Through a series of misdemeanours, especially during its last term in office following a massive victory in the 2006 assembly elections, West Bengal’s Left Front government alienated a cross-section of people in the state to the extent that its rout in the May 2011 election was widely anticipated. After taking power in 1977, the Left Front – a coalition of left-wing parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M) – had ruled West Bengal for 34 years, the longest continuous reign of any state government in India’s history. Afterwards, there was an outpouring of explanations for this collapse of the colossus; many of the most critical questions are still awaiting answers.
Ranabir Samaddar’s Passive Revolution in West Bengal: 1977-2011 covers much of the Left Front’s reign, and more, in 43 essays originally published between March 1986 and June 2012. These are clubbed into six thematic sections serving, in the author’s own words, as “both history (of the past) and chronicle (of the present)”. Samaddar is a well-known political chronicler and critical thinker whose work on West Bengal over the last three decades has provided rich insight into the Left Front’s rise and fall, raising difficult questions about the transformation of the CPI(M) and its leaders during their time in power, and about the hollowness of India’s democratic process. The book is admittedly a rushed project, a “diary or a journal” put out within months of the Left Front’s fall. As a collection of old articles, not arranged in chronological order and also lacking thematic cohesion despite the effort at categorisation, the book makes for tedious reading at times. Still, it serves as a useful chronicle, throwing light on the causes of the Left Front’s downfall, and on the making of West Bengal’s second ‘passive revolution’ after 34 years of Left rule. It succeeds in making its point: that many of the changes West Bengal underwent under CPI(M) rule, and also the party’s own downfall, were a direct consequence of the fact that the party, when faced with the dilemmas and compulsions associated with parliamentary politics, abandoned the vision of revolution that first won it popularity.
The rise of the Left Front
Samaddar does not elaborate on the circumstances that first catapulted the CPI(M) to power, or on the initial good work that consolidated its position. He also fails to provide the historical background necessary for uninitiated readers to understand why he refers to West Bengal’s transformational regime changes – from the Congress to the Left Front in 1977, and recently to the Trinamul – as “silent revolutions”.
Bengal has had a chequered history since the dawn of the last century. As the seat of British colonial rule until 1911, Calcutta became the Subcontinent’s first industrialised metropolis. As both the birthplace of anti-British resistance in India and the principal centre of industry, Bengal has been a vortex of cultural renaissance, national awakening, peasant unrest and worker militancy, in which communism set down durable roots. Many communists, some of whom would later become state ministers, worked with revolutionary groups like the Anushilan Samiti, an armed anti-British group that arose in Bengal alongside many other radical organisations at the start of the 20th century. In 1947, Bengal was India’s most industrialised state, the global centre of a burgeoning jute industry, with factories clustered around Calcutta. The creation of East Pakistan during Partition split Bengal in two, unleashing multifarious crises on the new state of West Bengal and its capital, Calcutta. Although West Bengal did not suffer the horrific genocidal slaughter that Partition sparked on the same massive scale as Punjab, its ensuing crisis was more enduring. Bengal had lost most of its fertile land to East Pakistan even as millions of Partition refugees poured into the new state and burdened its scarce resources.
Historically, the Indian Congress, in effect a largely Hindu party in communal terms, was never as strong in the united pre-Partition Bengal as it was elsewhere because Muslims constituted a majority in the province until 1947. Though Congress seized control of the state government in the aftermath of Independence, West Bengal’s communists quickly mobilised against the Congress programme, joining forces with militant groups among the refugees to gain mass appeal. As the region’s industrial centre, West Bengal was especially fertile ground for the communists as it already had India’s highest rates of trade union membership. With movements such as Tebhaga, launched in 1946 to reduce the landlords’ traditional half-share of the harvest to one-third and ensure the rest stayed with sharecroppers, the communists also endeared themselves to Bengal’s rural poor. They were also helped by communist success in Telangana, in erstwhile Hyderabad state, where an armed peasant movement against the feudal lords liberated nearly 3000 villages and redistributed about 10,000 acres of confiscated land to landless peasants. The cumulative impact of all this could be seen in the Communist Party of India’s voter base, which nearly doubled between the mid-1950s and mid-60s.
West Bengal’s communists were the first to recognise and resist India’s new Nehru-led ruling class as a national bourgeoisie. The party, however, was drifting in a different direction. In 1951, after discussions with Stalin, the CPI officially renounced armed struggle and opted for the parliamentary path. But the party’s revolutionary image endured in West Bengal, and this brought it significant electoral gains. The CPI’s share of the vote in state elections grew from 11 percent in 1951 to 25 percent in 1962, securing it 50 seats – nearly a fifth of the total – in the state assembly and making it the official opposition to Congress.
