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West Bengal's Next Quinquennium, and the Future of the Indian Left

In the aftermath of the defeat of the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal, the popular mood hovers between hope and fear about the new Trinamool Congress-led government. The new government will not live up to the aspirations for poribarton (change), for it is closely bound to the neo-liberal order. As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, Singur and Nandigram were the last straw on the camel's back that provided the trigger for the popular explosion of anger and frustration that had been gathering steam over the years. What does all this mean for the future of the party and the Indian Left?


West Bengal’s Next Quinquennium, and the Future of the Indian Left

Sumanta Banerjee

but purely existential. It is this that differentiates the anti- incumbency verdict of 2011 from that in 1977.

Without Ideological Vision

In 1977, the West Bengal electorate were offered an alternative political package of socio-economic reforms and restoration of democratic rights that was presented by

In the aftermath of the defeat of the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal, the popular mood hovers between hope and fear about the new Trinamool Congress-led government. The new government will not live up to the aspirations for poribarton (change), for it is closely bound to the neo-liberal order. As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, Singur and Nandigram were the last straw on the camel’s back that provided the trigger for the popular explosion of anger and frustration that had been gathering steam over the years. What does all this mean for the future of the party and the Indian Left?

Sumanta Banerjee ( is a political commentator who is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

y rejecting a thoroughly discredited Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], and opting for a highly dubious Trinamool Congress (TMC), the West Bengal electorate have reversed and replaced the old dictum with a new one: “A half-known devil is better than a wellknown one”.

On the one hand, the CPI(M) has paid the price for its unpardonable crimes and misdeeds while heading a Left coalition government in that state during the past three decades. On the other during the next five years, the electorate will curse themselves for bringing to power an equa lly unscrupulous – if not worse – Trinamool Congress-led coalition. But at the moment, both the victors and their supporters are in high spirits. Mamata Banerjee’s triumph can be attributed to her skill in tapping into

  • (i) the reservoir of accumulated mass anger against the outrages committed by the CPI(M)’s arrogant leaders, cadres and panchayat heads in the vast countryside;
  • (ii) the desperate need of the urban middle class to get out from the CPI(M)’s stranglehold on civil society, which determined every stage of their professional careers from appointments to promotions, and commandeered every step in their quotidian existence from buying a house to selling it; and (iii) in the absence of a better alternative, the ultimate choice for both these unhappy sections of the electorate to vote for the only available option – the Trinamool. But it is a Pyrrhic victory for the party – to which I shall return later.
  • Mamata Banerjee provided a platform for the coalescence of two tendencies among the voters – partly their visceral anti-CPI(M) attitude, and partly their hope for a poribarton or change in terms of better governance, education, health facilitie s and employment. Their choice was not political,

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    the CPI(M)-led Left Front (as opposed to the Emergency-tainted Congress). That it betrayed us in carrying out its promises is a different story – into which I shall go in a while. But in contrast to the political ethos of the Left programme in those days – however deficient – today’s Trinamool leadership lacks any ideological vision of change either in politics, economics or culture. Unlike the ideationally bound homogeneous multiparty Left Front of 1977, the Trinamool is a party based solely on the charisma of a single personality who has usurped some of the Leftist slogans, and drawn a heterogeneous medley of supporters ranging from ex-Congressmen, disgruntled Left intellectuals and opportunist Maoist cadres to retired senior police officials and Right wing representatives of big industrial interests. In fact, her election campaign represented an interesting unique selling proposition (USP) in the West Bengal electoral scene, marked by a deft mix of a populist image of a pro-poor leader (dressed in a crumpled sari and living in a humble house in a crowded middle-class locality) and simultaneously of a media-savvy politician adept in the modern technological gimmicks of press-button solutions and instant recipes – like her slogans assuring ten lakh jobs (aimed at the skilled unemployed), and the reported promise to change Kolkata into London (to meet the tastes of the upwardly mobile upper middle class youth). Despite all her claims of loyalty to Ma- maati-manush (mother, the indigenous soil and their people), the colonial model of London still prevails over the mindset of the chief minister of West Bengal. That provides the key to the future contours of the state’s economy under her rule.

