Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Use and Abuse of Democracy in West Bengal

By Sanjeeb Mukherjee

We are living in the age of democracy; not because all
countries in the world are democratic, but for the fact
that the popular aspiration for democracy is almost
universal and the fact that even authoritarian states seek legitimacy
in the name of democracy. Tocqueville way back in the 19th century
remarked “that a great democratic revolution is going on among
us”.1 In spite of the unprecedented
popularity of democracy, the
meaning of the idea of democracy is still quite minimally voiced –
it is most often restricted to periodic elections and representative
government. Often some more elements are added on to this thin
idea of democracy,
like human rights, the rule of law, an independent
judiciary, a free press and so on. The socialist experience in
the Soviet bloc led to the realisation of the importance of an autonomous
civil society for the existence of democracy. In the west,
often considered to be the exemplars of democracy, money and the
media have robbed the people of any effective role in the democratic
process. This has brought back the importance of the republican
ideals of popular participation and deliberations
in public affairs.
Finally, the third world experiment with democracy has given us
two vital lessons: first, it has exploded the myth that democracy
can only operate in social situations which have undergone the
experience of European modernity and secondly, the unending
series of rebellions and movements against authoritarian regimes
in country after country remind us not only of the popular aspiration
for democracy
but also the relevance of democratic revolutions.
1 T he Idea of Democracy
The idea and practice of democracy has travelled long and wide
making it a complex concept continuously subject to both newer
possibilities as well as restrictions. I wish to disaggregate democracy
into the following dimensions:
(i) Procedural Democracy: This is the standard understanding
of democracy basically hinged on the constitution, laws, elections,
separation of powers, an independent judiciary and other
such legal-constitutional devices.
(ii) Spheres of Democracy: The narrow notion of democracy is
restricted to the governmental process. Now it is widely accepted
that there are other spaces, both public and private, which should
be autonomous of the state and these spaces and institutions
should also be democratic. This is the idea of civil society or the
democratisation of the family or even the democratisation of the
economy and the workplace.
(iii) The Culture of Democracy: Social and political theorists
are increasingly recognising the importance of culture for understanding
society. Culture refers to the values, meanings
and attitudes which people have about anything; which underlies
all human action and institutions and which alone can help
us make sense of any social phenomenon. If society primarily
privileges the private individual and celebrates freedom as the
free choices of the private individual requiring a kind of guard or
fence to keep society at bay then the participatory or deliberative
traditions of democracy are heavily discounted; or if society is
structured along a caste hierarchy then democracy is subverted
for equality is central to democracy. Democracy presupposes a
culture, which values the ideals of equal and universal citizenship
– deliberating public issues and active participation and a
sense of responsibility in public affairs. This is the republican
ethos of democracy that is as old as Aristotle.
Marxists have been fiercely critical of the liberal model of democracy
as a kind of an enchantment, which both masks as well as legitimises
capitalism and its attendant inequalities and oppression.
However, Marxists approve of two kinds, and uses of democracy;
first, they uphold the democratic revolution against feudalism as
part of the onward march of history toward socialism; and secondly,
they uphold a radical and different model of democracy
for the proletariat which they paradoxically call the “dictatorship
of the proletariat”, which, of course, in the light of the soviet experiment,
came to be the dictatorship of the communist party.
In this essay, we shall critically examine the state of democracy,
in the thicker sense of the term, in West Bengal today. The
journey of democracy in Bengal has taken many an interesting
turn and twist. An orthodox communist party still publicly loyal
to Lenin and Stalin is in power here for almost three decades.
After a brief survey of the trajectory of democracy in Bengal, we
shall interrogate the Marxist theoretical position on democracy.
This will be followed by an examination of the record of democracy
in Bengal since 1977 when the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
led government came to power. This essay is largely an attempt
to theorise the left’s engagement with democracy in Bengal.
2 Democracy in West Bengal 1947-67
The history of democracy in India is, indeed, particularly peculiar;
it was almost thrust upon the people through what may be termed
a pre-emptive democratic revolution by the elites who formed the
constituent assembly, which was itself based on an extremely
narrow franchise and it could easily have devised a benignly
authoritarian polity to supervise India’s transition to modernity
and democracy. Not that there was no popular aspiration, but it
was not the dominant voice to shape the destiny of democracy at
its birth. Hence, when the new Constitution was promulgated, it
was an unprecedented model of a democracy from above which
enjoyed the support of the people from below. This was made
possible because of two main reasons; first, India’s dominant
classes and elites by leading the national movement came to establish
a kind of political hegemony over the people and secondly,
popular participation in the national movement schooled the
people to successfully run a future democracy. This political
hegemony of the elites is best reflected in the Congress Party’s
ability to win until quite recently, continuously, all elections in
both the states as well as in the centre. In fact, at the all India level,
in the last 56 years, only one opposition coalition could complete
a full term in office; the rest of the period the Congress has
ruled except for three of four short lived opposition governments.
