CMP and CPM: A Historic Convergence
T hat the present CMP, like the original CMP of the UF and NDA’s NAG, is a document of deception is obvious. But it is also part of a trend witnessed in many parts of the world (Latin America, parts of Europe and Asia, South Africa) – one that seeks to soften neo-liberal economic reform, to round off its sharp edges, to supplement it with safety nets for the victims – all for the purpose of making it sustainable in the longer run. Moreover, in this case the document reflects the pressures and pulls and the resultant balance of political forces assembled in the ruling coalition (including the Left Front, in a sense). And helps us understand how in a given situation a given “executive committee of the ruling classes” tries to readjust and fine-tune its policies to suit changes in economic and political situations, to address (or pretend to address) some of the pressing public demands, to present its own immediate programme in a form acceptable to the masses. So why not have a closer look at this otherwise barren, useless document?
The more vital components can be tabulated as follows:
In sum, the CMP is an exercise in restoring and reinforcing the legitimacy of the bourgeois-landlord rule (or, if you will, the hegemony of ruling classes), which took a severe beating during more than a decade of neo-liberal reform and communal build-up. This is what the new dispensation seeks to achieve under the catchword ‘reform with a human face’, which is projected as the grand quintessence of a great document and the meeting ground of the Left, the Right and the Center.
Normally, one would expect Marxists to come forward and expose the class character of a document like the CMP. Not so the Marxists in the CPI(M) and the Left Front.
In a press statement released simultaneously with the CMP, the LF informed the world that they were consulted and their views taken into consideration while drafting the document. They “welcome[d]” and “broadly endorse[d]” it while expressing partial disagreement on certain issues. Statements by individual left leaders, in keeping with the LF’s unconditional (as distinct from issue-based) support, were generally full of appreciation and expectation (see box). Jyoti Basu, speaking at a memorial meeting for comrade E K Nayanar in Kolkata on 6 June, stressed the need to keep the government afloat. “We can express our disagreement from time to time, but will never be a party to pulling down this government”, he said. Another distinguished speaker at the meet, Professor Prabhat Patnaik, later wrote,
“The Programme does represent a shift of direction away from neo-liberalism…The dependence of the government on support from the Left would ensure that it would not make a complete volte face on its commitments embodied in the CMP in the matter of economic policy. Even though the Left has assured support to the government for a full five-year term, it is unlikely that the government would exploit this commitment to push a neo-liberal agenda. The least that can happen in this respect in the short-run therefore is a ‘’freezing’’ of ‘’reforms’’ with some measures to alleviate the peoples’ hardships…”(India : A Setback for Neo-Liberalism, 10 June, 2004, www.macroscan.com)
But the Left proposes, the Right disposes. This has been the general experience of Left-Right tie-ups, and in the present case the first salvo was fired when, within days after installation of the Left-sponsored government, the highly profitable Delhi and Mumbai airports were leased out to a joint venture for 30 years. The authorities made it clear that strong Left opposition and the “national security argument” notwithstanding, privatisation of ports and docks as well as airports will be continued. According to details worked in consultation with Left leaders, up to 49% foreign stake will be allowed in these cases, with another 26% and 25% earmarked for the state the and the Indian private sectors respectively. This means 74% privatisation, with controlling stakes in foreign hands.
The second, and more serious, setback came with the President’s address. In a subtle shift from the CMP, it advocated both public and private ventures in the development of physical infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, power, railways, water supply and sanitation. Moreover, the promised legislation for protection of agricultural labour was conspicuous by its absence. Nor was there any mention of review of the Electricity Act, 2003. The address just stated, in most general terms, that “the flow of agricultural credit will be significantly stepped up”, whereas the CMP had promised “doubling”, over the “next three years”, of credit for the needy majority of the rural population.
Most importantly, fulfillment of the numerous promises has been made conditional on the “availability of resources” and the “improvement of the absorbing capacity of various sectors”. This means everything remains uncertain. As if this was not enough, the President’s speechwriters have declared that the much-vaunted employment guarantee Act will be implemented in a “phased manner”.
The President attached too much importance to Israel vis-à-vis Palestine and welcomed the current US-UN move on Iraq. As CPI(M) Politbureau member Prakash Karat correctly pointed out, “The government seems to have been taken in by the US handling of the sovereignty of Iraq. The country is now being handed over to a puppet regime and we cannot support this…. The government’s formulation seems to be a hangover of the Vajpayee regime.” (Times News Network, June 07,2004).
