Saturday, May 27, 2006

Left, Right, Left, Right, to seventh heaven (May 27, 2006)

Economic pragmatism, cultural correction and lots of help from the opposition. That's how the CPI(M) does it again and again in West Bengal.

By Swapan Dasgupta

Winning an election, or so the conventional wisdom in India goes, is easier than securing re-election and resisting the inevitable tide of anti-incumbency. It is to the credit of the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal that they have proved otherwise—not once, not twice, but on six different occasions. On May 11, the Left Front coasted to victory for the seventh time, decimating all its opponents and finally putting to rest all the elaborate theories of “scientific” rigging. In the annals of competitive, multi-party democracy, the Comrades in West Bengal have set a political record that will be difficult to surpass.

And yet, it is undeniable that Left leaders woke on the morning of May 11 with a slight trepidation. It is not that the final outcome was in any doubt. No one, not even the most incorrigible of anti-Left optimists, seriously believed that there would be a silent, democratic upheaval. At the same time, what the redoubtable K.J. Rao described as the “freest of all free elections” in West Bengal raised some larger questions.

First, assuming that all previous elections in the state had been marred by varying degrees of adulteration, were the exit polls projections accurate? Since forecasts were based on a benchmark—in most cases the 2001 Assembly poll results—would the past distortions have a bearing on present projections? Statisticians argued that it should but no one was certain of the magnitude of the scientific rigging in the past. Barun Sengupta, the venerable editor of Bartaman, for example, put the quantum of adulteration at a 33 per cent average. Others, including the CPI(M) leadership, believed it was statistically insignificant.

Second, this was a poll conducted under strict and intrusive Election Commission supervision. A scrutiny of electoral rolls led to some 24 lakh “bogus” voters being excluded from the rolls and the inclusion of an equal number of new voters. In short, there was something like a 48 lakh turnover which, it was argued, had the potential of creating upsets in marginal constituencies.

Third, contrary to motivated Left fears that the presence of central para-military forces would frighten off voters, particularly in the villages, Bengalis braved the May sun and turned up in amazingly large numbers to vote. The average turnout touched 83 per cent, up from 78 per cent in 2004 and 75 per cent in 2001. Again, contrary to suggestions that people resented the EC’s over-bearing arrangements, there was widespread endorsement of the measures to prevent intimidation of voters in the queues, impersonation and booth capturing. The recurrent comment of voters was how happy they were to have “cast my own vote myself”—a tacit indictment of past elections. Consequently, the question uppermost in the minds of all political parties was: would such a spectacularly high and genuine turnout upset the psephological applecart? Would West Bengal witness a silent vote for change?

In hindsight, most of these concerns turned out to be completely unfounded. The Left juggernaut was unstoppable. As predicted by the opinion and exit polls, the Left Front won a seventh term in office with an increased majority, reversing the marginal decline witnessed in 1996 and 2001. Throughout the state, there was an increase in the Left Front’s popular vote. The higher turnout proved completely advantageous to the incumbent.

The results for a divided opposition were so ungratifying that the leader of the Trinamool Congress legislature party may not qualify to be recognised as the Leader of Opposition. From 61 seats in 2001, the Trinamool came down to 29 and lost seats in its strongholds of North and South 24 Parganas and Kolkata. The Congress too was badly mauled and the party failed to consolidate the gains made in in 2004 in Malda, Murshidabad and North and South Dinajpur districts. In Malda, the void left by the death of Congress stalwarts Ghani Khan Choudhury was filled by the Left.

West Bengal did witness a silent vote for change but the beneficiary of that vote was the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M). It is the paradox of the Left being able to encapsulate both continuity and change that warrants explanation. After enjoying 29 uninterrupted years of power, there was a natural anti-incumbency. How the Left managed to internalise this anti-incumbency in its own favour is the fascinating story of the mood change brought about by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya—a man who is being lauded as the Deng Xiaobing of Indian Communism.

For a party that believes in the dictatorship of the Politburo, the CPI(M) is understandably squeamish about according pre-eminence to Bhattacharya’s role in transforming the mindset of governance. “Buddhadeb is merely continuing a process that began under Jyoti Basu” is a familiar refrain of many CPI(M) old-timers.