Until recently, this was also largely true for most Indian states.
West Bengal is, in many senses, an exceptional state. The career
of democracy too has charted a rather different course in
this state. The Nehru era in Indian politics, which lasted till the
1967 elections, saw the political hegemony of the Congress over
the entire Indian polity. In West Bengal though the Congress
ruled the state till 1967, it faced a serious counter hegemonic
challenge from the communists. In the inter-war and post war
years, the left dramatically emerged in the political scene through
continuous and intense forms of political mobilisation, unionisation,
serious cultural intellectual interventions and party building.
Intellectuals, students, the youth, the lower layers of the
middle class and the organised working class were the major support
basis of the left. It also had pockets of influence among the
peasantry and the rural poor.
Left’s Major Contribution
The left’s major contribution to the democratic experiment in
Bengal was threefold – first; it highlighted and led the struggle for
the anti-feudal democratic transformation of both, the agrarian
society and the culture of Bengal. Secondly, through its intellectualcultural
interventions and popular mobilisation the left laid the
foundations of a critical-deliberative republican democratic culture
in the state. The communists then unaware of Gramsci’s writings
actually embarked on a politics of critical discourse to establish
left counter hegemony. Thirdly, it negotiated a difficult dialogue
between orthodox Marxist politics to which it adhered and its
actual participation in what it called a bourgeois parliamentary
democracy. There were many strands in this difficult dialogue.
The received communist doctrine regarded liberal democracies,
as mere masks to hide and legitimise capitalist exploitation and
oppression and in the face of a truly popular challenge these
would show their real bourgeois-authoritarian face.
Hence, “true” communists would have to make an armed revolution
to overthrow the state and usher in a superior peoples’ democracy.
However, the USSR, in the wake of its post war victory, advocated
the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism through
parliamentary democracy. In fact, the mid-1960s saw the beginning
of a trigonal split in Indian communism. First, the CPM
emerged to uphold a more revolutionary strategy as against the
old CPI, which came to uphold the Soviet inspired peaceful transition
thesis. Then, in 1969, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) was
formed to make an immediate armed revolution. Over time, the
CPI(M) emerged as the most powerful left force. The CPM’s attitude
towards parliamentary democracy was more complex and
nuanced. It whole-heartedly participated in parliament, but with
a bad faith as it did not aim to achieve any substantial move towards
its promised transition, but it still wanted to make strategic
use of the democratic opportunities the constitution offered.
It also combined parliamentary struggles with militant mass movements
and left led unionisation of all strata of the people. In this
process, the left both strengthened and subverted democracy at
the same time. They strengthened the critical-deliberative and participatory dimensions of democracy and considerably undermined
the constitutional democratic process and institutions including
public institutions, which are central to the healthy functioning
of democracy.
3 R adicalisation of West Bengal, 1967-72
The year 1967 marks a major milestone in the difficult dialogue
between the left and democracy in Bengal. In 1967, the communists
were a major part of the united front government. It gave a decisive
spurt to the radicalisation of society and politics in Bengal in
the form of heightened militant mass movements, unionisation
and cultural – intellectual interventions by the left. Left inspired
mass movements could not be contained within the limits of constitutional
democracy. A more radical section of the left attempted
to make an armed revolution against the existing social order
and the state. The central government viewed the situation as a
breakdown of the constitutional order, which led to the dismissal
of the government. But the left came back to power resting on
popular support to form another United Front government in
1969, which shared the same fate.
This period between the mid-1960s till the early 1970s was extremely
volatile; it saw both a heightening of the democratic
ethos as well as a subversion and attack on democratic institutions
and culture. At the social level, the anti-feudal struggle, especially
in the agrarian sector, played a major role in the democratisation
of society. This period also witnessed the flowering of
the radical republican spirit of intense public debates and participation
in the political process. However, since the left was deeply
suspicions of the existing democratic institutions and the state, it
had scant regard for the laws and norms of the Constitution; in
fact, it expressly curbed, subverted and attacked these on the
ground that these existed to protect class privilege and power.
These moves invited state action against the left and confirmed
their deep suspicions. Not only did the relation between the left
and the state turn hostile but also the divisions within the left
about the understanding of the situation and on questions of
strategy soon converted intellectual and political debates into
violent clashes. Things came to such a pass that left gang wars,
especially in urban areas, seemed to push the state towards a
civil war. The central government took this opportunity to crush
the entire left by using state terror and repression. The democratic
process in Bengal came under severe attack from all quarters
leading to a kind of a semi-fascist regime of the Congress in 1972
through an extensively rigged election.
Both the formal democratic institutions as well as the culture
of democracy and a vibrant civil society were all brutally attacked
and repressed by the Congress regime between 1972 and 1977.