    The two electoral trends – the negative vote of a rejection of the Left Front, and the positive vote for the promise of a better governance under the Trinamool – coexist

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    in an ephemeral zone where the popular mood hovers between hope and fear about the new government. This ambivalence has not escaped the notice of the corporate sector – the most important stakeholder in the coming economic fortunes of West Bengal. In the midst of the media hype in anticipation of Mamata Banerjee’s victory, on the eve of the announcement of the results, it was a representative of this sector that hit the nail on the head, when he wrote:

    Very few people seem to want to vote for her

    – but everyone wants to vote against the CPM (sic), which means that ...Bengal hates the CPM more…which means that performance will be key to Mamata’s survival…which means West Bengal will be wide open for political competition… (Surjit S Bhalla, Chairman of Oxus Investments, Indian Express, 13 May 2011).

    Mamata Banerjee’s political survival for the next five years is ensured by the overwhelming majority which she enjoys in the legislature. But how will her performance during this period make any difference, in bread and butter terms, to those who voted her to power?

    ‘Poribarton’ or Protyaborton?

    These were the two terms that were bandied about between the Trinamool and the CPI(M) during the election campaign – the former promising to bring about a “change” from the three-decade old failed Left Front monopoly of power, and the latter urging the voters to “return” it to power to enable it to fulfil its long-forgotten promises that were made in 1977. Now that the Trinamool has won on the platform of poribarton, the new government will have to live up to the aspirations for change inspired by Mamata Banerjee. The popular expectations can be summed up in the following order of priorities: (i) immediate restoration of the much-needed peace in the countryside – which had been ravaged by years of violent intimidation by powerhungry local CPI(M) leaders and cadres;

    (ii) end to the prevailing corruption in the operations of the public distribution system, the panchayati administration, and the centrally-sponsored schemes like the rural employment programmes; and (iii) a reconstruction of West Bengal’s economy and society on the basis of provision of jobs, guarantee of social justice, and delivery of civic services.

    But on all these hopes, there hangs a pall of uncertainty and fear. The hope for peace is clouded over by the vendetta mounted by the Trinamool cadres – as evident in the recent killing of some CPI(M) followers and vandalising of its party offices in a few areas. If this trend increases, it will pose a challenge to democratic rights activists who till now had been opposing such violations of human rights by the CPI(M) harmads (pirates) only, and joined the Trinamool in its electoral campaign to defeat the Left Front. The fear is further accentuated by the composition of the newly-elected 184 Trinamool MLAs – 69 of whom are facing serious criminal cases (based on the declarations of these candidates themselves, as compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms and New Elections Watch). West Bengal is on the way to joining the north Indian mainstream, where history-sheeters appear to be the favourites of the electorate. As for corruption, those who elected Trinamool party candidates to panchayats in the West Bengal countryside a year ago have already discovered to their chagrin that they are no better than their CPI(M) predecessors, and are following the same route of nepotism and siphoning off of public finds to their personal coffers, that had been earlier institutionalised in the rural areas by the Left Front. In fact, an MP from the Trinamool Congress itself, the poet Suman Kabir, soon after his party’s candidates occupied the panchayats, came out openly against their looting spree, describing them as gluttons who scream: “Khao…khao..!” (eat…and eat more). Yet, the rural electorate voted for the same Trinamool in the assembly elections. It suggests their mood of utter helplessness and cynicism. They accept the reality that Trinamool, like any other party coming to power, will perpetuate the corrupt order, but hope that it may at least for the time being restore peace and ensure delivery of essential services.

    Mamata and Corporate Interests

    Coming to the larger issue of a long-term programme of rejuvenating West Bengal’s economy, Mamata Banerjee is a babe in the woods, totally innocent of the challenges that she will be facing. They are more intractable than those she handled during her stint as the union railways minister – in the course of which she made a mess, what with her profligacy in inaugurating new high speed trains every now and then without any concern for financial viability or safety of passengers, leading to both loss of revenue and rising accidents. Judging by that record of hers as a union minister, we are waiting in trepidation to watch how she, as a chief minister drives the “Duronto” (the favourite term of hers – which in Bengali means both powerful and unmanageable – with which she has named her newly introduced trains!) administration of West Bengal.

