‘Improved Left Front’ Revisited

-- Political Observer

‘A better, improved Left Front’ was a key slogan of the CPI(M) during the May 2001 Assembly elections. The retirement of Jyoti Basu and the rise of a new post-Basu leadership had already marked a major change. In fact, it is believed that for good sections of the West Bengal electorate, especially for the managers of public opinion and for the corporate bosses, it was this ‘change’ which proved more exciting than any deliverance that the maverick Mamata Banerjee could promise.

But six months down the line, as the ‘change’ unveils itself in the form of enhanced electricity rates and relentless privatisation of essential services including healthcare, eviction of slumdwellers and rail and street hawkers and arrival of Bengal’s own POTO in the shape of POCA (Prevention of Organised Crime Act), disillusionment has started following suit. As the ‘new regime’ of Buddhadev Bhattacharya continues to conform to the hopes and dreams of the media managers and corporate bosses, activists and sympathisers of the Left in Bengal are feeling increasingly let down and disturbed. People are wondering if Buddhadev would turn out to be the Bengal version of Gorbachev for the state’s ruling Left establishment!

Meanwhile, Bhattacharya has not given up on his poll-time slogan of ‘improved Left Front’. Recently he has produced a 24-page booklet entitled Unnatatara Bamfronter Sandhane (In Search of a Better Left Front). More accurately, his own contribution to the booklet is a 9-page essay with the remaining pages being filled up with the Left Front’s manifesto for the latest Assembly elections and excerpts from the finance minister’s budget speech on the floor of the Assembly and information regarding certain official schemes of decentralised development.

Of course, nowhere in this booklet does one get to read anything about Buddhadev’s repressive brainchild which came to be known as POCO. Ordinary readers can however hardly complain, for the Left Front government had withheld this ‘classified information’ from even a seasoned international campaigner for civil liberties like Noam Chomsky when he visited the state the other day as the Left Front government’s esteemed state guest! When contacted later by democratic rights activists in Kolkata, Chomsky admitted that he had not been told about POCA during his stay in Bengal even as he held forth against the proliferation of repressive legislation in the wake of September 11 from the USA PATRIOT Act to POTO. In fact, when Advani began to design POTO, Buddhadev was quick to oppose it, but on the curious ground of dubious federalism. He said he didn’t need POTO for he already had up his sleeves a similar ordinance for his state called POCO! And wasn’t ‘law and order’ after all a state subject! The cabinet, the LF partners and even his own party, it seems, were taken by surprise by this sudden announcement. Embarrassed, the party polit bureau intervened and got the project shelved for the time being, but it quickly turned out that what had been shelved was just the ordinance, and the idea would soon come back as a bill to be legislated by the Assembly into a proper Act.

Buddhadev was able to sell POCA to his Party colleagues on the plea that unlike POTO, it would focus on organised crime and that it was essential to prevent Bengal from being turned into a hotbed of inter-state and international crime. The sensational incident of abduction and subsequent release of the owner of the well-known footwear chain ‘Khadim’ was played up to the hilt to justify POCA. But as it turned out, the abductors could be tracked down without any special Act like POCA, and yet one of the accused was soon to be shot down mysteriously by the Gujarat police in a Gujarat jail. If the abduction was organised by an international crime syndicate, it was clearly done in connivance with sections of the police themselves. And Buddhadev would like to check such ‘organised crime’ by arming the police with still more sweeping powers!

Crimes like abduction and extortion of huge ransom money are however not the only or even the main threat POCA is intended to address. The Kamtapuri movement in the northern districts of Bengal, outfits like the PWG and the Jharkhand groups operating in the south-western region of the state, and the so-called ISI-instigated immigrants from Bangladesh and Maoist insurgents crossing into the state from across the Nepal border are all cited as reasons for enacting a repressive law like POCA. In the face of determined opposition from various quarters including pressure from Front partners, the introduction of the POCA bill has been deferred till the next session, but Buddhadev keeps ‘reassuring’ his friends and admirers that POCA would soon be in place regardless of whatever happens to POTO at the Centre. One shudders to think about the possible outcome of Buddhadev’s improved Left Front when it is soaked in such utter contempt for democratic rights.

Beleaguered Castle of Improved Left: Shaky Grounds, Blinkered Vision

Leaving aside the ‘silences’ like POCA, let us now look at what Bhattacharya has got to say in the course of his 9-page essay. With him, the Left Front becomes an exclusively Bengal-specific or Bengali experiment. He even makes the astounding claim that running a Left-led government in a state is an uncharted territory as nobody has walked along this way before. One does not even find a reference to the first communist-led government in Kerala, not to mention the discussion and experiences of communist-led provincial governments or local self-governments. Even within the context of Bengal, he provides us with a very selective and distorted recapitulation of the history of the Left movement in the state.

