The full story of why the CPI(M) is losing Bengal after 40 years
THERE ARE some images which serve a twin purpose: they can both terrify and inspire, depending on who is looking. Earlier this month, the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an event which triggered the eventual collapse of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Once again the world relived the frenzy and the spontaneous anger which nullified the organised might of a superpower. There were also those who shed a quiet tear at the collapse of a world built on passionate certitudes.
Curiously, for a state that flaunts its penchant for internationalism, the event wasn’t commemorated in any meaningful way in West Bengal. The Comrades who earlier celebrated Vietnam’s resistance to US imperialism, came out in their thousands to welcome Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela to Kolkata and created a literary tradition inspired by Maya – kovski, Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda, were not unexpectedly silent about a mass uprising against regimes that claimed direct lineage from Lenin and Stalin.
Apart from the inhibitions of socialist correctness, the wariness of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to address the lessons of history was completely understandable. The celebrations in Berlin touched a raw nerve because they coincided with the CPI(M)’s devastating defeat in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats. Whereas Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could, arguably, have attempted to gloss over international communism’s greatest debacle by focussing on nine years of his own stewardship of West Bengal, the electoral drubbing left the CPI(M) demoralised and disoriented. There are no Assembly elections due until the summer of 2011 but the ruling Left Front already gives the unmistakable impression of being a defeated army.
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s ubiquitous ‘Didi’ has already acquired the reputation of a lady who, having fought the Reds unwaveringly since her political debut in 1984, is within smelling distance of capturing Writers’ Buildings. On November 15, when she undertook a short padayatra from Nandakuthi to Tarakeshwar in Hoogly district against the CPI(M)’s “reign of terror”, she was accompanied by a sea of adoring and belligerent humanity. There were two popular slogans: the first taunted the Reds, “Aye CPM dekhe jaa, Mamatar khamata” (Come CPI(M), and witness the power of Mamata) but the second was decidedly menacing,“Biman/Buddhadeb-er chamra, khule nebo amra” (We will skin Biman Basu and Buddhadeb).
The CPI(M) has reason to be worried. The electoral downslide of the Left Front in the Lok Sabha election of this year was quite precipitate. For the first time since 1971, the CPI(M)-led combine failed to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which had been reduced to just a solitary seat in 2004, stole the thunder by winning 22 seats. Mamata drove home her advantage in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats held in November. The ruling Left Front won a solitary seat and the CPI(M) tally was zero.
Initially the CPI(M) tried to gloss over the magnitude of its defeat. In a resolution of June 22, the party Central Committee admitted “serious reverses” but simultaneously argued that “the main base of the Party is by and large intact…” The CPI(M) leadership comforted itself with the statistical delusion that its popular vote had fallen nominally, from 1.88 crore in 2004 to 1.85 crore in 2009. The reality was far gloomier. The support for the Left Front fell by a staggering 7.42 percent, from 50.72 percent in 2004 to 43.30 percent in 2009. The CPI(M)’s own vote share fell from 38.57 percent to 33.10 percent and it lost every seat in what is loosely called the FM belt around Kolkata. More ominously, a substantial body of Muslim voters, those who had contributed to the huge Left victories in 2004 and 2006, switched over to the TMC-Congress alliance. The ruling coalition just about managed to save face by winning a clutch of seats in the Jalpaiguri-Cooch Behar belt of North Bengal and successfully defending its strongholds in the outlying districts.
That the Lok Sabha outcome wasn’t merely a case of an electorate voting on national considerations for a stable government at the Centre became clear in the 10 by-elections this month. Compared to the 50.72 percent and 50.12 percent Left Front candidates polled in the 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2006 Assembly elections, its vote fell to 38 percent, a 12 percent decline. The CPI(M) could not even hold on to the Belgachia seat in Kolkata which was held by Subhas Chakravarty, the flamboyant Jyoti Basu loyalist who had once been censured by the party for his Kali worship.
To describe recent happenings in West Bengal as mere evidence of parivartan (change) is an understatement; the state is witnessing an upheaval that has the potential to rival the turbulence in the late 1960s when Congress dominance gave way to the domination and stranglehold of the Left.
For a start there is the strong undercurrent of violence. Politics in West Bengal has always been peppered with violence and intimidation on a scale that many in the rest of India find difficult to imagine. Just on paper, more than 500 political murders have been committed since the 2006 Assembly election. The CPI(M) has claimed that since March and October this year, nearly 124 of its cadres (or their children) have been killed, over half of them by Maoists. On its part, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has made popular resistance to the CPI(M)’s high-handedness and “reign of terror” its signature tune, a theme that has, not unexpectedly, found an echo among those Bengali intellectuals who view Maoist insurgents with starry-eyed romanticism.