To a limited extent this is true. In the final years of his rule, Basu recognised that the dismantling of the license-permit-quota raj had made it untenable for the Left to blame the economic decline of West Bengal on the “step-motherly” attitude of the Centre. As states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat braced themselves to take full advantage of the new supply-side economics, West Bengal too felt the need to change its image and business environment. The surge in agricultural productivity witnessed after the land reforms of the late-1970s proved inadequate to offset the industrial decline of the state. West Bengal became the rust belt of the east and Rajiv Gandhi’s carping aside about Kolkata being a “dying city” was an unpleasant home truth that Bengalis couldn’t accept graciously. The situation was so pathetic that in 1987, the Left Front’s campaign in Kolkata focussed on two so-called achievements: the construction of a sports stadium in Salt Lake and the building of a cinema hall in the heart of the city! And 1987 was the year of the Left’s most spectacular victory: 251 out of 294 seats.

For the Left, the problem was two-fold. First, the culture of militant trade unionism, including gherao, which arose in the mid-1960s led to a massive flight of capital and proved a big deterrent to any new investment. Yet, since the empowerment of organised labour was so central to the CPI(M)’s political mission, it was difficult to persuade organisations like CITU that wider social responsibilities demanded a curb on militancy.

Second, the CPI(M) leadership was dismissive of what they saw as the trappings of modernisation. Top CPI(M) leaders like the late Promode Dasgupta and Benoy Choudhury were upright individuals who led very austere lives. They nurtured a deep antipathy to the glitzy, bright lights of capitalism which, in their view, encouraged iniquity and decadence. They neither understood nor appreciated the dynamics of modern capitalism. To them, industrialisation meant massive Soviet-style steel plants financed by the public sector.

Dasgupta, the main who firmed up the organisational walls of the CPI(M) was, for example, totally focussed on what his priorities were. In a revealing interview in 1978 to a now-defunct magazine from Calcutta, he spelt out his approach: “In bourgeois democracies the common man has no political role once he has cast his vote in the election. We are determined to give him a continuing role in rural development… If, even with the limited power at our disposal, we can accomplish certain things in the villages, we should be able to bring about a mass awakening among the rural people.”

What Dasgupta left unstated was that empowerment became synonymous with the stranglehold of the party over all institutions, including those linked to civil society. The CPI(M) has made it impossible for people to survive in the countryside without coming to an understanding with the party. The Opposition has either been forced underground or exists on the sufferance of the CPI(M) Local Committee. The CPI(M) doesn’t need to rig the polls; it operates in a opposition-free void in at least 150 of the 294 seats.

For the veterans of the CPI(M)—inspired to a very large degree by the mythology around China and Vietnam—this high-handedness is synonymous with the mobilisation of the peasantry. But peasant activism injects associated problems. As India has progressed from deprivation to surplus, the CPI(M) has chosen to don the mantle of permanent outlanders in the modern world.

It is conceivable that Basu realised that the old ways wouldn’t do but he lacked either the political commitment or the clout to force a change in the party’s way of thinking. Till the late-1990s, until the emergence of urban protest under Mamata forced a review, the CPI(M) was content to believe that their stranglehold over rural West Bengal would see them through the future.

Basu’s grudging retirement amid great fanfare triggered change. The new generation which came to the fore with Bhattacharya had not all cut their teeth in the food movement of the mid-1960s or the land grab movement during the days of the first two United Front governments. Their apprenticeship in the Communist movement coincided with the U-turn in China under Deng and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As such, they were not fired solely by the romanticism associated with the early years of the CPI(M)’s growth in West Bengal. Having tasted power uninterruptedly since 1977, they were not overwhelmed by the oppositional mindset of an earlier generation.

Yet, the process of change necessitated leadership and direction. With the advent of Bhattacharya, the Left Front began focussing on industrial and urban regeneration. For the first time after decades of neglect, there were investments to upgrade the urban infrastructure. The much-needed flyovers relieved the traffic congestion of Kolkata and the city that was known for unending power cuts suddenly lost all use for inverters and generators. Kolkata witnessed a retail and housing boom as new suburbs blessed with good civic ameneties were added to the city’s boundaries. What Chandrababu Naidu did for Hyderabad, Bhattacharya has done for Kolkata. He has not only resuscitated a dying city, he has put it back on the map of urban India. After some four decades, Kolkata has become liveable again.

The physical changes to the city were only the beginning. Bhattacharya has systematically begun the process of reversing each and every one of the outlandish changes introduced by the CPI(M) under Basu.