The book is admittedly a rushed project, a “diary or a journal” put out within months of the Left Front’s fall
But this did not last long. Amid heightened tensions at the time of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, a dispute over the CPI’s attitude towards Congress led to a split, with the CPI(M) emerging as the dominant faction in West Bengal. In the 1967 state-assembly elections it won 18 percent of the votes, with 43 seats, and became the junior partner in a governing coalition christened the United Front (UF), which was led by the Bangla Congress, a short-lived breakaway from the national Congress. The CPI(M)’s Jyoti Basu became West Bengal’s Deputy Chief Minister, while Hare Krishna Konar, the Land Minister, grabbed the opportunity to launch radical land reforms. Soon thereafter, when the CPI(M)’s peasant front led a rebellion in the village of Naxalbari in Darjeeling district, the party broke ranks yet again and partnered in crushing the rebellion with extreme brutality. This precipitated another split, leading to the formation of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which pledged to continue a guerrilla resistance in the countryside along Maoist lines. The increasing disorder in West Bengal led to the imposition of President’s Rule in the state for the first time.
But despite the trouble, between 1969 and 1971, successive state-assembly elections – interspersed with bouts of President’s Rule – saw the CPI(M) expand both its rural and urban base. In 1969, the party won 20 percent of the vote and 80 assembly seats; in 1971 it gained 33 percent of the vote and 113 seats. Another bout of Presidential Rule put Congress back in power in 1972, and it swiftly reversed Konar’s land reforms. The new regime under Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray now unleashed a reign of terror against CPI(M) and CPI(ML) militants alike, also targeting trade unionists, peasant organisers and radical students. Ray finished off the Naxal movement in West Bengal by killing scores of people in cold blood, and put in place the goon culture that would persist long into the future of West Bengal politics. By 1973, there were nearly 18,000 political prisoners in West Bengal’s jails. This reign of terror extended seamlessly into the 21-month period of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, reportedly on the advice of Ray.
When the next general election took place again in 1977, the Janata Party, a motley coalition of non-Congress parties including the Hindu far-right Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) came to power at the Centre. Riding the same anti-Congress wave, the CPI(M) won 35 percent of the vote and 178 seats in the 294-seat West Bengal state assembly. The CPI(M) further strengthened its position by building a Left Front (LF) coalition based on electoral agreements that became known as the ‘Promode Formula’ after the CPI (M)’s veteran State Secretary Pramod Dasgupta. Under new Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, the LF commanded 230 seats, nearly four-fifths of the state assembly, although this only translated to 45 percent of the electorate.
This historical context is vital in understanding the rise of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, its stunning electoral success and subsequent fall. Yet the book almost does not present it, and also leaves aside the first momentous decade of Left Front rule. What historical reflection Samaddar does bring in is brief, recounting the steps the LF took to cement its standing in the state:
With a broad range of, though limited in depth, economic and political reforms – such as some amount of land reforms, unemployment compensation scheme, stabilisation of urban poor with reforms in urban renewal system, implementation of measures relating to payment of bonus, dearness and other allowances to the salaried class, implementation of the panchayat raj system, expansion of primary education, security of job for school and college teachers and so on … Left rule surged ahead. Party organisation spread in the wake of spread of government in towns and villages. The party built the mass organisations.
The long fall
The Emergency brought about irreversible changes in Indian political culture. Foremost, it exposed the Indian people’s vast tolerance for abuse by their rulers. It also provided astute politicians with a list of certain do’s and don’ts: among them, that they could carry on with repression as a part of the strategy of governance, so long as they avoided labelling it as such. Samaddar traces the development of this new brand of “govermentality” in India in the 1970s and 1980s, and shows how in West Bengal it overtook the initial pro-people, reformist zeal of CPI(M):
There was an enormous expansion of government activities, ironically, in the wake of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s 20 point programme of reconstruction. Development bureaucracy grew as a consequence. At the same time, political party as an institution of governance became stronger. Regional parties grew. As a result, the federal idea of governance was revived following the Anandpur Sahib resolution (1973), Shah Commission enquiries (1977-79), and the Sarkaria Commission (1983-88) report. Development bureaucracy was complemented by the political parties in the states … Turbulent West Bengal marked by student, peasant and worker unrest was pacified in this way with continuous party cadre mobilisation towards implementation of the reform measures earlier mentioned, West Bengal stabilised under a new regime of governmentality.
