Left Frontís Sixth Successive Term in West Bengal

ó Political Observer

THE SIXTH successive and comfortable victory won by the Left Front in the May 10 elections to the West Bengal Assembly has quite understandably evoked a good deal of interest and discussion in Left and democratic circles in the country. Coming against the widely established so-called general law of anti-incumbency and more particularly defying the specific trend of erosion of Left Front support evident since the 1996 Assembly elections in West Bengal, the Left Front victory has indeed been quite remarkable. In terms of seats, the final Left Front tally of 199 is just marginally below the 1996 figure of 203. In terms of vote-share, too, the fall is equally marginal – from 49.32 to 48.94. There are also other impressive statistics to embellish the electoral feat: a near-total sweep of SC/ST seats (15 out of 16 ST seats and 47 out of 58 SC seats), significant inroads in traditional Congress turfs like the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur and Kolkata and a by and large intact LF domination over the rural hinterland giving the LF a majority of seats in 14 out of 18 districts in the state. The glitter of the Left Front’s electoral feat has effectively glossed over the fact that for the first time the CPI(M) has lost its own absolute majority, its own strength being down from 150 to 143 in the 294-strong Assembly. 

The final picture has of course rubbished the exit poll prediction of a close finish. But to be fair to the pollsters, they had not predicted a defeat for the Left Front, and before the results were finally out, hardly any CPI(M) leader was really prepared to claim more than 160 seats, just 10 more than the exit poll forecast. The difference between the expected close finish and the reality of a two-thirds majority for the LF is attributed by a section of TMC-Congress leadership to the prevalence of terror and rigging. Booth-by-booth polling data have been published by some newspapers in West Bengal to substantiate the allegations. Most political observers are however little interested in joining this debate. Mamata’s fulminations against the Central Election Commission are dismissed as alibis of a loser. It is generally believed that the TMC-Congress combine did not have an election machinery to even remotely match the organisational muscle of the CPI(M) and the Left Front, and till such time as the TMC can really build a credible Trinamool (grassroots) network, the battle is bound to remain unequal. A pro-LF newspaper has in fact editorially advised her to keep quiet and mind her own organisation, for even if her allegations were true she would have still fallen short of majority and her dream of capturing the coveted chair of the Chief Minister would have any way remained unfulfilled!

Ardent supporters and many not-so-ardent admirers of the Left Front of course tend to rationalise the final outcome as the only possible or anticipated result, something of a foregone conclusion. Some of them even go to the extent of assigning some kind of a permanent electoral invincibility to the Left Front till a grand alliance really materialises. Most CPI(M) leaders themselves however do not sound so smug. They had said and still maintain that the last elections were the toughest the LF ever had to face since 1977. And if any proof is really needed, one only has to look at the CPI(M)/LF slogan ‘the alternative to the Left Front can only be a better or improved Left Front’. It clearly gave away that the question of an ‘alternative’ had emerged as an objective agenda in West Bengal politics. 

The real debate over the Assembly elections results in West Bengal does not of course revolve around the question of the electoral authenticity or legitimacy of the Left Front’s sixth consecutive victory. As the rules of the electoral game go, there can be no questioning the latest victory of the Left Front in West Bengal. There is of course a real debate and it concerns the meaning and implications of the latest renewal of Left Front rule in the state. 

In this context, it is important to look at West Bengal as a specific case of application of the CPI(M)’s theory and practice of presiding over ‘transitional’ governments in states. Those who would like to treat West Bengal as the ultimate proof of the victory of the social democratic line should pause a little and take a look at Kerala. We must of course remember that parliamentary strength has never been and can never be the touchstone for resolving the historic battle between social democracy and revolutionary communism in the international communist movement. In periods of relative peace and economic and political stability social-democracy always tends to be much more powerful than the revolutionary Left. In Europe, over the long period of lull between the Paris Commune and World War I (1871-1914) and subsequently during the Cold War period of social contract and welfare state, social democracy constituted by far the dominant current in the communist and Left movement. In Indian communist movement, too, social democracy has generally been the dominant trend except possibly for the turbulent periods of Telengana and Naxalbari. 