Since democracy was already deeply mauled since the early
1970s, Bengal did not experience the emergency between 1975
and 1977 the way the rest of India suffered it when the formal
democratic process was suspended all over the country.
4 T he Intermediate Regime
Following the brutal repression of the left and its formal defeat in
the 1972 elections, the parliamentary left and the middle classes,
which, at first was in a state of disarray, soon made a historic
compromise with, both the state and capitalism in India. It
withdrew from its militant political and cultural-intellectual interventions,
which was central to its counter-hegemonic strategy
in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1977 elections, the Congress faced
a silent rebellion from below almost all over the country. In West
Bengal too, the Congress was thoroughly defeated and the CPM
led Left Front (LF) government came to power. In fact, since then,
this government has never been voted out of office, which again
is a record for any communist party in the world.
Apparently, 1977 was in a sense a return to the mid-1960s scenario
but if we scrutinise the left government, we find a qualitative
change in its ideology and working. Though the same classes
and the same parties came to power fundamental changes came
about them as a result of its frustrated attempts to establish its
hegemony and run governments in the 1950s and 1960s. The left
and the social classes sustaining it was a badly mauled and defeated
class, which made a historic compromise with the state
and capitalism.
Turning Point in Modern Bengal
But in spite of this compromise, 1977 marks a turning point in the
history of modern Bengal. In fact, I would characterise the change
in 1977 to be a political revolution where the old ruling classes
were dislodged from social and political power by the Bengali
‘babu’ or bhadralok particularly the lower middle classes including
teachers, clerks and the labour aristocracy in the organised
sector of the economy. The left brokered a firm alliance of this
class with the peasantry. It also enjoyed popular support among
the poor both in the cities and the countryside. It was almost a
classic instance of Michael Kalecki’s2 idea of an intermediate
Our received idea of revolution is the recurrence of a cataclysmic
event on the likes of what happened in France, Russia or
China; but if we define revolution, especially political revolution,
following Lenin3 as the transfer of state power from the hands of
one class to another then the attendant events no longer become
central. Hence, if 1977 can be described as the rise to political
power and not just government formation of a new class we may
as well describe it as a revolution.
If the uniqueness of the patterns of historical change is accepted
then our conceptual categories have to be freed from their
specific historical associations and models. Over time, this political
ruling class formed a powerful bloc consisting of the middle
classes, middle and rich peasants, and contractors. The social
core of the middle class providing leadership to this bloc consists
of teachers and clerks. There are some fundamental structural
constraints of such an intermediate regime. This ruling class,
particularly the middle class, is primarily political in nature, in
the sense that its sustenance and well-being is derived from the
state and its revenues, i e, from the social surplus. State power is
used to benefit itself in the form of jobs, privileges, influence, etc,
as a result the revenue of the state is exhausted in paying salaries,
pensions and other subsidies and relief. This causes an acute fiscal
crisis leaving the state with no funds for developing social and
economic infrastructure or to provide for the basic needs of the
poor, which is essential for the long-term development of any
society. This fiscal crisis leads to an impasse which compels the left to surrender to capitalism on the one hand and to take unpopular
moves which alienates its own social constituents and support bases.
The change in economic and social policies of the LF government
since the 1990s is directly related to attempts to get out of the impasse
and the fiscal crisis. This ruling class, unlike the bourgeoisie,
lives off the social surplus but is itself unable to organise or lead the
production of wealth. This makes it a parasitical class, which could
lead to a major contradiction between its unsustainable surplus
extraction process and its need to retain its power and legitimacy
by winning elections, which is a crucial precondition of its
political and social power. The strength of such a political ruling
class lies in its unity and organisation, which is largely achieved
by a party-controlled unionisation at every site and sphere.
The central claim to legitimacy of this new ruling class is its
ideology and its claim to represent the people, i e, the poor, the
dispossessed and the oppressed. Marxism enables the left to a
superior claim to rule based on the right knowledge of the science
of history – the laws of the progressive movement of history and
its identification with the labouring people. It gives the left a
sense of superiority and arrogance for it alone knows what is
right for the people. But being primarily a political ruling class in
a constitutional democracy it has to reinforce its ideological
claims with its ability to get the support of the people who, of
course, would know what is in their best interest. This makes
winning elections a crucial element in their bid to legitimate rule.
It also leads to the extension of the electoral principle to nearly
all sites and institutions from schools to vice-chancellors or
neighbourhood committees and clubs.
The other claim to democratisation, which is made by the left,
is its policy to bring about anti-feudal changes in agriculture and
society at large. In fact, on both counts, the legitimacy of these
intermediate classes have been vindicated by the fact of its winning
all elections since 1977. In fact, if 1977 can be called the year
of the revolution then, unlike most revolutions, it continued to
rule through democratic elections, which is an extremely difficult
task. Only by winning elections can this regime claim to represent
the majority of the people. This makes democracy, defined
in exclusively electoral terms, central to its hegemonic strategy.