    To start with a few much-vaunted promises made by her: how is she going to return the 400 acres of land, which are still in the legal possession of the Tata-owned small car project in Singur, to their original owners? Even if after those lands are restored to the farmers – maybe through the government’s enormous financial compensation to the Tatas, or a time-consuming judicial process – they cannot resume cultivation since the agricultural fields have been flattened into cemented roads. Does Mamata Banerjee have any programme to restore or rehabilitate the victims of her anti-Tata campaign in Singur? Or, how is she going to provide ten lakh jobs at the drop of a hat? The backlog of an industrial labour force that had been rendered jobless due to closures and lockouts (acquiesced in by a passive Left Front government all these years) await re-employment. Where are new factories going to come up? In the continuing contest over acquiring land for industrialisation, she will soon concede to the demands of the industrial tycoons whom she is wooing to invest in West Bengal.

    It is no coincidence that she has appointed the FICCI head honcho Amit Mitra as a mini ster in her cabinet. But how is she going to put into order the financial mess of West Bengal – heavily burdened with a debt of about Rs two lakh crore (the legacy bequeathed on her by an overindulgent Left Front government which had wasted most of that amount in subsidising salaries of its idle employees in Writers’ Building in Kolkata and district headquarters, of absent teachers in schools and colleges, and incompetent doctors in medical hospitals)? While a friendly centre can certainly bail her out with a favourable economic package, given the prevailing structure, such

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    financial help is likely to be siphoned off again into fattening the same old corrupt and inefficient institutions, and a new group of politicians and their hangers-on, under the Trinamool regim e – as already apparent from the experience with the panchayats ruled by that party.

    It just takes one step backward for any newly elected ruling party to retreat from the electoral promise of paribarton for the masses, to the post-electoral comfortable cushion of protyaborton – or a return to the old habits of self-aggrandisement, use of the police to repress protests, and the restoration of the same inequitable and oppressive order. These habits acquire legitimisation under the neo-liberal order of globalisation, where the individual pursuit of private profit is promoted as a sign of economic growth and as more important than the public need for healthcare, education, housing and other basic rights. Despite Mamata Banerjee’s promise of meeting these public demands, her government, being bound to the neo-liberal order, will have to make a right-about turn, and traverse the same trajectory that had been initiated by her predecessor – the Left Front. It is worthwhile therefore to briefly examine that itinerary. I shall be concentrating primarily on the CPI(M), as it is regarded as the main voice of the parliamentary Left – both in its role as the leader of the erstwhile Left Front government in West Bengal for the last three decades, and its current position as a minor opposition party in the Lok Sabha and national politics.

    Beginning of the Rot

    Most of the commentators are tracing the defeat of the CPI(M) to its suicidal handling of the situation in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-07, and discern signs of the beginning of its fall, first in the routing of its candidates in the panchayat elections that followed it, and later in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. In other words, they feel that it was only during the last phase of its rule (2006-11) that the CPI(M) made serious mistakes which alienated it from the people. My contention is that the roots of the disaster can be traced back much farther to its earlier phases

    – long before Buddhadeb Bhattacharya launched his disastrous mission of forcing multinational-sponsored industrialisation down the throats of suspicious farmers.

    Singur and Nandigram were the last straw on the camel’s back. They provided the trigger for the popular explosion of anger and frustration that had been gathering steam against the ruling CPI(M) all these years – on various counts.

    In fact, rumblings of discontent against the Left Front had started reverberating within a few years of its assuming office, though less publicised and confined to a few areas of concern. One such issue was human rights. Although the CPI(M)-led government kept its electoral promise of releasing all political prisoners (the majority of them being its erstwhile enemies, the Naxalites), it failed to punish or remove the notorious police officials who were nailed for atrocities from 1970 till the Emergency period, by the two commissions set up by the government itself – the Sharma Sarkar Commission and the Haratosh Chakravarty Commission. Instead of following up their recommendations to reform the police administration, the West Bengal state home ministry (which was under the charge of the veteran Chief Minister Jyoti Basu) reinforced the old system of using the same police force and its disreputable officers and minions to suppress demonstrations of popular protest.

