No interpreter of maladies

Uninterrupted power for 32 years has blunted the  sensibilities of the Left to feel the pulse of the people.  The communists had raised expectations when they swept  to power in 1977. But, they failed to live up to it. Instead,  they injected sloth and nepotism in every state-run institution 

Rakhi Chakrabarty Kolkata/Delhi

The CPM-led Left Front in West Bengal has lost the plot. This is an oft-heard comment ever since the results of the Lok Sabha election showed that all is not right with the Left.

So, is it the beginning of the end for the CPM-led Left Front (LF) in Bengal? Well, a large section of the common masses would want to believe that.

Being used to power for 32 years, Left leaders found it difficult to reconcile with the current harsh reality. But, true to its credo, the communists went in for a comprehensive post-mortem of what led to the drubbing. Questionnaires were sent to every unit of the party hierarchy, down to the local committee, to introspect and list the causes of the debacle. 

A common strain that emerged was the disconnect between the party and the people that invested it with the power to rule them for the last 32 years. Senior leaders of CPM and other LF constituents admit that uninterrupted power for more than three decades has blunted the sensibilities of the Left to feel the pulse of the people. CPM general secretary, Prakash Karat, has admitted that arrogance of cadres in Bengal had contributed to the poor showing in the polls.

With power came corruption in all ranks of the party. The frugal demeanour of many a Left leader in Bengal is beguiling. Take for instance, a venerable CPM leader from Howrah, who has been a Lok Sabha MP for eight terms. Nationally, he is known and respected for his pro-poor and anti-communalism utterances. Back home, however, an unwritten writ "foists" contracts by the state-run electricity board in his constituency on his nephew. This is one of the minor aberrations.

An industrialist in Kolkata rued, "In places like UP or Delhi, you pay hefty bribes to politicians and bureaucrats and rest assured your work will be done. In Bengal, you bribe at every step - from clerks to bureaucrats to the "party" and its leaders to ministers. Yet, there is no certainty that they will do your work."

Corruption has eaten into every level of the Left. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may be honest, but he failed to ensure an honest government that delivers. The Left has failed miserably in weeding out corruption from its rank and file.

Realisation dawned on the people that the Left was no different. They became increasingly disillusioned with it. Gradual disillusionment overwhelms all elected institutions. And, the LF government in West Bengal is not immune to this, admitted a veteran CPM leader.

In fact, for the Left in Bengal, anti-incumbency was building up for more than a decade. The fact that it did not reflect in the election result was primarily due to a fractured opposition. In 2009 Lok Sabha election, the opposition put up a united fight against the Left and the outcome is for all to see. 

The communists had raised expectations in the people when they swept to power in 1977. But, they failed to live up to it. Instead, what they did was inject sloth and nepotism in every State-run institution. Four major sectors fell victim to this: education, health, industry and police.

Education and health, where Bengal once occupied pride of place, is a poor shadow of its glorious past. To consolidate its position, the LF (primarily, big brother CPM) filled the education and health institutions, including the premier ones, with their "own" people. Universities, colleges and hospitals became peopled with party loyalists. Loyalty to the party was given primacy over merit in every sector. Consciously, the CPM promoted mediocrity.

The result was obvious. Standards fell, malfunction or dysfunction became systemic and, worse, the institutions got embroiled in political rivalry, which assumed violent proportions at times. Nepotism was blatant. But, the government turned a blind eye even as it failed to deliver services to the masses.

The line between the party and the government often blurred. Appointments to all important posts in the state's various institutions were vetted by the CPM headquarters at Alimuddin Street. This became more apparent after Bhattacharjee took over as the chief minister from Jyoti Basu.

The concept of a neutral bureaucracy was strangulated. The bureaucracy and the police have largely become rubber stamps of the party. Those who didn't toe the party line were punished with bad postings. It's common for an IPS officer to seek "advice" from a party leader before arresting an individual or handling law and order situations.

