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The State of the CPI(M) in West Bengal

The State leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in its failure to maintain communion with the masses and the Party cadre, is responsible for the crisis of the Party in West Bengal. Its strategy of compulsory acquisition of even highly arable land to facilitate industrialisation under private auspices was ill-founded, and worse in its implementation. The 14 March 2007 killings in Nandigram shocked the people of the State. How on earth could a Left administration shoot down in cold blood women and children from impoverished peasant families? The resulting widespread public revulsion led to the erosion of the Party's mass base. But all is not lost, for the Party still has a dedicated band of workers who, if given the call, will forthwith form the vanguard of radical activism.

COMMENTARY

The State of the CPI(M) in West Bengal

AM

the manner the Front had “misruled” the State finally transforming itself into an angry explosion this year can therefore be at most partly correct. A further point is worth noting. Despite the serious reverses it has suffered, the Left Front has retained the support of 43% of the State electorate

The State leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in its failure to maintain communion with the masses and the Party cadre, is responsible for the crisis of the Party in West Bengal. Its strategy of compulsory acquisition of even highly arable land to facilitate industrialisation under private auspices was ill-founded, and worse in its implementation. The 14 March 2007 killings in Nandigram shocked the people of the State. How on earth could a Left administration shoot down in cold blood women and children from impoverished peasant families? The resulting widespread public revulsion led to the erosion of the Party’s mass base. But all is not lost, for the Party still has a dedicated band of workers who, if given the call, will forthwith form the vanguard of radical activism.

AM has been a contributor to both EW and EPW for more than five decades.

W
est Bengal has been continuously in the news for the past few years. Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh, and, finally, the staggering setback experienced by the Left Front shepherded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] constitute an integrated narrative. The succeeding paragraphs attempt to present an annotation of this saga.

It is best to begin by demolishing a h ypothesis – almost, a hyperbole – which runs roughly as follows: the outcome of the Lok Sabha poll in West Bengal marks the turning of the worm, the people of the State finally gathered the collective courage to register their unambiguous disapproval of the Left Front’s misrule spanning, 32 years.

There are a number of problems with the hypothesis. Roughly, 50% of the same electorate had, five years ago, in 2004, voted in favour of the Front, as many as 35 MPs out of the state’s total quota of 42 got elected on the Front’s ticket. Two years later, in 2006, the electorate repeated its verdict almost in an identical manner: more than 50% of the votes cast again went to the Front, which collected 235 out of the 294 state assembly seats. Between 1977 and 2006, it is a stretch of 29 years. The Front had won, most of the time comfortably, each of the assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the state held during this entire period. Obviously, the majority of the electorate was not sold on the theme of Left Front “misrule” in the course of these three decades. Dissatisfaction over the activities of the Front and the State administration might have accumulated over the years among different sections; but, on a balance of considerations, the bulk of the electorate still chose to stay with the Front. Whatever caused the shift in their opinion must have taken place subsequent to the May 2006 assembly polls. The suggestion of a stockpile of discontent with

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in this year’s Lok Sabha polls.

Failing to Watch Its Steps

The situation has nonetheless changed, rapidly, and dramatically, since 2006. It is not that the possibility of a distant thunder was excluded from everyone’s thoughts. A piece carried by this journal in its issue of 27 May 2006 (“Suffrage in West Bengal”, pp 2048-50) used most of its space to ridicule the Election Commission’s overzealousness to render the assembly polls in the State, held earlier that month, clinically free and fair and its insistence on imposing unreasonable impediments to the Left Front’s poll campaign. The pinpricks did not prevent the Front from registering a thunderous victory; the article carried by the EPW sounded very much like a celebratory paean. Even so, it ended with the f ollowing cautionary note:

The issue of conversion, at State initiative, of arable land for commercial exploitation, the poll results suggest, should be handled with some circumspection. In the rural belt of South 24 Parganas, the Left Front lost in just a single constituency, Bhangar, partly because of the involvement of this location in the controversy. Similarly, while the Front made a clean sweep of the rest of the seats in the district of Howrah, it failed to win in two constituencies where the issue of land sales had cropped up.