The left has mastered the fine art of winning elections by a strategy
of controlled and disciplined mobilisation of the people
aimed at manufacturing consent in its favour and at delegitimising
and decimating the very idea of a legitimate opposition.
Marxist ideology gives the left a superior scientific knowledge, an
exclusive truth claim, which makes any opposition a reaction
against the just and lawful course of history. In the rest of this
paper we shall examine what happens to a constitutional democracy
when an intermediate regime led by a communist party rules.
5 I deology, Organisation and Control
A centralised, unified and disciplined organisation is central to the
power of the left and its supporting classes. If political power is the
basis of the rule of the middle classes, it can acquire power and
retain legitimacy only through popular support, best expressed
in elections. This is an extremely difficult task, which the left has
to a great extent achieved. Popular support is always rather slippery;
the people can be “temporarily swayed” by emotions or can be
“misled” by the opposition. Thus, there has to be a strategy to
both organise as well as discipline and govern the people. The
left in Bengal has almost realised the Foucauldian dystopia of
discipline and governmentality based on the intertwining of
power and knowledge. Marxist ideology and the Leninist party
provide a fatal combination of knowledge and power to perform
this task. The left has both unleashed the democratic process but
has simultaneously been able to tame and domesticate democracy
through innovative techniques of governmentality.
The left has
not only been able to establish its political hegemony over the
people but has also been able to establish its control over the
democratic constitutional state and its autonomous
organs like
the civil and police bureaucracy. First we shall examine its
power/knowledge nexus and in the next two sections the state
and civil society would be examined.
Philosophically Marxism is both, deeply anti-democratic as
well as anti-political. It claims the monopoly to historical truth
since it is based on an understanding of the laws of history, which
again Marxists claim to be as objective as Darwin’s theory of
evolution. The second and more insidious claim is that only the
working class being free of any vested interests in the existing
order can truly understand these laws of historical progress
inevitably leading to socialism and communism. Lenin made a
further disingenuous move by arguing that given the existing
situation of the workers under capitalism, achieving revolutionary
consciousness of the Marxist variety is near impossible. This
is where intellectuals have to step in to perform their role as the
interpreters of real history and as the philosophical and political
educators and leaders of the proletariat. This is achieved through
the communist party and its claim to be the repository of truth
based on science, reason and the study of history.
It follows that whoever opposes the communist party actually
opposes science and truth and the inevitable forward march of
history. Such opposition can come from two quarters: those having
a vested interest in the old order like feudal landlords or the
bourgeoisie or it can come from a lack of knowledge of the laws of
history and the role of the communist party. The latter kind of
opposition can be removed initially by education and persuasion
but if it fails, methods that are more coercive are justified against
the carriers of a corrupt consciousness, who are unable to discern
their own objective interests. They are forced to acknowledge
reason, history and truth; almost “forced to be free”. The older
exploiting classes are usually more incorrigible and are thus considered
to be enemies against whom a class war has to be waged
till they are defeated. Hence, politics and democracy in the sense
of freedom, autonomy and debate is deeply discounted in the
Marxist scheme of things.
It could, of course, be countered by the view that the CPM no
longer believes in such a Marxist orthodoxy; but I would argue
that this orthodox belief system provide the left with a legitimising
discourse to undermine and crush the legitimacy of the very
idea of an opposition. The CPM needs to explain how it can defend
Stalinism or even the absurd communist versions of democracy
in the socialist bloc. Such verbal monstrosities like the “democratic
dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” can only
make sense in terms of this knowledge-power nexus of Marxism. Marxist ideology in the service of the CPM has become a mere
means to its end of retaining political power. In this strategic use
of Marxism, the CPM makes instrumental use of the old left
orthodoxy that the end justifies the means. Such an amoral philosophical
and political stand can ultimately lead to the justification
of grotesque or caricatured versions of the end itself and is
usually reduced to the sole end of staying in power. Or by a curious
twist staying in power is considered to be an indispensable
means to reach that elusive end.
Serious philosophical and political problems arise when a communist
party wedded to the cause of making a revolution by destroying
the liberal democratic bourgeois state has to operate
and run such a state. If the party sticks to its ideology, either it is
unable to work within the state and quits or it gives a call for
revolution. In Bengal, the CPM has charted a novel course. It has
not left the state arena to make a revolution, nor has it entirely
given up its ideology and become liberal or even bourgeois. It has
used both, Marxist ideology and the organisation of the communist
party to capture, colonise and subvert the institutions of the
state as well as the space of civil society. Marxist ideology has
provided legitimacy to this process of colonisation. The party is
considered to be above the state as well as its members. It has a
life and goal of its own and everything is subordinated to its ends.
This results in a powerful party bureaucracy, which exercises
constant control and vigilance over the government and the state.