The rectification programme has been particularly marked in education. In the early-1980s, the Left Front removed the teaching of English as a compulsory subject in primary schools. At one stroke this measure negated the historical advantages of middle class Bengalis in the all-India employment market. Proficiency in the mother tongue was always desirable but Bangla alone could not secure jobs in a wider environment. And there were few jobs to be had within West Bengal.

Second, the Left Front under Basu had launched a vicious assault on all centres of excellence. In the name of equity, the state witnessed a spectacular levelling down programme. The worst affected were institutes such as Presidency College. Pathological control freaks, the CPI(M) began an exercise in social engineering that led to good teachers being banished to the remote interiors and mediocre teachers from the mufassil being despatched to teach the best students in the best institutes. The whole thing was a complete fiasco and contributed to an unprecedented brain drain from West Bengal. Those who could voted with their feet and simply quit the state.

Just prior to the election, Bhattacharya restored the teaching of English at the primary level and conferred autonomy on some of the better colleges in the state. It was done without too much fanfare and without too much debate. But the message went home—Bhattacharya was different and meant business.

There was a third change too. Bhattacharya tried to steer the CPI(M) away from its abrasive relationship with the upper echelons of Bengali society—remember Ashok Mitra’s infamous comment that a Communist was no bhadralok. By actively courting the intelligentsia and sports celebrities on the strength of his civility and erudition, he has projected himself as the great bhadralok consensus. This is bound to yield very rich dividends from the vast Bengali diaspora. The last leader who had attempted this was Dr B.C. Roy, chief minister from 1948 to 1963. Jyoti Basu was too abrasive and self-absorbed to worry about the non-voting classes.

Bhattacharya is fast acquiring a cult status in the state. Backed enthusiastically by a media that used to be spat upon by an earlier generation of Marxists, he has secured for the Left Front the valuable incremental vote that made the difference between a convincing win and a landslide. He has aroused dizzying expectation from a state that once knew the good life but later fell on bad times. He is perceived not as a Communist but as a moderniser—the man who can leapfrog West Bengal into the 21st century by attracting capitalist investment.

Curiously, these popular expectations have run foul of a section of the CPI(M) which is still committed to an archaic class struggle—witness CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat’s observation, immediately after the election, that “West Bengal and Kerala do not determine our national policies.”. Bhattacharya routinely pays lip service to socialism but has proclaimed his intention to work within the parameters of capitalism. In practical terms this involves three changes in the thinking of the CPI(M).

First, Bhattacharya has tacitly acknowledged the importance of profit in driving investments. Entrepreneurs, he knows, will invest in the state if they are assured of an environment conducive to healthy returns. Apart from infrastructure, this necessarily involves curbing labour militancy. In short, to succeed Bhattacharya must be able to persuade his CITU colleagues that they should temper their militancy. Second, the Chief Minister is aware that he can no longer bank on public sector investments for either industry or infrastructure. He needs both investment from both the Indonesian Salem group and the indigenous Tata Motors. In time, if Kolkata Airport is to be upgraded, he will need massive private sector participation. In short, Bhattacharya will need to counter almost everything that the CPI(M) Politburo in Delhi stands for.

The imperatives of West Bengal threaten to challenge the Politburo’s cocooned Marxism. By climbing on to the bandwagon of capitalist growth, Bhattacharya has captured the mood of restlessness in West Bengal. However, by simultaneously suggesting that the historic role of the CPI(M) is to manage capitalism efficiently and ethically, he has also bombarded the party headquarters. For a party that treats its voluminous party resolutions as gospel, Bhattacharya is guilty of revisionism, a heinous crime in the Communist lexicon. He can either fall in line with the Karats and Yechuris and retreat to the bunker or, alternatively, he can force Delhi to recognise the validity of his approach. Both processes will entail prolonged and abstruse ideological debate—a distraction the comrades love. In Kolkata, the so-called knowledgeable circles are already talking of the “Buddhists” in the party burrowing into the collected works of Karl Marx to show why the denigration of capitalism before the onset of socialism is an unfortunate Leninist distortion.

Parliamentary democracy entails two parallel but potentially conflicting responsibilities—to the electorate and to the party. Today, Bhattacharya and a section of the CPI(M) find themselves at the ideological crossroads. They have to choose between their obligation to the state and their commitment to an ideology that has been internationally discarded. It is only in Bengal that this non-issue can become a Hobson’s choice.

(Published in Tehelka, May 27, 2006)

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