    Marichjhapi and After

    One of the first such instances was the unleashing of the police in Marichjhapi in 1979 – two years after the Left Front came to power. The Left had earlier promised to resettle the refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan in West Bengal. Assured of that promise, a few thousand refugee families (who had earlier been relocated by the Congress government to Dandakaranya in the then Madhya Pradesh) arrived in the Sunderbans to settle down there. In a curious volte face, the CPI(M)led Left government retaliated by arresting them and forcing them to return to Dandakaranya. But a large number of these families managed to slip through the police cordon and reach Marichjhapi in the dense forests of the Sunderbans, where they cleared the jungles and started cultivation. The Left Front government accused them of violating official laws like the Forest Act, and threatening the lives of the renowned Royal Bengal Tigers! It launched

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    a police operation to forcibly remove these re fugees in May 1979 – which led to the killing of a large number of men, women and children, whose bodies were allegedly dumped into the river. (The long-suppressed history of this episode has been unravelled by Ross Mallick in his welldocumented essay “Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massa cre” in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 58, No 1, February 1999.) The years follo wing Marichjhapi saw the re-emergence of the police as a trigger-happy force ready to suppress all manifestations of popular discontent. In the two-year period of 1980-81 alone, there were at least 248 cases of police firing killing 62 people, including women and children. During the same period, the number of killings of undertrial prisoners in police lock-ups and jails showed an alarming increase – recalling the days of the Emergency. It had reached such an extent by the end of the Left government’s third term in office, that in 1992 Justice D K Basu of the Calcutta High Court had to intervene, censure it and ask it to follow strict procedures to prevent torture and death in police custody. But, typical of the CPI(M)’s insensibility to human rights, its government preferred to defend its sadistic cops and went to the Supreme Court to challenge his recommendations. In 1996, the apex court issued its verdict in the Basu vs State of West Bengal case, which essentially upheld Justice Basu’s opinions and laid down 11 requirements regarding the arrest, interrogation and investigation.

    Agrarian Constituency

    Despite its atrocious record on the issue of human rights, the CPI(M) however made impressive gains in the agrarian sector during its first five years of rule by distributing land to the peasantry, ensuring the rights of sharecroppers, raising the wages of daily labourers, and decentralising power through panchayats. But by the beginning of the 1980s, it had reached a dead end of sorts. Its failure to anticipate that the small size of holdings (available to the rural poor through land redistribution) would yield inadequate income; its indifference to the need for state investment in agricultural inputs and infrastructure to

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    help these small farmers; its lack of a longterm plan of agro-industrial enterprises to provide jobs for the unemployed rural youth led to a stagnation in rural economy. It was not as if the CPI(M) leadership was unaware of the signs of the impending crisis. Following its coming back to power for the second term in 1982, on 18 September of that year in the West Bengal assembly, Bhaktibhushan Mandal – an MLA of the Forward Bloc, a partner in the ruling Left Front – warned that the owner s of small plots (beneficiaries of land redistribution) were facing crisis because of the mismatch between the expensive inputs that they had to use and the poor returns from their output. He felt that unless they could supplement their income with other jobs, it would be difficult for them to survive. The CPI(M) leadership turned a deaf ear to such warnings – at the cost of alienating, through the next two or three decade s, these large sections of the rural populace who were getting increasingly impoverished.

    The Panchayati System

    As for its second achievement – the panchayati system – the CPI(M) did indeed gain popular support from villagers who for the first time were promised participation in policy decisions at the ground level and overcoming the rules and hurdles of a bureaucratic administration. But it soon degenerated into an institution dominated by local CPI(M) and other Left Front party leaders and apparatchiks who diverted the government funds from investment in social welfare for the villagers to build party offices and their own houses (which stuck out like sore thumbs from amidst the surrounding miserable conditions, and quite understandably became the main targets of popular anger during the anti-Left agitations on the eve of the elections). Again, these trends did not suddenly appear in the 2000-11 phase of Left Front rule. The roots of the corruption were embedded in the manner in which the panchayats were composed. In the first panchayat elections held under Left Front rule in June 1978, the majority of the candidates chosen by the CPI(M) and its allies who got elected, came from the better-off middle class farmers (50.7%) and schoolteachers (14%), while from among the rural poor (claimed to be the main base of the Left), the sharecroppers constituted only 1.8% and the agricultural labourers 4.8%. Given this inequitable class composition in the panchayats, it is no wonder that their pradhans soon turned them into dens for exploitation of the rural poor through intimidation and corruption. Again, the distortion in the functioning of the panchayati system was not unknown to the top leadership of the Left Front government. As far back as 1982, its then minister for panchayats, Debabrata Bandyopadhyay (belonging to the Revolutionary Socialist Party) made a statement from the state secretariat acknowledging that the majority of the panchayat members had been found to be corrupt, adding that out of the 3,242 panchayats only 1,160 had submitted audit reports (19 July 1982). The years that followed were marked by further moral and political degeneration of the Left-run panchayats – the bulk of which were controlled by the CPI(M).

