Two decades of left rule


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IT was in 1967 that the first United Front government assumed power in West Bengal. Immediately thereafter the management of the Calcutta Tramways Corporation (CTC), a company incorporated in London in the days of the British Raj, was taken over by the state government. The transport minister who initiated the move was a communist leader of repute – his name, Jyoti Basu. Subsequently, the CTC was nationalized. The move was hailed in left circles as one step forward in the right direction to build socialism.

Thirty-three years later Jyoti Basu, after serving a record 23 years as chief minister, retired from the government of West Bengal. Before hanging up his gloves, he took a bold decision: in his last cabinet meeting the proposal to hand over the management of the state-run Great Eastern Hotel to a French hotel chain, the Accor Asia Pacific, was approved. From 1967 to 2000, the left has come a long way. But, all through its journey, the left in Bengal has been troubled by the contradictions it was confronted with.

The basic germ of the contradictions lies in their ideology which teaches them that nothing can be done for the poor unless the present system is changed, and to achieve that goal, they must capture political power. So when the electorate put them in power in the state, they found themselves in a position for which they were neither theoretically nor mentally prepared. Some left leaders, viz. Jyoti Basu, realized that once in power there was an obligation to do something for the poor. But, the rest of his party did not share that realization.

The party steadfastly stuck to the age-old belief that unless they came to power at the Centre as well, it was not possible to do much. Moreover, their first tryst with power in independent India had made them suspicious about the working of the Indian variety of parliamentary democracy. The Centre, at the instance of the ruling Congress party, had sacked the democratically elected first communist government of EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala. In West Bengal, the initial experience of the left in the late ’60s was more or less the same. So, when they returned to power in 1977, their reactions were reflective of past experience. Understandably, their initial approach towards governance was tentative.

In the early ’80s, following Indira Gandhi’s election victory, the left was engaged in an incessant battle with the Congress for survival. They had sufficient ground for suspecting her motives due to a series of bitter experiences over the past 20 years. It was Indira, as President of the Indian National Congress, who in 1959 initiated moves that eventually led to the overthrow of the Namboodiripad government in Kerala. In West Bengal too, the Congress didn’t hesitate to invoke Article 356 of the Constitution twice (in 1967 and 1969) to keep the United Front out of power.

In the fight for survival with the Centre, the left leaders of West Bengal had to plan for this contingency. Their priorities were set, not according to the need of the state but by the exigency of their political compulsions. Yet, during this early phase of their long unfinished innings in Bengal, they showed tremendous courage in taking up bold projects for social engineering aimed at changing the socio political equations in the state. Both the ‘Operation Barga’ movement and the democratically elected three-tier panchayat system are important in this context.



The election results from 1952 to 1971 show that the left was well entrenched in the industrial towns and adjacent areas. The rural hinterland remained a stronghold of the Congress ensuring it victory, given the larger number of seats in the countryside. The general election of 1977, held in the aftermath of the Emergency, somewhat changed this scenario in favour of the left. No wonder, in an attempt to consolidate its position, the left looked to rural West Bengal.

Though the Zamindari system was abolished by an enactment in the state Assembly way back in 1957, the land holding pattern had undergone little change. A vast majority of the cultivators had little or no land in their possession. In an effort to penetrate and widen its support base in the rural areas, the CPM, after coming to power, initiated steps to correct the existing imbalance in land relations.

For this adopted a two-prong strategy. On the one hand, it stressed the empowerment of the landless and marginal farmers – ‘Operation Barga’. Additionally, it tried to complete the unfinished task of distributing surplus land vested from the landlords. On the other, the Left Front government introduced a three-tier panchayat system and in 1978 held its first election. The panchayat system was important for it was expected to give the people a participatory role in the process of rural development. We shall see later that the effort was not extended to its logical next step; rather it was abandoned halfway.



Not that the environment was propitious for rapid economic development when the left leaders found themselves in power. At the Centre, after the fall of the Janata government, the Indira Congress romped back to power in the mid-term elections of 1980. It did nothing to dispel the misgivings of the left in particular, and among the people of West Bengal in general. On the contrary, the Congress sent all kinds of wrong signals to the states ruled by non-Congress parties. That these apprehensions were not unfounded became evident when in 1984 the AICC General Secretary Rajiv Gandhi, with active encouragement from Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, prevailed upon the Governor of Andhra Pradesh to dismiss the NTR government. The left fought alongside the Telugu Desam and other opposition parties to undo the misdeeds of the Congress. The Centre had to yield ground and the issue of Centre-state divide was given recognition in the formation of a judicial commission headed by Justice R.S. Sarkaria.