The centralised communist party is manned by whole-timers
whose profession and passion is the party. Lenin called them
“professional revolutionaries”. Fierce loyalty to an ideology and
organisation is the hallmark of a communist; to the extent that
he can die for his party or kill those opposed to his party. The
party takes on a missionary character fired by zeal no less powerful
than any militant religion.
The communist party extends its influence and control over
the state, civil society or community through a network of mass
organisations affiliated and subordinated to the party. In fact,
party members are deputed to different social spheres like
factories, farms or colleges to organise people under the umbrella
of the party. Members with a missionary zeal take up such
“mass work” since it is believed that such organised mobilisation
is crucial for the communist goal of revolution. Work in mass
fronts is also the testing grounds for members whose career in
the party depends on such successful mass work. Thus we find
that leftists spend a lifetime of dedicated full time work in organisations
of teachers, clerks, students, workers, etc. The Leninist
concept of democratic centralism ensures centralised control
over the entire organisation.
Extent of Control
The extent of control can be gauged from these figures: The CPM has
2.84 lakh full time members; its peasant wing, the Krishak Sabha
has 1.4 crore members; its workers front, Centre of Indian Trade
Unions has 29 lakh members; its womens’ wing 36.62 lakh members;
schoolteachers’ organisation 2.3 lakhs.4 Centralised control
over such a huge network of organisations enables the party an
all-powerful and all-pervasive role. Though these are huge mass
organisations, party members working within them manage to
control them and use them to further the party’s ends. The party
has turned mechanisms of control like disciplining, punishment
and surveillance into a fine art to control its members.
These organisations are not only mobilised to win elections
but they are used as countervailing powers to control the formal
systems of power in any organisation. For example, in a university
the formal bodies are subverted by these mass organisations. If
they do not have formal control in the bodies, they resort to
standard trade union tactics to tame them and where they are
formally in these bodies – which is most often the case – they
turn them into a subordinate committee of the communist party.
As I pointed out earlier, the intermediate classes claim to rule is
based on popular consent and hence the electoral principle is extended
to a large number of organisations, including universities.
In fact, even vice chancellors (VCs) are elected in Bengal. But
what is more interesting is how the electoral college entrusted
with the task of choosing the VC is turned into a mere rubber
stamp to ratify the name already decided by the education cell of
the CPM. As a result, when the official body meets to deliberate
the names for the top job absolutely no time is spent for such deliberations.
So, the party and its mass organisations subvert what
is apparently democratic by eliminating the deliberative process
in so crucial a decision. If in some rare instance the left is unable
to form a majority to recommend their candidate, they resort to
typical trade union disruptions to prevent the formal authority to
function. This became glaringly evident when non-left candidate,
Santosh Bhattachayya, was elected the VC of the University of
Calcutta in the early 1980s.
6 T he State
The Constitution of the state is crucial to democracy. Besides an
elected legislature and a government, the other organs of the
state have to be so organised to uphold the rule of the law. To ensure
accountability and to prevent the abuse of power, various
constitutional devices have been designed to uphold principles of
autonomy and neutrality, like a system of checks and balances
and separation of powers between the different organs of the
state. In fact, the Indian Constitution goes to great length to uphold
the autonomy and neutrality of the civil and military bureaucracy
as well as the judiciary. The Constitution has two kinds
of provisions for the bureaucracy and the judiciary: one is by giving
them rights and powers to ensure their autonomy, neutrality
and authority, but it has also denied them certain rights, like joining
a political party, to ensure their independence.
The left’s theoretical understanding of these constitutional
safeguards is that they are the rear guards of class privilege and
property. Marxists argue that if the democratic face of bourgeois
rule is unsustainable the civil and military take over to defend
the ruling classes. The fact that this is almost a commonplace
historical reality does not warrant the kind of suspicion and hostility
that the left has towards the liberal constitutional principles
and arrangements. In India, the left had an additional reason
to suspect the bureaucracy, as it was a continuation of the
colonial state, where it was the “steel frame of the empire” combining
the rule of class and race. The internal structure and culture
of the colonial state and its postcolonial incarnation was to a great extent feudal. The vast lower rungs of the civil, police
and military services were treated as serfs and servants of the
officers. The left government in Bengal made considerable
efforts to internally democratise the culture of the state by
unionising and mobilising the subaltern policemen and the
clerks and peons of government offices. But in the process, they
made fundamental changes in the working of the Constitution to
the point of subverting it from within.