By pointing to the contrast between the Kerala and West Bengal models of the CPI(M), we are of course not referring to the essential debate between social-democracy and revolutionary communism. We are only talking about two different trajectories within the same social-democratic framework in two different sets of concrete conditions. The CPI(M)’s organisational network in Kerala has not been any weaker than its West Bengal counterpart. The agrarian reforms accomplished under the Left rule in Kerala have been no less ‘successful’ than the combination of surplus land distribution, Operation Barga and Panchayati Raj in West Bengal. Yet it is only West Bengal, and not Kerala, which has produced the ‘miracle’ of six Left victories in a row. 

The reasons then have to be sought in the concrete conditions obtaining in the two states. The economy in Kerala has always been more integrated with the wider capitalist economy, both national and international. Migration of Kerala workers to other Indian provinces, and most importantly to the Middle-East, especially the Gulf region, has always played a crucial role in the economic affairs of the state. Migration and petro-dollars apart, the external factor is also reinforced by the predominance of plantation and cash crops in Kerala’s largely agriculture-based economy. By contrast, the West Bengal agricultural economy has been rather self-contained and self-reliant. It is not surprising that in this emerging era of economic liberalisation and WTO, West Bengal’s agriculture has suffered the least amount of dislocation and disruption so far. With growing exposure to cheap rice imports from the countries of South-East Asia and the concomitant crisis of procurement and shrinking of public distribution, how long this stability and relative insulation will last is of course anybody’s guess. The presence of a strong industrial sector in West Bengal, its stagnation notwithstanding, has also been a major help in easing the excess pressure on agriculture. And instead of labour migration, West Bengal has had to absorb a significant inflow of labouring population from across the border, which has created a different, and up to a point more conducive, social backdrop for the Left movement in the state. 

The peculiar political evolution of West Bengal has also its contribution to the record stability of Left rule in the state. The Congress suffered its first electoral setback and division in the 1960s in West Bengal like in many other states. But it was here in West Bengal that the democratic movement, agrarian struggles in particular, assumed the greatest sharpness and intensity, especially in the wake of Naxalbari. The social base of the Congress was thus greatly shaken and the recovery staged by the Congress through the rigged elections of 1972 and the brute force of semi-fascist terror unleashed jointly by the Youth Congress and the state was not really marked by a matching social consolidation. If anything, it was in West Bengal that the Congress suffered the maximum disintegration and damaging exposure. The Congress also suffered a tremendous leadership crisis in West Bengal. The rise of Siddhartha Shankar Ray and the notorious youth brigade had eclipsed most of the Congress stalwarts of the 1960s. But the likes of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Subrata Mukherjee, Pankaj Banerjee and company were no replacement for the old Congress leadership. This lack of replenishment for the Congress at the level of both leadership and the social base was soon to become a chronic problem for the party in West Bengal, even though the electoral share of the party never really shrank below 40 per cent of the popular vote. With the Left Front managing to establish some stability, chunks of the Congress social base in many areas of rural Bengal however did shift their allegiance to the new dispensation. As for the leadership, most of the Congress leaders in the state never really managed to outgrow their Youth Congress images. It is not surprising that the only Congress leaders to acquire some degree of greater social acceptability beyond the core constituency of the Congress, viz., ABA Ghani Khan Chaudhary and Mamata Banerjee came from outside the notorious Siddhartha-Priya-Subrata bandwagon. 

In stark contrast to this picture of chronic shrinking and disintegration, the Left Front’s has been a story of expansion and consolidation. And to add to it, there is still little challenge from Left forces outside of the Left Front. While the SUCI, which was part of the United Front in the ‘60s, still remains outside with certain pockets of influence, the CPI was quick to rejoin the CPI(M)’s company after doing some penance for its Emergency blunder. The Naxalite movement did enjoy considerable popular support and even after the setback of the early ‘70s, rendered all the more severe under the combined impact of unprecedented state repression, splits and mistakes and excesses committed during the first phase Marxist-Leninists enjoyed considerable popular sympathy for their heroic struggle and sacrifice, but while they remained initially busy with attempts to revive in old areas and on old lines, it was the CPI(M) and the Left Front which really cashed in on the goodwill of the M-L movement in the political, especially electoral, arena. Following, and the subsequent consolidation of the Left Front government, the challenge of revival of the M-L movement could only be taken up in a new context, on the basis of new struggles and in the new role of a Left opposition to the Left government. Communist revolutionaries in the state are persisting with this difficult historic mission, but the efforts are yet to acquire a critical level that could pose any electoral challenge to the domination of the Left Front. 