    The Industrial Sector

    Let us turn to the industrial sector. The industrial proletariat are designated by the CPI(M) in its programme as the leaders of its proposed people’s democratic revolution. But during all these years, while factories closed down throwing thousands of workers on the streets, the Left Front government remained a passive spectator, refusing to lift its little finger to help even attempts by workers’ unions to form cooperatives and run the factories. It is not surprising therefore that the CPI(M) lost in the working class belt. The workers have punished the party for its industrial policies that have paved the way for the closure of old factories and their retrenchment, and for the entry of both new Indian and multinational concerns in the industrial scene where these workers have no scope for re-employment.

    To go back to the record of the Left Front government’s treatment of industrial disputes – right from the 1980s, while the workers acceded to their chief minister Jyoti Basu’s advice to refrain from lightening strikes, the factory owners were allowed by him to resort to closures and lockouts. The number of strikes came down from 43 in 1981 to 29 in 1982, while during the same period 54 factories imposed lock-outs affecting the livelihood of 53,000 workers, and industrial houses announced closures of 13 units throwing out 12,300 workers. (Debashish Bhattacharya, Bampontheera Mahakaraner Montri Hoye Ja Korechen,

    Calcutta 1983). The trend remains the same today. According to figures collected by the Labour Bureau in 2005, the number of strikes in West Bengal was 26, while that of lockouts was 182 – indicating the unequal level playing field of trade union negotiations under the CPI(M) regime. The CPI(M)’s present tilt towards the multinational Salim, or the Indian industrial tycoons like Tatas and Jindals, can be traced back to the industrial policies it adopted in the 1980s.

    Through all these years of growing disenchantment among the rural people, a sense of betrayal among the industrial working class, and increasing alienation among the urban poor and middle classes, a smug CPI(M) leadership at its headquarters in Alimuddin Street in Kolkata remained totally indifferent to the warnings emanating not only from newspaper reports, but also sounded by some of their old leaders, as well as by Leftist observers and economists (from outside the official CPI(M) circle) of the impending disaster (quite often in the pages of Economic & Political Weekly). While in a cavalier fashio n they dismissed the newspaper reports as “bourgeois propaganda”, they should have at least paid heed to the admoni tion given by one of their veteran leaders – Benoy Chowdhury (who as a minister in the first Left Front government initiated the land reform programme). Before his death in the 1990s, he openly denounced his party organisation as dominated by leaders in cahoots with “contractors and (real estate) promoters”. But, the party headquarters felt that it could afford to ignore the commissions obtained by its district level apparatchiks through dubious deals with these contractors and promoters, as long as they delivered the regular monthly quota to the party coffers. Ignoring popular discontent with such misdeeds in the urban areas, the party leaders at Alimuddin Street assumed that they could retain the allegiance of their largest constituency – the rural peasantry – as bonded followers for ever, by constantly reminding and demanding from them gratitude for the reforms that they initiated some 30 years ago. But, as

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    explained earlier, those mechanisms of officials were alleged to have intimidated agrarian reforms had already turned out to Rizwanur and forcibly separated him from


    be half-way measures by the 1980s, stagnated into economic inertia in the 1990s, and degenerated into tools of partisan aggrandisement in the hands of the CPI(M) in the 2000s. Given this history of a programme that began with land reforms which empowered one generation of the rural poor, but left the next generation without any viable means of further improvement of their socio-economic status, it is no wonder that the Bengali villagers today ridicule the CPI(M)’s habit of living off its past achievements, by quoting a popular Bengali saying – Kobey polao kheyechhilam, ekhono hatey tar gandho legey achhey (We ate pilau many years ago, but its aroma still lingers around our fingers)!