While concentrating on Centre-state relations, the left attempted to initiate its vision of social engineering: first, in the agrarian sector and, second, in the area of education, culture and rural health. The CPM, being an ideology-driven party, was expected to give priority to controlling education and culture. They retained control of education, health, and the information and culture ministries. In rural health, they tried to adopt the Chinese model. Citing Mao’s example, the party secretary, Pramod Dasgupta, tried to initiate the barefoot doctor model in the state. But, the project met with resistance and had to be abandoned. Then they tried to build a three-tier health service system for the rural areas. The doctors would be placed in the primary, subsidiary and the sub-divisional or district hospitals and the state-run medical college hospitals would act as referral hospitals.

Budgets were allocated and some sort of infrastructure was built up. But, the left government failed to post doctors in the rural area. Even after 23 years of left rule in West Bengal, basic services are not available in most rural hospitals for want of doctors. According to state government figures, of the 40,000 registered medical practitioners, 69% are located in urban areas though 73% of the population lives in rural areas.



The situation is similar in education. During the days of British rule, it was mainly the local zamindars and other philanthropists who expanded modern education in West Bengal. After Independence, these institutions suffered from poor management and insufficient funds. In most schools and colleges, teachers were poorly paid, that too irregularly. The state government took upon itself the financial burden of paying salaries to school and college teachers, thus freeing them from uncertainty and worry. The campus unrest that had started in the mid-60s and grew alarmingly during the Congress regime of the Emergency ended. Classes and examinations were held regularly, results were published on time. The middle class in the urban and semi-urban milieu was satisfied.

The CPM had appointed party supervisors to oversee the work progress in all the important ministries. The education ministry was looked after by Anil Biswas, currently state secretary of the party. The mandate was clear. At all levels of educational administration, the CPM put in place its own people to ensure full control. The party started interfering in the day-to-day affairs of the academia. In the mid-80s, the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University resisted such interference, thereby earning the wrath of the party. The CPM thereafter took care to screen all candidates before appointing them to the different academic institutions. Thus, Ranjugopal Mukherjee (former registrar of CU), for example, was preferred to a leading physicist like Chanchal Mazumder as VC of North Bengal University. It became a practice to install yes-men in the key positions of academic bodies.



There are seven state universities, more than 200 colleges, a few thousand secondary and higher secondary schools and thousands of primary schools, one higher secondary board, one secondary board, one primary board as also one madrasa board. To keep a firm grip the CPM created six ministerial posts in the education department, keeping them all in-house. But, the responsibility of the ministers was limited to implementing the dictum of party bosses. As was to be expected, the job-starved middle class started showing allegiance to the party to get jobs. As a result the party grew in numbers. With the active encouragement of the party, teachers and education administrators thus recruited organized themselves into strong trade unions. The erring teachers were protected by their respective organizations.

With the enactment of new laws, educational institutions were ‘democratized’ to a point that the number game gradually became a key factor in administration. Thus, the quantity factor was brought in to prevail upon quality. The standard of education at various levels in West Bengal started to decline. The decline of teaching in the state-sponsored vernacular schools led to a mushroom growth of English-medium schools. More and more urban and semi-urban people started to prefer this relatively expensive privately-run school system for their children, while the rural poor were left to the vagaries of the state. The dropout rate at the primary and high school level, mostly in rural Bengal, showed a rising curve compared to relatively backward states like Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. The students aspiring for better careers started to enrol in other states.

In the cultural world the CPM burnt its fingers at the very first attempt. It all started with a small incident. Usha Utthup, a pop singer, was branded as vulgar and reactionary, first by a minister, then by the party. The singer fought back and went to court, forcing the party to retreat. Buddhadev Bhattacharya (currently chief minister) was entrusted with the task of defining healthy and progressive culture. The ensuing debate put the party in such a corner that it hastily abandoned the entire project.



Yet, occasionally, it tried its hand to control the artists and intelligentsia. Under state patronage a few films were made, some plays staged, and sponsorship extended to various institutions and individuals. But the overall scenario of Bengali art and culture took a downward turn. Coincidentally, in the same period, Hindi movies from Mumbai captured and dominated the local market. With the rise in unemployment, a new phenomenon raised its head. The youth turned to religion, with Jai Santoshi Maa of Bollywood and Jai Baba Taraknath of Tollywood dominating. This trend of religious festivity cut across class and caste lines, both in rural and urban areas. Obviously, the CPM had no alternative cultural agenda to offer to the unemployed youth.



