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Eyeless in Bengal

For those who continue to look around for a Left alternative in the conduct of the nation's affairs, West Bengal has been regarded as the focal point of a political-economic experiment. The survival in strength of the Left in the state is crucial for sustaining the influence of the Left at the national level. This calls for a dispassionate analysis of the roots of the discontent that has engulfed the state since the installation of the seventh Left Front government.

COMMENTARY

was seemingly in a state of atrophy; it de-

Eyeless in Bengal

cided to withdraw police personnel from the area, thereby reducing it to a “free” zone. With the administration taking AM leave, conditions slid into near-anarchy.

For those who continue to look around for a Left alternative in the conduct of the nation’s affairs, West Bengal has been regarded as the focal point of a politicaleconomic experiment. The survival in strength of the Left in the state is crucial for sustaining the influence of the Left at the national level. This calls for a dispassionate analysis of the roots of the discontent that has engulfed the state since the installation of the seventh Left Front government.

AM, economist and essayist, has been finance and planning minister in West Bengal and a member of the Rajya Sabha.

T
he scare over the bird flu epidemic has passed. The state of West Bengal is however unlikely to emerge easily out of the unquiet times it is experiencing since the middle months of 2006.

It all began with the peremptory acquisition of close to 1,000 acres of mostly arable land at Singur in the district of Hooghly for the small car project of the Tata group. The rumpus there was soon overtaken by widespread public agitation following the issue of an official notice served, again without prior consultations at the local level, for acquiring 10,000 acres of farm land for a chemical hub proposed to be established at the initiative of an Indonesian promoter group at Nandigram in the district of East Midnapore. A series of incidents, including death of women and children, in police firing on March 14 last, led to a state-wide mobilisation of political forces of different hues against the ruling Left Front government and its major component, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Simmering with Resentment

The protest movement received vocal support from large sections of writers, artists, film and stage personalities as well as several civic groups. The agitation gained momentum, it would perhaps not be fair to suggest, partly because of a failure to assess the public mood in time and bungling in decision-making on the part of the state leadership of the CPI(M) and its ministers. The Left Front was in fact strangely entrenched in Nandigram, but the threat of compulsory land acquisition caused large-scale disaffection among its erstwhile supporters, many of whom crossed over to the opposition and drove out by force those who wanted to stay loyal to the CPI(M). For a number of months following the police firing, Nandigram was the happy hunting ground of disparate anti-CPI(M) parties and groups. The state government The situation was so strained that something had to give. This happened in the first week of November. Forces of law and order, which had till then acted as a buffer between the anti-CPI(M) groups entrenched in Nandigram and CPI(M) supporters mounting guard outside, were withdrawn. Armed cadres of the ruling party streamed into and “recaptured”, through assertion of might, lost ground in Nandigram and restored land and homestead to party loyalists who had been driven out earlier.

Even as things were simmering at Singur and Nandigram, certain other developments were taking place in the state, including the now-well-known episode of the attempt by the police authorities to unsettle the marriage of an adult Hindu girl from a rich Marwari family with a Muslim young man from a lower middle class background, culminating in the somewhat mysterious death of the boy. Both the issue of land acquisition, which caused concern to sections of the Muslim peasantry, and the ineptitude of the state authorities in handling the Rizwanur Rehman case created large-scale discontent amongst the minority community. The hustled exit of the Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, following a day’s violent show of wrath at her presence in the state by angry fundamentalists, was connived at by the state government anxious to regain the trust of Muslims. This gesture however alienated further liberal-minded constituents of the middle class, many of whom were already considerably worked up over Singur and Nandigram.

Even so, there has been undeniably a certain lowering of tension in recent weeks. Months of turmoil have been succeeded by a lull, now that those who had kept defying the state administration in Nandigram have been ejected and, at the same time, the state government has softened its stand on the central issue of land acquisition. With the judicial verdict validating the acquisition of land at

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Singur, there too has the agitation lost its steam. Public rallies in support of and against particular acts and activities of the government have abated too.

