On borrowed time


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THE red flag no longer flutters over West Bengal, it droops. This became evident with the results of the Lok Sabha polls. The rout of the Left Front in those elections has been followed by further setbacks in municipal polls in Siliguri and the bye-elections to the state assembly held recently. The Left Front government that has ruled West Bengal since 1977 now appears beleagured from all sides: electoral losses; erosion of its popular bases in the districts; the alienation of Muslims; growing insurgency in western parts of the district of Midnapore; the failure to govern effectively and confidently; and, consequent of all this, the growing popularity of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress. No one, not even the most loyal and diehard supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) today believes that the left will be victorious in the assembly polls that are due in 2011. Mamata Banerjee is seen as the chief minister-in-waiting.

Even if one were to ignore that perception, it cannot be denied that the left in West Bengal, especially the CPI(M), is in a crisis. For the first time in more than thirty years, its overarching dominance over the society and politics of West Bengal has been challenged to the point where it is apparent that the dominance no longer exists. Why and how has this happened?

Before even attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to delve into the recent past to bring out some of the features of the radical transformation that the Left Front rule brought about in the state. This is important because it is possible that to a certain extent the left is paying the price of its own success: that it has been hoist by its own petard. On its accession to power in 1977 in the wake of a massive popular mandate – a mandate that was strengthened by the results of the next election and all subsequent ones – the left undertook a programme to change the character of the state’s agriculture and agrarian relations.


Before 1977, it can be said without much over-simplification, rural society and rural politics was dominated by large proprietors, who in colonial times had been zamindars and tenure holders. This social group lost its power and position because of the left government’s programme of land reforms and the putting in place a set of new panchayat institutions. These enormous changes were foreshadowed by the long history of agrarian struggle of sharecroppers, poor peasants and landless labourers who had been led by the communist parties. The success of land reforms, the establishment of new panchayat institutions and the emergence of a new power structure in the rural world varied from district to district. But it is undeniable that by the early 1980s, the ancien regime of dominance and oppression by large proprietors, the inheritors of zamindars, was over in West Bengal.

This transformation of rural society and of the equations of power within it was carried out by the state at the behest of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The presence of the party was important not only because it had for decades (first as the undivided communist party and then on its own) provided the leadership to all agrarian movements involving landless peasants, poor peasants and sharecoppers, but also because after the left’s accession to power, the CPI(M) became the source of power, patronage and influence in the rural world.

In almost all districts of West Bengal, the party stood forth as the state and all power flowed from it. In every sphere, it was well nigh impossible to do anything without the sanction of the party. Where such acquiescence was not forthcoming, it was enforced through violence unleashed by the CPI(M) cadre or selectively by the police. This dominance and obedience lay at the very heart of the CPI(M)’s rural vote bank.

It would be unfair not to point out that this dominance, despite the violence that lay just beneath the surface, produced major tangible and intangible gains for the rural poor. There was an enormous upsurge in agricultural production (through double and triple cropping, better irrigation, the use of chemical fertilizers and high yielding seeds) and this raised levels of prosperity in the villages. Equally important, the poor in the villages felt, for the first time, that their grievances and complaints would receive a fair hearing in the police stations and the panchayats. The izzat and the dignity of the poor received a tremendous boost because of the dominance of the CPI(M). This was the great success of the left.


The dominance though did not come without a price for the state of West Bengal. Across the state, the distinction between the government and party came to be blurred. The police and the district administration acted at the behest of the party. This created a network of dependence. Poor people, and even some of the rich ones, knew that if they needed anything from the government, the best access was through the party. Even social transactions within a village came to be mediated by the party. The party – the CPI(M) – became the state in West Bengal. Any dissent or defiance was dealt by the party through intimidation and terror. This not only helped the process of political mobilization during elections but also explains why for decades the left in general and the CPI(M) in particular concentrated so completely on the rural world to build up its bases. This made them appear invincible in electoral terms as well as in the wielding of power and influence in the countryside.


The success in the rural world achieved through the 1980s created its own problems in the subsequent decade. The relative prosperity and the stability as well as the use of political patronage created a class of people in the districts whose aspirations were a little different from those of the traditional villager. A sharecropper’s son who knew his family had acquired rights in land, who had been to school and perhaps even to college, no longer thought like a sharecropper. His horizons had widened, his ambitions and expectations were different. He looked to the cities in expectation of a different and perhaps even a better way of life.

