Left capitalism, CPM style

The CPM in West Bengal has to find the right balance between industrialisation and socialist ideals. So far, it has abjectly failed

Rajat Roy Kolkata

2008 began on a positive note for the ruling CPM in West Bengal. The unveiling of Tata's small car Nano was followed by a flood of proposals for the setting up of automobile ancillary units in the state. After that came the much awaited judgment of the Calcutta High Court giving a clean chit to the state government's acquisition of land in Singur, paving the way for the rolling out of the Nano from there. On the political front, the ruling party's state conference went off well and the rank and file of the party now rallying behind the leadership to face the challenge of the coming panchayat and municipal elections.

In comparison, last year was a harrowing time for the CPM in West Bengal. Agitations over Singur and Nandigram pushed the ruling party to the wall, and in desperation it used muscle power to recapture Nandigram. Last year also saw the resurgence of the civil society in Bengal, when Kolkata's leading intellectuals openly revolted against the ruling front, first on the Nandigram issue, then on the alleged role of senior police officers leading to the death of a young graphic designer, Rizwanur. On the Nandigram issue alone, the state government came under severe criticism from the Governor of West Bengal, Gopal Krishna Gandhi. The cynical attitude of the government and the party reflected in their tackling of the crises; and the blunders committed by the ruling establishment showed that there existed a serious disconnect between the government and the party on the one hand, and the people on the other.

In the just concluded state conference, CPM leaders led by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Industries Minister Nirupam Sen admitted that there was a serious communication gap between the rural masses and the party. Bhattacharya went one step further saying that the setback in Nandigram was caused by the failure of both the party and the government to carry its message to the people. The realisation has dawned that the party should have been more sensitive to the emotions of the people who were being asked to give up their farm land for the sake of industry.

That the party was really shaken up by last year's setback was evident in the conference. Normally, CPM leaders rule the party with iron hands and do not allow criticisms against the leaders at the state- level conference. If there is any discontent, it is usually tackled and mollified at the zonal and district level. This time, however, perhaps after seeing the leaders on the back foot, a number of delegates, mostly from the districts, voiced their criticism and expressed their anger. The changing lifestyle of the leaders came under severe criticism. But at the end, the party gave the green signal to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his team to go ahead with their industrialisation project. 

Realising that the attempt to set the agenda for industrialisation did not go well with the rural people of the state, the party tried hard to convey that industrialisation will not be done at the cost of agriculture. Also, this time, special care will be taken to safeguard the farmers whose land might be acquired for industry. The focus would be to look for barren land in arid zones in Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapur and Birbhum for setting up new industries with adequate support from the government. In other words, the ruling party has decided to follow the path which its detractors have been suggesting ever since the Singur and Nandigram resistance began.

However, it is not clear from the utterances of the chief minister and other leaders if they felt any urgent need for preparing a comprehensive policy of rehabilitation for those farmers whose land would have to be acquired for big business in the coming days. After talking to CPM leaders on this crucial question, this reporter discovered that the party really has no clue if there has been a paradigm shift in awarding compensation to the landowners. Will they be sent off with one time compensation?

In Maharastra, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, while acquiring land for SEZs, the villagers are being seen as partners. In some cases, after the land is developed, a portion of that is returned to the erstwhile owners, as in the case of Mahindra's 'World City' project 30 km off Chennai, where people who sold their land did not have to move out. They were encouraged to set up their small businesses nearby. In another SEZ in Jaipur, Mahindra offered farmers 25 per cent of their land back after developing it, so that the farmers can put that land to remunerative use. In Maharastra, there are at least four ongoing SEZ projects, where special attention was paid to the affected communities. Besides paying them adequate compensation, initiatives are also taken to upgrade their skills, ensure sustainable livelihoods and empower communities to take decisions that will help improve their quality of life.

Even in West Bengal's Shalboni, where the Jindals are setting up a steel plant, the group has offered a much better package to the farmers. In addition to the price of the land, jobs are offered to one person from each of the affected families. Indeed, an amount equal to the compensation paid would be converted into equity in the proposed steel plant.

However, in the language of CPM leaders, any reference to these experiments is stunningly absent. They are still talking in terms of compensating farmers to protect their current income. So, despite the initial breakthrough, the absence of a holistic rehabilitation policy is likely to jolt the industrialisation process in the coming days.

Now, the party is gearing up for the May panchayat and municipal elections. This time, the party might have to go all alone, as two of the front partners —Forward Bloc (FB) and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) — are hell-bent on fighting the polls on their own. Biman Bose, CPM state secretary, has admitted within the party forum that despite serious attempts to settle the dispute with the FB and RSP at bilateral meetings, the problem remains unresolved.

The FB has sizeable influence in Birbhum and Purulia. The RSP is strong in Jalpaiguri, South Dinajpur and South 24 Parganas. If FB and RSP stick to their current position and fight the panchayat elections without any electoral adjustment with the Left Front, it might adversely affect the CPM.

In their recent spat, FB and RSP leaders have fired a fusillade of criticism against the CPM for embracing capitalism lock, stock and barrel. The CPM defended by arguing that since they were ruling a state that is hrdged in by the federal structure of the country, the question of following a socialist path just does not arise. It is true that the debate in the contemporary era becomes superfluous because there is not a single country worldwide where the socialist model has been tested positively. Even China has totally turned capitalist with political control resting with the Communist Party of China.

All along, the CPM has been taking potshot at liberalisation and market economy. Even in the 1990s, it kept on calling for an alternative economic model against the Manmohan Singh-P Chidambaram model of neo liberal globalisation and economic reforms. Even the rank and file of the CPM are trained to think of an alternative to the market-driven capitalist development model.

Once the party started welcoming investments of all hues in the state and openly hobnobbed with big business groups and multinationals, without an iota of debate, the conflict within and outside intensified. Hence, the resonance of the old rhetoric has continued to dominate the discourse of the grassroots cadre. FB and RSP leaders are aware of this dichotomy. That is why they have raised this question so as to put the CPM leadership in a quandary. Now, to dispel misconceptions, and in desperation the party has pitch-forked veteran leader Jyoti Basu in the limelight; it is Basu who is now doing the talking on the issue of socialism vs capitalism to convince the front partners and his own party members.

But the fact is that the CPM is trapped in a Catch-22 scenario. After 30 years in power, the capitalism versus socialism debate has only exposed its ideological bankruptcy. After the Nandigram carnage, and its total support to big business, the red flag seems to have lost both its colour and aura. The question is, if the CPM cannot pursue socialism, and only wants capitalism, how can it call itself a communist party?