The newspapers of the early ’80s in West Bengal often carried the common refrain of the Left Front government and party that given the limited power provided by the Constitution for the states, they could not address the bulk of the problems of the people, especially that of unemployment. During this period, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu demanded greater investment in public enterprises from the Centre. Many letters to the prime minister asked for the implementation of Haldia Petrochemicals and Bakreshwar thermal power projects in the state sector.

Simultaneously, he looked to the western world for investments in the state. In his many forays to the western world, he took along a few successful entrepreneurs and CEOs of multinational companies to convince the would-be investors that the left was not hostile to foreign capital. Nevertheless, the state did not get the desired investment as it was not in a position to rein in militant trade unions.

A classic example of this was the Great Eastern Hotel. Once a premier institution of Calcutta, it fell into bad days, kept afloat only by regular monetary infusion from the state exchequer. The state government looked for an interested party to sell it off to. Accordingly in 1995-96 came Accor Asia Pacific. In consultation with the state government the package it offered to the employees is worth mentioning. None of the employees were to lose their job; they would be deployed in other state-run tourist hotels. But the trade unions blocked the move and the party sided with them. As a result the project was not implemented.

A similar story was repeated when the Centre tried to sell off the ailing steel plant (IISCO) in Burnpur. Committed to the dogma that strengthening the public sector was the only route to industrial development, the CPM actively canvassed for the nationalization of any industry which fell sick at the hand of private entrepreneurs. It was a common scene of that time in Delhi to find left MPs leading delegations to the prime minister or respective ministers demanding nationalization of jute or other sick industrial units.



A few stray efforts were made to turn the tide, that too at the instance of Jyoti Basu. He often said in public, ‘Since we don’t control the Centre, we cannot act in isolation.’ Defending his attempt to invite multinationals, he remarked, ‘We will have to plan within the existing capitalist system of our country.’

In the ’90s, when the Indian economy started opening up, Basu took a bold decision. He passed a new industrial policy in the state assembly without consulting the party politbureau. The party, which was otherwise opposed to the new economic policy of the Centre, felt humiliated. This initial success made an optimistic Basu announce many industrial and other projects involving big capital and multinationals, including a six-lane North-South corridor between Siliguri and Calcutta. The party hit back with a vengeance and put a brake on most projects.

In 1973-74, rural West Bengal was the poorest in the country, with 73% people in rural areas below the poverty line. A vast majority of people live in rural areas and depend on agricultural activity. Coupled with the land reform movement and Operation Barga, the West Bengal government simultaneously introduced food for work programmes and programmes like IRDP and RLEGP, funded by the World Bank and implemented through the newly elected panchayats, creating substantial man days in the rural areas. The augmented job opportunity helped people to stay back in their villages even during lean seasons. The influx of hapless poor folk to nearby towns or cities declined perceptibly.

The Planning Commission later noted with satisfaction that substantial progress in removal of poverty had been achieved in the state between 1973-74 and 1993-94. Between 1983 and 1988, the decline in poverty was significant and it came down to 48.30%. Basu often cited this as a major achievement of his government.



But this success could not hide the grim reality of rural West Bengal. While highlighting the success in agricultural production as a direct result of the land reform movement, the left did little to augment the ageing irrigation system. And they had political reason for it. After assuming power in 1977, the party was opposed to giving priority to irrigation as, according to them, it would only strengthen the hands of rich peasants. Borrowing the vocabulary of the Stalin era, Pramod Dasgupta, then chairman of the Left Front and the all powerful state secretary of the CPM, declared that he wouldn’t allow kulakaisation in rural Bengal.

Circumscribed by such dogmatic thinking, the CPM showed no interest in the irrigation sector, allowing a Front partner, the RSP, to run the show. Thus, a mega project like the Teesta Barrage, which if completed could change the economy of the otherwise poorly irrigated six districts of north Bengal, still languishes after 23 years of left rule. Recently, the state government claimed that the proportion of irrigated land had risen from 23% in 1977 to 56%. This speaks volumes about the kind of interest the left showed in irrigation. The Left Front government accorded top priority to Haldia petrochemicals. It should be mentioned that the issue of West Bengal’s deprivation at the behest of the Centre, of which Haldia was an illustration, had helped the left win successive elections.