The motley combination of CPI(M) dissidents, disgruntled Congressmen and dropouts from some other Left parties under the middle-of-the-road banner of the newly founded Party for Democratic Socialism has also failed to carve out any significant electoral constituency beyond polling some 2,00,000 votes from some 80 seats. At their present level, forces like the BJP as well as the Kamtapuris and Jharkhandis do not yet constitute much of an independent threat, and the division of votes rather helps the Left Front to retain its upper hand in a three-way contest. Moreover, given Bengal’s bitter memories of Partition, any perceived threat to the ‘unity and integrity’ of Bengal produces strong contrary feelings and concerns and the benefit naturally accrues to the Left Front.

The Left Front success story in West Bengal has thus to be seen in its unique context. Certain conditions surrounding the latest victory however tend to overshadow this context, placing it in a category of its own. The retirement of Jyoti Basu and the coming to the fore of Buddhadev Bhattacharya obviously marked a new conjuncture, lending a relatively new look to the Left Front. The realignment of the opposition – the distancing of TMC from BJP and its eleventh-hour adjustment with the Congress – and the TMC-Congress combine’s desperate and no-holds-barred campaign for change, with slogans like “Hoi Ebar, Noi Never” (now or never) and “Ultey Din, Paltey Din” (overturn the present regime), resurrected the spectre of the 1970s. In contrast, the CPI(M)’s slogan of an improved Left Front and the gospel of work culture, better infrastructure, IT boom and all that generated a new hope amidst sections of the urban middle class, the young generation not excluded. Many intellectuals and cultural personalities who generally maintain a professional independence or distance and are even known to have a lot of reservations and criticism about many aspects of the Left Front government felt either alarmed or inspired or perhaps both to campaign openly for the new-look Left Front under the leadership of Buddhadev Bhattacharya. 

One of course has to acknowledge the hopes and aspirations of large sections of Left, democratic and progressive forces underlying the sixth successive victory of the Left Front. But one cannot and must not lose sight of the other side of the coin. The chambers of commerce in West Bengal have been most vocal in supporting and welcoming the Left Front victory. They had already christened Buddhadev as shilpabandhu (friend of the industry) before the elections. The US Consul General in Kolkata was quite effusive in his praise for the new CM and hopeful about the growth of American investments in the state under his stewardship. As Ashok Mitra told the Frontline, “Businessmen, industrialists and small traders who wanted a stable administration knew there would be chaos with this lady … They wanted to function within the modalities of a system.” (Frontline, 22 June)

Is the corporate support for the Left Front just a reluctant preference for some system as opposed to anarchy and chaos? Or is there something more to it? The visit of the captains of industry and financial barons to the CPI(M) state headquarters and the public felicitation of the new CM held jointly by five chambers of commerce would suggest a much warmer bonhomie, typical of a budding organic relationship. On his part Buddhadev has been quite candid in admitting this metamorphosis, on levels both personal and collective. He has made it known to the world that he now enjoys the company of business, something Jyoti Basu has taught him, and that he will not brook ‘militant’ trade unionism. He has been open in his articulation of the connotation of a better Left Front – it means among other things a ‘business-friendly Left Front.’ His admiration for the Andhra model of economic reforms has been expressed in several interviews, and here is what he says in the latest Frontline interview: “We are inviting foreign financial agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to invest in infrastructure such as roads. … My first job as Chief Minister last week was to finalise a document dealing with a Rs. 1,500-crore project to be funded by the ADB for a north-south corridor linking Calcutta and Siliguri.” (Frontline, 22 June, 2001). The policy of courting capital would be accompanied by an approach of non-confrontation in relation to the central government. 