And further,

The state government has apparently made up its mind to pursue a vigorous programme of generally capital-intensive industrial growth with focus on the IT industry. It has, simultaneously, made explicit its determination to make the state more investor-friendly. The state administration, it follows, would from now on allocate a relatively higher proportion of its resources in the pursuit of these goals. What impact such a policy is likely to have on the life and living of close to seven million unemployed in the state remains an open question.

The piece concluded with the following c omment:

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Above all, the mandate the Left Front has won, in the view of a vast number of its rank and file, is a mandate for Left principles. Any deviation from these principles, such as a diminution of the role of the public sector in the development agenda, could meet with fierce internal resistance. The seventh Left Front government therefore must continuously watch its steps.

The state government, perhaps with successive poll triumphs going to its head, refused to watch its steps, and the tragedy the Left Front faces in West Bengal is encapsulated in the developments over the past three years. It is an astounding story of bravado and nonchalance with which the state administration – and the state leadership of its main constituent, the CPI(M) – decided to brush aside all admonitory counsel and go ahead with its strategy of compulsory acquisition of even highly arable land to facilitate industrialisation under private auspices. The 2006 poll outcome, they were apparently convinced, provided them the mandate to go ahead; the reservations expressed and protests

o rganised against the land acquisition policy they had decided upon were either the product of misconception of what was b eing attempted or induced by evil designs on the part of political enemies. The state CPI(M) leadership and senior Party m inisters launched a full-throated campaign to justify the rationale of the land acquisition for private sector-sponsored industrial growth policy. Party hacks turned into instant theoreticians wrote convoluted pamphlets to claim that till as long as the popular democratic revolution was not complete, it was the bounden duty of communists to ensure full-scale capitalist d evelopment. Since the state administration had already opted out of the alternative of expanding industrial activities in the public sector, the emphasis was on abiding by the wishes of private entrepreneurs in every sphere, including in the selection of land they wanted the government to a cquire on their behalf.

Superciliousness at the Top

The happenings in and around Singur and Nandigram illustrate how things can suddenly go completely out of hand when attention is concentrated on humouring private enterprise, and all other considerations are kept in abeyance. Land was chosen for acquisition, land which in many instances produced more than one crop during the year, maybe to the extent of even three or four crops. Such land was picked without prior consultation with the local administration or the local panchayat bodies or even the local Kisan Sabha functionaries. Industrialists were in a hurry, the government too therefore was in a hurry; negotiations, consultations, advisory sessions, etc, were judged as irritating roadblocks that would slow down the proposed projects. The government’s e nthusiasm was particularly noticeable in the case of the Tata Group’s small car project. Party cadres were brought out on the streets to extol the virtues of Nano; some of the marching comrades went to the extent of vociferatingly shouting the chant: “Ratan Tata Lal Salam”, even though the gentleman concerned finally let them down.

The opposition – till mid-2006, dishevelled and disorganised – was handed an issue on a platter. Public outrage at the peremptory manner the government had gone about acquiring, or threatening to acquire, land was exploited by it to the hilt. The turmoil over land acquisition became the rallying point for hitherto disparate groups to bond together. In a multi-Party system, it would be fatuous to complain if political opponents availed of opportunities opened up for them by one’s own mistakes. Early warning signals from lower echelons in both the a dministration and the Party as well as

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from friendly well-wishers were ignored by the government and the state CPI(M) leadership.

Incidents, often bordering on violence, ensued, mostly around Singur – the site of the Nano project – and Nandigram, where a fly-by-night industrialist group from a south-east Asian country had expressed the wish to build a chemical hub. Other a reas, where proposals had been mooted for land acquisition, were not immune too. The political opponents were itching for an open confrontation and the government walked into the trap. Only in the after math of the 14 March 2007 killings in Nandigram a degree of restraint was discernible in its attitude. But by then it was already too late. That a Left administration would shoot down in cold blood women and children from impoverished peasant families was something difficult to comprehend, and caused deep and widespread public r evulsion. The mass base of the CPI(M) started getting wobbly. From that point onwards, in the public eye the state administration could do nothing but wrong.

