With far-reaching achievements in the fields of agriculture and industry to its credit, the Left Front completes 25 years of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal.
ON June 21, 2002, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), completed 25 years of its rule in West Bengal. To celebrate the political record of ruling a State for such a long, uninterrupted period, thousands of supporters of the Front gathered at the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Kolkata on that day.
Cheered by the crowd, Front leaders, including former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, CPI(M) State secretary Anil Biswas and Forward Bloc general secretary Ashok Ghosh, declared that West Bengal had created history in coalition politics. "It is the unity forged by a shared ideology that has been the strength of the Left Front. This unity is now unbreakable," said Biman Bose, Chairman of the Left Front and a Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M).
Former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, among other leaders, at a function marking the 25 years of Left Front rule in West Bengal, at the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Kolkata on June 21.
The first Left Front government, led by Jyoti Basu, assumed office in 1977, with a resolve to provide immediate relief to the people, take the State forward on the path of development, decentralise the power structure, and thus involve people in the day-to-day work of the government. Of the 25 years it had been in power, the Left Front government was led by Jyoti Basu for over 23 years, until he stepped down in favour of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in October 2000. That it has kept the promises and gained the people's trust is evident from the fact that the Left Front has been voted to power six successive times with massive mandates. This is a world record for an elected Left government. Effective and purposive governance, successful conduct of coalition politics, political stability that was achieved and firm adherence to secularism are widely seen as the reasons for its success. This was possible largely because of the CPI(M)'s ability to hold together the coalition which includes nine other parties. It has not been an easy task. But the CPI(M)'s experience with the United Front governments of 1967 and 1969 stood the party in good stead. This period was followed by a dark phase when the Left parties had to function in an atmosphere devoid of democratic rights, under the Congress(I) government. It was during this long period of struggle for democratic rights, civil liberty, social justice, agrarian reform and industrial resurgence that the Left Front took shape.
The United Front experience helped the CPI(M) leadership to delineate a code of conduct, which has been adhered to strictly and uniformly by the Front constituents, irrespective of their relative strengths. This, despite the criticism, mainly from newspapers that have been hostile to the Left Front, that the smaller parties in the Front have been exploited by the "Big Brother".
The CPI(M)'s strength in electoral politics lies in its ability to gauge the mood of the people and come up with slogans that would catch their imagination. And it has always taken the lead in launching the campaign, leaving little time for its main opponent, the Congress(I), to set its house in order. In both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections the Left Front turns the contest into an issue-based one by blending local issues with larger political issues.
At the time of taking office in 1977, Jyoti Basu said that the Left Front was fully conscious of the duties and responsibilities that had been entrusted to it by the people of West Bengal through a historic electoral verdict. "Our government would not be run from the Writers' Buildings alone ; it would maintain close touch with the representative organisations of the people in order to serve them effectively," he said.
Tracing the record of the government in the last 25 years, Jyoti Basu said the Left Front government had been endeavouring to alleviate the hardships of the people by implementing welfare schemes and programmes with their support and active participation. He said: "On every available opportunity, we have made it clear that no fundamental changes can be brought about by the State government, which has to function under the constraints and limitations of the existing constitutional framework. Our efforts, however, are constantly directed to extend much-needed relief to the people. With our emphasis on land reforms, agricultural development and democratic decentralisation, we have been successful in achieving a major breakthrough in agriculture and allied sectors. Our achievement in the field of foodgrain production is now well-recognised, while the land reforms programme has radically altered the scene in the countryside with definite benefits to the rural masses."
The panchayats, Jyoti Basu said, had been successfully implementing various rural development programmes aimed at generating gainful employment to the rural poor and creating durable assets for common benefit. "Decentralisation of planning through the involvement of the people in the formulation and implementation of the planned schemes constitutes a basic component of our strategy for general welfare," he said.
After capturing power in 1977, the CPI(M) lost no time in consolidating its base in West Bengal. The holding of panchayat elections regularly since 1978 has created a strong rural base for the party. The over three million families that have benefited by land reform constitute its main support base. The reforms also led to a spurt in the rate of agricultural growth, the highest in the country. Between 1980-81 and 1990-91, the average annual increase in food production had been 7.1 per cent as against the national-level increase of 3.15 per cent.
After being sworn in Chief Minister on May 18, 2001 following the Left Front's victory in the Assembly elections, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee initiated changes that have provided a new dimension to Left Front rule. In a conversation with Frontline, he discussed the Left Front's spectacular performance in the past 25 years in improving the rural economy. "We have to remember that our real strength lies in our achievements in rural Bengal. However, we will not lose sight of the new generation with which we will go forward. So we will have to look at the requirements of the new generation in the light of the scientific and technological developments taking place now. We Marxists are realists. We understand that change is essential to life. There is no point in holding on to a dogma. We shall have to change our policies according to the changing situation. We are now in the 21st century and this century's science is information technology, biotechnology and the like. We must adapt to the new environment. Otherwise we will be nowhere in the picture," he said.
At a state-of-the-art cement factory inaugurated by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Durgapur in January 2002. The rapid strides made by West Bengal in agriculture and allied sectors, certain policy initiatives and political stability under the Left Front are factors that have spurred industrial growth in the State.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has concentrated on developing industry, especially agro-based industry. "We have been able to attract Rs.14,961 crores as investment over the past three years and gained the fifth position in this respect in the country. We have been trying to improve the functioning of the State public sector undertakings. I am determined to take a decision on all the 69 of them by the year-end," he said.
For the past 25 years, the Left Front government has been pursuing an alternative approach to rural development planning. The approach is based on more equitable distribution of land and other productive assets in rural areas, within the limitations of the existing socio-economic structure. Although West Bengal has less than 4 per cent of the total agricultural land in the country, nearly 20 per cent of the land distributed through land reforms in India is in the State. About 60 per cent of the total land is owned by small and marginal farmers as against the national figure of 28.8 per cent. In other words, the government's efforts have created an objective situation in which agricultural planning is done from the standpoint of the poorer working farmers.
