June 2011 
Year 17    No.158
Special Report

Leaving the left behind

Why the communists in Bengal did not endure


“It is unlikely that such a review ex-ercise will lead to the kind of “reformed” left that its critics are rooting for – a left tamed by its defeat into accepting the set of economic policies that, in the name of growth, intensify and create new inequalities; a left subdued… The relentless pressure being put on the left today is precisely to give up its class approach, to adapt itself to neo-liberal realities represented by the set of policies popularly referred to by workers as LPG – liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation.”

– Brinda Karat, CPI(M) politburo member, in The Indian Express, May 19, 2011.

The op-ed piece by Brinda Karat  is a brave effort at self-defence after almost five days of uncomfortable silence following one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the left movement in India. The article, defensively titled ‘The Left will endure’, is revealing in a number of ways. One, that the CPI(M) has nothing much left to say and two, that most of what it says is an expression of many of the beliefs that the Left Front continues to hold, or at least professes to hold – even with all the evidence against the same – in review of its performance in West Bengal.

But before an analysis, it is necessary to point out that Karat’s use of the term ‘the left’ is also a little problematic, as it cannot be said with certainty that all people or parties associated with the colour red are willing to call the CPI(M) brand of politics their own and not all of them today would necessarily choose to say that ‘the left will endure’.

What this article attempts is to dispute:

Ř That the defeat of the Left Front in Bengal was somehow a defeat because of the values that the Left Front professes to hold – equal and sustainable growth, labour rights, class approach to issues and its refusal to accept foreign capital, etc.

Ř That the critics have written the Left Front off and are attempting to browbeat it into neo-liberal submission.

Ř That the Left Front record in Bengal has been most laudable in terms of its commitment to people, secularism, growth and maintaining a thriving democratic culture in Bengal in spite of the lack of a strong opposition.

Most of the above are only ‘theoretically’ true and meet reality only at a tangent.

Apart from those alluded to above, the reasons most widely accepted and spoken of, both by critics and Left Front members, are the ideas of ‘disconnect’ and ‘anti-incumbency’. Disconnect between the party and the people; what the people thought, sought and aspired to and what the party thought that they did. And together with the analysis of the Left Front’s laxity, its heavy-handedness, its taking the people for granted and thinking of the state as its private backyard, and some fatal illusions of its own invincibility, the point is made that therefore the people got disillusioned by the party and wanted ‘poribartan’, (parivartan, change).

Though disconnect and anti-incumbency effectively explain a major part of the poll results, they do not in any way constitute all that the people felt or thought before giving their verdict, and quite consciously exclude the anti-CPI(M) anger that was building up post-2006.

For had they been entirely true, the electoral reflection should have been a gradual drop in the popularity of the Left Front before it was finally voted out. But then how does one account for the preceding elections in 2006 where the Left Front’s victory was as spectacular as its defeat this time? The revolutionary quality of the term ‘poribartan’ warrants a much better explanation.

There is no denying the kind of work that the left did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its 30-plus-year rule was, after all, a legacy of the trust gained at that time. But it is now widely accepted that after that, Bengal was on the path to stagnation. By the 1990s almost everything had virtually come to a standstill – the economy was breaking down, more and more people were becoming jobless, education and heath sectors were stagnating and there were hardly any opportunities. The city was truly becoming timeless. Let’s look at some of the statistics:

In matters of basic survival, as the National Sample Survey 2004-05 had pointed out, “the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year” is highest in West Bengal (10.6 per cent), worse than in Orissa (4.8 per cent) which is known for rural hunger in places like Kalahandi. Employment is also abysmal with more than 20 per cent unemployed in 1999-2000 and many more today.

In medical services, as the official West Bengal Human Development Report (2004) points out, spending on and access to health services have stagnated. Some indicators – immunisation, antenatal care, women’s nutrition and doctors and hospital beds per 1,00,000 people – are below the national average. What’s more, West Bengal has not opened a single new primary health centre in a decade.

In matters relating to industries and economy, as two reports published by The Hindu group of publications pointed out, between 1984 and 2001 the number of industries in the state was almost static – 5,369 to 6,091. Moreover, during this period the numbers employed in the organised industrial sector in West Bengal almost halved. In 2004 about 75 per cent of the registered small-scale industries in the state were sick and the gross fiscal deficit as a percentage of state GDP was a whopping 8.5 per cent in 1999-2000, the highest among the states.

All these statistics, along with many more, come together vis-ŕ-vis the assertion about reduction of poverty which Brinda Karat produced as a proof of the Left Front’s 34 years of work.