The panchayat elections held in May 2007, marked by major reverses for the Left Front and the CPI(M), provided ample evidence of intense rural discontent. But neither the state administration nor the Party leadership seemed to feel at all d isconcerted. Two by-elections for vacant assembly seats, one closely followed by the other, took place during the next 12 months. The swing against the Left Front was to the extent of more than 7% in both by-elections. There was nonetheless a d egree of cocksureness among the CPI(M) leaders. Come the Lok Sabha poll, so their assertion went, m atters would get remedied on their own; the Party’s tight organisational network would ensure the return of the loyal flock to the fold; the Left Front would r egister another famous victory. Everything was supposed to be fine and excellent with the government’s industrialisation and land acquisition policies; the wretched people, misled by the unscrupulous opposition, had failed to appreciate what good these policies would usher in for them; but no worry, that problem would be taken care of during the Lok Sabha poll campaign.

Cynical Manner

L’affaire Lalgarh is a later development, but its origin and unfolding have the same flavour of superciliousness at the top as was evident in the case with Singur and Nandigram. There is however one additional factor to be taken into account: the sentiments and sensitivities of the tribal population. Work on an industrial project was being inaugurated in Salboni in the district of West Midnapore; the occasion was attended by a union minister and the state chief minister. Immediately after the chief minister’s convoy on its return from the ceremony passed a certain spot in the vicinity of Lalgarh, a couple of land mines exploded. Presumably this was the handiwork of Maoists who had been on the r ampage in the area for some while. The state police did not waste a moment to launch a programme of reprisal: house-tohouse search, indiscriminate arrests including of school boys who had barely stepped into their teens and intimidation

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of women and children over the entire neighbourhood. Reports indicated that enthusiastic CPI(M) cadres had joined the police in this merry enterprise. The reaction was sharp and overwhelming. Village after village revolted. Dissatisfaction with the slow pace of development in this tribal bent was already rampant. Resentment against high-handedness of Party functionaries – who often doubled up as supervisors of development projects channelled through the panchayats – as well as of p olice personnel assumed a combustible character. The Maoists did not fail to take advantage of the situation. They egged villagers on, CPI(M) cadres got lynched, Party leaders scooted from the scene, the last vestiges of administration disappeared, the fear-stricken constabulators locked themselves in the police stations, and Lalgarh was a “liberated” zone. The state government, desperate to recover lost ground has been forced to seek the help of central paramilitary forces who have now walked in and restored a semblance of law and order in the area. As is only to be e xpected of a guerrilla group, the Maoists have vanished into thin air. Formally, state administration is now r estored in Lalgarh, but the cost it and the CPI(M) have paid is heavy. The cynical manner in which the government and the ruling Party have h andled the delicate i ssue of tribal emotions has created a negative impression all over the State. The resentment is all the greater because, d uring the past decades, the tribal people in the region have been steadfastly loyal to the Marxists.

The much flaunted nonchalance of the state Party leadership has been dealt a l ethal blow by the Lok Sabha electoral verdict indicating a swing of 7.5% against the Left Front since the polls of 2004 and 2006. Such a shift in the course of a bare three years suggests a sudden heavy erosion of the Party’s mass base. This very major shift in electoral loyalty has been confirmed by the string of municipal and gram panchayat polls held a month later.

Centralism sans Democracy

Did not the CPI(M) state leaders have the faintest notion of what disaster was awaiting them? Obviously not. And the underlying cause is as much hauteur as an obtuseness to face facts. These leaders have got into a mindset which refuses to admit that there could be a debate over their policy of industrial growth and more particularly over the issue of land acquisition. Any criticism, howsoever well-meaning, of the official Party line has been consistently frowned upon and adduced to the evil intentions of conspirators. True, a brief note of regret was issued on behalf of both the Party and the state government in the wake of the disastrous police firings in Nandigram, but that could hardly be taken as an expression of genuine contrition. On Lalgarh too, the Party’s position is equally unyielding. The leaders appear to inhabit a world of make-believe: they could do no wrong.

The reason for such smugness is not far to seek. A Party honed in the discipline of democratic centralism has its own code of how to react to external developments. Democratic centralism is a heritage communist parties were handed down from the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks were a secret revolutionary outfit operating under ground; they needed the strictest discipline to survive against sustained Czarist onslaughts. Democratic centralism was considered the ideal format to save the Party from infiltration by enemy agents and contamination from ideas and modes of behaviour that were alien to r evolutionary praxis. There was a whiff of egalitarianism behind the concept: e xchange of information, crystallisation of thoughts and ideas, formulation of political positions, etc, must be a collective e ndeavour, with views floating up from the bottom to the top and floating down from the top to the bottom, until a consensus was arrived at. But once a decision was reached, it must be rigidly enforced; no Party member was to be allowed to d eviate from it.

