Sunday, May 14, 2006

Against Left, for Left Front (May 14, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the more intriguing theories that were proffered in Kolkata to explain the Left Front’s conclusive seventh-term victory last Thursday, one struck me as quite prescient. “It is actually a victory of Chicago”, argued a venerable Bengali notable who has been rooting enthusiastically for Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for the past four years. The Chicago he spoke about was not some obscure allusion to Al Capone or even the Tammany Hall tradition perfected by former Mayor Daley. In intellectual circles, Chicago has long been the shorthand for the aggressive, free-market economics personified by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman—thinkers who, at various times, have influenced leaders as diverse as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Chile’s General Pinochet.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the Comrades in Alimuddin Street have intellectually reconciled themselves to the superiority of market forces over the state. Nor is there any reason to conclude that CPI(M) is on the verge of admitting that liberal capitalism is a more wholesome and civilised system than the brutal inefficiencies of Stalinist regimentation. Yet, there is a window of opportunity that arises from Bhattacharya’s admission a few months ago that he had to work within the parameters of a capitalist economy.

At his victory press conference in the party office, Bhattacharya allayed the fears of the faithful by proclaiming his belief in the superiority and inevitability of socialism. Fortunately, it was an exercise in abstraction and akin to the assertion that in the long run we are dead and destined to go to a heavenly paradise. As long as the CPI(M) is satisfied proclaiming the virtues of their utopia, India has no reason to either worry or object. Preoccupation with the after-life has, after all, been central to most religious thought.

For the moment, the issue before the Left Front is: what needs to be done here and now? By accepting the parameters of capitalism, Bhattacharya has done what India’s self-proclaimed Stalinists don’t usually do—admit that socialism doesn’t happen by securing political power. European socialists had discarded Soviet-style socialism from their agenda some 25 years ago when it became obvious that economics was beyond the ken of party-run bureaucracies. Today, the West Bengal Chief Minister has cautiously bowed to reality. It doesn’t matter whether or not he accepts that the virtues of the market economy is regards it as a kaliyuga inevitability; what matters is that he understands its logic and plays by its rules.

The incremental vote the Left Front secured this election was on account of Bhattacharya’s commitment to take West Bengal out of the orbit of disruption and decay. At a time when Mamata Banerjee donned the garb of the ultra-Left, Bhattacharya emerged as a voice of sanity, respectability and, above all, hope. The magnitude of the Left Front’s victory in the freest and fairest election ever witnessed in the state was on account of the new direction promised by the Chief Minister. And that new direction is not what is stated in some minimum programme agreed by all the constituents of the Left Front, but something more daring. West Bengal voted to get back to serious capitalism.

Had the people of the state been exposed only to the buffoonery of the party bosses like Biman Basu and the archaic rhetoric of leaders who mirror the sloganeering of V.S. Achyutanandan in Kerala, Comrades Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri would not have been strutting about Delhi so imperiously. “I do not understand what you mean by the reforms of the West Bengal government”, an irritated Karat told the media last Thursday. Ironically, two days earlier, Siddhartha Shankar Ray asked on TV: is the CPI(M) faithful to Marxism? He could well have been insisting that all Muslims practise jihad.

What’s in a name? That’s the message of Ratan Tata greeting a Red victory in Bengal with an announcement of a Rs 1,000 crore investment in manufacturing. All over India there are squirming Reds who can’t get over the paradox of the Bengal verdict: a vote against the Left, for the Left Front.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 14, 2006)

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