This cost the state and party dear. Former chief secretary (officiating during the Nandigram fiasco), Amit Kiran Deb, who belonged to Bhattacharjee's inner circle, admitted recently in an interview that Nandigram was an administrative failure. He couldn't have been closer to the truth.

According to reliable sources, officers of the ranks of DIG and IG had chalked out the action plan for Nandigram on March 14, 2007, when 14 people were killed in police firing, in "consultation" with local CPM leaders. As the then chief secretary and a trusted lieutenant of the chief minister, can Deb disown responsibility for the "administrative failure" in Nandigram?

While the party tried to consolidate its position and expand, it gave development a miss. Work suffered and Bengal came to be known for its deplorable work culture. Even the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, had exclaimed, "What shall I do? I cannot ask empty chairs at Writers' Buildings (the state secretariat) to work?"

He could blame no one but the 'cadre raj' promoted by his party. Being a CPM (or Left cadre) gave an individual freedom not to work and yet get paid. Fear of incurring the wrath of the coordination committee or trade unions prevented seniors from enforcing discipline in the workplace.

Militant trade unionism scared away industries from Bengal. It was only in the 1990s, close on the heels of liberalisation advocated by Narsimha Rao's government, the Left in Bengal woke up to the need for "re-industrialisation" of the state.

But, as in most cases, the efforts were half-hearted and lacked planning and vision. The Tata Motors factory in Singur is a case in point. Driven by the zeal to attract investments, the government went on a land acquisition spree. It did not have a clear idea of land use. The result was clash between agriculture and industry, farmers, landless labourers and sharecroppers versus CPM leaders, corporates and police. The government bloodied its hands in Singur and Nandigram and sullied its image. And, industrialisation of Bengal became an even more distant dream.

It was only after the double fiasco that the LF government decided to acquire land only in areas where it lay fallow or was used for single-crop cultivation, in a state where land is largely fertile and used for multi-crop cultivation. Also, it decided to set up a land bank for new industries. But the decisions came too late.

By then, indigenous movements against forced land acquisition had alienated large sections of the CPM and the Left's vote bank among the rural masses had been weaned away by the opposition, namely the Trinamool Congress. 

Another factor was slowly at work against the Left in rural Bengal: unfinished land reforms. The much-touted land reforms, Operation Barga, in which the Left took much pride, was started in 1978 soon after it came to power. It was aimed to usher in agrarian reforms and enable equitable land distribution.

Surplus land in excess of the ceiling was confiscated from landlords and redistributed among rural poor and landless agricultural labourers. Sharecroppers were assured two-third of the crop produce and given heritable rights. It also provided them a safeguard against eviction. Minimum wages was ensured for agricultural labourers.

What started as a noble effort was left half-done. Disparities in the rural economy remained. Land Reforms Minister Abdul Rezzak Mollah admitted in the state assembly that around 27 per cent of bargadars (sharecroppers) had lost their sharecropping rights over the years.

In spite of Operation Barga, large holdings of land were still with landlords. Increase in the valuation of the land, transformed semi-feudal landlords to capitalist landowners. A new class of pro-CPM 'lal jotedars' (red landlords) were created, with local party units exercising enormous extra-constitutional powers.

Though the new class of rural rich emerged, a large section of agricultural workers still remained landless. Also, only 30.6 per cent of sharecroppers were registered under Operation Barga, according to National Sample Survey data (1999). In Singur during the protests against Tata Motors for acquisition of 997 acre land, the state government found that for 37 registered sharecroppers on that land, there were 170 unregistered ones. That fomented strident agitation.

Also, a large section of the peasants in Bengal are Muslims who depend on land for their livelihood. The government's agrarian policies and land acquisition spree coupled with findings of the Sachar committee turned Muslims against the Left which all this while enjoyed their unstinted support. (See Hardnews, June 2009)

According to a prominent Muslim leader of the CPM, "Unlike in other states, Muslims in Bengal are not worried about their security. Here they are concerned about their aspirations and expectations. Much has been done. But a lot more remains to be done. The media has hyped up the negatives. We have to reach out to the Muslim community and instill confidence in them." The Left realises that's easier said than done.