Unfortunately, democratic centralism has these days assumed a form far distant from what Lenin had conceived at the time of its introduction. The scope of lower rungs of the Party initiating proposals which will receive a fair hearing in the upper rungs has shrunk, and directives from the top have increasingly t ended to be accepted without demur as the last word. Formulations not cleared with the Party’s top brass go against the grain of democratic centralism as it is currently put to use. This is equally true for a piece of datum or a titbit of information: a datum is not a datum until it is ratified as such by the Party’s internal disciplinary system.

The Bolshevik Party had gone to make a successful revolution and set up the first socialist state in the world. The period between 1944 and 1950 saw the creation of a number of other socialist states, again u nder the leadership of communist p arties. Most of these states, as also the Soviet Union, have now ceased to exist. The factors contributing to their disappearance are several, but the major factor, it is perhaps legitimate to speculate, was the failure of the Party – more precisely, the Party’s leadership – to maintain communion with the masses, which, in turn, owed a great deal to the degeneration in the functioning of democratic centralism. The doctrine began to work only in one direction. Instructions from the central leadership had to be obediently carried out by units in successively descending orders of the Party hierarchy. But when these units, in their turn, would attempt to send up to cells superiorly situated amendments or alternative proposals, these would be igno red, until a stage came when Party units charged with the responsibility of preparing reports on local developments and formulating proposals taking into account local conditions gave up: since their messages, views and suggestions were treated as of little value by the top leadership, why bother to continue the charade, why not, instead, fall in line and start sending such reports and communications as would have little relationship with objective reality, but would please persons ensconced in superior positions? The lopsided practice of democratic centralism became the deus ex machina for doom: leaders occupying decision-making slots took only one another’s waiting or were fed with data that had no basis in fact but fitted in snugly with their own prejudices and predilections. The Party was gradually cut off from the people; the inevitable followed.

The various communist formations in India have persisted with democratic centralism in their internal functioning. The discipline, if democratically enforced, could yield excellent dividends. However,

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if democracy withers within the Party, the consequences are bound to be calamitous. The crisis the CPI(M) faces in West Bengal is a telling example of how far things can go wrong in case there is an excess of centralism with not even a wee bit of democracy. Because of the solid good work the Left Front government in its early phase had accomplished, particularly in the areas of land reforms and administrative decentralisation, a stockpile of goodwill had accrued to it, and which had sustained the Front and the CPI(M) in power for three decades. But such longevity itself creates a problem. It tends to inject into the psyche the illusion of invincibility as well as immortality; the distorted application of democratic centralism adds further to the illusion. The Party becomes oblivious of the fact that it is functioning within a multi-party system where political adversaries are lying in wait for the opportunity to catch those in power on the wrong foot.

Degeneration as a process, which involves time smugness within the CPI(M), started creeping in perhaps from as early as the early 1990s. The rise of sycophantic tendencies was a parallel development. And sycophancy in its train brought in corruption even if limited in scale. The outcome was a decline in administrative efficiency which affected performance in various spheres, including in health and educational services, the execution of development projects, public distribution of essential supplies and the monitoring of anti-poverty programmes. A groundswell of discontent was gradually gathering strength in town and country; the Party hierarchy had little awareness of what was happening.

Ingredients of anger had been accumulating over the years but it needed a c atalytic agent to take the form of explosion. Deep discontent at the strategy of speedy industrialisation through exclusive dependence on private initiative and the accompanying scheme of land a cquisition played the role of that agent. Decisions were taken at the administrative level with few prior discussions either within the Party or its mass

o rganisations; the lower echelons of both the Party and the administration were i gnored. For instance, when officials of the Tata Group, escorted by bureaucrats from the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, arrived at Singur for a preliminary survey of the site favoured for the proposed small car project, n obody bothered to inform the functionaries of either the local panchayat or the local unit of the Kisan Sabha.