    Muslim Constituency

    The other traditional constituency of the CPI(M) – the minority Muslim community

    – also discarded it this time. Yet, the Left Front-ruled West Bengal was always regarded as the safest citadel of the religious minorities, which provided refuge to a victim of the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat. West Bengal has been known as a state ruled by a Left government which had always prevented the outbreak of communal riots (barring a few instances following the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition). Yet, despite the memory of Mamata Banerjee’s being a part of the NDA government which presided over the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, the Muslims of West Bengal in general voted for her. Was it a gesture of protest against the Left Front’s indifference to their basic requirements – a fact substantiated by the Sachar Committee report? In their short-sighted tactics, the CPI(M) leaders had thought that they could woo the Muslim voters by acceding to the demand of their fundamentalist mullahs to ban Taslima Nasreen’s book and banish her from West Bengal. At around the same time – in order to keep the north Indian Hindu business houses operating in their state in good humour and ensure the regular flow of funds from them to the CPI(M) coffers – they threw their administrative weight behind the industrialist Ashok Todi, when he opposed his daughter’s choice to marry a Muslim commoner – Rizwanur Rehman. Kolkata’s top police his wife Priyanka. Soon after, Rizwanur was found dead on a railway track in 2007. Investigations indicated that he could have been driven to suicid e by the police officers and the Todi family. The Left Front government’s refusa l to punish the guilty policemen antagonised not only Rizwanur’s family (which suspecte d that he was murdered) but also large sections of the community which felt that the CPI(M) was protecting the Hindu industrialist Todi – a sentiment which was exploited by Mamata Banerjee, who set up Rizwanur’s brother, Rukbanur as a Trina mul candidate against the CPI(M).

    Party Takeover of Administration

    Coming to the record of the Left Front’s governance in West Bengal, one expected that the CPI(M) – as a typical social democratic party promising to create a welfare state – would at least follow two rules of the parliamentary system that it had chosen to join. But, in its narrow objective of clinging to office by any means, the party defaulted first by elevating its headquarters at Alimuddin Street in Kolkata, into an extra-constitutional centre, and encouraging its district and village level party bosses to virtually take over the reins of day-to-day administration, and replace the state institutions and their officials. (An excellent inside view of this steady and calculated debilitation of the administrative machinery is provided by Kalyani Chaudhuri – a senior bureaucrat who served under the Left regime – in her book: When the Pendulum Stops: Death of Bengal Bureaucracy (Kolkata: Nachiketa Publishers). In the process, the CPI(M) leaders and their minions destroyed the state’s educational and health infrastructure, by usurping the administration of prestigious institutions like the Calcutta University, Calcutta Medical College, appointing their own protégés (who often turned out to be totally incompetent) and allowing their trade union activists in these institutions to run the daily administration. During my visit to Kolkata in the 1990s, I listened to complaints from patients waiting at the Calcutta Medical College, about their having to grease the palms of the CPI(M))-run employees’ union


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    to gain admission for treatment. I alerted my friends in the CPI(M) – both in Kolkata and Delhi – about these alarming trends. But they dismissed them as isolated instances.

    The second obligation of a socialdemocrati c party operating within a bourgeois parliamentary system is the toleration of political competition in a democratic space. But the CPI(M), during its rule, squeezed that space to serve its own partisan interests, by trying to eliminate its political competitors. During successive assembly elections all through the 1990-2000 period, there were allegations that the CPI(M) supplemented its fast dwindling number of votes (which it could anticipate from its eroding popularity) with rigging (with its musclemen preventing the genuine voters from casting their votes, and instead of them the party-appointed presiding officers stamping the ballot papers in favour of the ruling party candidates). While agreeing that such intimidation had taken place (my friends in Kolkata have narrated their own experiences of similar threats that prevented them from casting their votes in the last four assembly elections), I think that the CPI(M) did not win those elections by rigging alone. It could still depend on support from a loyal core of followers on the one hand, and manoeuvre the half-hearted sections of the rural electorate in its favour on the other, since they could not find any alternative party. The successive victories of the CPI(M) in West Bengal (even after the growing disenchantment with its performance in the 1990s) were due to the party’s judicious mixture of coercion and persuasion. In the 2011 election, this twin strategy did not work because of two factors. First, the CPI(M)’s coercive apparatus was kept on leash by the Election Commission, aided by the central security forces to protect the voters. Second, the CPI(M)’s persuasive appeal could not convince its rural electorate, since they perceived the Trinamool as an alternative this time.