Left and Government Employees
What the left did was organise these government employees as a
front organisation of the CPI(M), viz, the employees’ coordination
committee. As we had seen earlier, the CPM successfully organised,
controlled and disciplined these members to act as an extension
of the party. The government and the employees’ union
have become two closely tied centres of power. The formal power
of the government is used to coerce the employees to tow the
party line. This coercion is carefully balanced with leftwing
ideology and small favours of promotions,
choice postings and
benefits for their wives and children. Over time the left’s suspicions
about the higher bureaucracy was removed as they were
found to be the loyal and willing tool of any government. In fact,
over time, through its power of promotions, postings and favour
dispersions like land in Salt Lake, foreign tours, jobs, contracts
and other sundries for their wards, the left front government has
found a trusted tool in the bureaucracy. Recently a Calcutta High
Court judge was given a highly subsidised plot in Salt Lake in
return for a favourable judgment in a petition, which had challenged
the government’s right to distribute subsidised plots in an
arbitrary fashion. The list of such subsidised plot holders was
found to be a who’s who of bureaucrats, journalists, politicians
and academics. The Supreme Court criticised Justice Bhagwati
Prasad Banerjee for his gross misconduct and ordered that his
house be auctioned to return his dues to the government. Thus, a
centralised party has managed to not only control the state machinery
but has also rendered ineffective the constitutional safeguards
like separation of powers.
Consequently, the party controlled state machinery filters out
any move by any independent citizen, which might go against the
interest and power of the left. It takes the form of refusing to take
down First Information Reports (FIRs) in police stations unless
ratified by the local party and union bosses. The partisanship of
the state machinery extends to all its functions including selection
for new jobs, contracts, grants, loans etc. In most parts of India,
citizens have to pay an underhand price for any service of the
state in the form of bribes – whose rates are fixed for different
kinds of work. It makes the bureaucracy almost predictable, rational
and objective in a perverse Weberian sense. Not that it
does not exist in several departments but that is subordinate to
the political interests of the ruling party. In fact, compared to
many other states open and fixed rates of bribery is far less the
case. Instead, there is a far greater corruption – in the republican
sense of abuse of state power and the subversion of the Constitution
and the rule of law. Thus, we find that some of the constitutional
preconditions of democracy in Bengal have been deeply
eroded from within. According to the Police Commission Report
by Pradyut Sarkar, “It is needless to emphasise that police associations
seem to have emerged as an alternative centre of authority
in the police system. In many places they have tended to usurp
control of the force and subvert its command structure.”5 Another
aspect of the subversion of the rule of law, which is a commonplace,
is simply ignoring court judgments including those invoking
the contempt of the court. The police and administration
blatantly refuse to implement court orders, which goes against
the left or its supporters.
In a large number of cases the police, hand-in-glove with public
prosecutors, again belonging to the lawyers’ front in the CPI(M),
in the judicial administration have delayed and subverted justice
where the left had indulged in large-scale murderous attacks on
the opposition. Some glaring examples of such cases include the
mass killings of Anada Margis in 1982, the near genocide in
Marichjhampi in the 1970s, the killing of 11 opposition supporters in
Suchpur village in 2000 or the Chhoto Angaria arson and murder.6
The important theoretical question that can be raised about
the communist experiment with liberal constitutional democracy
in Bengal is what safeguards must be taken about a party which
makes strategic use of constitutional democracy and with the
help of its ideology and organisation subverts its fundamental
principles and organisational arrangements. The standard bourgeois
reaction has been to ban the communist party or dismiss
them from office or take repressive and other measures to prevent
them from coming to power. Most of these tactics had been
used against the left in Bengal in the 1950s and 1960s, but they
were quite evidently undemocratic. Constitutional democracy
has to device institutional mechanisms for checking and preventing
its own subversion. A possible safeguard is the judiciary, but
then it has to expressly uphold not only the letter of the constitution
but its basic democratic aims and spirit.
7 C ivil Society and the Culture of Democracy
Now it is widely recognised that democracy is not only about
elections and parliament. Civil society and the public sphere are
important spaces for the democratic participation of the community.
In the absence of an autonomous civil society democracy
degenerates into a formal majoritarianism as happened in the
former Soviet bloc. Bengal has a fairly well entrenched civil society
and a well-developed middle class or the Bengali babu, as it is
sometimes called. The strength of the babu lay in the fact that it
was largely autonomous of any of the basic classes of society,
namely, the bourgeoisie, landlords, peasants or workers.
Though in the first two decades after independence the
Congress retained its political leadership throughout the country,
in Bengal it faced a serious political and cultural challenge from
the middle class, in alliance with other subordinate classes especially
in the sphere of modern civil society. Marxism largely
inspired this challenge. Political movements and ideological
struggles gave the babu and the civil society a certain vigour and
autonomy. New institutions and spaces emerged within civil
society like little magazines, study circles, theatre groups,
neighbourhood associations, etc. Values, virtues, social commitment
and political action, as against the ideology of individual
success were encouraged. This process reached its peak in the period from the mid-1960s
till the early 1970s when the left came to power and another
section of the left – the Maoists – staged an abortive insurrection.
As a result, sharp dissentions came about in civil society, which
could no longer be held together by the ethic of debate and discourse.