There is a basis to the indignation of both sides. Ever since it came to power in 1977, the CPI(M) has exercised a stranglehold over the state. Its political thrust has not been confined to merely winning electoral battles but in exercising control over civil society. In rural West Bengal, the dreaded Local Committees of the CPI(M) replaced the bureaucracy and police as instruments of governance and law and order. From determining who can farm a particular piece of land and appointing the village school-teacher to imposing social boycotts of an errant “class enemy”, the CPI(M) ensured that its presence impacted on each and every individual in the village. It was impossible for a family to live in a village unless it made peace with the local CPI(M). It naturally followed that it was virtually impossible for an opposition party, be it Congress, TMC or anyone else, to operate freely in rural society. This may explain why almost all competitive politics in West Bengal was invariably centred on cities and other urban clusters; in much of rural Bengal, the CPI(M) and its allies ran a one-party state.
The party took a very dim view of all those who became very vocal in their opposition to the Left during elections. Every election in West Bengal was invariably followed by violence when TMC and Congress activists would either be hounded out of their homes or forced to ‘surrender’ before the Local Committee. The police and administration would remain mute spectators to these harsh assertions of class power. When Mamata rails the CPI(M)’s ‘reign of terror’, she is invoking the plight of those unfortunate individuals who were victims of Left intolerance.
However, it would be a travesty to suggest that the CPI(M) hold on rural society stemmed from the exercise of force alone. For more than three decades, the Left prospered on the goodwill generated by Operation Barga and the decentralisation of power to the panchayats. Operation Barga, the Left Front’s most far-reaching achievement, conferred security of tenure to bargadars (sharecroppers). In practice, it made ‘registered’ bargadars de-facto owners of the land they cultivated. The devolution of power to elected panchayats which immediately followed the empowerment of the poor peasantry, together redefined rural power relations. With Left cadres and the elected panchayats taking an active interest in the actual implementation of land reforms, the social and political backbone of the jotedars, the rich farmers who made up the village leadership of the undivided Congress, was broken. For 30 years, the anti-Left opposition could not re-establish their presence in rural West Bengal. The Left would invariably lose seats in Kolkata and Howrah, perhaps even in the border districts of Malda and Murshidabad, but in the vast expanse of the rural hinterland its strongholds were almost impregnable.
For the Left, the political and economic empowerment of the rural poor was central to its larger game plan. The Left movement was born in the industrial heartland of West Bengal, at a time when the state was second only to Maharashtra in overall development. In the mid-1960s, when the CPI(M) first tasted power in a fractious anti-Congress coalition, it concentrated its energies in nurturing militant trade unions. In 1967, it unleashed the ‘gherao’ movement which saw the forcible incarceration of managers until they agreed to the union’s demands. The police were given strict instructions by the administration to not interfere in worker’s struggles. The result of the ‘gherao’ epidemic was, predictably, a rash of lockouts and closures. Panicky industrialists got the message and began the flight of capital from West Bengal, a process that continued till the 1980s.
Bengal politics has always been peppered with violence on a scale the rest of India cannot even imagine
When it returned to power in 1977, the CPI(M) knew that reviving the manufacturing industry in West Bengal would take a lot of doing. Apart from the wariness of militant trade unionism and an increasingly ramshackle infrastructure marked by prolonged power cuts, there was a strong impression in industry circles that over-exposure to Left politics had deprived the state of any worthwhile work ethic. At an individual level, Jyoti Basu was regarded as a reasonable man and the archetypal Bengali bhadralok but his invitation to industry to return to the state carried little credibility. West Bengal had become a byword for trouble.
In the early days of Left Front rule, there was a belief in CPI(M) circles that public sector investments, particularly in Haldia, would pave the way for a second wave of industrialisation. It was a naïve optimism that produced many manhours of daydreaming and also triggered a polemical fusillade against an ‘uncaring’ and ‘discriminatory’ Centre.
The CPI(M)’s hold on rural society did not stem from force alone. There was the goodwill of Operation Barga
With the private sector petrified of a return to the bad old days of ‘gherao’ and Naxalite violence in the streets and both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi unmoved by the call for public sector investments — Rajiv, in fact, presciently called Calcutta a “dying city” in 1984 — the Left had no alternative but to concentrate on making a difference in rural West Bengal. Left ideologues rationalised an expedient turn with suggestions of growing agricultural productivity creating additional demand for goods and services. In short, the decline of the ‘old’ economy centered on manufacturing would be compensated by a flowering of the rural economy.