Some of these changes came in handy for the CPI(M), allowing it to consolidate its power base without exposing the erosion of the principles associated with its name. It mastered many techniques of electoral politics, and secured an unbroken rule of nearly three-and-a-half decades, an achievement unprecedented in the political history of India. It faced seven general elections, and won each of them with a thumping majority. The book offers a causal analysis of the factors behind the party’s transformation:
[W]ith massive expansion of the political sphere, we can say democracy expanded in West Bengal. But … this form of democracy … depended for its life on party mobilisation … [T]he entire political, economic and social life of the state became governmentalised with the party now forming the leading core of the ruling class. We have to add to that the technique of forming coalition to rule, which the CPI(M) mastered in this period more than any other party in India. Technique developed to divide and share posts, responsibilities, benefits, other loaves and fishes of office and myriad of governmental resources according to the respective strength of the coalition partners. The principal opposition party was also included in this culture of sharing with the members of the new elite the resources of politics and if possible economics. A new inclusive society was sought to be built by including the corrupt and murderous officials of the old regime. The rich were assiduously cultivated even though this would not help in increased investment in the state.
The process was reminiscent of what happened in Soviet Russia, or anywhere else that a Leninist party captured power. As Samaddar puts it:
[P]arty substituted for society, local bosses working as local barons substituted for the party, party committee substituted for government intelligence wing, inviting speculative and comprador capital appeared as steps towards organic industrialisation of the state and protests began to be considered as conspiracies against Left rule – the particular way govermentality has operated in the state.
The fundamental task of any communist party is to work towards changing the extant system for the benefit of the classes it claims to serve. But the CPI(M), paradoxically, proudly claimed to provide political stability in West Bengal, contrasting this to the anarchy of Congress misrule. Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000, was fond of repeating that “the Left Front had come to power not to carry revolution forward but give a clean and good government to the people of the state.” As a result:
Old injustices were left unaddressed …The excluded must not protest too much, they must keep hope on stability … And stability meant stability of the party, of the party-led government and of the party-led society … stability was not attained through hard policy choices, but by negotiations at all levels – between parties, levels, units, individuals, groups, classes and governments.
This obsession with stability inevitably resulted in favouring the rich and powerful, the classes who preferred to see the status quo maintained:
In the 33 years of rule, in the name of stability there was no service that the Left Front refused to give to the rich. There was no authority it declined to impose as a master on the people. There was no principle or knowledge of representative rule that it declined to accept as the cost of direct participation of people in public affairs. Vitality … was to give way to stability … This was the great democratic scandal in West Bengal, whose sole aim was to push back all urges towards immediate democracy, direct participation, equality and plebian authority.
Indeed, the LF government provided unprecedented political stability to the state, though not necessarily through political processes. Initially, it relied on consolidating its constituency by implementing pro-poor policies in rural areas, including radical land reforms under operation Barga. By 1992, when the last round of land reforms ended, over a million acres of land had been redistributed among 2.5 million landless and land-poor families, of whom over 55 percent belonged to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. About 1.6 million bargadars (sharecroppers) were given guarantee of tenure, with permanent and heritable rights to cultivate sharecropped land; this covered a total of 1.1 million acres, or 8.2 percent of the cultivable land of the state. Yet while these reforms boosted agricultural productivity and pleased much of the rural electorate, in other spheres the imperatives of stability affected the CPI(M)’s performance adversely. West Bengal’s scores on most development indicators declined during the Left Front’s tenure. In terms of per capita state domestic product (SDP), West Bengal, the richest Indian state in 1960, had slid to ninth place at the end of the last millennium. When the LF came to power, West Bengal’s share in the country’s industrial production was 11.9 percent; over the next 30 years, that figure fell to 4.6 percent.
The Emergency brought about irreversible changes in Indian political culture. Foremost, it exposed the Indian people’s vast tolerance for abuse by their rulers
On the parameters pertaining to the basic survival of the people, West Bengal’s performance in the later years of Left rule fell drastically. Poverty reduction in rural areas averaged more than 2.24 percent per year between 1983 and 1993, but declined thereafter to reach 1.15 percent in 2005; in 2012-13, the state had the lowest rate of work generation per year under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – a mere 25 person-days per poor family, against the national average of 43 days and the promised minimum of 100. According to National Sample Survey reports, “the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year” in West Bengal stood at 10.6 percent in 2004-05, as against India’s 2 percent. The rate of school drop-outs in the 6-14 age group in West Bengal was 4.6 percent in 2010, as against the national rate of 3.5 percent. The state had 9.61 lakh children out of school in 2006. Unemployment exceeded 20 percent in 1999-2000.