Gauging Public Disposition

Few however believe that the controversies that have rocked the state for nearly 18 months have reached their denouement. In this phase of uncertainty, an opportunity was provided to test the general public mood by the by-election in late December in the Balagarh assembly constituency in Hooghly, the same district where Singur is located. The appended table gives the details of the poll outcome in this constituency in the seven successive general elections since 1977 as well as in the recently held by-election caused by the death of the sitting CPI(M) legislator. What is most noteworthy, while compared to 2006 the number of valid votes cast in the by-election increased by a little more than 2,000, votes polled by the successful CPI(M) have actually dropped by more than 9,500. Balagarh is overwhelmingly rural and generally regarded by the CPI(M) as one of the safest constituencies for the party, where it has never lost in the past three decades. The marked decline in votes polled and the decrease in the party’s share of total votes cast from 59.2 per cent in 2006 to 44.2 in the by-election – a swing of 7.7 per cent away from the CPI(M) in the course of a bare year and a half – could not but be a cause of concern to Left circles. The panchayat elections in the state are hardly a few months away. Should the swing occurring at Balagarh be repeated in the entire countryside during the panchayat polls, it might cause quite a few difficulties to the CPI(M) even if the opposition forces failed to present a joint front.

True, given the party’s organisational strength and the sustained work its

Table: The Ballot in Balagarh

Total Valid Votes Votes Cast for (b) as Percentage Cast CPI(M) of (a)

(a) (b)

1977 45,521 28,371 60.3

1982 76,315 44,695 58.6

1987 93,922 55,068 58.9

1991 110,103 55,281 52.1

1996 118,913 66,182 52.3

2001 125,391 59,576 47.4

2006 134,280 69,627 51.9

2007 136,439 60,101 44.2

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february 23, 2008

dedicated cadres are capable of putting in, the situation could yet be substantially retrieved ahead of the panchayat poll schedule. A few other points nonetheless need to be taken into account. For instance, in Balagarh, Muslims constitute a relatively insignificant segment of the electorate; in the state as a whole, members of the community make up nearly a quarter of the population, and, therefore, of those eligible to vote. The threat of the Forward Bloc, a formal constituent of the Left Front, to fight the panchayat polls on its own, will be an additional worry.

One must also add a conjecture not altogether bereft of objectivity. The switch of popular sentiment against the CPI(M) is transparently more in urban areas, including Kolkata, than in the countryside. Even a marginally disappointing performance by the party in the forthcoming panchayat elections could be an invitation to motivate opposition groups to maximise their efforts to destabilise the state. They might deliberately foment trouble, ending up in violence, in selected urban pockets, thereby ensuring that West Bengal remained in the headlines of the media.

The opportunity such danse macabre could open up might be availed of by those who would dearly like national politics reduced to a polarity, with space reserved only for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, one party leaning on retrograde religious fundamentalism and the other unable to unshackle itself from the moorings of a medieval monarchical arrangement. Many will consider such a development as exceedingly unfortunate, and continue to look around for a Left alternative in the conduct of the nation’s affairs. West Bengal has been regarded by them as the focal point of a political-economic experiment conceivably leading to the emergence of such an alternative. The survival in strength of the Left in the state is, in their view, crucial for sustaining the influence of the Left at the national level. They would like to analyse with dispassion the roots of the discontent that has engulfed West Bengal since the installation of the seventh Left Front government.

During the more than 30 years of its tenure, the Left Front regime has, for diverse reasons, created adversaries in many quarters. The CPI(M)’s overwhelming influence within the government has caused heartburning even among some of the lesser partners in the Front. Not surprisingly, those alienated by the CPI(M) would try to squeeze the maximum advantage out of a situation where the party has played itself into a difficult corner. In a multiparty set-up, political opponents are bound to be on the lookout for lucky breaks of this nature. What is equally to be expected, these elements, despite their disparateness, would try to form some sort of an alliance, firm or loose, in order to harass their common enemy. There is also no question that the motley crowd gathered to cause harm to the CPI(M) has been infiltrated by pathologically anti-communist elements determined to go to any length to see the edifice of the Left destroyed all over the country. For these categories, the turmoils in Singur and Nandigram were akin to a holy crusade. Some of them have even equated the events at the two locations with Narendra Modi’s pogrom in Gujarat. This is pernicious nonsense uttered with deliberate malice.

