Saturday, December 15, 2007

What’s wrong with the CPM?


Left Front allies should withdraw from the council of ministers in West Bengal. Such a drastic step alone can trigger serious rethinking within the CPM

Praful Bidwai Delhi

As West Bengal's Left Front leaders continue to attract unprecedented flak and get politically mauled for the Nandigram crisis and their terrible handling of it, they would do well to recall what veteran communist BT Ranadive used to say about communist parties: “There is nothing more dangerously self-destructive than a communist party which has lost its way, which is on a wrong political course.”

Ranadive should have known. Just after Independence, he declared “yeh azaadi jhooti hai” (this freedom is false), and led the undivided CPI into the Telengana armed struggle, which it had to withdraw — at an enormous political expense and after a lot of bloodshed.

However, for all the mistakes he made, Ranadive was acutely aware, like all able political leaders, of the limitations of his/her own politics — in the CPI's case, ideological rigidity and organisational inflexibility, and a culture which stifles free debate. Together, these make an honest review of party strategies and their rectification extremely difficult.

This limitation has again become starkly obvious in the case of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) in West Bengal after the carnage in Nandigram in the first half of November. Although today's CPM is politically a different animal from the undivided CPI of the 1940s — and has accepted, and genuinely internalised, the need to work within a democratic framework — it organisationally retains continuity with the old bureaucratic culture and is uncomfortable with free, open debate (as, of course, are Right-wing and Centrist parties too).

The CPM carries two additional burdens. First, in West Bengal, it is pursuing a neo-liberal economic policy course and squandering away the gains it made from the 'Operation Barga' land reform programme of the 1970s and 1980s and other progressive programmes. The Left Front government, which the CPM leads in West Bengal, is increasingly unable to create a model of inclusive, egalitarian democracy and participatory growth. Rather, its policies are becoming predatory upon the underprivileged. The Nandigram and Singur crises are examples of this.

The CPM's second burden is the cult of 'cadre power', which obsessively seeks to establish the party's unquestioned supremacy in every area it dominates. So powerful is this cult, especially in West Bengal, that the leadership unthinkingly caves in to it. After all, the CPM was built in Bengal by its dedicated cadres from scratch during the 1960s and 1970s, when it had to face the Congress, which relied on muscle power and the repressive State apparatus to deal with its opponents.

The CPM too absorbed that muscle power culture (as did the Trinamool Congress). That culture has now become a huge liability. In Nandigram, this came into play twice: in March, and again, in November this year. To put it simply, the Nandigram crisis was precipitated when the CPM decided to forcibly 'capture' two of the area's three blocks, over which it had lost control earlier this year.

The bulk of Nandigram's people — including many CPM supporters — got disenchanted with the party because it tried to impose a Special Economic Zone on them. The 25,000-acre SEZ was to be created by acquiring land for a 'chemical hub' for Indonesia's Salem group — a front for the super-corrupt family of dictator and kleptocrat General Suharto.

The SEZ plan was tentatively abandoned under popular resistance, led (but not exclusively) by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), formed by the Trianmool Congress and Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), among others. But the CPM just couldn't accept, indeed, even imagine, that it would not be the people's sole representative or lose some of its influence in Nandigram. To regain control over the area and all its economic transactions, CPM cadres started a campaign of intimidation and harassment of ordinary people, turning thousands into refugees.

On March 14, 2007, with police collaboration, armed cadres mounted a murderous attack on several villages, accompanied by arson, loot and rape. Numerous independent inquiries by citizens' groups established that pro-CPM thugs led the punitive expedition. The violence was planned. As was the cover-up that followed, including failure to examine allegations of rape and doctoring of the medical records of many victims.

A People's Tribunal, consisting of retired High Court Chief Justice SN Bhargava, veteran editor Prabhash Joshi, and reputed social activists, documented the relevant events, based on 39 oral and 135 written depositions by the victims. Its conclusions are chilling. They show close police-CPM collusion in intimidating, beating and killing people. The motive was to 'teach' SEZ opponents 'a lesson' and re-establish the party's supremacy in village after village.