The rural thrust of the Left Front was complemented by an electoral strategy based on two principles: unite the Left vote and divide the anti-Left vote. It is a measure of the CPI(M)’s far-sightedness that it never abandoned the Left Front despite winning a clear majority on its own. Equally, it is noteworthy that all the major Left parties have remained allies of the CPI(M), despite occasional bouts of frustration. Having learnt the lessons from the late-1960s, Jyoti Basu in particular was careful never to repeat the intra-Left feuding that was a factor in the downfall of the first two United Front governments and the CPI(M)’s narrow loss in the 1971 Assembly election.
The decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes is commonly believed to lie in Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy
THE CPI(M) was also fortunate that the willingness of the Left parties to stay together was matched by a suicidal streak in the Congress. The Congress was always a formidable force in West Bengal. Its vote share invariably hovered around 40 percent, a winning tally in multi-cornered contests but insufficient to take on a united Left which invariably polled between 48 percent and 51 percent. The CPI(M) further reinforced its advantage by nurturing favourites within the Congress — individuals with whom local deals could be cut in return for a larger compliance. It was this divide-and- rule approach, plus some cosying up to the Congress high command in Delhi, that brought about the split with Mamata in 1996. As long as the Congress and TMC fought separately, the Left Front was sure of not merely winning but also securing a steamroller majority. When Mamata teamed up with the BJP in 1998, the Left was jubilant. In a state where Muslim voters made up more than one-fourth of the electorate, and in the absence of any discernible Hindu wave, the Left victory was guaranteed.
Yet, until the panchayat election of July 2008 when the TMC won 1,505 seats against the CPI(M)’s 1,597, the CPI(M) hold over West Bengal was unimpaired. What created the openings that Mamata was able to take advantage of so successfully?
Didi’s slogan — ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ (mother, land, people) has potently caught the rural mood
It is interesting that both the Left and its opponents have a broadly common perception of what triggered the decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy which was born out of the Left realisation that unless it departed from Jyoti Basu’s contradiction management approach and did something proactive, it would be overwhelmed by a tide of rising expectations. With the improvements in agricultural productivity reaching saturation point and insufficient alternatives for economic betterment available to the people, the CPI(M) chose to jettison its traditional distaste for the private sector and foreign capital. The rediscovery of manufacturing and the turn to urban and infrastructural upgradation was overdue in a West Bengal which had slipped precariously down the national league. After his foreign visits, Buddhadeb was moved by the advances in western capitalism and struck by China’s disregard of Maoist orthodoxy and its single-minded quest for economic growth. From being a party apparatchik nurtured carefully by the legendary Promode Das Gupta, who had helped the Left Front’s post-1977 approach, the Chief Minister transformed himself into an overzealous reformer.
FOR BUDDHADEB, the Left Front’s unequivocal victory in the 2006 Assembly poll was the signal to rush headlong into the industrialisation of the state. The election, where the CPI(M) campaigned for a modern, tech-savvy, sparkling Bengal, seemed a big step in the reinvention of the Indian Left and a welcome departure from its anti-capitalist cussedness. Indeed, during the campaign, Mamata was consistently lampooned by an impatient Bengali middle class for her willingness to embrace the CPI(M)’s discarded culture. Even Ananda Bazar Patrika, the traditional repository of anti-Left feeling, endorsed Buddhadeb enthusiastically. In his no-nonsense commitment to efficiency and growth, the chief minister was even quietly compared to Narendra Modi.
The honeymoon turned out to woefully short-lived. In pressing for rapid industrialisation and industry-friendly sops, Buddhadeb entrusted the management of change to the party, just as his mentor had done in 1977. Using the CPI(M)’s awesome organisational clout and its control over local society, the apparatchiks set about the task of acquiring agricultural land for industry with the same degree of ruthlessness as the Communist Party of China. The reluctance of farmers to part with their land was brushed aside with contemptuous disdain on the ground that the compensation package was generous and the acquisition was for the larger good of society. When reluctance turned to fledgling resistance, the party came down with a heavy hand. And then, suddenly, without warning, Nandigram became a flashpoint. It was followed by Singur. Even the CPI(M) now grudgingly admits that the land acquisition process was handled without adequate sensitivity and that ‘mistakes’ were made. In hindsight, the CPI(M) was undone by a remarkable failure to appreciate Marx’s insights into the peasant mind. Deeply contemptuous of peasants — he once equated them to “sacks of potatoes” — Marx felt that rural life was marked by a strong attachment to land. Ironically, it was this land hunger and the CPI(M)’s ability to satisfy it through Operation Barga that won it brownie points and the undying loyalty of the rural poor. The land attachment was most marked among the first generation beneficiaries of the land redistribution programme and it was precisely this section that came out militantly against the CPI(M)’s perceived betrayal.