He does emphasise the transition from the United Front of the ‘60s to the Left Front in the ‘70s as a transition from a predominantly urban working and middle-class-based phenomenon to a powerful peasant awakening in the countryside challenging the reactionary Congress citadel of landlordism. He locates this peasant movement in the late 1960s without ever mentioning the tremendous impetus generated by the great Naxalbari peasant rebellion. Naxalbari surfaces in his account after 1971 and that too as a source of sheer ‘deviation and disorder’. It is well known that post-1971, it was a period of setback, confusion, disintegration and reorganisation for Naxalbari, but it is equally widely recognised that during the golden years between 1967 and 1971, Naxalbari brought about a sea change in the Bengal countryside. One may or may not agree with all that the CPI(ML) set out to do during those turbulent years, but to attempt to edit out Naxalbari from the history of peasant movement is to approach history with a blinkered vision. In fact, it was Naxalbari which delivered the biggest blows to the Congress bases in rural Bengal and with the CPI(ML) in disarray, it was the CPI(M) which emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the great inheritance of Naxalbari. Despite decades of distorted propaganda and cultivation of hostility towards Naxalbari, it has still not been possible for the bigoted and sectarian CPI(M) leadership to stamp out the influence of Naxalbari and the spectre starts haunting them during every major inner-party political debate. It is of course pointless to expect a fair sense of history from Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya who has now taken it upon himself to steer the Left Front further rightward in West Bengal.

On the economic front, Bhattacharya’s gospel of development revolves around what he calls the transition from agriculture to agro-based industry apart from the much-trumpeted IT revolution. In between, there is the usual talk on improving the state of infrastructure and delivery services in the so-called social sector ranging from literacy to healthcare. There is little to differentiate this discourse from the neo-liberal slogans of ‘retreat of the state from production, safety net for the vulnerable and liberalisation with a human face’. In fact, Buddhaspeak is no different from Naiduspeak; like Chandrababu Naidu, Buddhadev Bhattacharya has turned out to be a great votary of the IMF-World Bank school of fiscal discipline propped on World Bank-funded projects and loans with stringent strings. But as with POCA, he has not embellished his essay on ‘improved Left’ with many gems from his new-found economic theory, possibly reserving his otherwise celebrated candour regarding the World Bank and his enthusiasm for a free market for other situations and other audiences.

Bhattacharya lays great stress on instilling greater cohesion and unity within the Left Front. This is the first time the CPI(M) failed to secure independent absolute majority in the Assembly. But far from having a sobering influence on the CPI(M) this seems to have made the ‘big brother’ more desperate in its attempts to impose its hegemony on the Left Front. Left Front partners like the RSP, Forward Bloc and even the CPI are being increasingly forced to openly voice their dissatisfaction with the quality and pattern of the Front’s internal functioning. Buddhadev’s plea for greater cohesion is being translated into new codes of conduct which are nothing but camouflaged attempts to silence all possible dissent within the Front.

More on Bengal and Kerala Polls: From the Horse’s Mouth

It will be interesting to read the new Bengal discourse of ‘improved Left’ in conjunction with the review made by the CPI(M) Central Committee of the May 2001 Assembly elections. The review has some revealing remarks regarding both West Bengal and Kerala. With regard to West Bengal, the review qualifies the euphoria of the sixth successive victory of the Left Front with the admission that “A section of the working people have turned away from us and become hostile.” Of course, the review blames it on the “unprincipled behaviour” of some panchayat functionaries and “wrong functioning on the part of cadres” rather than looking for any possible source of alienation in the government’s policies or in the role of the higher leadership of the Party and MLAs and ministers.

In the very next point, the review calls for overcoming the reluctance to organise the agricultural workers and paying attention to developing their political consciousness. As far as we know it has been the CPI(M)’s official policy not to have a separate organisation of agricultural workers in West Bengal even though the party runs an all-India organisation of agricultural workers with millions of members. The CPI(M) propaganda has all along maintained that the impressive implementation of land reforms, the near-completion of Operation Barga and the institutionalisation of the panchayati raj in West Bengal have dismantled the earlier stranglehold of landlords, kulaks and rich peasants and minimised contradictions between agricultural workers and the rural rich so much so that it is possible and desirable to organise all sections of the entire rural population under the Kisan Sabha’s banner of broad peasant unity. The talk of any ‘reluctance’ is therefore misplaced, to say the least.

