NIGHTMARE OF HOPE

The arrogance of power ate into the vitals of the Left whose leadership and cadre became complacent and autocratic. The massive defeat was expected
Seema Mustafa Delhi 
The defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal was expected, the collapse was certainly not. Till the end ivory tower communists like Biman Bose remained in a state of denial, insisting on the eve of the counting that the Left would go on to win 199 seats in the state assembly. Those in the CPM who had their feet on the ground and were certain that a change was imminent, did feel that the Left would return with at least 100 assembly seats if not more. The virtual rout thus came as a shock, and while many see in it the glimmerings of a new beginning, there is apprehension and fear that this 'opportunity' could be frittered away.

The very fact that a Left government (or for that matter any government) stayed in power for 34 years in a state of India, which itself was born just 60-odd years ago, is no mean feat. Therefore, the reasons for the electoral debacle have to be found in exactly what the Left Front government did right for the people of West Bengal, and why it lost this unflinching support completely. The vote in West Bengal was not for Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress as much as it was against CPM and its partners in the Left coalition.

The arrogance of power ate into the vitals of the communists, whose leadership and cadres became complacent and autocratic in the process. The distance between the party and the people grew over the years with Nandigram not being the cause, but the symptom, of a deeper malaise. To say that Nandigram turned the people against the Left is an over-simplification by activists and others, who also failed to understand the growing, and strangely enough, self-inflicted isolation of the Left leadership in the state from the masses. 

Nandigram became the final straw on the camel's back, already weakened by a Left government that had stopped listening to its people over the years. The "we are invincible" arrogance had penetrated into the veins of the West Bengal, which demanded and insisted on autonomy in functioning, and was often beyond the control of the politburo and central committee of the party.Having lived off the benefits of its far-reaching land reforms, the Left failed to realise that it had extracted maximum mileage from this radical measure, and now needed to go several steps ahead on all fronts. That the world had changed and so had the expectations of the electorate. That industrialisation could not be without a human face, and land acquisition was a sensitive issue that needed to be handled as such. That governments that started to rule with the police were tacitly acknowledging their failure to convince the people, and this would be the beginning of the end.

The Rajinder Sachar Committee Report, on the social and economic status of minorities, was perhaps the first documented record of the fact that the Muslims in West Bengal were amongst the most backward. This led to a re-examination of the situation, and the Muslims realised that while they were happy that the Left had kept the state free of communal violence, this was definitely not enough. The world was passing them by, and in the name of secularism they were not being given the opportunities to develop and progress. 

Unfortunately, the Left in India has failed to resolve its dilemma over identity politics, and becomes uncomfortable when confronted with the same. While it is no one's case that identity politics should be encouraged, it certainly cannot be wished away, and an astute leadership would have worked to marry this with the doctrine of secularism and progress instead of adopting the 'ostrich, go away' kind of approach to the issue at large.

The arrogance of the leadership also drove away the Left intellectuals, and while the middle class is never the most loyal and tenacious, it is also a fact that many of the academics, writers and artists who deserted the CPM would not have done so had their voices been listened to, and their concerns accommodated. This left the CPM pretty alone in its struggle to get back the fading vote bank, as the Nandigram catalyst not only had a devastating impact on all shades of support within West Bengal, but was also exploited to the hilt by the opposition.

The Left must ask itself why Mamata Banerjee, who has been fighting against the Left for 20 years now, succeeded only now? Why? 

If the answers are honest, the CPM will realise that the voters left not because they just wanted a change, but because they wanted a 'life' that they were not sure the Left was in a position to provide. Because they felt the Left was not listening, was dismissive, was violent when the people protested, and was highly intolerant of criticism and dissent. It had acquired the rigidity of the old, with the young cadres kept on the fringe, even though most of them speak more sense, have far greater connectivity with the people, and have better ideas for effecting a thorough change than those crowding the Writer's Building in Kolkata.

The apprehension is that all that will happen will be a cosmetic change. A few lines of 'yes, we recognise where we went wrong' and a token adjustment here and there (like the few young people who were suddenly brought out and given tickets when the going got rough) are not going to be enough. Factions are already taking shape in both West Bengal and Kerala. If there had been unity in Kerala, and the CPM not so sharply polarised, the Left would have won the assembly elections as the people did come out to repose faith in it. Post poll and post defeat, the danger is that in Kerala, and now in West Bengal, the factions will bring out their daggers, and instead of uniting for change, cover their fear of change with an internal war.

In West Bengal this will be further complicated with the confrontation between CPM and Trinamool Congress, which will get even more violent. While this will be the first challenge for the Left to overcome, it will not be the last. In other words, the Left must not only realise, but also actively factor in, the fact that all kinds of anti-Left forces will be at work to hit them while they are down, in the hope of wiping Left ideology out of the Indian system. The Left intellectuals, currently joining the rest in kicking the communist parties, must also realise that without an organised Left, their future too is seriously limited, and that it is imperative for all to work together to increase the Left space, manage that space, and connect it with the people on the ground.

This is, of course, easier said than done. The first step in what will be a long struggle ahead will be a realisation within the Left that it has gone badly wrong, on not just one but all fronts. The Left has to admit that the fault lies not with Mamata Banerjee and others of her ilk (they will all come and go) but within the Left movement in India, where ivory towers replaced the streets and Left thought became too theoretical for the people to understand or get affected by. 

The second, and again very difficult step, will be for the old leadership to step aside, and in a drastic image makeover give the reins to the younger cadres who have ideas and a new vision that they speak of to outsiders, but are forced to keep bottled within at party meetings. The third will be to evolve a new agenda for the Left, to shake the old manifesto instead of clinging to it, and see what this brainstorming and soul-searching throws up. The rest - connecting with the people, launching mass struggles, and more - will follow, provided the Left is able to get these first three in order and implemented.

There will be efforts to split the Left and the CPM, and unfortunately, there are many within who will succumb to this foreplay. Rather than step down or step aside, they will play into the factionalism, and it is imperative that the politburo and various committees of the Left parties understand this, and take immediate steps to ensure this does not happen. 

Above all, the steps should not include retaining the status quo, without question, as seems to be happening right now, as this will be damaging and counterproductive for the Left as a whole.

Parliamentary elections in 2014 could be a deadline for revival. It can be done, provided there is a will translated into action by a collective, united leadership. The coming days and weeks should remove the question mark hanging over this like the Damocles sword, not always visible, but still there.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011

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