Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Red Raj



The Red Raj
On June 21, 1977, when Jyoti Basu was sworn in as Bengal's Chief Minister, little did he, his comrades -- or anyone, for that matter -- even dream that 30 years hence, the Left Front would be celebrating three uninterrupted decades of rule in the state... ...
Jaideep Mazumdar

On June 21, 1977, when Jyoti Basu was sworn in as Bengal's Chief Minister, little did he, his comrades -- or anyone, for that matter -- even dream that 30 years hence, the Left Front would be celebrating three uninterrupted decades of rule in the state. And, what's more, appear to be on firm ground and an unassailable position even after such a long tenure. Apart from creating history--no other party in a multi-party, electoral democracy, leave aside a Communist regime, has ever won so many elections in a row--the very fact that the Left Front, with the CPI(M) being the overwhelmingly dominant partner, has ruled for such a long time (and appears set to rule for many more) is quite paradoxical and defies all logic.

Factors like anti-incumbency, policy mistakes (like driving away capital or abolition of English from the primary school stage), severe failings (as in health, education and infrastructure), charges of corruption and nepotism, and even glaring instances of use of brute force and high-handedness have done little to even marginally erode the Left's formidable support base. This hasn't happened anywhere else in the world.

What, then, are the reasons behind the Left Front's seven successive electoral victories? For one, it isn't definitely rigging as opposition parties have vociferously claimed for so long--the strict monitoring of the Assembly polls last year by the Election Commission has demolished that allegation. While the actual reasons are many and a combination of many factors which requires extensive research and analyses, a few major ones stand out.

The first among these, as is well-known, is land reforms--re-distribution of lakhs of lakhs of acres of ceiling-surplus arable land to the landless and Operation 'Barga' that gave ownership rights to sharecroppers and tillers of agricultural land. In one clean and deft sweep, the Left Front government made lakhs of people die-hard party supporters. They, in fact, still form the backbone of the Left's, and the CPI(M)'s, support base--Singur and Nandigram notwithstanding. The beneficiaries of these land reforms--the peasants and their families--have always blindly supported, and will continue to, the Left. Understandably so, since the Left Front government had, overnight, changed their status dramatically from that of landless peasants at the mercy of the rich landlords to landowners themselves.

Along with benefiting lakhs of poor peasants, the Left Front also gave a voice to millions of workers and poor wage-earners in the organized and unorganized sectors. The industrial workers, the bus drivers and conductors, the lowly garage employee, the domestic help, the vegetable seller, the fishermen, rickshaw pullers, cobblers, coolies et al--they were organized into unions, encouraged to demand their due share and made conscious of their rights. From centuries of near-slavery and exploitation, these sections suddenly found themselves empowered and able to hold their heads high, look straight into their employers' eyes and confident enough to post their demands. These people, too, became die-hard supporters of the Left, especially the CPI(M), and continue to be so till this day. It is, after all, the Left (in their cases, mostly the CPI-M) that gave them a voice and enabled them to extract their due share, however small that may be. This may, to the middle classes and above, hold not much significance, but to, say, an over-exploited domestic help, getting organized into a union under the patronage of the ruling party and thus being able to demand better pay and working conditions from an abusive or exploitative employer certainly made a huge difference. And were I in their shoes, I'd have unquestioningly supported and voted for the CPI(M) for the rest of my life, and so would my family members.

Yes, this led to militant and irresponsible trade unionism and a sharp decline in the state's work-culture, but that's another story.

Another very significant factor behind the unassailability of the CPI(M) is the party's carefully cultivated image as one dedicated to the cause of the poor and the marginalized. The party has always indulged in the pro-poor rhetoric and, to be fair, framed policies and programmes in consonance with it. In the eyes of the people, the CPI(M) and its partners have always remained the parties of the poor and the disadvantaged. Thus, even those who have never benefited from the three decades of Left rule find themselves drawn to the Left parties.

Yet another policy that has stood the CPI(M) in very good stead is the creation of the three-tier panchayati raj system even before it came into existence in the rest of the country. Power and policy-making was, thus, de-centralised and this resulted in lakhs of poor and marginalized villagers finding a voice and becoming the masters of their own destinies. The importance of this cannot be underscored heavily enough. For the millions in the villages who had always felt ignored by city-based policy makers and the power elite, this newfound power was an important tool for self-governance. They felt that the country's independence, at last, meant sense, and a vital difference, to them. For, till then, they had only considered (and justifiably so) India's independence as an event that made no difference to them for it only resulted in the replacement of one set of rulers (the British) with another (the city-based Indian elite). Naturally, for three decades now, they've been voting for the CPI(M).

Many events since Independence had created a strong impression among Bengalis that the Hindi-speaking rulers in Delhi bore a step-motherly attitude towards Bengal and its people. The refusal of the union government to help the state bear the burden of lakhs of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan immediately after Partition and before the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, in stark contrast to the bountiful help received by Punjab, agitated all Bengalis. Policies like that of freight equalization strengthened the impression that Delhi was out to destroy Bengal's industrial base. Many steps initiated by Delhi after 1947 were perceived to be anti-Bengal and anti-Bengali.

By coincidence or otherwise, most of Bengal's pioneering industrial units started declining and going bust; the Bengali owners of the surviving ones were forced to sell their units to non-Bengali traders. These developments only strengthened the impression that Delhi, especially Nehru, was hell-bent on destroying Bengalis. Even today, many well-read, educated and accomplished Bengalis believe that Nehru and other Congress leaders in Delhi harboured ill-will towards Bengal and Bengalis due to the challenge thrown up by Subhas Chandra Bose.