The 2004 Human Development Report noted stagnation in spending on and access to health services. Several key indicators – immunisation, antenatal care, women’s nutrition, and doctors and hospital beds per 100,000 people – were all below national averages. Industries nearly stagnated after the early 1980s. The number of jobs in the organised industrial sector almost halved from 1980-81 to 1997-98. The state witnessed a ‘deindustrialisation’ between 1983 and 2011, with manufacturing’s contribution to the state’s domestic product recording a fall from 20.3 to 16.4 percent. The Gross Fiscal Deficit as a percentage of state GDP was a whopping 8.5 percent in 1999-2000, the highest in the country. West Bengal ranked 10th among the 17 major states of India in 2011 by Human Development Index score; in terms of access to electricity for rural households, it ranked 13th; in terms of mean years of schooling, it ranked almost last, just above Bihar. By almost any measure of development and well-being, the LF government had failed West Bengal.
The obsession with stability inevitably resulted in favouring the rich and powerful, the classes who preferred to see the status quo maintained
On the front of minorities and Dalits also the performance was far from satisfactory. While Muslims comprised 25 percent of the state population, only 2.1 percent of them were employed in government jobs. Only 50 percent of Muslim children had access to primary schools, out of which only 12 percent completed matriculation. Relative to Muslims, the SC/ST children did well with 54 percent of them attending primary school and 13 percent of them reaching matriculation. But because of the ideological caste blindness of the Left, the SC/STs also found themselves relatively stagnated in the state.
How the LF managed to win election after election despite all of this is explained by the fact that its real support base was rural West Bengal, to which these macro parameters were not yet salient and which remained politically well-organised under the LF’s cadre. About one-quarter of the state’s net domestic product originated from agriculture, largely comprising small and marginal farms. Unlike India’s other major agricultural states – Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra – where the percentage of agricultural land cultivated by small and marginal farms is quite low, the corresponding area in West Bengal was as high as 66.44 percent in 1992. This was largely the consequence of the LF’s land reforms, which affected large numbers of the rural poor who then continued voting loyally for the Left parties.
The LF paid a huge price for its obsession with ‘stability’. Unsavoury compromises were made, deals were struck, dissent was gagged, profitable posts and properties were doled out. Initially, only grassroots-level members of the opposition parties were beaten up, murdered or driven out. Stories circulated of hands being chopped off, houses and huts being ransacked and burned down; the massacre of Bengali Hindu refugees by the police in Marichjhapi in 1979, and subsequently their purposeful starvation by the state, was an early signal. Then, gradually, from mid-eighties onwards, the rule of violence spread. The nineties confirmed the dark side of the regime: it became common to see violent police repression of workers’ strikes and public agitations, and the intimidation of critics and activists belonging to the radical Left or any other opposition, including peasant agitators and activists of the Gorkhaland and Jharkhand movements. CPI(M) leaders shamelessly made excuses for such actions, saying the police were only doing what they were supposed to do: a common refrain was that ‘One should expect bullets and not honey from police guns’. Several extrajudicial killings took place; protesting workers mysteriously disappeared. The disappearance in 1993 of Bhikari Paswan, a jute-mill worker who was last seen being brutally beaten by the police and then taken away, was one of the few cases that received media attention.
Symbolically, the CPI(M)’s fall is mapped by the change in Jyoti Basu, its mascot: Basu went from a romantic socialist in 1967, when he was just a minor partner in the UF government, to a prosaic neoliberal by the end his reign as all powerful chief minister in 2000. In 1967, Basu had impressed many by his decision to take over management of the Calcutta Tramways Corporation (CTC), a company incorporated in London in the days of the British Raj. In 2000, in his last cabinet meeting, he approved the proposal to hand over management of Calcutta’s state-run Great Eastern Hotel to the French hotel chain Accor.