After 2006

The Left Front was quite aware of the state of affairs. And so was Buddhadeb Bhattacharya when he came to power in 2000 and tried to get things moving. His effort to change the face of Bengal by being much more open to economic reforms as compared to his predecessor Jyoti Basu spoke of a certain new beginning. This, along with a number of almost divine interventions like the 2002 Gujarat riots, the right-wing government at the centre, Mamata Banerjee’s failure to unite the opposition and her alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, culminated in the spectacular 2006 results where the Left Front swept the polls.

But after 2006, there was a complete reversal. The new chief minister went a tad too far – almost into the lap of neo-liberalism. Thenceforth it was a story of how the Left Front successfully, and finally, managed to break off its already alienated relationship with every group of people that had been its staunchest supporters from the very beginning – the minorities, the intelligentsia, the workers, the industrialists and even most of the Marxists themselves. External factors came together here too but in quite the opposite way – the findings of the Sachar Committee, the tremendous rise in Mamata’s popularity and, for once in Bengal, a strong and united opposition. The odds were stacked against the Marxists in this deck and every single one of those cards was put in there by the Marxists themselves – some recently but most throughout their 34-year history.

Minorities and the Left Front

An essential element in the decline of the left is the alienation of the minority community from its government. The left in Bengal recognised no other colour apart from the red of revolution and had espoused a one-line policy on all matters relating to religion and religious groups – that of being ‘anti-communal’. This practice of colour blindness was believed and practised in its circles to prevent discrimination based on religion. Statistics brought out by Dr Abu Saleh Shariff, member of the Sachar Committee, reveal the condition of Muslims in a state that arguably sat at the altar of ‘secularism’. While Muslims comprise 25 per cent of the total population of West Bengal, only 2.1 per cent of them are employed in government jobs. Only 50 per cent of Muslim children have access to primary schools, out of which only 12 per cent complete matriculation. In revealing contrast, 54 per cent of children from scheduled castes / scheduled tribes attend primary school, out of which 13 per cent reach matriculation.

The above statistics, which reveal a condition much worse than in Gujarat – a state where Muslims are the most discriminated against – are a consequence of the professed, self-congratulatory policy of being ‘anti-communal’, a policy which worked in a surprising number of ways. On one level, this linear perspective reassured the Muslims, as it kept the Hindu right-wingers as well as an active policy of discrimination at bay even as it kept the votes coming in. On another level, it worked wonders, as it became the best excuse for dismissing any dialogue that sought to examine either the condition of minorities or their empowerment. It was a magic wand used to pursue a passive form of discrimination – positively making no effort to empower the minorities – and 34 years of this approach brought about a mess that the statistics themselves reveal. Everyone had a vague idea of how matters stood, for it was visible all around but there was nothing definitive. And, of course, anything is better than the BJP. But after the Sachar Committee report came in, it was time to panic.

The history of the left in Bengal has however witnessed two ‘events’ when the CPI(M) was forced to acknowledge the category of religious minority. In the first instance, the left helped the Muslims to survive while in the second, the left hoped to survive with their help. It didn’t. During the communal riots in 1964, when Muslims were being massacred across the state, CPI(M) cadres stood guard outside Muslim mohallas, protecting their lives. It was this act that sealed the faith with which Muslims in Bengal have cast their votes in favour of the CPI(M) year after year. What the act symbolised was an assurance of survival and not the guarantee of a dignified life. And it was this realisation that led to the interaction which the CPI(M) attempted as a last resort almost four decades later.

Realising that its chances of surviving as the ruling party were bleak, the CPI(M) doled out sops to appease the minorities. Ten per cent reservation for OBC (other backward class) Muslims was suddenly declared. But the attempt was largely symbolic, for only 10 per cent of the seven per cent of reserved seats for OBCs was granted, which essentially meant 0.7 per cent reservation. There were several similar efforts. The father of one of this article’s writers teaches at a school that was refused minority institution status on one pretext or another for 10 years until just before the elections when it was suddenly and inexplicably granted a no objection certificate. Had the attempt been an honest one, it would still have meant something. But election goodies for an angry quarter of the population came a little too late and was probably too ill-advised.

Intelligentsia and the poor

Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh were probably the breaking point in the Left Front’s association with the people. A government which came as a messiah of the masses – introducing land reforms, protecting its minorities and deriving its ideology and strength from the common people – turned its back on them when it tried to snatch their land away and give it to corporates who wanted to roll out cars and chemicals that the people to whom those lands belonged could only dream of. It was almost a historical blunder – not so uncommon in red history all over the world. In his haste to incorporate the famed Bengali ‘aspiration’ after a long hiatus, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya forgot some of his own lessons.