A series of mistakes followed in quick succession in different parts of the State, and not just over land acquisition, bearing the stamp of official overbearingness. There was, for instance, the episode of p olice high-handedness culminating in the suicide of a bright, young Muslim boy from a lower middle class family; his only sin was to fall in love and marry a Hindu girl from an affluent Marwari family.

Feudal Hangover

Not that there was no disquiet or airing of dissent in the lower echelons of the Party. Such expressions of dissent were however brushed aside. Criticism of the official line was tolerated within Party forums only up to a point; the leadership would soon step in and bring the proceedings to an end; protests would die with a silent whimper.

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One must however try to be fair. It would be wrong to heap all the blame for this denouement on democratic centralism alone. The feudal hangover discernible in the State Party leadership must also share the burden of guilt. A substantial number of communists in Bengal are descendants of landowning families; the zamindari outlook is not always easy to shed even for committed Marxists occupying positions of power. Issuing peremptory directives and sticking to dogmas become a way of life; what lesser beings might have to say is adjudged as not worth listening to.

The West Bengal electorate has now dealt leaders with a mindset of this genre a deathly blow. Yet pride refuses to take a v acation. Many of these leaders are currently busy manufacturing alibi for the disaster that has befallen them, such that people did not approve the withdrawal of Left support to the United Progressive A lliance government in New Delhi, or that members of the minority community d ecided, for a variety of reasons, to vote against the Left. The matter of withdrawal of support to the Congress regime at the centre on the issue of the nuclear agreement with the United States was hardly raised during the poll campaign. The f urther argument that the withdrawal of Left support facilitated the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance in the State is equally lightweight. Even if there were no such poll alliance, given the extent of swing of votes against it, the Left Front would still have lost. To be candid, the Lok Sabha poll in West Bengal was a referendum on the functioning of the CPI(M) and the government it led, and the verdict could not have been more clear-cut. Also noteworthy is the datum that the swing away from the Party was pronouncedly much less in the northern districts like Murshidabad, Maldah and North Dinajpur, which have a relatively high proportion of Muslim voters, than in the southern d istricts where the members of the minority community constitute a smaller p roportion of the electorate.

A New Beginning?

It is an unprecedented situation the CPI(M) now faces, and it must do some drastic r ethinking about both its organisational framework and strategy of programmes and activities if it is to overcome the crisis. One awkwardness it faces is that of its close to 3,00,000 members in West Bengal, almost 90% are post-1977 cardholders. This section has seen only the good days, the times when the Party was continuously in power in the state. Many of them are in fact with the Party solely because it has been the ruling Party. Once the tide turns the other way, this species is likely to do a disappearing trick.

That might actually be a good thing for the Party. The elimination of the dross could be a genuine gain in case it chooses to r eturn to a revolutionary commitment. That apart, as developments keep unfolding, the likelihood is strong that the CPI(M) might sooner or later – sooner rather than later – find itself excluded from power in West Bengal. In the circumstances, that will be no great tragedy. The principal oppo sition aspiring to replace the Left Front from the state’s administration is a motley crowd with nothing much to offer beyond demagogy. A spell of governance by it could, it is altogether possible, disillusion the people who might then switch back their loyalty to the Left, thus provide the CPI(M) with the opportunity for a new beginning.

The objective reality being what it is, the hinterland will remain fertile ground for a radical resurgence. Three-quarters of the nation continue to be poor, and at least one-quarter live below the level of subsistence. Neoliberal economic reforms cannot but worsen their plight as the years and decades roll by. The CPI(M) can still take pride for a dedicated band of workers who, if given the call, will forthwith form the vanguard of radical activism. But the sorry developments in West Bengal in the recent period generate a degree of scepticism. Perhaps the rigidity of internal discipline has rendered communist parties excessively cautious, keeping them away from non-conformism of any genre. Is it not remarkable that while several countries in Latin America have of late been swept by radical wave after radical wave, in none of their cases the leadership has come from the communist Party? It has come from other quarters and the communist Party has subsequently joined in.

The ravages the CPI(M) has suffered in West Bengal have actually paved the way for the Party to correct its structural i nfirmities and renew its radical praxis, but does it have the courage to go through the drill? If it fails to equip itself for the challenge it faces, others are likely to step in; nature abhors vacuum, so too do h istorical situations.

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