Industrialisation apart, the other two thrust areas identified by the new Left Front government are agriculture and governance. Consolidation of gains in the agriculture sector and making the administration more sensitive and transparent appear to be themes close to the heart of the new Chief Minister. But when asked to elaborate, he generally talks about ‘crop diversification’ and improvement in areas of education and healthcare; a euphemism used generally these days for introduction of greater commercialisation and privatisation of these essential services. Those wanting to hear about extension and radicalisation of land reforms would have to re-tune their ears to the new vocabulary of an improved Left! 

The massacres and custodial killings and other instances of political terror unleashed during the notorious Congress regime in the first half of the 1970s became once again a major campaign plank for the Left Front in these elections. In a bid to outsmart the Left campaign, Mamata Banerjee even spoke about setting up a new commission of inquiry into the bone-chilling Kashipur-Baranagar killings (hundreds of young people, suspected Naxalites, were butchered in a state-sponsored killing spree that lasted for two days in August 1971). Ironically, she said this in a meeting in Kashipur itself sharing her platform with none other than the high priest of brutality, the notorious SS Ray. This repulsive attempt by the killers to appropriate the rhetoric of ‘justice’ was rightly condemned by all concerned with the defence of democratic rights. But the fact remains that the Left Front has done precious little to punish the guilty in all these twenty-four years. In fact, the CPI(M) leaders could only retort by accusing the Congress government of having destroyed all relevant papers and files. The CBI case against the demolishers of the Babri Masjid is dropped because the notification was ‘flawed’! The semi-fascist killers of West Bengal go scot-free and some are even promoted and rewarded because the papers are ‘lost’! Does anybody in West Bengal really expect the better Left Front led by Buddhadev Bhattacharya to challenge this travesty of justice? 

As of now, the right opposition in West Bengal has no other option but to lie low. For the first time, Mamata Banerjee finds herself in a really tight spot. She had almost burnt her bridge with the NDA, and a return to NDA can only prove utterly humiliating. But if she does not return to the NDA she stands to lose most her MPs and if she does indeed eat humble pie and return to the NDA, she is liable to lose many of her MLAs. This discomfiture of the TMC and the division in the rightwing opposition camp certainly augur well for those who aspire to play the role of an effective Left opposition in West Bengal. But it will be a folly to underestimate the TMC’s strength and especially ignore the signs of unrest among the industrial working class and the urban and rural poor. Even a critical and committed analyst like Ashok Mitra tends to gloss over the valid signs of industrial and rural unrest in the state. Bengalis, Frontline quotes Mitra saying, are fascinated by goddesses of deliverance. And who were the people looking for deliverance from Left Front rule in West Bengal? Mitra catalogues them in the following terms, “sections from the newspapers, the bureaucracy, police, slum dwellers, and the underworld.” He believes the middle classes began distancing themselves from Mamata when “in her election campaign she used the language of the underworld, of the gutter.” It is all right to denounce the politics and rhetorical standards of someone like Mamata Banerjee, but we will be deluding ourselves if we dismiss the 1,12,29,170 votes polled by the TMC as the voice of the underworld in Bengal. The state must then be having the biggest underworld in the world and it will not really be a matter of great achievement for the longest Left rule ever recorded in a parliamentary democracy! 

To return to the CPI(M) slogan of a better or improved Left, there is undeniably a self-critical ring about it. But what will this self-criticism really boil down to? It is naÔve to expect the CPI(M) leadership to self-criticise their way in Bengal closer to a radical agenda after 24 years of stability and that too in this changed climate of liberalisation and globalisation. Cosmetics apart, new policy directions already seem to foretell a more comprehensive adjustment with neo-liberalism, albeit with a human face. The battle between the better Left and the revolutionary Left, between the Left government and the Left opposition, must therefore continue. Let the CPI(M) try to ‘better’ its own record. Communist revolutionaries must also concentrate on playing their role more effectively and sincerely. Bringing about a positive or dialectical negation of the CPI(M)’s theory and practice of ‘better Left’ remains the real challenge before communist revolutionaries in the state.