It was against this backdrop that long-standing political maverick Mamata Banerjee swept the polls in 2011, with her aggressive campaigning and the slogan ‘ma, mati, manush’ – mother, motherland, people. It was not surprising to hear Mamata, customarily referred to simply by her first name, echoing the same words and commitments that the Left had once used to gain popularity itself. Mamata travelled from village to village, sometimes on foot, meeting with and listening to as many people as possible, eating with the people, and entrenching herself firmly in the political space that the LF had created, occupied, and then self-indulgently abandoned. The mighty LF citadel fell to this plainspoken, straightforward woman of Spartan demeanor, herself from a lower-middle class family from Kalighat, Kolkata. She did not have any of the conventional ingredients of success in Indian politics: A political family, high caste, established politicians as sponsors and mentors. The sheer persistence of her struggle, belittled as poor theatrics by her detractors, struck a chord with the masses. Mamata strategically exploited the LF’s sloth and complacency with regard to the lower castes and minorities of West Bengal. She spoke up for the struggling people of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, and nearly supported the radical Left. Paradoxically, this lady with the Congress background appealed far more to the lower classes than the communists – the LF had become the very bhadralok – ‘gentleman’ – they had opposed during their rise to power.
Much of the credit for Mamata’s appeal surely goes to the Left Front’s follies. The stability of the LF-rule was threatened by West Bengal’s all-round decline. In search of a solution, and confident in its popularity following its massive victory in the 2006 elections, the LF took the drastic step of setting the state on a ‘fast track’ to economic development; after three decades of power the LF was incapable of formulating any radical agenda, and instead fell prey to the lure of neoliberalism. Its own support base was taken by surprise, including tacit supporters among the urban middle class. Urban intellectuals were aghast at the police violence unleashed by the government against peasants protesting the handover of their lands to multinational corporations, most notably in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh. This raised memories of the vicious repression of the Naxalbari movement in the early 1970s, and public anger resulted in spontaneous resistance to the LF government.
The brutal history of West Bengal played a part in the degeneration of LF rule, but generally the bane of all communist regimes is that they do not know how to govern
Such frustration was not limited to the urban middle classes. There was also an erosion of the LF’s rural power base, and Mamata cashed in on this discontent with her promise of poriborton (change). She also pointedly contrasted her plebian image and idiom to that of the bhadralok of the CPI (M). The change of popular allegiances was so swift after 2006 that within a year of its massive electoral win the Left Front suffered a humiliating defeat in the state’s Panchayat elections. Meanwhile, militant Maoists had also gained strength and almost gained control of Lalgarh and large areas of Jangalmahal in West Midnapore district. The forceful acquisition of land for Tata Motors’ Nano project in Hooghly district sparked off massive farmers’ resistance, eventually forcing the Tatas to shift their factory to Gujarat and dealing a severe blow to the incumbent government. Riding on these successes, a combination of parties opposed to the LF – the Socialist Unity Centre of India, Congress and Mamata’s All India Trinamool Congress – won 27 of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 election. The following year, the LF also lost heavily in civic polls across the state.
By the time it came, the Trinamool Congress’s landslide victory in West Bengal’s 15th Assembly Election in 2011 was also no surprise. Mamata described this victory, in which her party won an absolute majority, as a “victory for democracy, a victory for the people, a victory for maa, mati, manush”, and promised “good governance, good administration, and not autocracy”. She also promised negotiations with Maoists militants to bring peace to the state. She made many such promises, but all of them were forgotten overnight. Samaddar writes:
The Chief Minister has gone back on her pre-election pledge. Prisoners have not been released. Central forces have not been withdrawn. The armed radicals are constantly reminding the Chief Minister of her broken pledges. Slowly the civil society opinion is turning against her with the redoubtable writer Mahasweta Devi, dramatist Bibhas Chakrabarty, and other poets and painters demanding that prisoners be released immediately and her pre-poll pledges be kept.
Political power transformed Mamata into a worse, and more whimsical, autocrat than those who had preceded her. Her style of rule soon earned the derogatory nickname of ‘didigiri’, suggesting that governance under Mamata ‘didi’ was little different from the dadagiri of past male leaders. In the most striking example of political intolerance, less than a year after becoming Chief Minister, Mamata ordered the arrest of Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor at Jadavpur University who had forwarded a derogatory cartoon of her to his colleagues, on charges of “eve-teasing”, “humiliating a woman” and “causing offence using a computer”. Before the arrest took place, Trinamool goons had already thrashed Mahapatra and made him sign a confession stating that he was a supporter of the CPI(M). Even after the ensuing condemnation, sycophantic Trinamool ministers continued to justify the police action.