Unfortunately for him, there was nothing in the cities. In the same period that the left was creating and consolidating its rural bases, West Bengal had been reduced to an industrial waste. Capital and investment had fled because of irresponsible trade unionism. Work culture had collapsed since the lower level of the bureaucracy and the workers were assured that so long as they remained loyal to the party they need not work for their salaries. Loyalty and not merit came to be rewarded. The left thus had nothing to offer by way of employment to meet the rising expectations that were emanating from the rural world because of their own successes there.

Under these circumstances, to protect its own bases, the CPI(M) and the left had no other alternative but to rethink its attitude towards industry and capital. From the middle of the 1990s, under the leadership of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, the attitude towards business and industry began to change from one of confrontation to that of collaboration. This policy received a major thrust from Basu’s successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who appeared to make it his mission to transform the industrial face of West Bengal.

Capitalists, foreign and Indian, were made to feel wanted in West Bengal; they were offered unheard of facilities. West Bengal looked poised to become an investment destination, especially as both land and labour were cheap. Bhattacharjee for a brief period became the investors’ darling and Bengal’s Prince Charming, not on a white charger but in a white dhoti and kurta. He spoke a different language, often admitting errors made by his own party and government in the past and assuring all that such things would not be repeated.


The dream of a golden age had to hit the hard facts of reality. An industrial transformation of West Bengal could not come in the wake of investments made by a few IT companies. The situation needed massive investments in the manufacturing sector for the creation of jobs and for the shift away from agriculture. Any manufacturing unit would need land with certain locational advantages – proximity to highways, ports and so on. That land could not come from anywhere else, save from land that was already being used for agriculture. The easy solution that suggests itself to common sense is that investors should buy up agricultural land at market prices from individual owners.

But this solution would not work in West Bengal because land holding was so fragmented that capitalists would find almost impossible to buy up all plots of land to make up a consolidated unit necessary for a manufacturing plant. Moreover, it was not just a question of owners, there were layers of usufructuary rights that had been recognized by the state during its radical land reforms programme. The normal market route would thus not work or would take an enormous amount of time and effort: capitalists would inevitably look at areas where land was more easily available.


The West Bengal government sought to circumvent this problem through state intervention. It decided to acquire agricultural land and vest it with the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. In return, agriculturists were given compensation at reasonably generous terms. This is how land was acquired for the Tata Motors plant in Singur, now a cause celebre. In Singur, while a majority of the farmers accepted the compensation, a few hundred did not. The latter became a rallying point for those opposed to the Left Front in West Bengal. Added to this was the fact that the Tata’s had been given the land at ridiculously cheap rates. The stand-off between the government and the opposition resulted in the withdrawal of the Tatas from Singur and the sudden disappearance of Bhattacharjee’s dreams of an industrial revival in West Bengal.

It would be an error in simplification to read the Singur episode in isolation. Coterminously, another event had unfolded. This was in Nandigram in eastern Midnapore where land acquisition for a chemical hub had been in the air even though no formal announcement had been made. Nandigram and its environs were also the stamping ground of a CPI(M) leader known for his arrogance and strong-arm tactics. Disaffection had been growing there and had been fed by so-called Maoists working in league with the main opposition party, the Trinamul Congress. The fear of losing land produced a display of protest led by political elements, but with the support of many of the common people.

The CPI(M) retaliated with the only means known to it for handling any kind of dissent: the deployment of terror through cadre power. The situation in Nandigram deteriorated fast into one close to civil war as the police either stood by as bystanders or acted in a partisan manner in favour of the ruling dispensation. The situation was further aggravated by some irresponsible statements of CPI(M) leaders – including a particularly memorable one from Brinda Karat – calling for the use of greater violence by party cadre against all those who were opposed to the CPI(M).


The situation in Nandigram took on a dimension that the CPI(M) had not quite reckoned with. It alienated large and influential sections of the intelligentsia in Calcutta. The intelligentsia in Calcutta, as is well-known, has always been left inclined. This was the first time that its members, including very prominent ones, came out on the streets to protest against what it saw as CPI(M) sponsored violence against peasants. The violence in Nandigram which was seen as the CPI(M)’s work (even though the Maoists and the Trinamul Congress were also implicated in the violence) and the opposition that it evoked were the first signs that the CPI(M) had perhaps begun to rule on borrowed time. From this time onwards, it has been downhill for the Left Front government: electoral defeats at every level, national, municipal, and panchayat; continuing erosion of influence in the districts; governance at a standstill with the administration in a catatonic fit.