The attempted hijacking by rabid anticommunist groups of the stir against indiscriminate land acquisition to serve the cause of private capital has indirectly helped the CPI(M) to re-mobilise on its side several of its former sympathisers who had begun to nurture strong reservations about the growing ardour of the state unit of the party and the government it heads for the capitalist path of development. The cause of those who wanted to have a reasoned debate on the issues of agricultureindustry dichotomy in the process of economic development, land acquisition for industrial growth in the private sector, the wider aspects of special economic zones et al has thus been pushed in the background. The attack against the party spearheaded by some of the most retrograde elements in society has at the same time quietened somewhat the ongoing questionings within the CPI(M) around the policy package which is at the source of so much trouble.

Lacking a Sense of Proportion

Unfortunately, the state leadership of the CPI(M) itself has been equally guilty of exhibiting the lack of a sense of proportion. Put on the defensive by the massive

COMMENTARY

criticism of the state government, the state leaders fell back on a theory of conspiracy: all that was happening was allegedly with the intent of stalling the process of industrialisation in West Bengal; just about every body was supposed to be engaged in this conspiracy. The list of conspirators included, apart from the major and minor political opponents, one or two constituents of the Left Front, the state governor, the judiciary, the intellectual community and civic groups and, finally, the media. Even more specifically, those plotting against the party, according to the state party leaders, in Nandigram consisted of Hindu fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, the Inter-Service Intelligence of Pakistan, the Naxalites, the Socialist Unity Centre of India, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, foreign nongovernment organisations, local NGOs backed by foreign agencies and the media. All these categories apparently worked together under the guidance of the Maoists. No objective observer will take seriously paranoia of this genre. The Maoists are not officially banned in the state, and, along with others, some Maoists too had surely entered Nandigram during the confusing months last year with the holy intention of fishing in troubled waters. But to attribute to them omnipotence of the kind the CPI(M) state party leadership has attributed is to allow one’s imagination run extravagantly wild.

As the leadership has been forced to admit, at least obliquely, at the recent state conference of the party, many of the difficulties it had to face in the past year or thereabouts is on account of mistakes and lack of judgment on the part of the state party and its ministers. The party leadership and the government led by it have now more or less agreed (a) not to repeat the course of action adopted in Singur and Nandigram, and refrain, as far as possible, from taking over multi-cropped land for industrial purposes; (b) to urge the centre to enact necessary legislation so that land belonging to closed factories could be made available for proposed new plants; and (c) that henceforth no proposal for land acquisition would be formalised without prior and detailed consultation with the people of the area concerned. The hectoring manner in which the chief minister and some of his colleagues had initially went about on the issue of acquisition of agricultural land, whatever its location or character, to serve the interests of the denizens of private industry was, it is being tacitly acknowledged, unwise. It is also being admitted, even if sotto voce, that the state administration should have used less strong-arm methods to cope with mass demonstrations against the government’s modality of land takeover at Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere; and, furthermore, it was wrong in not announcing promptly grant of compensation to the victims of police firing at Nandigram and in stonewalling on the issue of drawing up proceedings against the police personnel involved until hit on the knuckles by the high court.

Equally unfortunate has been the CPI(M) state party leadership’s inability to maintain an equilibrating relationship with a number of constituents of the Left Front, such as the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the CPI. Jyoti Basu’s long tenure as state chief minister did not witness a single hitch between the CPI(M) and any of its junior partners in the Front. That situation has ceased to exist. The general complaint of these partners is that they are not taken into confidence before the state administration embarks on crucial and sensitive political or economic issues, such as the developments in Singur and Nandigram; they are especially peeved since such matters involve not just issues of strategy, but ideological questions as well. While the West Bengal unit of the CPI at least has to keep in mind the broader national context, the Forward Bloc and the RSP suffer from no such qualms, and their relationship with the senior Front partner has grown progressively worse. A question mark hangs over which direction these two parties might turn. Not that these minor partners are in all seasons paragons of virtue, but the state leadership of the CPI(M) could perhaps have exhibited greater finesse while dealing with its recalcitrant partners. And it remains inexplicable why the state administration was not adequately warned by the party to take adequate precaution so that incidents in the nature of the police firing as in Nandigram, leading to deaths, did not recur. Sure enough, at Dinhata in the district of Cooch Behar the police turned trigger-happy once again barely a couple of weeks ago, this time the unarmed victims were supporters of the Left Front partner, the Forward Bloc, which has been presented a cause celebre on a platter.