    Future of the CPI(M)

    Neither the CPI(M)’s central leadership, nor its state units have shown signs of any serious introspection over the causes of their elimination in West Bengal and of any intention to radically change the party’s method of functioning. While in West Bengal, the erstwhile chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and the party’s vociferous state secretary Biman Bose have retreated into a sulking silence, the CPI(M)’s general secretary Prakash Karat has refused to own responsibility for the acts of omission and commission that could have led to the defeat of his party both in the last Lok Sabha poll and the present state assembly elections. It is clear that despite being utterly disgraced, the leadership is in no mood to step down. As for its cadre in West Bengal, the mercenaries (musclemen known as harmads) among them will seek patronage from the new rulers; the weathercocks among the middle-class professionals are already making a beeline for the Trinamool office, and the handful of ideologically-motivated old activists both in the trade unions and peasants’ organisations are too demoralised to revive the party.

    The latter do not find any potential leaders in their organisation who can replace the mandarins who continue to run the party from New Delhi, and the 1960s batch of student leaders who have been thrown out of power in West Bengal after 30 years. Having watched the degeneration of their party – which began in 1964 with the promise of serving the workers and peasants and ended up by being a middle class babu-dominated organisation turning its guns against the same oppressed classes – these honest activists will soon retreat into a state of boshey jaoa

    – the term used in Bengali for lapsing into political inaction. In other words, since the CPI(M) will remain saddled with its present leadership which stubbornly refuse to acknowledge past mistakes and purge the organisation of corrupt and criminal elements, it will be reduced to a non-entity in West Bengal politics in the coming years. The party’s national leadership is also yet to take up the more fundamental challenges – how can it stem the erosion of moral principles brought about by its obsession with the electoral rat race of populism and opportunism? How can it reconcile its role as a social-democratic party (whether in power or outside) with its mode of anti-democratic functioning that harks back to Stalinist authoritarianism?

    This brings us to the implications for the future of the Left in Indian politics in general. It is about time that one makes a sharp distinction between the CPI(M) and the Left ideology. As apparent from the record of the CPI(M) in power in West Bengal, the party steadily departed from its earlier commitment to the protection of the rights of peasants and workers and ultimately sacrificed them at the altar of industrial tycoons and multinational companies; it turned its back on the promise to restore civil liberties by rejuvenating a noto rious police force to use it against the poor. At the national level also, the party showed scant regard for ideological principles by seeking alliance with corrupt politicians on the plea of forming a futile Third Front. The CPI(M) therefore has forfeited the right to be called a Left party, and should be treated as any other opportunist political formation (like the castebased, or regional parties that pursue their own narrow interests with the sole purpose of coming to power), devoid of a wider ideological commitment.

    Implications for the Left

    There is an urgent need for a realignment of forces within the Indian Left. It should start with the rejection of the hegemony of the CPI(M), and restoration of credibility among the masses by reestablishing the long-lost links with the peasantry, industrial workers and other dispossessed sections of our society. The New Indian Left

    – if one may designate it – can be a broad formation of both the Left parliamentary parties (e g, the smaller partners in the present Left Front which had been critical of “big brother” CPI(M)) and the non-parliamentary movements. It should align with the various popular campaigns taking place outside the political mainstream (e g, Narmada Bachao Andolan, anti-POSCO movement), extend support to the civil liberties and democratic rights groups, engage in a dialogue with the Maoists, and in collaboration with all these forces, work out an alternative strategy for socioeconomic change. Will the intellectuals and economists who adorn the CPI(M) list of members and sympathisers and give credibility to it, stop identifying their party as the only custodian of the ideology that they believe in, and lend their talents instead to the campaign for this new Left movement?

    june 4, 2011 vol xlvi no 23

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