It is now evident that a large amount of popular discontent simmered below the surface of left dominance. Now that the surface has cracked, perhaps beyond repair, the left edifice seems to be crumbling. More and more people are protesting against its misrule and misdeeds and its supporters are quickly changing sides. The CPI(M) seems reconciled to a defeat in the assembly elections due in 2011.

The government is in no position to provide jobs because its industrial policy has failed. This failure, as this article has tried to demonstrate, is directly linked to the left’s success in the agrarian front. The Left Front can neither meet the rising expectations and aspirations created by prosperity in the rural world, nor can it provide land for manufacturing units which alone could provide new jobs and new forms of employment generation. The genie that the left let loose from the bottle through land reforms has now become a monster that threatens to devour the left and its government.


Two aspects of the electoral losses suffered by the left and the CPI(M) perhaps need to be highlighted. One is that the Muslims appear to have withdrawn their support from the left. Many surveys, including official ones, have shown up the fact that the condition of Muslims in West Bengal in terms of access to education and jobs is among the worst in the country. Moreover, in Nandigram, Muslims were often the victims of violence. The other feature is that the control of the CPI(M), in terms of seats won in the last Lok Sabha polls, was reduced to a small pocket spread over the districts of Burdwan and Bankura. The rest have gone to the Congress-Trinamul alliance. The left is now besieged in its own red fortress.


The alienation of the Muslims was aggravated by the disaffection of the common people. This disaffection is the result not only of the terror and the arrogance that has come to be associated with the CPI(M), but also because of a failure of governance. In practically every sphere of governmental activity that affects the life of the people – health, education, creation of employment opportunities, the availability of essential services and goods, the maintenance of law and order and the smooth and efficient running of public institutions – the Left Front government has failed or has performed very poorly. Instead of addressing these problems, the left in West Bengal cultivated the illusion of permanence. What is remarkable is that the left intelligentsia, within West Bengal and outside it, were active participants in this illusion of permanence. To the eternal shame of this intelligentsia – some members of which were so vocal after the violence in Nandigram – they remained quiet and acquiescent when the Left Front government carried out a massacre of poor people, most of them refugees, in Marichjhapi in 1979.

In 1919, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the greatest Marxist theoretician after Karl Marx, wrote about the responsibilities of running a post-revolution government: ‘What is needed for the revolution are men of sober mind, men who don’t cause an absence of bread in the bakeries, who make trains run, who provide the factories with raw materials and know how to turn the produce of the country into industrial produce, who ensure the safety and freedom of the people against the attacks of criminals, who enable the network of collective services to function and who do not reduce the people to despair and to a horrible carnage. Verbal enthusiasm and reckless phraseology make one laugh (or cry) when a single one of these problems has to be resolved even in a village of a hundred inhabitants.’ (Quoted in Ralph Miliband, Marxism and Politics, Oxford, 1977, p.181.) By failing on every single count that Gramsci mentioned, the left has reduced the people of West Bengal to despair and to a horrible carnage. The left’s verbal enthusiasm and reckless phraseology stirs no emotion save contempt.


The principal opposition to the CPI(M) is being articulated by Mamata Banerjee, the numero uno of the Trinamul Congress. From the 1990s, she has fashioned herself as the sole spokesman of all anti-left sentiment in West Bengal. As of now she has not been able to present a package of policies for the future development of the state. People know what she is against but no one has a clue about what she is for. She is desperate to live down her anti-industrialist image that has clung to her ever since her opposition to the Tata Motors plant in Singur. It is significant that she has won her political spurs by following in the footsteps of her opponents. Just as CPI(M) in the 1960s and the ’70s came to power trailing a path of disruption and destruction (it is often forgotten that the ailing and the ageing patriarch Jyoti Basu was in the 1960s an instigator of street violence and the destruction of public property), Mamata Banerjee too follows the same kind of politics of violence at the street level.

Where does all this leave the benighted state of West Bengal? No one dares to be optimistic. What Dante wrote as inscribed on the gates of hell, could well become the epitaph for West Bengal’s contemporary history: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’