The obsessive concern of the CPI(M)’s state leadership over the alleged animosity of the media is no less misplaced. Compared to the stridently hostile attitude towards the party and the Left Front government as in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the media had been in fact, generally sympathetic towards the Front’s ministers who took office in mid-2006; the chief minister in particular was being lionised by the state’s leading newspaper group as the harbinger of industrialisation. If Singur and Nandigram changed the media’s mind it was mostly because they could not ignore the prevalent public mood: in a global milieu, circulation matters.

Dangerous Precedent

The CPI(M) state leadership is yet to admit that the green signal it gave to the cadres to regain lost territory in Nandigram through armed might, while the forces of law and order looked the other way, was grossly wrong. True, party loyalists were earlier coerced to flee from Nandigram by adversarial forces who took full advantage of the state of angry confusion in the wake of the official notification for takeover of land for the Salim project. Those driven out had been living in miserable conditions in makeshift relief camps for months in the neighbouring block. The role played during this period by comrades who ran the state administration should be a matter of concern for the party. Having perpetuated the blunder of the March 14 killings, they went into a shell of indecisiveness. They did not undertake any political or administrative initiatives worth the name to break the impasse. Even advice by the senior most political personality in the country – the former state chief minister – to try for a negotiated settlement so that those thrown out of their homes could return – was not seriously considered. Since party supporters at the local level were getting restive, the leadership, in desperation, asked the government to direct the police to look the other

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way so that the party’s musclemen could move in.

There was a country-wide outcry at what happened. The governor of the state, a mild-mannered and understanding person who was named to the post on the specific recommendation of the party’s national leadership, was constrained to give public vent to his anguish. It is possible to debate whether he had thereby breached constitutional propriety; the central issue still is the dangerous precedent the CPI(M) has succeeded to set up. What the party did in Nandigram is not substantively much different from the kind of outrage perpetrated by the Congress against the Left in West Bengal in the 1970s: the police and the administration had then merely looked on while Congress goons went on a spree, maiming and killing CPI(M) and Naxalite supporters. The state chief minister described the Nandigram action as “paying back the opposition in their own coin”. This was an astounding statement on the part of a person who is directly charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order. Suppose on some future date the Left is ejected from power in West Bengal and those who wrest control of the state administration unleash against the CPI(M) the same tactics that were deployed in Nandigram: the party would be, in that eventuality, on weak ground to lodge any protest; the high moral ground no longer belongs to it.

The other argument tried out by the state party leadership for allowing the cadres a free rein in Nandigram – the late arrival of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – is no less bizarre. It is only a couple of decades ago that it was a matter of principle with the CPI(M) to resist the induction of the CRPF in any state for tackling a problem of law and order.

A further matter intriguing many quarters is the degree of impatience the state unit of the CPI(M) has shown towards socalled citizens’ groups. In the past, communists were in the forefront in organising similar groups which used to campaign actively for civil liberties. The very first Committee for Civil Liberties in Bengal was founded in the 1940s at the initiative of prominent communists like Jyoti Basu, Snehangshu Acharyya and Bhupesh Gupta. The Left also did pioneering work

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to mobilise the intelligentsia in support of political causes. A standard feature of Left campaigns is issue of statements on public concerns by so-called intellectuals, in which category even such specimens as football players and film extras find a place. The events in Singur and Nandigram evoked similar signature campaigns and public protest rallies by different citizens’ groups. Some shady elements, with private axes to grind, might have sought to identify themselves with these campaigns. But it would be wholly wrong to tar everybody with the same brush. The coarse and often irrational ranting against the so-called “civil society” indulged in by the CPI(M) could, indeed prove counterproductive, drawing away from the party’s periphery honest sections of the thinking middle class.