Agricultural development, with emphasis on the best manner of utilisation of labour and local resources, has increased the purchasing power of the common man and thus helped in the growth of agriculture-linked cottage and small-scale industries. Over the last 20 years, small units have registered a significant growth rate. Their number has gone up from less than a lakh in 1976-77 to about four lakhs now, generating over one lakh jobs every year.
The process of decentralisation of economic and administrative power, initiated by the Left Front government 25 years ago, is almost complete. It has generated considerable interest in India and abroad. The administrative principles adopted and the development strategies pursued through the three-tier panchayat system reflect a new ethos of catering to the needs of the common people and creating an alternative path of development that gives priority to eradicating poverty and ensuring social justice.
Surjya Kanta Mishra, Minister for Health, Panchayats and Rural Development, told Frontline that one of the most significant achievements of the panchayat system was that it had entrenched grassroots-level democracy. Since 1977, five rounds of panchayat elections have been held, once every five years. In the last round, held in May 1998, the Left Front captured over three-fourths of the 80,000 seats in the gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads. Over 35 per cent of the panchayat members are women and 28 per cent belong to the Scheduled Castes and 7 per cent to the Scheduled Tribes.
The panchayat bodies have, in close coordination with the State government, taken over the planning, administration and implementation of developmental activities. They have also shaped themselves into a force that is powerful enough to usher in social change; it has empowered the common man to decide his political, economic and social destiny.
The Left Front's emphasis on land reforms, agricultural development and democratic decentralisation has led to a major breakthrough in agriculture and thus created a solid base for industrialisation.
The West Bengal government spends almost half of its annual budget through the panchayats. The money goes towards creating rural employment and financing local development. Village or gram panchayat leaders have, over the last two and a half decades, emerged as key players in developing their respective areas. The land-owning gentry have been rendered powerless, an achievement that has not been matched anywhere else in India.
The panchayati raj institutions in the State have a pro-poor orientation because the majority of their members come from the downtrodden sections. A survey conducted by the Staff Development and Planning Department covering 100 gram panchayats revealed that more than 71 per cent of the panchayat representatives are small and marginal farmers. A recent study of panchayats in 25 blocks across 14 States presents a contrasting picture: 88 per cent of the panchayat members and 95 per cent of the panchayat presidents in these belong to the landed gentry. This glaring contrast is testimony to the success of the Left Front's development strategy, which is based on land reforms.
The Left Front government initiated steps to devolve power in the first year of the Seventh Plan (1985-86) by constituting block and district planning committees headed by presidents of panchayat samitis and zilla parishads. The block planning committee (BPC) consists of the heads of gram panchayats and the members of the executive committees of panchayat samitis and block-level officials from different departments. The district planning committees (DPCs) consists of the presidents of panchayat samitis, the chairmen of municipalities, the executive members of zilla parishads and the heads of the various government departments at the district level. The Block Development Officer (BDO) and the District Magistrate are the member-secretaries of the BPC and the DPC respectively.
The budgetary provision for various departments for district-level items are disaggregated and disbursed to the DPC. A similar exercise is undertaken at the level of blocks and municipalities. Within these budgetary parameters, which have come to be known as divisible outlay, the DPC has the power to formulate its own plan on the basis of the "district-specific schemes" drawn from district-level sectoral plans and the "block and municipality-specific schemes" appearing in block and municipal plans.
THE strong industrial base of West Bengal started eroding in the 1950s and early 1960s. The process of de-industrialisation of West Bengal was accentuated by the Union government's economic policies, which gave preference to petrochemical industries over steel and coal-based industries, in which the eastern region had a competitive advantage. The policy of freight equalisation took away the region's edge relative to the rest of the country.
A section of the audience at the Netaji Indoor Stadium function.
Successive Congress governments of West Bengal are mainly responsible for the decline of industry in the State. Although Congress Chief Minister Dr. B.C. Roy was a visionary, he made two mistakes: he neglected agriculture and placed too much emphasis on heavy industries. Owing to the neglect of agriculture, the State could not develop a strong agricultural base, a prerequisite for industrialisation; and the emphasis on heavy industries led to the neglect of traditional industries such as jute which was fighting a losing battle against synthetic fibre.
However, the rapid strides made by the State in agriculture and allied sectors under the Left Front government have once again created the base for industrial development. The change in some policies of the Union government in response to the repeated demands of the Left Front government also facilitated this process. Thus the delicensing of industries and the discontinuance of the policy of freight equalisation created a situation conducive to industrial development. The State is now back on the priority list of investors. Large companies are looking for fresh investment opportunities in the State.
One of the major factors that has brought about a change in the investors' attitude is the high rate of growth in food production in the last decade. Increased food production, combined with land reform measures such as Operation Barga and relatively high wages for agricultural workers, has ensured a fairly equitable distribution of income. The State's industry is ready for a take-off both economically and socially. As compared to other parts of the country, West Bengal has a much broader domestic market. Another major attraction is the factor of political stability.
Above all, the turnaround in power generation has made investment in West Bengal an attractive proposition. The State's power position is perhaps one of the best in the country. From a total production capacity of 1,361 MW in 1976, West Bengal has now become a power-surplus State, producing 7,099 MW of power and supplying part of it to neighbouring States. A large number of engineering colleges and industrial training institutes in the State have ensured a steady supply of skilled manpower.
Academicians conducting socio-economic studies on West Bengal generally agree that with its mass internal market, political and social stability, and relatively clean and efficient administration, an industrial revolution in West Bengal will be unstoppable.