Large-scale violence disrupted civil society. The Indian state
openly used dictatorial methods to face the left challenge and
that enabled the Congress to come back to power in a widely rigged
election in 1972. The Bengali civil society was battered and controlled
by the forces of order and status quo. This was traumatic
experience for the babu. From its defeat it learnt some far-reaching
lessons – it gave up its republican virtues and non-conformism.
In 1977 the communists came back to power but the paradox of
its victory came in the wake of the defeat and pessimism of the
middle class – the left defeated the Congress not through any
mass resurgence of its earlier strength, but in the secrecy of the
ballot booth where singular rejections of the Congress spawned a
collective verdict. Its pessimism and defeat robbed the babu of its
earlier ability to publicly debate and collectively intervene in the
public sphere and civil society. This was not a temporary setback
for the left was in no mood to revive the spirit of the 1960s.
Rather, along with the babu, the left made a historic compromise
with the state and capitalism. As a result, Bengali civil society
changed fundamentally. The babu made a dramatic exit from the
public sphere into domesticity and individualism. Having failed
to realise the left utopia, now the babu redoubled its efforts to
make it within the system itself.
The erosion of civil society is closely linked to the loss of autonomy
and initiative of the babu. This is clearly evident in the decline
of the public debates and little magazines, the withering of
autonomous public institutions and the political passivity of the
babu. It is in this context that one can make sense of the CPM’s
concerted strategy to control civil society.7 First, it has sought to
wrest control over all-important public institutions like universities
or even local clubs and associations. The important point is
that the CPM has “democratically” managed to achieve this feat,
and it is no mean achievement for it has all the trappings of what
Gramsci would call social hegemony. Most public institutions are
democratically run, i e, elected bodies run the show. The CPM has
so efficiently managed to win elections on a large-scale because
it has a well-oiled machinery to conduct elections,8 which is no
match for people who have not made electioneering a full time
occupation. The left has also mastered the art of manipulating
the electoral game in every possible way to ensure its victory.
Muffling of Dissent
At a more substantial level democracy is subverted by the systematic
muffling of dissent, especially dissent critical of the regime.
Intellectuals in Bengal constitute a distinct social category and
had played a major role in creating a culture of democracy in civil
society by free and critical thinking in all aspects of life of the
mind – from serious discursive thinking to art and poetry. The
left has sapped the critical spirit of the intellectuals through an
intricate and elaborate mechanism involving the control of the
work place through its ability to give jobs, promotions, crumbs,
sponsorship or freebies. When these do not work the left has
openly resorted to violence and terror. If for any reason the left
control mechanism misfires especially in public institutions then
a trade union assault is orchestrated to paralyse its activity. The
left can dead beat any institution because of its long experience
in organising the politics of the work place under party controlled
unions which acts as conduits for furthering the power of the party.
History has shown that there is a fundamental transformation
of the left when it comes to power. Outside power it is a
militant champion of democracy and rights but when it is comfortably
ensconced in power it evolves a deadly recipe for leftfascism
whose ingredients are – Marxist ideology, Leninist
party and the Stalinist state. I am not arguing that the left regime
in West Bengal is fully fascist but it has successfully subverted
democracy and a kind of soft fascism is in the making.
8 T he Left and the Opposition
Philosophically communism does not admit any legitimate opposition
because of its claim to Truth based on Science and Reason.
In fact, the left political rhetoric is conducted in the language and
imagery of war and enemies. Politics is the expression of the
struggle between warring classes where the historically prior
classes and state forms are considered as enemies to be defeated
and exterminated; otherwise, being a war, the communists
would be finished off. Both the classical republican idea of
politics, as found in ancient Greece or the modern liberal idea is
based on free debate, judgment and choice on the part of the
individual citizen.
In Bengal too, any political opposition to the left is treated as a
reaction to historical progress bring introduced by the left. This
not only undermines the legitimacy of the very idea of a political
opposition and criticism but it also sanctions the use of any
means, including coercion, to crush them. Any opposition to the
left is, by definition, intentionally or not, a tool of the older ruling
classes to regain political power. Theoretically, Marxism does not
admit differences. Even their main slogan in a recent election
smacked of such a monist mentality when they chanted that,
“The only alternative to the Left Front is a better Left Front”.
Slowly a lot of evidence has been documented by different
rights groups, activists and some journalists to show to what
extent the opposition is subjected to hate and violence.9 Left
terror has instilled such widespread fear among the people who
are even mildly critical of them. Bengali intellectuals who had a
long critical and activist tradition have largely been silenced.