Such highhandedness by the police and the Trinamool cadres became commonplace. In the next major incident, in April 2012, 69 people were arrested for allegedly protesting the eviction of slum dwellers from Nonadanga, Kolkata. Among those charged was a Partho Sarathi Ray, a prominent microbiologist charged with assaulting Kolkata policemen on a day that he was actually conducting classes at an institute in Nadia district, a two-hour drive from Kolkata. After international condemnation, Ray and some other arrestees were released on bail. More amazing still, the Trinamool Congress then issued a diktat to its party members, which it would later retract, forbidding them from marrying or mingling with anyone associated with the CPI(M). While most parties in India are autocratic and revolve around certain strong personalities, Trinamool outstripped all others in this regard. Mamata became everything for Trinamool. When, at a public speech, a student asked her a simple question about the conduct of senior state officials in response to a scandal involving a popular news channel’s broadcast of a group of men sexually assaulting a woman in public, a furious Mamata labelled the student a Maoist and asked the police to conduct background checks on anyone who asked awkward questions. The same person who, before the elections, had condemned the killing of the Maoist leader Azad by the Andhra Pradesh police in July 2010 and promised negotiations with West Bengal’s Maoists, then had Kishanji killed in a fake encounter within six months of coming to power and unleashed the state’s police and paramilitary forces to ruthlessly wipe out the movement.
Indeed, as Sammadar writes, “there is no clean break in the banal world of politics. In fact, the world can become messier.” As reflected in the media, West Bengal’s middle classes are aghast at the “peregrine style” of their low-brow chief minister. Although “the same thing was happening for more than two decades”, the middle class was “careful to draw a line of distinction between clean-dressed and clean-behaved party leaders and the lumpen [proletariat] elements controlling the party below.” Today, they are bewildered by the resonance between past leaders and the raw leadership of the ‘lumpen’ party. Unfortunately for them, elections in India are not won by middle-class sensibilities.
The question of revolution
Considering the communist commitment to class struggle and socialism, the Indian public, forming one of the most unequal societies in the world, should be a natural constituency for communist parties; indeed, for part of its early history the CPI was the country’s second largest party. But the last six decades have only splintered India’s communists, reducing them to petty intrigues that make them indistinguishable from India’s other ruling classes. The LF had great potential in West Bengal, with some of its leaders allied to committed revolutionary groups, but though it did well in its first ten years of rule, it did not do all it could have done. It carried out some land reforms but did not lower the ceiling on landholdings, which would have benefitted many more people. Instead of working towards a true social revolution, the LF only reinforced the legitimacy of the political system it inherited.
How could the CPI(M) pride itself on stability within a liberal bourgeois framework? The LF government’s declared intent was not to carry revolution forward but to ensure clean and good government in West Bengal, to create favourable conditions for private industrial investment while also being pro-people. While that agenda looked good on paper, in practice it involved inherent contradictions: Workers enjoyed the right to unionise and protest, but they would not be allowed to cross the lines of permitted dissent. What happened in West Bengal as LF rule continued into its second and then third decade had a tinge of inevitability about it. The obsession with governmentality inevitably led the LF to ignore the interests of ordinary people in favour of the interests of managers and investors. The brutal history of West Bengal surely played a part in the degeneration of LF rule, but it may be said generally that the bane of all communist regimes is that they do not know how to govern. Communists have theories of revolution, but none on managing a post-revolution society. This is not to say that non-communist parties know how to govern either; they do not, but few expect them to do any different than they do.
When Mamata came to power on the wave of abhorrence for the Left Front, she promised poriborton – change from the misrule of the LF. It is doubtful whether this change has been good for the people and the state. The culture and logic of power in West Bengal politics – self-righteous ‘governmentality’ supported by party hooliganism – has remained the same since the days of Siddharth Shankar Ray. The only poribortan that has happened is that goons have changed sides overnight. From the peoples’ viewpoint, it has been more of the same old thing. Passive Revolution in West Bengalu provides an excellent chronicle of the events relevant to understanding the rise and fall of the Left Front, particularly of the CPI(M), and the electoral success of the Trinamul Congress; it is replete with insight into many contemporary events. But to call these electoral changes revolutions – whether silent, passive or otherwise – is unwarranted. Revolution, even by its minimal definition, implies some basic change favouring the masses, pushing society to a higher plane of progress. Elections create the illusion of change, but too often they perpetuate the same things that favour entrenched classes. Mamata’s ‘poriborton’, as well as the CPI(M)’s ‘stability’, verily prove this.
Anand Teltumbde is a writer and activist associated with various peoples’ struggles over the last three decades. Author of over a dozen books on contemporary issues, he currently writes a column for Economic and Political Weekly, and teaches management at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.