Another segment that the left pushed to the edge was the 80,000 strong coastal community of Haripur with its proposal for a nuclear power plant at the cost of their land and livelihoods. Sensing that the left was now treading on weak ground, weeks ahead of the assembly elections, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya claimed that he was willing to reconsider the project in the light of the nuclear disaster in Japan. Mamata, on the other hand, declared that if she were to come to power, the project would be scrapped. The people of Haripur’s loss of faith in the left was no isolated incident; in this they were joined by several others who felt disenchanted and disenfranchised.

It was not surprising to hear Mamata in those places, and in all places thereafter, using the same words and talking of the same commitments that the left had once made to the people in its early stages. And it wasn’t just words. Travelling from village to village, sometimes on foot, meeting and listening to as many people as possible, eating and sleeping with the people, Mamata entrenched herself firmly in a space that the left had created, occupied and then abandoned in self-indulgent assurance.

It is this vacuum – resulting from the politics of abandon practised by the left – that Mamata Banerjee capitalised on. While the left unleashed a reign of terror in rural Bengal, Mamata protested, languished in jail and spoke for the disaffected in Parliament. Poribartan then, along with ‘Ma, Mati, Manush (Mother, Motherland and People)’, emerged as the right election war cry in this state of eternal abandon.

The defining moment in the shift of allegiance came when the government fired on demonstrators at Nandigram and the way in which it dealt with legitimate and democratic expressions of dissent – a series of acts which managed to anger and completely dissociate not just the people but also the intelligentsia. For a group of people already disillusioned by lack of opportunities, unchanging syllabuses, rampant red-tapism and the strong-arm tactics of the left in every sphere of life, the violence against the people and some of their own was the final straw.

But for those of us who grew up in Bengal, the acts of violence against the people came as no surprise. If at all there was any, it was the expression of disbelief at the idea that the left could go this far even when everyone was watching. For, one of the most remarkable achievements of the left’s 34-year rule has been the destruction of the body politic of Bengal right from the lowest level of the private family to that of legislation. And this destruction occurred through intervention in all spheres of community life, an intervention based on the swagger of power and violence. One aspect of this, as someone sarcastically remarked, was the decrease in the number of pending court cases. And it is true. The CPM-style durbars with their private hearings have made Bengal stand tall in terms of pending court cases. In Bengal, only 19 lakh cases are pending in the subordinate courts as compared to 39 lakh cases in Gujarat and 41 lakh cases in Maharashtra.

For all those who grew up in areas beyond the few posh localities populated by the bhadralok, or educated middle class, political violence has been a constitutive element of all organised life. In Metiabruz – a suburb of Calcutta, where one of this article’s writers grew up – more than 10 ‘well-known’ murders have taken place in the last 10-15 years. Scratch beneath the surface and people will tell you how it happened.

History has been witness to the fine distinction between communism and fascism. It has also been witness to the frequent erasure of that line, and Mamata Banerjee made sure that this was duly noted: “If a government stays in power for a long time, every step of that government becomes like that of fascists.” People noticed. And that is how the ‘revolution’, though very different from the one that had been promised, materialised in West Bengal. Whether fortunately or unfortunately: that remains the question.

Mamata Banerjee

However, to attribute her victory entirely to a vote against incumbency would be to grossly underestimate Mamata Banerjee. Her work with the people was recognised as far back as 1984 when she beat the CPI(M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee. And for the last 10 years, regardless of her ideology, and how well she is able to perform, her association with the people has been remarkable – it had a quality which put the communists of Bengal to shame. While Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was present at merely 25 rallies, Mamata made her presence felt at 250 of them. Where the left was absent, Mamata was reassuring. Where the left practised a regime of terror implemented by party cadres, Mamata sympathised. And she played politics. While her Bengali manifesto, intended for the working class, steered clear of any mention of SEZs (special economic zones) and heavy industries, the one in English, catering to those with the power to invest, harped on industrialisation. And above all, she was able to inspire the people and to choose inspirational people to fight alongside her. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, as new winds blow in Bengal, along with violence, one may look forward to poribartan. But it is sad that it comes at the expense of a party which had once inspired millions and still, at least the colour to which it belongs, continues to inspire many.

(Sharib Ali and Shazia Nigar are students of media and cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This article was posted on the blog Kafila.org on May 22, 2011.)

Courtesy: http://kafila.org

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