Some examples can prove this point. Recently an academic
wrote an article critical of the left front using a pseudonym,
which he otherwise
does not use, in so respected a journal like
EPW. Or a woman teacher of the university of Calcutta who
fell foul of the party bosses simply “disappeared”. Leave alone
intellectuals or women’s groups, the university teachers did not
raise any voice. Or again a member of CU was terminated from
service for quoting a poem (incidentally, written by a Marxist
poet) in a leaflet. Or again in CU, a candidate (who incidentally
comes from a very poor economic background and is also a
dalit Muslim) was unanimously recommended by the selection
committee was denied a lecturer’s job not only without assigning
any reason but also without any discussion apparently because the left suspected his political loyalties. Of course, the other
candidates recommended by the same committee were given
appointments. Again, no teacher raised her voice. When the
government banned Tasleema Nasreen’s autobiography to
pander to imagined Muslim sentiments, again there was hardly
any protest in Bengal.
The most powerful conduit of left authoritarianism is disempowering
the people by immobilising them politically. It involves
the crushing of any independent or autonomous political initiative
of any individual or group. This has resulted in elections to
diverse bodies – from panchayats to students’ unions being held
without opposition candidates. To once again give the example of
CU, for more than two decades the left has won student union
elections largely without any contest. Likewise, elections to executive
bodies of the university, for more than a decade, are being
swept by the left without any contest. Where fear and inducements
do not work the left resorts to spectacular displays of violence
and arson to retain its rule. Particularly in rural Bengal,
the left combines modern forms of coercion and disciplining
with traditional communitarian modes of punishment like social
boycott, fines, retributive rape and imposing spectacular violence
and indignity upon the body of the person. Instances like the killings
in Marichchjhampi; the chopping off of both the arms of
Rashu Dhara and Ghonteswar Bag in Khandua village in 1991 for
voting the “hand” symbol of the Congress; the lynching and
burning alive of 16 Anada Margis in Calcutta in 1982, the killing
of 11 poor peasants in Nanoor or the murder and arson in Chotto
Anguria are part of the long story of violence in Bengal.10 The
most recent examples are, of course, Singur and Nandigram.11
The left has been successful in instilling a deep sense of fear
among all sections of the people – a fear of being punished, which
ranges from denying promotions to fines and extends to death.
This has produced a sense of pessimism and defeat. This shrinking
or erosion of the democratic space has spawned attempts to take
up arms to counter the violence of the state and the ruling party.
In fact, the most serious opposition to the left have come from the
Maoists and the Gurkha National Liberation Front, both of whom
have used the armed struggle to fight the left. Even within the
parliamentary opposition, it is people like Adhir Chowdhury, a
Congress MP in Murshidabad who has faced left terror by his own
counter militancy, could then make political advances in his district.
The Trinamool Congress’s short-lived success in Midnapur
was also due to its organised counter terror politics.
The Marxist regime in West Bengal has once again brought to
the fore the importance of civil society and the importance of the
deliberative dimension of democracy. Electoral success in the
absence of the above turns formal democracy into a quasi-fascist
regime. The left has subverted the Constitution and the state by
its colonisation of the state machinery and the setting up of
party-led countervailing powers. In rural Bengal particularly, the
left has set up a parallel judicial system through what are called
reconciliation meetings or ‘salishi sabhas’. In fact, it brought a bill
in the assembly to legally create these local judicial institutions,
which it was forced to withdraw in the face of protests by lawyers.
Eternal vigilance, it is said, is the price of liberty, but the
citizens of Bengal are not in much of a mood to pay this price. Such subversion of constitutional democracy is nothing new as
Aristotle analysed what he calls:
A fifth form of democracy, in other respects the same, is that in
which not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and
supersede the law by their decrees. This is a state of affairs brought
about by the demagogues…At all events this sort of democracy…
grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honour… The demagogues
make the decrees of the people override the laws, by referring all
things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because
the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their
hands the votes of the people, who obey them… and so the authority
of every office is undermined.12
1 Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America, Modern Library, New York, 1981 p 3.
2 Michael Kalecki, ‘Social and Economic Aspects of “Intermediate Regimes”’ in
Selected Essays on the Economic Growth of the Socialist and Mixed Economy, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1972.
3 V I Lenin, One of the Fundamental Questions of the Revolution, Selected Works Vol 2,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975.
4 Ashis Chakrabarti, The Telegraph, January 19, 2006.
5 Udayan Namboodiri, Bengal’s Night Without End, India First Foundation, Delhi,
2006, p 388.
6 ibid, pp 55-64.
7 Sanjeeb Mukherjee, ‘Civil Society and Non-Western Societies: Tradition, Modernity
and Communism in Bengal’ in Asha Mukherjee et al (eds), Civil Society in Indian
Cultures, Council for Research in Philosophy and Values, Washington, 2001.
8 Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism,
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997. See chapter on Elections in West Bengal.
9 See reports by APDR, Namboodiri (2006) and Raghab Bandopadhyay, Keshpur
Katha, Srishti Prakashan, Kolkata, 2001.
10 Namboodiri, p 26.
11 Report of Investigation Into Nandigram Mass Killings, APDR and PBKMS, Calcutta, 2007.
12 Aristotle, The Politics, edited by S Everson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
1988, p 89.