Reliance on Private Capital

The core problem tormenting the party will still be the strategy of industrialisation. Not that the turmoil the state has gone through over the issue has been of no avail. Following scathing criticism at the state party conference, the party leadership has agreed to respond positively to some of the concerns expressed on the details of the industrial policy on the anvil. The broad contours of that policy however remain unchanged. Several questions are still unanswered. Was it at all necessary to offer to the Tatas what is effectively a free gift of land, along with assurance of further generous benefits, to induce them to locate their small car plant in West Bengal rather than in Uttarakhand? Is not Uttarakhand far more underdeveloped than West Bengal, should not a party of the Left cultivate a less sectarian outlook? Why could not the state government coax the Tatas to locate their plant in a relatively barren stretch in a backward district in the state, such as in Purulia or Bankura? Why was it imperative for the state exchequer, for long years continually under great strain, to fork out Rs 200 crore to buy land for the Tatas, who, at that very moment, made an outlay equivalent to Rs 55,000 crore to buy the international steel group Corus? While the industrial policy announced by the state government as early as in 1995 had recognised the necessity of infusion of private, including foreign, capital for speeding up industrialisation, did it not pledge, simultaneously, to strengthen the public sector and to experiment with joint ventures? Why is it then that the strategy of industrialisation chalked out by the present state regime harps exclusively on reliance on private capital, with the state acting only as a facilitator? The standard argument proffered by party ministers for de-emphasising the role of the public sector in industrial growth is the stated lack of resources available with the state. If the dearth of funds be the only problem, how come that, with the government at the Centre so acutely dependent for its survival on Left support in Parliament, the CPI(M) has desisted from demanding the immediate restructuring of centre-state financial relations with a view to augmenting the flow of resources to the states, and at the same time applying pressure for a major increase in the allocation of resources to the state from banks and public financial institutions under the centre’s control? Every day thousands and thousands of crores of rupees travel, both directly and indirectly, from these institutions towards the direction of the stock exchanges; even a fraction of this sum could provide the basis for rapid industrial growth, under state auspices, in West Bengal.

Although chastened by the train of developments over the past one and a half years, the state unit of the CPI(M) has apparently little choice but to go along with the resolve of the chief minister and his close colleagues to continue on the path of capitalist growth. Since the principle of democratic centralisation these days operates in mostly one direction – from the top to the bottom, and rarely from the bottom to the top – those in the party who have strong reservations on the matter have to stay disappointed: they make their points, and are accommodated on issues of detail, but, at the end of it, they have to fall in with the decisions of the leadership. Industrial growth, it is being asserted with vigour by the party leaders, is coterminous with employment creation; infusion of private capital on a massive scale will speedily ensure gainful work for the millions currently unemployed in the state. The hypothesis is flogged that once employment is generated to such an impressive extent, public support for the party will grow exponentially.

COMMENTARY

But doubt persists, since it is equally possible to build a contrary hypothesis. Once large sections of the community accept the point of view of the state party leaders that, for the present, the concentration needs to be on fostering capitalism, it would be perfectly rational for them to be further persuaded that, in that event, it would be better to vote to power a party overtly pro-capitalist in both word and deed rather than continue to support the CPI(M); for, given its past commitments, the Marxists might find it somewhat awkward to go all the way on such issues as labour market flexibility, only a fullfledged party of the capitalist class, with no ideological hangovers, could ensure full-fledged capitalism development.

Problems could crop up at the other end too. Accordingly to state CPI(M) ministers, irrespective of what has happened in the rest of the country, in West Bengal industrialisation under the guidance of private tycoons will usher in an era of fastexpanding employment. Even if, for the sake of argument, one goes along with this prognosis, the problem of a time lag before employment begins to grow at a satisfactory rate cannot be ruled out. The electorate might not fully appreciate this objective reality: full or near-full employment could be a phenomenon of the long run, while the electorate makes up its mind on the basis of what obtained in the short or intermediate period. The state chief minister’s keenness to let in big business in retail trade is of relevance here. In the past, those who were unable to be absorbed in – or squeezed out of – agriculture and organised industry could eke out a living in the so-called informal sector, consisting by and large of retail trade and services. That possibility would be shut out in case the corporate sector takes over retail trade.

