Fall of the Reds

There may have been sev­eral rea­sons be­hind the de­feat of the Com­mu­nists in West Ben­gal but all they need is an elec­toral change of for­tunes for a fight back.

Southasia - - People & Politics - By Amna Eht­e­sham Khaishgi

For many, the de­feat of the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in West Ben­gal is akin to the fall of the great Ro­man Em­pire. This school of thought – mainly com­pris­ing right-wing op­po­nents – be­lieves that Com­mu­nism in In­dia has out­lived its util­ity, as has been the case in many coun­tries around the world. While the party’s polit­buro is still an­a­lyz­ing the root causes of de­feat, it is ap­par­ent that it was aided by the fact that West Ben­gal had a crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture and lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­fused to in­dus­tri­al­ize, which scared away po­ten­tial in­vestors, both from within the coun­try and abroad. This was com­mit­ting harakiri at a time when even China had opened its mar­ket along cap­i­tal­ist lines.

Yet it took all of 34 years for the Left­ists to ac­tu­ally lose its bas­tion. It was way back in 1977 that the wind had turned in fa­vor of the Com­mu­nists af­ter the Congress party, which had ruled West Ben­gal for 27 years, was con­vinc­ingly de­feated. The then Com­mu­nist Party grew from two rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the West Ben­gal leg­isla­tive assem­bly of 1952 to a land­slide vic­tory. They rode on the wave of the post-emer­gency era and anti-in­cum­bency sen­ti­ments post-Bangladesh-war­refugee cri­sis. The CPI (M) alone won 178 assem­bly seats out of the 224 it con­tested that year. For seven con­tin­u­ous assem­bly elec­tions af­ter that, West Ben­gal re­peat­edly voted Com­mu­nists to vic­tory.

The sce­nario for the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia, how­ever, has been grad­u­ally chang­ing in re­cent years. Its steep de­cline be­tween 2004 and 2009 con­firmed the writ­ing on the wall. By then the Com­mu­nists had touched their pre­vi­ous low­est per­cent­age of seats of 21.2 per­cent in 1962 at the height of anti-Left sen­ti­ments fol­low­ing the In­dia-China war. But why is the Left in such a mess to­day? The blame partly lies in over­con­fi­dence be­cause the com­rades took their po­lit­i­cal supremacy for granted. The state, which was be­ing ruled with the help of a well-en­trenched party cadre that en­sured grass­root sup­port, was un­der­go­ing rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that was largely ig­nored by the party’s top brass. In­stances of ex­ploita­tion and row­dy­ism in the name of party cadres were also be­ing in­creas­ingly re­ported from all over the state. In re­cent years, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee’s party, the Tri­namool Congress, pre­sented it­self as a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive. It started mak­ing in­roads cap­i­tal­iz­ing on re­sent­ment over largely lo­cal is­sues, thereby com­plet­ing the process of change.

Then there was the large num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in Maoist vi­o­lence in re­cent years. The Maoist move­ment – also called Nax­alites – come from Nax­al­bari, a small vil­lage in West Ben­gal, where a sec­tion of the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist) (CPM) led by Charu Ma­jum­dar, ini­ti­ated a vi­o­lent up­ris­ing in 1967. Many tribal and other poor peo­ple joined the move­ment and started at­tack­ing lo­cal land­lords.

A move­ment that started in quest of equal power to all sec­tions turned into a bru­tal killing spree. In 2010 alone,

more than 300 peo­ple were killed. The ris­ing in­flu­ence of Nax­alites and in­abil­ity of the state gov­ern­ment to con­trol vi­o­lence fi­nally be­come one of the ma­jor causes be­hind the gov­ern­ment’s fall.

In­dus­trial growth and ur­ban­iza­tion re­mained a concern but the sixth Left Front gov­ern­ment em­pha­sized on the rapid growth of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. Many IT MNCs set up units in the state. The gov­ern­ment also ex­panded the agri-busi­ness sec­tor in a sig­nif­i­cant way. Yet, it was too lit­tle and prob­a­bly even too late for a state with vast hu­man and nat­u­ral re­sources.