Till date, the communists are struggling to strike a balance between capitalism and socialism, Left dogma and compulsions of development in a liberalised economy. The party's unbridled arrogance and violent muscle power, and unilateral rejection of democratic dissent in the civil society adds to its woes.

Also, the dichotomy within the Left has not gone down well with the electorate. What 'Buddha's' government followed to woo investment and toe the line of a market-driven economy, was vociferously negated by CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat's rhetoric in Delhi, who lambasted the "neo-liberal, pro-big business, pro-US imperialist policies of globalisation" of the Manmohan Singh government.  

The rise of Maoists in the three districts of Bengal - West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia - is also a contribution of the LF regime. The area of operation of the CPI (Maoists) is spread over six assembly constituencies in Bengal. The population in these areas comprise largely of tribals. Large tracts of land here is infertile, water scarce and barely enough irrigation facilities. A look at these areas will tell you that the poor people have remained untouched by progress for centuries. Unemployment, poverty and hunger are their loyal companions.

The LF, which positioned itself as running a government for the poor, has decisively and continuously ignored them. The vacuum left by absence of governance has been filled by the Maoists. The Left ultras exploited the grievance and strife of the people here to expand their sphere of influence. From the late 1990s, the Maoists began making their presence felt.

Instead of combating the Maoists through development of these backward areas coupled with effective governance, the LF government instead chose to combat them politically through CPM cadres and their loyal policemen. Atrocities perpetrated during the early years of this century bolstered the Maoists while the CPM and the administration were forced to beat a retreat.

An honest and sincere superintendent of police at West Midnapore tried to combat the Maoists through a combination of tough action and community policing. He camped in remote villages at nights, shared meals with the people, formed self-help groups among the women and helped young men get employed. It was a moral booster for the police and the people were slowly accepting the men in uniform.

But, the CPM obviously did not like it. The officer received no help from the top brass of the police either. Forget rewarding him, he was instead given a punishment posting. Disenchanted, the IPS officer left the state and went on a central deputation.

Since then, the situation has gone downhill. Bad governance helped Maoists gain a foothold. For a decade now, Maoists have unleashed terror and violence in these areas. It targeted CPM members and police personnel hacking, killing and beheading them. Houses were torched, large tracts were mined and vehicles and people were blown up at regular intervals.

After the all round criticism post-Singur and Nandigram, the CPM-led government was so battered that it let problems fester. Even the will to take administrative measures was missing. Lalgarh is a product of people's strife and abject lack of development and administration. The problem has been brewing for years. It hogged the headlines now because the national media chose to highlight it. After Singur and Nandigram, it's Lalgarh. Operation Lalgarh is the result of the Centre mounting pressure on Bhattacharjee to act.

Disillusionment with the Left had set in long ago. Mamata Banerjee was the only face of a credible opposition. Agitations in Singur and Nandigram lent her credence. The effect was reflected in her sterling performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

A senior CPM leader said, "The projection of a 'leader of the poor' in the Trinamool supremo (who was allowed to usurp the communist accoutrements of campaign) has been a tried and tested formula in places like the erstwhile Soviet republics, in east European 'bloc' countries and in places in Africa where the communist is projected as the dictator and exploiter, and the capitalist is viewed as liberal democrat liberator of the anguished soul of the 'people', an amorphous quantity."

Whatever maybe the projections, Trinamool supremo, Mamata Banerjee, is perceived as being more communist than communist themselves. It's up to the communists now to regain their lost credo and build bridges with the people, especially those segments who had solidly voted them to power year after year. Empty promises, rhetoric and negative politics are passe. It's time for the Left Front to deliver. Else, the end is not far.  

For archival reference on Nandigram: See historians Tanika and Sumit Sarkar's articles; The train stops at Nandigram by Amit Sengupta; and Red is the colour of blood by Rajat Roy in Best of Hardnews(http://www.hardnewsmedia.com)

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2009