By Swapan Dasgupta
For a long time, until voter identity cards became an obligatory feature of elections, horror stories of electoral malpractice were routinely heard in West Bengal. There were instances of entire mohallas being excluded from electoral rolls; there were tales of non-Left parties being prevented from stationing polling agents; and, finally, there was an epidemic of organised impersonation. The phenomenon of proxy voting was particularly interesting. In some cases, the Comrades identified potential 'class enemies' and ensured that someone voted for them before they arrived to vote. In other cases, stealth was unnecessary: the Comrades merely informed the relevant people that they had been spared the trouble of joining a long queue on voting day. "Stay at home and enjoy a holiday", the householders were cheekily told. On their part, the cadres emulated the Irish principle "vote early, vote often".
The magnitude of what came to be known as Bengal's 'scientific rigging' was known in relevant circles and, not least, the media. That electoral malpractice existed in an overall climate of fear and high-handedness was also known. The remarkable feature of the flood of post-election reports dissecting the oppressive control wielded by the CPI(M) on Bengali society is that they didn't surface earlier. For nearly three decades, India's 'civil society' chose to live in wilful denial of the Left's depredations.
That tyranny and Communist-run governments are inseparable don't need much elaboration. History has established a place for Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong among the great mass murderers of all times. The international Communist movement that once claimed that "history is on our side" abruptly fell to pieces after 1989 when an oppressed people rose and threw out the Commissars without a tinge of remorse. Some of the defining symbols of post-War Europe—the Berlin Wall, KGB, Staasi and the May Day parade on Red Square—are just memory today.
In view of the global disrepute of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', it was curious that the Left in India retained its moral halo in the eyes of the intelligentsia and media. More important, it persisted with the delusion of infallibility. On May 13, as the scale of the Left Front defeat in West Bengal became evident, the CPI(M) Comrades didn't budge from their arrogant, self-righteousness—although the CPI seemed in a more reflective mood.
Apart from an outburst by an ex-minister who won his seat in the Sunderbans and the outgoing Chief Minister who chose the dignity of silence, the CPI(M) leadership were in no mood for public self-flagellation. In one TV channel, a well-spoken Central Committee member of the CPI(M) said quite uninhibitedly that the people had failed to comprehend the party's nuanced arguments. After the Politburo meeting on May 16, the CPI(M) sneeringly informed its critics that "Electoral politics is just a part of our agenda. There are many issues of ideology, people's rights and related agitations and struggles that we must keep up." The message was clear: the CPI(M) is an instrument of history; it can't be held hostage to people's votes.
In September last year, CPI(M) ideologue Prabhat Patnaik, Professor of Economics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote an article to a Kolkata newspaper in defence of the party. It's a document that exemplifies the Communist conviction that it is they, and only they, that have the monopoly of all earthly wisdom. Why, he asked, did more than half the electorate in "two most intellectually advanced states in India" consistently vote for the Left Front? And why, despite "all its omissions and commissions" does the CPI(M) still attract "some of the finest young minds" in India?
The reasons were three-fold, argued Patnaik, and held good for both the CPI(M) and the organised Left movement as a whole. "First, it is the only modern force in politics; second, it is the only consistent democratic force in Indian politics; and, thirdly, it is the only consistently anti-imperialist force in Indian politics."
To understand the ability of the Left to live in a world of its own virtuous imagination, it is worth quoting from Patnaik's defence of the CPI(M)'s claim to be the "only" democratic force: "Critics often point to this or that misdemeanour on the part of the CPI(M) cadre, this or that action on the part of the CPI(M) 'hoodlums' to contest the CPI(M)'s commitment to democracy. But even if each of the alleged misdemeanours happens to be true, it would be crass empiricism — or, what comes to the same thing, crass moralism — to deny the CPI(M)'s historical commitment to democracy from a set of individual incidents of the sort that all political formations at the ground level can be accused of."
In plain language, Patnaik has said that the normal standards of disrepute and contamination don't affect the CPI(M)—to even suggest so is tantamount to "crass moralism"—because the party of the Red Flag is thrice blessed. Even the "pervasive association" of Communism with one-party rule, he says, lacks "theoretical justification."
It is unfortunate for the Left movement that the voters of "intellectually advanced" West Bengal embraced "crass empiricism" and "crass moralism" of Mamata Banerjee and shunned modernism, democracy and anti-imperialism. Its defeat in a state after 34 years has ominous implications for the physical safety of those cadres who tried to force-feed people's democracy to what Karl Marx may have called "sacks of potatoes". But the national impact of the Bengal loss is more profound.
In India, the Communist movement averted the crisis of Left politics that hit individual Communists and their fellow travellers after the Soviet Union collapse by projecting Bengal as the alternative socialist experiment in a 'bourgeois-landlord' state. Bengal encapsulated the Left's politics, its economics and its cultural modernism. Last week, it was the totality of that alternative built on political intolerance and intellectual conceit that crumbled. Having waited for the returns from political alchemy, the voters finally allowed their common sense to prevail.