“23 February, 1967, polling day was a turning point in the political history of India, the Communists are coming.”
Said, the personal assistant to the outgoing congress chief minister Prafulla Chandra Sen (S.Chakrabarty, 1978, p.194). Little did he knew, that over four decades later, the political history of India (West Bengal at least) will again be at the threshold of a revolutionary change. This time the tide turning against the communists, who have been ruling West Bengal undefeated since 1977. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)[CPI(M)] led Left Front Government in West Bengal is currently facing the worst crisis in its 33 years of hegemonic rule. What are the reasons that have made the world’s longest serving democratically elected communist government so unpopular among the masses that it had been successfully reaching out to over all these years?
Reasons are aplenty. But before exploring the causes for this dissent among the masses, a rearview into the history of the CPI(M) Government in the state is a must. The CPI(M) led Left Front Government came into power in 1977 under the charismatic leadership of Jyoti Basu, who had earlier been the Deputy Chief Minister under Ajoy Mukherjee’s United Front Government in 1967. Compared to congress, the communist government in power tended to be more serious about and more effective in implementing measure of agrarian reform such as land ceilings, land redistribution, protection of tenants and sharecroppers, and programs for the poor to provide them with employment opportunities and income-producing assets.
Having given up the radical militant path of adventurism for a more popular form of parliamentary electoral politics, with a reformist attitude, the CPI(M), soon lost the support of the urban proletariat, the working classes in Kolkata. That was when the party realized the existence of the political power base of West Bengal to be in Rural Bengal. There was neither the money nor the human resource to deal adequately with the city and countryside together. So, the choice was obvious, CPI(M) started using the control over Government resources to extend its support throughout the countryside y gaining control of the village panchayats and by implementing legislation for the protection of the rights of tenants, sharecroppers and the landless. These highly politicized village panchayats, where CPI(M) cadres and party sympathizers had penetrated in large numbers facilitated the displacement of dominant landed classes by smaller landholders, teachers and social workers, making the agrarian reforms, land redistribution and sharecroppers registration possible.
An India Today survey in 1988 revealed that each one of West Bengal’s 41,000 villages has at least one unit of the party. After making a stronghold in the countryside, through a centralized Party structure, the CPI(M) shifted focus to changing its ideology in trying to keep up with the changing times as the era of liberalization set in, in the nineties. With the onset of these changes, the shape of CPI(M)’s popularity among the masses also started changing, a change not to their liking as we shall see.
The open embrace to capitalism which was performed with political expertise under Jyoti Basu (if one recounts the Resettlement committee for slums of south Kolkata, an area redeveloped for the influx of IT hubs and other private software giants, where Basu invited participants from Government, opposition, lawyers, community representatives to pay heed to all sorts of voices in the matter), became an authoritarian shift to neo-liberalism under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.
While tracing the decline of the communist hegemony in Bengal one things which comes out strongly is that, the very points which were attributed to the creation of this hegemony paradoxically became the reasons for its decline. CPI(M)’s coherent leadership, populist ideology, and centralized organization had enabled it to penetrate the countryside without being captured by the propertied groups. These attributions, in today’s times have become the very cause of the precipitous decline in leftist popularity in the state. As Amrita Basu has pointed out, and I too have made a mention in the beginning that Left was never at home with the urban middle classes and working classes, as it always accorded low priority to ameliorating the appalling urban conditions and repeatedly failed to improve transportation, sanitation and other civic services. Hence, the shift in policy towards cementing the rural electorate.
However, the CPI(M)’s authoritative enforcement of the newly adapted Neo-liberal ideology on the rural population, hit the poor peasantry hard on its face. This hit, culminated largely in the loss of the ‘historic bloc’ which the communist hegemony had created over this long tenure in power. Adding to the woes of the people was the lack of a strong leadership, at the state level, as well as the centre. While Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister, went on extending olive branches to the neo-liberal capitalist houses for investing in the state, leaders of the CPI(M) at the centre, kept on criticizing the Congress for doing the same at the national level.
This lack of co-ordination between the State and Central Leadership, which almost amounted to doublespeak and hypocrisy, swayed voters away from the CPI(M), giving them a setback in the 15th Lok Sabha Election, where they faced a massive seven percent decline in the vote share compared to Lok Sabha Election in 2004.
The centralized organization of the CPI(M) has also come under a lot of criticism off late, for the authoritative manner of its functioning. The CPI(M) Government created a Government for party and a party for Government, known as the Patry = Government model, in political literature. Strengthening the cadres in the countryside, by giving local strongmen a free hand in recruiting followers, the party has ended up creating a mesh of land mafia, with a political backing, which has become the violent face of the party in its land acquisition drive, negating all the good work done from land-redistribution in the past. The cadres have eventually metamorphosed into harmads, resorting to violence at the slightest provocation. Nandigram, Singur and now Netai, have already become household names, much to the dislike of the party.
The opposition has been having a field day, relatively quite easily, in West Bengal, as the CPI(M) itself has been giving it a lot of opportunities to cash in on from. The way the left handled Rizwanur Rehman Case, drew a lot of muslim supporters away from the left, leading them straight into the opposition fold, explaining the left’s dismal performance in the constituencies with sizeable muslim population in the 15th Lok Sabha Elections, like Murshidabad, Birbhum, North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia etc.
However the role played by Mamta Banerjee led Trinamul Congress, a pre-dominantly personality based party with no concrete ideology of its own, transforming into a party of coercion, which has rocked the foundations of the communist hegemony in Bengal, in the 15th Lok Sabha elections and the much recently concluded Municipal Corporation elections, is surely worth exploring in greater details. The one question, which remains above all is, what is happening in West Bengal? The answer, for starters can begin with, the process of dismantling of a once-dominant Communist Hegemony.