For the politically paralysed CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a selffulfilling prophecy
Till the CPI(M) aroused peasant fears with its land acquisition programme, Mamata’s support base had been confined to a narrow section of the middle class, the lumpen bhadralok and those frustrated by the CPI(M)’s inability to create sufficient employment opportunities. Her rural following was largely confined to a layer of the erstwhile jotedar class. After she took up the protests against land acquisitions with characteristic passion, including inviting urban opprobrium for driving Tata Motors out of Singur, Mamata came to be perceived in a new light in rural West Bengal. Her slogan, Ma, Mati, Manush (mother, land, people) touched the chords of rural romanticism as potently as the old Left slogan Langal jar, jamin tar (land to the tiller). The CPI(M) found itself undone by a political empowerment it had nurtured.
It was a broadly similar story in Lalgarh. A botched Maoist bid to assassinate the chief minister in November 2008 provoked a vicious response from the local police and CPI(M). The official high-handedness led to Adivasi protests and provided an opening for Maoist cadres to enter the arena. The Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee was never an out and out Maoist front; it was made up of diverse elements that opposed the CPI(M). The Maoist input lay in transforming a protest against police harassment into a full-fledged revolt, marked by the establishment of ‘liberated’ zones. There is enough evidence to suggest that Mamata tacitly encouraged all those who were taking on the state administration in Lalgarh. Her motives were simple: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But her tacit encouragement of Chhatradhar Mahato had two consequences. First, the CPI(M) redoubled its bid to paint Lalgarh as a Maoist insurrection. The idea was to paint Mamata as an irresponsible politician, capable of compromising national security as long as it suited her anti-CPI(M) thrust. Secondly, the militancy of the local Adivasis and their need for logistical support facilitated the entry of trained Maoist cadres from the battlefields of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. For the CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For the CPI(M), Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh introduced another complication: the party’s alienation from the Bengali intelligentsia. West Bengal is unique in the social importance it attaches to a free-floating community of ‘intellectuals’, including writers, artists, singers, playwrights and producers of obscure documentary films. In the past this community had always been Left in its orientation, although in the mid-1960s many of them flirted with ultra-Left Naxalism. In the mythology of the ‘intellectuals’, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the biggest villain for his role in ruthlessly suppressing the Left movement after 1971. Consequently, they never had any time for either the Congress or the TMC. Indeed, for a very long time, Mamata was an object of derision among the ‘intellectuals’ for her shrillness. Compared to her, Buddhadeb was the biggest patron of the Left fringe. His patronage of art films, theatre and poetry was appreciated and contrasted with the cretinism of other chief ministers.
The ‘intellectuals’ had traditionally turned a blind eye to the excesses of the CPI(M), unless it was directed against the Maoists. However, after the official high-handedness in Nandigram the ‘intellectuals’ chose to speak out—not least because the target happened to be land acquisition for industrialisation. In the battle between a decaying rural arcadia and the vulgar world of shopping malls, the intellectuals were firmly supportive of the former. As long as the Left epitomised an amorphous struggling mass, it was kosher; once the priorities changed to humdrum capitalism, the intellectuals smelt betrayal.
Today, the CPI(M) finds itself politically paralysed. Buddhadeb’s lofty industrial dreams have come crashing down. With Mamata on the rampage and her party colleagues bulldozing their way into areas that were hitherto forbidden territory, old memories have come to haunt West Bengal again. There is fear that political violence could become endemic as turf battles intensify. There are concerns that a more vicious brand of Maoism (as compared to the Naxalites of an earlier age) has entrenched itself in some outlying districts, using Mamata as a convenient cover. More ominously for a state that was once a communal tinderbox, there are indications of Muslim sectarian bodies also using Mamata’s ever-growing umbrella as a camouflage.
Fattened and even corrupted by 32 years of uninterrupted power, the CPI(M) lacks both the capacity and the will to take to Mamata’s raw aggressiveness. With the state’s poor rallying behind her and identifying her as the new repository of entitlement politics — sops and lollipops for all — it is more than likely that West Bengal will give Mamata a chance to prove herself in Writer’s Buildings. The middle class may well be nervous but the Bangla street is wildly enthused by her populism.
Since Independence, West Bengal has had just seven chief ministers. Dr Prafulla Ghose, Prafulla Chandra Sen and Ajoy Mukherjee were old-style Gandhians, fuddyduddy and ineffective; Dr BC Roy, Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu were bhadralok patricians; and Buddhadeb is a chain-smoking Left intellectual, most at ease watching films with subtitles. Mamata, if she gets her way, will herald the entry of colloquialism into a rarefied pantheon.