When such feelings were at their peak in the early and mid-1970s, thanks to a series of unfortunate events and circumstances that had overcome Bengal, the CPI(M) entered the scene with its strong anti-Delhi rhetoric. Accusing Delhi of neglecting Bengal and displaying a dictatorial attitude became the cornerstone of the CPI(M)'s policies and pronouncements. For Bengalis, who had so far suffered under pusillanimous Congressmen ruling the state and taking orders from Delhi (with notable exceptions like Bidhan Chandra Ray), the voluble CPI(M) leaders with their strong anti-Delhi and anti-Congress rhetoric appeared as real heroes brave enough to challenge Delhi's hegemony. The CPI(M) followed this battle through, as in the case of Haldia Petrochemicals that the state built on its own after Delhi refused to finance or even sanction the project, saying it would be unviable.

The CPI(M), thus, re-kindled Bengali pride and, in the process, made itself inseparable from middle-class Bengalis. The party also tactfully aligned itself with middle-class values, customs and prejudices to strengthen its base among this section that, all over the world, is conservative and plays a critical role in electoral victories. In order to align itself with the middle-class Bengalis, the CPI(M) didn't mind championing conservative values that went against its own liberal philosophy like, for example, decreeing that girls should wear only sarees, and not "north Indian dresses" like salwar-kameez (leave aside western attire) to college. The Bengali middle-classes (and also lower middle classes), thus, became strong CPI(M) supporters and remain so till this day. In fact, with the CPI(M) now championing industrialization and liberalisation that'll create more jobs, the support of the middle-classes has only become stronger.

And then, the role of the formidable party machinery in ensuring successive victories for the CPI(M) cannot be underestimated. A clarification will be in order here--the focus of this article is the CPI(M) since it is the dominant partner in the Left Front and, for all practical purposes, it is the party that really matters; its partners are but just bit players. The CPI(M), even before it came to power, started building up its machinery in true Communist style. Starting from the 'para', or mohalla/locality, level, it built units right till the state level. Over time, the party units at the 'para' level became all-powerful, mediating in even family disputes and dictating the social lives of the people. Party cadres emerged as the connect between the people and the government, and, thus, became very powerful.

Along with this, the party started establishing its vice-like grip over other institutions, including hallowed ones like Calcutta University and Presidency College. All institutions were subverted and made to do the party's bidding. And at the same time, the state administrative machinery was also infiltrated and politicized. The bureaucracy and the police force became mere adjuncts of the party. All this was done very quietly, systematically and efficiently. The CPI(M) ensured only its members and supporters got government jobs, including that of school and college teachers. These teachers, in turn, ensured that indoctrination of youngsters started at a very early age, right from the school level, and continued through college and university.

The CPI(M)'s students' arm, the SFI, ensured that non-believers or opponents (of the party and its Marxist ideology) were harassed and even driven out of institutions. So strong has been the stranglehold of the party over all aspects of people's lives that it has effectively snuffed out all independent thought and behaviour, especially in Bengal's semi-urban and rural areas where the grip is much stronger than in Kolkata. The help and cooperation of the state machinery has also ensured the CPI(M)'s repeated electoral victories, though this is not to suggest that the state machinery has aided or abetted large-scale subversion of the electoral process. That, as stated earlier in this article, is just not the case. But the state machinery has undoubtedly been rendering help to the CPI(M) at the hustings, and while such help has definitely been critical in ensuring larger victory margins for the CPI(M), it has not ensured victory per se.

The firm grip of the party over people's lives has also had another beneficial effect for the CPI(M). It has effectively rooted out all opposition. With indoctrination starting very subtly at the school level, it is very difficult in Bengal for any non-Marxist and non-Communist stream of thought or philosophy to strike root and blossom.

If a student starts showing signs of independence or, worse still, opposition to communist philosophy, he or she will be subtly asked and then forced to either fall in line or remain silent. Those who keep on defying are hounded or harassed out of their institutions. One or two such instances are enough to make other independent-minded submit silently to the party.

Defiance at the workplace, mainly government but also many private establishments, meets with similar response from the omnipresent party cadres. It is, thus, small wonder that no credible, charismatic and coherent non-communist politician gifted with a vision (all these qualities leads to Mamata Banerjee's exclusion) has emerged in Bengal over the last three decades. As for the ones who had been around when the Left Front took over the reins, they have mostly been co-opted (and corrupted) by the CPI(M) to the extent that they no longer command any credibility in Bengal, even though some of them occupy positions of power in Delhi (with the CPI-M's blessings, of course).

Whatever little political opposition remains in Bengal (read: Mamata Banerjee and her party) is vacuous and commands little support (once again notwithstanding Singur and Nandigram), as last year's Assembly polls have shown. Given this, it is inevitable that the CPI(M) and its junior partners win one election after another. And, unless Bengal's present set of rulers make extremely stupid mistakes (here, Singur and Nandigram should stand out as ominous warnings) or a host of unfavourable and unforeseen factors combine to mount a strong challenge to the Left, the last seven electoral verdicts in the state will witness repetition.

The Left Front's list of achievements is long. Lakhs of people have genuinely benefited. Lakhs more have been empowered. The Left has been unwaveringly secular. But, as is perhaps inevitable, the list of failures is also long, though not as long as the Opposition parties would like us to believe. But what's important, at the end of the day, is the quiet burial that democratic traditions and values, and the democratic ethos as such, has received in Bengal at the hands of the CPI(M).

Thirty years in power is definitely an occasion that calls for celebration. But it ought to set people thinking about and exploring the factors that have led to creation of such history. And in this exploration will one discover the total subversion, and deliberate extinction, of the very ethos of multi-party democracy in Bengal. A thousand flowers definitely don't bloom, at least not the non-red variety, in Bengal. That's sad and that's the most unfortunate fallout of three decades of communist rule in Bengal.