All’s not LOST for CPM
Given the strong traditions of anti-Congress, anti-BJP ideology of Bengal, it is theoretically possible for the CPM to recover lost ground if they make some course corrections
Nilanjana Gupta Kolkata
Already much has been said and written about the reasons for the CPM-led Left Front's (LF) poll debacle in the Lok Sabha elections. In West Bengal, from a situation where the main opposition force had only managed to retain one seat in 2004 - that of Mamata Banerjee herself - to a situation where the Trinamool Congress and allies managed to win 26 seats (plus, one seat which BJP won from Darjeeling) was completely unexpected, probably even beyond the dreams of the winners themselves. The question that is being discussed across the length and breadth of the state now is whether this is the beginning of the end of the unprecedented domination of Bengal since 1977 by the CPM-led LF. Assembly elections are scheduled for 2011. Will the scenario change by then, or, after 34 years, will there be a non-LF government in West Bengal?
Two years is a long time in a period of volatile political turmoil. And, volatile these last few years have been. Two years is a long enough time for the CPM to analyse its weaknesses and re-position itself, its rhetoric and its movements. However, the question is whether the CPM can actually manage to do this. The immediate post-poll reactions do not seem to indicate that the CPM will be able to respond in a way that will regain the confidence of the electorate and form a government for a remarkable eighth term.
Over the last month, it seems that the topic of the election results dominated all addas in West Bengal. Of course, not the national results, but the Bengal results. Some points which have been noted as causes of the decline in seats have more to do with the behaviour of party members - such as petty corruption at all levels, the arrogance born out of unchallenged power for so many years, unwillingness to listen to alternative viewpoints and a disconnect from people. Some of these problems have also figured in the intra-party discussions now going on. These are things that the party can correct if it is serious about responding to the results of the recent elections.
However, it seems to me that there are other, more fundamental, issues that are going to be much more difficult to address. The CPM has, like many communist parties all over the world, been facing an identity crisis for some time now. Yet, the CPM has been unwilling to acknowledge this. The support base of the party had consisted of the poor because of steps that had directly benefited them such as, not only the land reform movements, but also making school education available by expanding the number of schools and making them free, giving rights to slum dwellers for the first time, to give just a few examples.
At the same time, social movements transformed traditional social structures to instil dignity and awareness of rights in the traditionally marginalised sections of our society. Social movements made overt caste oppression almost disappear. Old timers will still talk of their moment of pride when, led by the local CPM worker, low-caste villagers all walked to the high-caste landowner's house wearing their slippers for the first time.
Before that moment, they were supposed to only approach barefooted and bareheaded. The gradual breaking down of religion-based intolerance at the social level was another great achievement of the Left movement. The fact that West Bengal is the only state where more girls are adopted than boys is just another reflection of the success of the agenda of progressive social transformation led by the communists.
Ironically, today, the CPM agenda of pro-poor social, economic and political change seems to be vocalised more by a variety of groups - Left, Right and Centre - than by the communist party itself. Thus, when Rizwanur's dead body is found after his marriage to a young, well-off Hindu girl, no questions are raised about the propriety of the inter-religious marriage, but the CPM emerges as the 'bad guy' because they are seen as obstructing this bold relationship. When Rahul Gandhi comes into town, he criticises the LF government for not fully utilising pro-poor programmes such as rural employment schemes - ironically the very schemes that were pushed forward by the Left as part of the UPA. And of course, the resistance in Nandigram uses the whole history and memory of the Left-led land reform movements so effectively that the LF government is stuck with the label of being a pro-capital and anti-poor force.
Before the last assembly elections in West Bengal, the "new and improved" Left Front under the stewardship of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee campaigned that capital-led industrialisation was the way to increased prosperity for the people and the huge mandate that resulted was widely - and possibly naively - interpreted as support for this slogan. Yet what the CPM failed to realise was that its own successes of the past meant that people did not want to see their chief minister as just another state leader desperate for investment and their government as just another pro-capitalist facilitator of the powerful and wealthy industrialists. The Left was supposed to be different.
This is where the CPM failed. Since 1991, we have seen the evolution of capital into new forms; we have also seen Leftists in many parts of the world as far apart - both physically and ideologically - as China and Venezuela develop responses to the new structures of global capital. The CPM, especially in Bengal, seems to have lost the willingness to develop innovative strategies and movements which can counter the new forms of global capitalisation and consumerist society.
In electoral politics, every party has to have a clear idea of the constituency that it represents. Today, it seems that the CPM has lost most of its traditional support sectors. The socially and politically marginalised sections seem to have found new ways of articulating their discontent, whether in the down-to-earth, shrill anti-everything of the Trinamool or the armed rebellion of the Maoists. The CPM needs to be able to offer both an alternative economic programme and a political and social agenda of change which clearly ensures a life of economic and social dignity to even the most marginalised person in the electorate. And these need to be articulated in a language and form that is populist, inclusive and empowering.
Some gestures towards creating a new image are being made in the post-poll scenario. After a long time, we have seen the chief minister in an autorickshaw, when he went to visit Aila-struck areas. We have seen a minister himself carrying sacks of sand to bolster the crumbling protective walls in the Sunderbans. The elected representatives seem to have tried to communicate directly with people in many places just after the cyclone caused such extensive damage. Yet, these changes cannot be just cosmetic in nature. Image is important, but image, despite what the post-modernists try to tell us, is not everything.
One problem that seems to have developed as a direct result of enjoying such a long uninterrupted period in power has been that the party and the government have become synonymous in word and deed in West Bengal. Even in people's minds, there is very little distinction between the two. This, I believe, is a very fundamental problem and addressing this could herald a meaningful change in the way the CPM functions.
The government needs to take up a proactive role in implementing its policies, which would have to include the encouragement of industries in the state. The party needs to keep true to the progressive values that made Bengal so different from most of the country. A healthy dissociation of the roles could ensure that when thorny issues like land acquisition appear, the party vocalises the concerns of the people and ensures that government policies are not violating social justice norms. Often, as in Nandigram, the governing bodies and the local party units seem to be following their own imperatives, with neither being able to talk to the other. It has been said often enough that the initial resistance in Nandigram came from CPM party members and supporters, only to be taken up by Trinamool and Maoists later on.
The next two years are not going to be easy for the CPM. Despite the Lok Sabha results, the actual number of the popular vote that the Left received did not go down; in fact in many places it actually rose. The problem was that the combined opposition managed to pull in much higher numbers than before. Given the strong traditions of anti-Congress, anti-BJP ideology of Bengal, it is theoretically possible for the CPM to recover lost ground if they make some course corrections which can reconcile the apparently fundamental irreconcilables of economic growth and social justice.
However, it is not going to be easy.
The writer is a professor of English at Jadavpur University