Then again, on June 10, the External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh said at a press conference with the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in Washington that the situation in Iraq had changed and therefore India could reconsider sending troops there. Naturally this evoked strong protest from all sections of left and democratic opinion and forced the government beat a temporary retreat.
Well, this chronicle of clashes covers only the first fortnight following the announcement of the CMP. If the morning really shows the day, the coming months and years will definitely see the Manmohan-Chidambaram government drift further and further to the right. And no wonder, this is perfectly in accord with past experience, as Comrade Prakash Karat recently pointed out in People’s Democracy (6 June, 2004):
“Summing up the experience of the United Front government period in 1996-98, the 16th Congress of the Party had noted that, ‘The United Front continued to pursue virtually the entire framework of the economic policies of liberalisation in great earnest. The process of privatisation, opening the economy for foreign capital in the core sectors, imposing greater burdens on the people through increased indirect taxes, big concessions, given to the rich through cuts in the direct taxes etc. The whole thrust of the Congress (I) economic policy was being continued and many of the pro-people policies in the CMP like providing foodgrain to people living below the poverty line at one half of the prices were being ignored.’
This was the situation with the non-Congress United Front government which was supported from outside by the Congress. One can imagine the thrust of the policies in a Congress-led government which has now been constituted.”
The Pol-Org. Report of the CPM’s 16 th Congress, from which Comrade Karat quotes, also contains valuable observations on what happens to a left party when it supports even a non-Congress, non-BJP government even from outside and without signing the CMP:
“During this period, the preoccupation with keeping the government in office and the running of the Steering Committee diverted our attention away from developing the mass struggles and mass movements against the anti-people policies. This led to a lull in the movement…On the one hand we were seen as an important element in keeping the United Front together while, on the other, our demarcation and opposition to policies appeared to be only formal…” The point was made even more forcefully in the July 1996 resolution of the central committee of CPI(M): “the call for independent activities of the party is often ritualistically observed in a formal manner… and tendency to tail behind the slogans of the dominant bourgeois partners is becoming increasingly manifest.”
Will the CPI(M) remember this sober voice of introspection at this hour of jubilation?
The CPI(M)’s ambivalent approach to the CMP –– to the new political arrangement for that matter ––is best studied in reference to the party’s conduct in the three base states, particularly in the most stable among the lot, namely, West Bengal. And one easy, practical way of doing that is to focus the spotlight on the words and deeds of Politbureau member and the party’s most high-profile man in governance, Buddhadev Bhattacharya (BB).
Bhattacharya has lately been indulging in a curious triplespeak: (a) to his voters as the most ardent crusader against the Congress; (b) to the central government as the most accommodating Chief Minister; (c) to big Capital, foreign and domestic, as the poster-boy of reform and liberalisation. As for (a), hear him in Ganashakti, the party’s Bengali daily:
“Leftists will try to form government with secular parties excluding the BJP and the Congress. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Chief Minister of West Bengal, said this on Monday at two mass meetings at Maheshtala and Haltu.” (Tuesday, 27 April)
“Clearly, there were three dominant elements in the people’s desire for a change. First, to secure the secular democratic character of the Indian Republic and undo the damage done by the Vajpayee government. Secondly, to reorient the economic reforms to focus primarily on improving people’s livelihood. Thirdly, to restore a degree of political morality in governance which was sharply and shamelessly eroded by the Vajpayee government. The CMP reflects all these concerns.”
“ After the LS polls, the left will first try to form a government of the third front, keeping aside the BJP and the Congress. … In a hung parliament, we will first try to form a non-Congress government, said Buddhadev Bhattacharya in an interview to the PTI at the CPI(M) state office at Kolkata on Tuesday.” (Wednesday, 28 April)
Readers may have noticed the deviation from the central slogan of a secular government (not specifically a non-Congress government) highlighted in the party’s election manifesto. Well, this is a manifestation of the famous ‘Bengal line’, also endorsed by the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s pre-poll appeal to the electorate in West Bengal :
“Vote only for the Left, because it is they who can mobilise the Left-Democratic-Secular forces to form a true alternative to the BJP and the Congress at the Centre. (“Appeal of the Left Front”, p14, emphasis added).
When this specific call “to form a government of the third front, keeping aside the BJP and the Congress” was turned down by the electorate, Comrade BB did not hesitate to declare, at a “victory rally” in Kolkata:
“What we wanted is exactly what has happened. The present Congress government at the Centre is totally dependent on us. When we want them to stand, they will stand. When we want them to sit, they will sit.”