By 1998-99, a deceleration in removal of poverty became perceptible, as it hovered around 44%. According to the Planning Commission, a major reason for the stagnation in the poverty ratio was a deceleration in agricultural growth in the ’90s. Agricultural production in the state increased by 5.39% during 1980-83 but by only 2.99% during 1992-95. In 1993, a two-member committee appointed by the state government submitted an alarming report. It argued that the land reform process was exhausted and that stagnation was likely in the agricultural sector. Nirmal K. Mukherjee, former Governor of Punjab, headed the committee; the other member was Debabrata Bandopadhyay, former land reform commissioner of West Bengal. Incidentally, Bandopadhyay had earlier played a crucial role in the Operation Barga movement.

In view of their experience of Bengal and Punjab, they cautioned the state government about continuing fragmentation of agricultural land in the name of land reform, creating apathy towards investment in land. They recommended a consolidation of land. Given their knowledge of ground reality they suggested that instead of issuing bureaucratic fiats, democratic institutions like the 3-tier panchayat should be engaged to create awareness among the masses and another movement be launched in the model of Operation Barga. As the cost of high yielding seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and so on pushed up the cost of production, the banks too were of the opinion that any piece of land less than a bigha in size was unviable for the kind of credit required. Since a majority of land holdings were in the hand of small and middle peasants, they felt the pinch of the credit squeeze. Though the report was tabled in the state Assembly and accepted without discussion in the House, the government never tried to implement its recommendations.



On the other hand, though close to 50% of state plan expenditure was diverted for rural development projects through various ministries, the state government failed to create a mechanism for involving panchayats and the grassroot people in those developmental works, and, instead, ironically, depended on private contractors for implementation of those projects. The nexus between contractors and state government officials created hurdles for timely implementation of development projects. This unnecessarily increased the cost, forcing the cash-strapped government to abandon many projects. The CPM was not oblivious to these facts. Benoy Chowdhury, a veteran communist leader and member of Basu’s cabinet openly criticized this contractor raj. There was no formal explanation as to why the party remained unperturbed and ignored his warning.

A possible reason may be that the CPM panicked. With the redistribution of land among the small and landless peasants and distribution of pattas to the bargadars, the party had created a stronghold in the rural areas. Now, within a span of two decades they could not ask peasants to change direction. Thus, pragmatism prevailed and the CPM turned its eyes from the growing problems of the rural sector. The initial success in the rural sector was enough to see the left through elections but a growing disenchantment of the urban people was evident in successive assembly elections. First the industrial areas, then Calcutta returned to the opposition Congress fold. In the rural areas, the voting percentage of the opposition, though growing, was yet to assume alarming proportions.

In the late ’80s, however, the threat to the CPM came from an unexpected front, with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The initial reaction of CPM leaders was one of shock and disbelief. But, gradually they admitted that not all was well in the Promised Land. At one such meeting on the eve of the party congress, Jyoti Basu confessed that the party had failed to assess the impact of the tremendous technological advancement made by the western capitalist world. But the party stuck to the official line of dogmatic Marxism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and a decline of the socialist world, the communists no longer held the high moral authority they once enjoyed.



In the early ’90s, their ideological base in India came under tremendous attack from two sides: first, the rightwing BJP attacked their brand of secularism; second, Manmohan Singh initiated the process of economic liberalization. On both fronts, the left took a somewhat defensive position. While espousing the cause of minorities, the left failed to engage the Sangh Parivar on the ideological plane. The attempt to label the BJP as a communal force did not deter other centrist parties from joining hands with it in forming a government at the Centre and in different states.

In the economic sector the left was caught in a real dilemma. With gradual disinvestment of the public sector and the closing down of sick public undertakings, it was obvious that the left would find a sympathetic audience in the working class. But they had no concrete remedy to offer. The age-old weapons of strike and agitation were rendered useless in solving problems of the closed and sick industries. Thus, when central public sector units like MAMC or Bharat Ophthalmic Glass were closed down in Durgapur, the left remained mute observers. Beyond criticizing the market economy, they were unable to organize the people against it.