If there was one X-fac­tor miss­ing for Com­mu­nists in Ben­gal it was the ab­sence of Jy­oti Basu, the man who had be­come syn­ony­mous with the Com­mu­nist rule in the state. Dur­ing his time, the gov­ern­ment brought about a ma­jor break­through in agri­cul­ture and al­lied sec­tors in Ben­gal by im­ple­ment­ing land re­form mea­sures and in­tro­duc­ing the three-tier Pan­chay­ati Raj sys­tem. West Ben­gal cre­ated a record in dis­tri­bu­tion of sur­plus land. Agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion wit­nessed an up­ward swing and the lit­er­acy rate jumped to as much as 78 per­cent. The per­cent­age of peo­ple liv­ing be­low the poverty line came down to less than 26 from 52 in 1978.

As soon as Jy­oti babu ex­ited the scene, the state gov­ern­ment started com­mit­ting blun­ders, one af­ter an­other. Bring­ing the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try to the land of Marx­ists was per­haps the big­gest of them all. In 2007 an agree­ment was reached be­tween the state gov­ern­ment and Tata Mo­tors for the Nano car pro­ject. The Sin­gur Agree­ment – which led to the ac­qui­si­tion of 997.11 acres of land – was to prom­ise jobs and pros­per­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, it be­came the Achilles heel. Tri­namool Congress leader Ma­mata Ban­er­jee de­manded that 400 acres of land should be re­turned to un­will­ing farm­ers. Bud­dhadeb Bhat­tachar­jee, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee and other lead­ers of both the par­ties met Gopal Kr­ishna Gandhi, the then gov­er­nor of West Ben­gal to solve the mat­ter but could not reach an agree­ment.

Tri­namool Congress in­creased the in­ten­sity of ag­i­ta­tion and de­manded re­turn of the 400 acres of land. Ma­mata Ban­er­jee went on a 26-day strike. By the end of 2008, the Tatas fi­nally moved the fac­tory to Gu­jarat. Tri­namool reaped rich elec­toral div­i­dends by lead­ing protests against land takeover by the in­dus­try. That trig­gered the slo­gan, time for change or porib­ar­tan, in Bengali. In the process the op­po­si­tion party con­sol­i­dated the anti-in­cum­bency vote with the help of the Congress Party, which agreed to play sec­ond fid­dle to Tri­namool in West Ben­gal. The Congress is now an al­liance part­ner in the state.

How­ever, de­spite all that has gone wrong, the red army may be down but it is cer­tainly not out. Com­mu­nism in In­dia has re­mained static and un­changed since In­de­pen­dence, un­like their coun­ter­parts else­where. Ul­ti­mately, the fa­tigue against the old sys­tem and the de­sire for change caused a turn­around in West Ben­gal. Elec­toral pol­i­tics can be fas­ci­nat­ing, es­pe­cially in a coun­try like In­dia where sev­eral dy­nam­ics are at play.

Ker­ala, an­other In­dian state with con­sid­er­able com­mu­nist pres­ence has had a his­tory of tog­gling be­tween the Com­mu­nist-led Left Demo­cratic Front and an­other coali­tion led by the Com­mu­nist party. Each time a com­bine loses elec­tions, they pre­pare for an al­most cer­tain re­turn to power in the next elec­tions. Com­mu­nists in Ben­gal would be hop­ing this his­tory re­peats it­self in West Ben­gal. The writer is a Dubai-based jour­nal­ist. She started her ca­reer as a print jour­nal­ist and is now mak­ing doc­u­men­taries. With about a decade’s ex­pe­ri­ence in di­verse spheres of jour­nal­ism, her core in­ter­est is in is­sues re­lated to South Asian mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties.

Ben­gal turns green.

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