The March 14 attempt failed. But CPM-BUPC clashes continued in recent months, and pressure grew to call in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). To pre-empt the CRPF's intervention, CPM cadres launched their second bid to 'capture' Nandigram. This turned Nandigram into what Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi called a “war zone”.

On November 1, say credible reports, state CPM bosses, including Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and party secretary Biman Bose, decided that they would ask party cadres to launch a major offensive to capture the area, using brute force, while withdrawing the police. Accordingly, senior local-level cadres met that night in Khejuri, a CPM stronghold next to Nandigram, and drew up a detailed plan to attack 13 villages. The attackers, well-trained in the use of firearms, were mobilised from four different districts.

A multi-pronged offensive was launched on November 5-8 after ensuring the police would be absent. A second wave of November 10 pushed BUPC supporters from Maheshpur into Khejuri, taking 600 of them 'prisoners'. The final assault began the next day, using the prisoners as a 'human shield'. Within hours, the entire area was 'liberated'.

The CPM leadership, especially Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has presented the violence as a spontaneous clash between two organisations, in which the BUPC was “paid back in the same coin”. In reality, this was a clear case of partisan abuse of the State machinery, and its subordination to the CPM-in complete violation of all democratic norms. There could be no weightier instance of the State's abdication of its fundamental responsibility to protect the life and limb of all its citizens.

The CPM-led government treated political adversaries as another country's enemy population and allowed party cadres to wage war against them using firearms. Besides, the charge ignores the fact that ordinary people unaffiliated to the BUPC had also turned against the CPM and were victimised by it through coercion.

This does not mean that the BUPC does not have goons and musclemen in its ranks. It certainly does. But their power could not have possibly matched the clout of well-entrenched CPM’s armed cadres who control the State machinery.

The CPM claims that Maoists had penetrated the area and were in league with the BUPC — a charge for which the police and the state home secretary (even the CRPF, as reports prove) find no hard evidence, and which is reminiscent of the US allegations about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even assuming the charge is true, that can't justify a military-style attack on ordinary people, hostage-taking and vengeful violence, including rape, loot and arson. Even less does it justify the use of people as 'prisoners' and 'human shield' while attacking unarmed farmers and other working people.

At any rate, the growing spread of Naxalism, especially in the tribal districts of West Bengal, which are some distance away from Nandigram, is itself related to the neo-liberal policies that the CPM-led government is pursuing, with increasing deprivation and poverty in the poorest districts of the state.

Nandigram has eroded the CPM's moral authority, political capital and its ability to influence the UPA. It exposes the deep rot that has set in its West Bengal unit in the form of criminalisation, corruption, obsession with pro-rich neo-liberal policies, and arrogant contempt towards its own allies — the CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). They now say the CPM alone bears “responsibility” for the “killings and violence” and for ignoring their pleas for reconciliation.

This dire warning to the CPM will become more effective if these parties remain in the Left Front, but withdraw from the council of ministers. Such a drastic step alone can trigger serious rethinking within the CPM on its policies, organisational methods, and relations with the rest of the Left.

Without such rethinking, the CPM is unlikely to reform itself and the Left Front retain its base. A special responsibility devolves on Left-leaning intellectuals, especially those belonging to the CPM. They must boldly point out the party's mistakes and demand urgent course correction.

Such correction must include a solemn commitment that no SEZ or chemical hub will be built at Nandigram, and a sincere effort would be launched at reconciliation and peace, with a guarantee that the thousands of displaced people can return home safe without recrimination or harassment. A radical reorientation of economic policy must follow.

In the absence of course correction, the CPM - which represents a progressive force that has made a positive contribution to Indian democracy — will suffer a terrible decline and degenerate into a status-quoist conservative party, which has lost its way, in keeping with Ranadive's dire warning. That does not bode well for Indian democracy. The Left is among the few currents in our politics fired by idealism and a commitment to principle, and a strongly pro-poor orientation. We cannot afford to lose this asset.