The conformism of dissent

Despite the acidic criticism of an unhappy Ashok Mitra against the neo-capitalism unleashed in West Bengal, and despite dissidence, the CPI (M) remains hegemonic and united

Ashis Biswas Kolkata

Until recent times, dissent within the West Bengal CPI (M), arguably the most disciplined party in the country, remained largely muted. However, inner-party criticism found its way into print, mainly through the columns of Dr Ashok Mitra, veteran Marxist intellectual and economist, and former West Bengal finance minister.

Mitra and others’ concern is that the party is losing its way, compromising its class-based approach. Consider Transport and Sports Minister Subhas Chakravarty’s outburst against Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee recently: “Where are those who took on Jagmohan Dalmiya, why are they silent today?” His grouse: Eden Gardens was ignored by cricket authorities in the allotment of matches and it was Bhattacharjee who had opposed Dalmiya. This is not the first time the minister had let fly against his chief minister. Worse, he ensured the defeat of Dalmiya’s opponent in the Cricket Association of Bengal polls, backed by Bhattacharjee in CAB polls, and publicly embarrassed the chief minister.

Another dissident, Minister for Land Revenue Abdur Rezzak Mollah, expressing his reservations over the contentious land acquisition at Singur for Tata’s small car project, told newsmen, “I would be silent from now on, even if they (the state government) hands over entire mountains (to big industry).” Besides, between the party leadership and its trade union, CITU, there is conflict over the IT industry or strikes by workers.

Analysts see three major reasons why dissent within the CPI (M) is spilling over for all to see. First, when there is no coherent opposition to the ruling party or coalition for a long time, opposition grows from within and gets stronger. (Military dictators get overthrown by insiders in coups.) Second, no Left party has opposed perestroika (economic restructuring); none can afford to, in a competitive environment. Third, the LF is bound to behave like any other non-Left government in the post-liberalisation environment. Fourth, the most dramatic violation of party discipline occurred when veteran Jyoti Basu declared that not joining the Centre in 1996 (again in 1998) was a “historical blunder”. Despite rumblings, no one could dare censure Basu. It would have been akin to the Vatican censuring the Pope for swearing during a religious ceremony!

It is not just Bhattacharjee who is inviting big investments. Jyoti Basu had set the ball rolling in the 1994 industrial policy with its soft approach towards multinationals. “I cannot let Bengal become an industrial desert,” was Basu’s favourite line.

Dissidence is not just the personal antipathy between Bhattacharjee and Chakravarty; it involves the party’s priorities, policies and decisions. A fierce debate has been raging on the government’s open-door policy to big industries. This explains the stridency and acrimony in the exchanges between Mitra, who sounds ever more critical of official policies and ‘neo-liberal’ leaders like Nirupam Sen and Benoy Konar —defenders of the party orthodoxy. Mitra goes to the extent of claiming that the Tata Steel plant at Jamshedpur has not made the “slightest difference to the lives of common people of the area”! Interestingly, Konar, explaining how the landholders at Singur and other areas could be compensated, benevolently suggested that some of the displaced could be employed as “domestic help” as big industry moves in!

Within the Left, both camps, ruling and dissident, put much premium on loyalty; they make easy compromises with corruption and inefficiency. Prior to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, loyalists were scandalised by the mandatory declaration on possessions by a North 24 Parganas candidate, whose background could not explain the wealth and property he had acquired. But the murmurs died down, the man won the polls, and remains an influential leader in good books of the ruling coterie. Present and former ministers, known to be in the dissident camp, have scrupulously remained silent about the dubious activities of some of their close associates. Although the performance of the LF government has been abysmal in finance and health, the ministers have continued to reign due to their proximity to the power centres within the party.

This is why it is easy for party leaders to shrug off the challenge posed by the dissidents as nothing but a professional irritant. “The outbursts from time to time are annoying, but at no level do they acquire a serious, ideological dimension. Which is why even Saifuddin Choudhury and Samir Putatunda failed to engineer a split when they broke away. The dissidents can’t quit, never mind their aggressive rhetoric,” says a senior CPI (M) leader.

So that’s how the clichéd circle of unreason moves in ‘globalising red Bengal’. Despite the acidic criticism of an unhappy Ashok Mitra. And despite the dissent.

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