The problem of unemployment also assumed a serious proportion with the number of registered unemployed rising to 55.85 lakh in November 1999. But this is only a partial picture; continuing illegal immigration has added to this problem. Way back in 1989, Union Home Minister Buta Singh had admitted in Parliament that the population growth rate in the 10 districts of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh was much higher than the national average. The long porous border and the economic crisis in the neighbouring country continue to attract a steady flow of people. But with the state’s industrial scene not picking up, the old jute, textile, tea and engineering industries sick and burdened with high labour cost and outdated machinery, employment prospects remain bleak

With the abolition of the license-permit raj in the ’90s, the states, for the first time since Independence, got an opportunity to invite capital without bothering about clearance from the Centre. So, we find Jyoti Basu and his comrades willy-nilly moving in the direction. But since they lacked courage of conviction, their approach to inviting capital remained tentative. According to the state’s figures, in the period between 1991 to November 1999, 338 projects with a total investment of Rs 8688 crore were actually finalised and another 72 projects with investment of Rs 10000 crore are being negotiated. Yet, when Warner Brothers showed interest in setting up a production studio in the neighbourhood of Calcutta, the Left Front government rejected the proposal stating ideological reasons. Many more would-be investors turned their back for want of required infrastructure (road, electricity, communication) and bureaucratic red-tape. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, the state was unable to mobilize funds for the building of roads and other infrastructure.



In successive years the state had to cut back plan expenditure relating to important ministries for want of resources. Yet, it continued to pump in hundreds of crores to support 28 perennially loss making state public sector units, of which only five units have of late recorded a small operating profit. Even the much-lauded success in the power sector failed to create the expected environment for infrastructure upgradation, as the extent of transmission and distribution losses in the state electricity board remained very high. Obviously, no serious effort was made to improve the infrastructure of the state, despite hiring international consultants. As a result the state attracted little investment compared to other states like Maharastra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and even Orissa.

No doubt, some positive measures were taken in West Bengal in the last 23 years for the upliftment of the poor, among them the implementation of minimum wages in both industrial and agrarian sectors and protection of the rights of workers. But these benefits did not extended beyond the organized sector. While the state government employees, school and college teachers, municipal workers and, of course, workers in the organized sector benefited, a vast majority of workers in the construction industry, brickfields and in thousands of small industries remain deprived. In South Bengal, in districts like Midnapore and Hoogly, local party leaders with the help of panchayat functionaries used the distribution of pattas of vested lands as an effective weapon to mobilise landless peasants under the party fold. The party’s discriminatory attitude alienated many poor people; this became evident during the recently held parliamentary by-elections in Panshkura Midnapore, when thousands of landless and poor peasants openly revolted against the left parties.



The party’s ineptitude, or rather incompetence, in matters of governance can be best illustrated by a small example. In Calcutta, with its growing population, traffic management has become a major problem, since available road-space in the city is limited. On any working day, at least 8 to 10 lakh people commute from Sealdah station to Dalhousie Square. The main thoroughfare, which connects Sealdah with Dalhousie, is Bowbazar Street, a 40 ft wide road. But, on this one-way avenue, a tram runs in both directions, regularly creating a bottleneck.

Be it in the area of development or industrialization, the failure to resolve the conflict between compulsions of development and left dogma, forced the communists to drag their feet on most issues. The work culture of the state government employees became a sore point, earning a bad reputation for the left. A frustrated Jyoti Basu commented in public, ‘What can I do? I cannot ask the empty chairs (of the state secretariat) to work.’ The Left Front gradually lost its support base among the grassroots and more specifically, the subalterns. The newly appointed Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, admitted in a recent interview that the non-performance of the Left Front had pushed a lot of people towards the opposition.



Thus, when a determined Mamata Banerjee made a serious bid for political power in West Bengal, the deprived poor alongwith the unemployed youth became her support base. As the results of the last two general elections indicate, Mamata Banerjee has gathered enough strength in South Bengal, perhaps enough to win a majority of seats in Calcutta, Howrah, Midnapore, Hoogly, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Nadia districts. The Assembly election is scheduled to be held early next year. The opposition calculation is that in the event of the Left Front losing majority, Mamata could form the government with the help of the BJP and Congress. The voting pattern of the last Lok Sabha election makes clear that the combined votes polled in favour of the non-left parties exceeds that of the left.

The Trinamul and the state Congress leaders are exploring ways to avoid a fragmentation of opposition votes. Also, the Trinamul is trying to wean away the Muslim voters in Bengal. The minority votes in the state are substantial, about 27%, which can play a crucial role in tilting the balance if the trend is towards the opposition. In that eventuality, it is likely that at least initially, Mamata will emulate left populism. The tackling of the hawker issue by the Trinamul run Calcutta Municipal Corporation, as of the loss-making coal mines in Asansol belt is indication enough that she is determined to be more ‘left’ than the left.