Surely this was a hollow statement to make after the party pledged unconditional support to the new government for a full five-year term (whether it will continue that long is another matter). And the farce would become more and more obvious as the days passed by, as the Congress-led government began to go its own way with scant regard for the talkative Left and successfully co-opted Somnath Chatterjee in the ruling arrangement.
When confronting the union government, however, Bhattacharya is a very different man. His ‘responsible’ attitude had earned him the Deputy PM Advani’s praise on several occasions in the past, and now he is all set to project himself as the symbol of Centre-State cooperation. He was the first CM to dash off to New Delhi to meet the new PM and said after the meet, “Communists are not fools. They are not against reforms. What we want is what the Prime Minister has said about reforms with a human face”. Back in Kolkata, he commented, “I was certainly not demanding my pound of flesh…because we’re supporting this Government, we’re not into any pressure tactics.” In the wake of the Sensex nosedive, he came out boldly in defence of Manmohanomics, voicing full support to reforms and ebulliently citing Chinese success on the reform road.
US gives the thumbs up to the Left Front
Almost three weeks after the Left Front got a thumbs up from the influential IT Association of America on its commitment to economic reforms, it was the turn of a US diplomat on Thursday to reaffirm that the Bush Administration also shared the same opinion now about the Communists.
“Seeing its effort to promote growth and welcome foreign investment, its willingness to adapt labour laws to the special circumstances of the IT industry and its willingness to close loss-making public enterprises (in West Bengal), I am optimistic that the Left Front will be pragmatic in its approach to economic policy-making,” economic minister counselor at the US embassy in Delhi Lee Brudvig said at an interaction at the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC).
Last year, West Bengal became the only Indian state to declare IT a ‘public utility’ thereby enabling infotech units to be outside the purview of bandhs. The state recently closed down two loss-making units and plans to dole out the same fate to more unviable firms.
Brudvig said US companies were very happy with the changes taking place in West Bengal. “One large American company, which did a detailed analysis of the business opportunities in India, told us that Bengal is now the most attractive business destination in India,” Brudvig said to underline the importance US companies were now according to the state.
Together with Comrade Surjeet, BB has thus emerged as the principal prop of the UPA regime. And the above stance fits perfectly with his third and most vital role: that of India’s reform-minded reformed Communist per excellence. Like his predecessor, he too rolled out the red carpet to imperialist finance capital, but that by itself was not enough. To create the ‘right atmosphere’ for investment he has, over the last three years, taken a series of stringent measures: curbing the last vestiges of TU militancy; suppressing political opposition (e.g., banning/restricting political processions and rallies) and mass movements in the name of fighting TNC (Trinamool Congress), PWG and Kamtapuri ‘terror’; depriving people’s livelihood rights (eviction of hawkers, road-side shops and slums in the name of development and beautification) and so on. These are in addition to the numerous fiscal and other economic measures of the kind pioneered in States like AP, Maharashtra and MP. At the moment, for instance, West Bengal government is going ahead with a plan of separation of generation and distribution of electricity as a step to privatisation, as envisaged in the Electricity Act 2003. Closing down sick PSUs or throwing them open to private participation is no longer taboo, while seeking and getting funds from agencies like Asian Development Bank (ADB), and World Bank is a routine affair now. In other States, of course, the old rhetoric is retained (activists of the party’s youth wing broke into a meeting between Kerala government officials and the ADB at Thiruvananthapuram on 26 th May, shouting slogans against imperialist capital). The State government has all but finalised a deal with the Salim group for the construction of a satellite township at Howrah.
Years of persistent effort along these lines (started by Jyoti Basu) have at last earned the party total trust of the big bosses of capital, Indian as well as foreign-based (see box). Recently The New York Times summed up the whole thing from a confident, triumphalist bourgeois viewpoint when it said, “Do not worry about what the Left says, watch what they actually do.”
So these are the three basic planks of the survival strategy of loyal Bengal Marxists, in fact the foundation of the party’s political line. If at the State level (Bengal, Kerala, Tripura) conflict (with Congress) predominates, at the national plane it is cooperation, with the third plank – the essential social-democratic progression from befriending big capital to power-sharing – uniting the two apparent opposites. In real life the three are neatly woven into a single fabric of pragmatic politics, of “politics as art of the possible”, reflecting a historic convergence of interests and outlooks symbolised by the CMP and the whole arrangement of so-called ‘support from outside’.