? And how can it reconcile its role as a social-democratic party, whether in power or outside, with its mode of anti-democratic functioning that harks back to Stalinist authoritarianism?

So what of the future of the left in Indian politics in general? It is about time that one makes a sharp distinction between the CPI (M) and broader left ideology. As apparent from the record of the CPI (M) in power in West Bengal, the party steadily departed from its earlier commitment to the protection of the rights of peasants and workers, and ultimately sacrificed them at the altar of industrial tycoons and multinational companies. It turned its back on the promise to restore civil liberties by rejuvenating a notorious police force to use it against the poor. At the national level, too, the party showed scant regard for ideological principles, by seeking alliance with corrupt politicians on the plea of forming a futile Third Front. The CPI (M) therefore has forfeited the right to be called a left party, and should be treated as any other opportunist political formation, devoid of a wider ideological commitment.

There is an urgent need for a realignment of forces within the Indian left. This needs to start with the rejection of the hegemony of the CPI (M) and the restoration of credibility among the masses, by re-establishing long-lost links with the peasantry, industrial workers and other dispossessed sections. The New Indian Left – if one can so designate it – can be a broad formation of both the left parliamentary parties – eg, the smaller partners in the present Left Front, including the Communist Party of India and the Forward Bloc, which had been critical of 'big brother' CPI (M) – and the non-parliamentary movements. It should align with the various popular campaigns taking place outside the political mainstream (the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the anti-POSCO movement), extend support to the groups focusing on civil liberties and democratic rights and engage in dialogue with the Maoists. Finally, in collaboration with all these forces, this new grouping needs to work out an alternative strategy for socioeconomic change.

Will the intellectuals and economists who adorn the CPI (M)'s list of members and sympathisers – and give credibility to it – stop identifying their party as the only custodian of the ideology in which they believe? Will they now lend their talents, instead, to a campaign for the New Indian Left?

~ Sumanta Banerjee is a writer based in Dehradun, specialising in Indian left politics and the social history of Bengali popular culture. His article is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (4-10 June 2011).

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