A Hazy Landscape

Finally, an issue that is impossible to dismiss out of hand. West Bengal has been traditionally a hinterland of the Left, the abode of starry-eyed idealists with unstinting devotion for the socialist cause. The influence of this genre of people on the social matrix can hardly be overlooked. They have spearheaded the movements instrumental for the conversion of huge numbers of the middle class into acolytes of the CPI(M). Notwithstanding the global convulsions in the recent period, idealists and ideologists keep unwaveringly to their doctrinal faith. Till now, the CPI(M) has been their sheet anchor. Were the state unit of the party to insist on opting for the capitalist path of development on the plea of compulsions of the situation and put on the back burner the pledge it entered into, 30 years ago to strive for a Left alternative for economic management, including the management of growth, the Left hinterland, for all one knows, could choose to desert the party. The process of moving away from the party might be not more than a trickle in the beginning; it could however gain momentum as capitalist entrepreneurs, including foreign entities, start to arrive in strength. Should the phenomenon of jobless growth persist despite massive intrusion of private capital, the Left hinterland could begin to recede from the CPI(M) with extraordinary rapidity.

These thoughts need to be articulated, if only for one obvious reason. As events over the past decades have proved, the sustenance and growth of the Left in the country is to a great extent dependent on the survival in good health of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The questions the hinterland addresses to the party therefore deserve to be responded to with some respect. While no Left ideologue will challenge the proposition that the logic of economic growth is posited on the satisfactory transition from agriculture to industry, the most dazzlingly successful example of such a transformation taking place, it will be maintained, is contained in the epic history of Soviet industrialisation in the 1930s. That transformation however occurred under state auspices and was based on the surplus yielded by collectivised agriculture. In addition, the ideologues will contest the view held by a number of important state-level leaders of the party that the scope of production and productivity growth is exhausted in West Bengal’s farm sector, and that farmers could earn a higher rate of return if they were to sell off their land, put the proceeds in a bank account and enjoy the life of a rentier. These leaders, it will be said, are evidently unaware of the reality that, thanks to globalisation, interest earnings in India are now determined by movements in the interest rate structure set by the United States Federal Reserve Board. There is, it will be further argued, enormous potential for raising farm income and farm production and productivity in the state through expanding irrigation facilities, superior crop planting, improvements in farm technology, inducting cooperative modes in the purchase of inputs and the sale of output, and, finally, introducing joint farming leading to cooperative cultivation.

In spite of some moral erosion, the CPI(M) in West Bengal can still claim to have within its fold thousands of dedicated, sincere, self-sacrificing workers and supporters. Many amongst them may find it difficult to accept the proposition that the immediate task of the party in the state – and, by implication, in the rest of the country – is to promote industrial growth under the aegis of private capital and that the pursuit of socialist goals is postponable. They will find it equally difficult to swallow the proposition that capitalist growth is a necessary phase in the dialectical process leading to proletarian revolution or that it offers opportunities for developing class consciousness; after all, even discussion of class issues is being frowned upon lest it inhibits the influx of private capital in the state. What is happening in West Bengal, they will argue, is a neocolonial carnival even as the party at the national level fulminates against the evil doings of international finance capital.

Yet another thought stirs in the minds of these last ditch votaries of the policy of the principle. The Dinhata episode, the mismanagement of the public distribution system, the inability to make satisfactory use of funds released for the implementation of the rural employment guarantee scheme, disappointments with the pace of the total literacy programme, everything considered together, suggest a frightening absence of competence within the state administration. Is the invitation to private capital to come and bail them out a manifestation of a lack of confidence in themselves on the part of those currently at the helm of affairs in the state?

The landscape in West Bengal promises to remain hazy.

february 23, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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