Independent studies and even commissions set up by the West Bengal government itself have however long been disputing this official description of the rural scene in West Bengal. Under conditions of reverse tenancy, operation barga has contributed more to the economic consolidation of the kulaks and rich peasantry, while panchayats too have been witness to a reformed domination of the rural rich and the middle sections with the rural poor’s representation remaining confined to a marginal level. The massacre of six agricultural workers in May 1993 at Karanda in Bardhaman pointed to a growing unease among agricultural workers and a new desperation among the CPI(M) leadership and the rural rich to silence the growing voice of protest and opposition. Significantly, it was happening in a district like Bardhaman which the CPI(M) leadership would like to showcase as their biggest success story in agrarian reforms. During the run-up to the last Assembly elections when the Bengal countryside was reeling under terror, many academic and political observers traced the agrarian roots of this terror and violence to the increasingly aggressive character of the CPI(M)-backed domination of the rural rich.

The CPI(M) of course saw nothing but a conspiracy to dislodge its government and characterised it as a backlash of rural reaction against the Left Front government’s spate of reforms. Even if we accept it for the sake of argument that this reaction is a backlash against the reforms, it raises more questions than it answers and the questions are no less disturbing. How come reaction suddenly acquired such a strong base in the countryside? What then happened to the presumed dismantling of the hegemony of the rural rich? What happened to the framework of broad peasant unity and the so-called containment of class contradictions in the countryside within a non-antagonistic framework of ‘friendly’ class struggle? Evidently, there are strong reasons to argue and believe that while the earlier pattern of hegemony underwent some changes, the reforms could not bring about any basic change in the balance of class forces in the countryside. The framework of broad peasant unity may have put a check on the organisation and consolidation of agricultural workers as a class, but it has not been possible to contain the kulaks and capitalist landlords and reactionary rich peasants. At the end of the CPI(M)’s much-trumpeted rural reforms, these class forces have been replenished and their hegemony reinforced. They represent not just a reaction against the reforms; they are also products and beneficiaries of the reforms who are now demanding a greater share of rural resources and power. Whatever be the CPI(M)’s explanations regarding the Left Front’s sixth successive victory in West Bengal, the defeat in Kerala can certainly not be attributed to any ‘reluctance’ to organise the agricultural workers. After all, Kerala is the state where the organisation of agricultural workers has the longest history spanning several decades and even today it contributes the biggest contingent of members to the CPI(M)-led All India Agricultural Workers’ Union. Also, the defeat in Kerala in the May 2001 elections was much more emphatic than any previous victory or defeat. Here, the review mentions something much more damning than sheer ‘reluctance’: “There are many reasons for the erosion of our mass base in Kerala. It was a serious lapse that the interests of the poorer sections such as the agricultural workers, workers in the traditional industries such as coir, handloom, cashew, toddy tapping, fishing and handicapped and widows were forgotten.”

How could such a thing happen? After all, Kerala has been the CPI(M)’s biggest fable after West Bengal. In terms of social indicators like literacy, infant mortality, women’s education, access to healthcare etc., Kerala compares quite favourably with many developed countries and is even marginally ahead of China in certain respects. The concept of People’s Plan evolved and implemented by the Nayanar government in Kerala was even projected by CPI(M) theoreticians and academics as a creative contribution to the enrichment of Marxism. When an eminent economist like Amartya Sen questioned the CPI(M)’s claims regarding the Kerala model of development, preferring to call it an experiment rather than a model, the CPI(M) establishment promptly rejected him. But now will the CPI(M) leadership tell us how the celebrated Kerala model bred such criminal insensitivity and distorted priorities leading to the forgetting of the interests of the poorer sections such as the agricultural workers and workers in the traditional industries?

Kerala has exploded the myth of the CPI(M)’s programme of reaching modest relief to the masses. Against the backdrop of deepening economic crisis aggravated by globalisation, far from mitigating the devastating impact of the crisis for the weaker and poorer sections of the society, the CPI(M)-led LDF government served as an agency that only managed to circulate and amplify the magnitude of the crisis. And now Bengal is exposing the meaning of the CPI(M)’s pet slogan of ‘more powers to the states’. More powers not to increase the quantum of relief, not to expand the public sector and strengthen welfare legislation, but to implement the whole gamut of neo-liberal policies and add repressive laws like POCA to the state’s arsenal.

How long can the empty and pretentious slogan of ‘an improved Left Front’ camouflage this rightward journey of the opportunist Left? Watch out for more details from Buddhadev’s Royal Bengal Perestroika.