Hindustan Times has given full ‘Marx’ to Mamata, for finally being able to kick out the Marxist zombies, and for putting an end to the 34 years of stagnation of Left rule. The Economist has branded the ‘comrades’ as the “vanishing communists of India”. The overtly keen ones have simply called it the “final end of reds”.
Nevertheless, the politics of election and the matter of ‘Marx’ in West Bengal has been a profoundly twisted one. And therefore, it is too convenient, too early to refer to the entire election-outcome of 2011 as the ultimate farewell to Marx. Let’s not undervalue the toll of someone’s 34 years of groundwork.
In general, a 34-year establishment has certainly assembled a collection of deeply ingrained vested interest groups in every chapter of the Bengali society. In addition, stagnated or not, the Left rule, had indeed deposited a load full of ‘Creative Marxism’ in every pillar of West Bengal’s rural life. And therefore, the traditionally pro-Left, preferably laid back, and deeply political Bengalis, (unlike the profoundly apolitical rest of affluent India), are most likely to come back to ‘Marx’, sooner or later. Let’s say, the Left must have done something quite right to remain in power for a good long 34 years.
The legacy of land reform
In 1977, when the CPI(M) cadres finally climbed up to power, the way Jyoti Basu’s comrades reached out to the rural poor of West Bengal, and the speed with which they had diverted resources to local bodies, had been unparalleled by any other contemporary political party in India. CPIM’s fondness towards a pro-poor agrarian transformation in the ‘80s had undoubtedly opened up the floodgate of possibilities, if not for a perfectly egalitarian democratic society, but at least for a reasonably equitable one.
Let us look at some facts derived from India’s latest Economic Surveys.
1. West Bengal holds only 3.5 per cent of agricultural land in India, however, accounts for around 23 percent of entire India’s land reform.
2. Since late ‘70s, CPIM was able to officially register more than 1.5 million sharecroppers to the right of secure tenures, and locked them with legal protection from eviction.
3. Dalits and Adivasis accounts for around 41 per cent of the registered sharecroppers in West Bengal.
4. 84 per cent of land in West Bengal is practically owned by only small and marginal farmers (owning less than 2.5 acres).
5. West Bengal supplies the cheapest irrigation water to the farmers at only Rs. 37 per hectare, compared to Rs 156 to Rs 267 per hectare in the rest of India.
What is truly remarkable about this tale of land reform is, the entire dealing of such land reform course in West Bengal was never really seen as a complex piece of legislation or as a routine administrative work, but was actually being pulled off through mass movement of the peasantry and by power-sharing with the locals. It was not really the bureaucrats or the party members, but the locally elected Panchayats who had been made accountable for the entire homework-phase of the land reform era, (i.e. identifying surplus lands, carrying out the takeovers, and redistributing it accordingly). In an inheritably feudalistic society of landlordism, if this is not institutionalisation of democracy at the people’s base, then what is?
The poise of Panchayat
It was long before the NGOs and the civil society’s discovery of fancy jargons like ‘participatory development’, and the World Bank’s breakthrough invention of tools like ‘local ownership’ and ‘grassroots democracy’, West Bengal, surprisingly enough, had tried out all such fashionable textbook terminologies in practicality, and made them function at the ground level with phenomenal success as early as in 1978.
Let’s not forget, West Bengal was the very first state to hold elections to the Panchayat back in 1978. It was also the first state to flow a fabulous share of fiscal fund towards the previously powerless, toothless, penniless local Panchayats. On top of that, such revolutionary effort of devolution of fund occurred at a time when local bodies like Panchayets were not even tagged by Delhi as the official tiers of the government!
(It was only in 1992, the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, qualified the elected local persons of Panchayat as the authorised ‘third tier’ of the government. It is also known that a team of legislators practically went to West Bengal to study the working of the Panchayats before drafting India’s groundbreaking Panchayat Bill). No wonder, the apparently pale and charmless West Bengal had always been referred to as the perfect model of the noisiest form of rural democracy.
No wonder, for decades, though the urban educated elites of West Bengal were deprived of shining shopping malls and glitzy marble-crafted airports, the dalits, the adivasis, the minorities and the rural farmers had constantly voted for CPIM, as the only custodian of their rights.
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For decades while the rest of India was busy hard-kicking the farmers (in order to assemble the nuts and bolts of ‘shining India’ on top of their lands), the Marxists, at the very least, had given the rural Bengal an ideological boost, a sense of dignity and the economic sovereignty to till, to plough, and to grow one’s own food (if not absolute liberty from poverty). While the rest of India were being violently ‘Walmartised’ and ‘Coca-Colonised’, millions of little retailers and local shopkeepers of Bengal are said to have had been able to keep their source of livelihood due to CPIM’s constant opposition of FDI in Retail. Even The Economist has ultimately come to admit that they (CPIM) pushed literacy and women’s rights, and opposed “untouchability” and the caste system… (therefore) A battering at the polls… will not quite finish them off. Unfortunately, the measures of dignity and democracy are not a matter of economic growth. They don’t dazzle, and don’t reflect in GDP.
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However, the systematic rotting of CPIM in the recent decade could be understood as an inevitable and natural outcome of any longstanding power-belt. Though according to Indian historian Ramachandar Guha, they (CPIM leaders) are probably the only politicians in India who don’t have accounts in Swiss Bank. The Left rule in Bengal, nonetheless, had come to become an industry of rampant lower-tier corruption, arrogant hooliganism, deliberate stagnation, cheesy nepotism and shallow propaganda. And most importantly it had long given up its creative characteristics, its pro-poor persona.
The NondiGram and Singur episode was not only an “undo” of its decades of creative work, it was more like an effortless ‘copy-paste’ of the work of its neo-liberal counterparts. The Left front crumbled and fell apart when its original business of ‘pro-people-ism’ gradually turned into a ‘business-as-usual’ of the modern-day-farmer-kicking-shining-India. People finally got rid of the Left when no ‘Left’ was left in it.
Comrade Mamata’s Marxist counterfeit
And it is in such a moment of opportunism, the Banarjee-booster had become relevant and applicable. Let’s note, Mamata’s political life had been widely referred to as inconsistent, due to her on-and-off whimsical alliance with both BJP and Congress. However, she had been clever enough to understand that the Manmohan-cocktail of ‘buy-free-market-get-double-digit-growth-free’ is not the right sort of trump card to play in a culturally pro-Left West Bengal. And for that matter, she had to carefully manipulate the Nondigram-happening in order to occupy the obvious political vacuum. An Outlookindia commentary pointed out on Mamata’s Nandigram-stand: The fact remains that it was a piece of opportunism that will go down in history as one of the greatest services done to human kind.
However, in this very process, Mamata had to push herself to be reborn as a Leftist, kept pretending to be a Marxist, and ironically, kept calling the CPIM leaders the “pseudo followers of Marx and Lenin”. The Kolkata based Daily Telegraph pointed out rightly: The 83-page manifesto of Trinamul Congress…, could not help but parroting the CPIM on subjects close to the average comrade’s heart.
In that note, let’s have a quick glance at Mamata’s manifesto:
-“No land can be forcibly acquired for industry”. “Agriculture must not be sacrificed at the altar of industry.” “TMC wants industry but not at the cost of poor farmers.” “SEZs would not be allowed in West Bengal”. (Does it sound like Tata matters to TMC?)
-“Globalisation is necessary but it is also necessary, even more important, to develop local resources and skills.” “Stop entry of big capital, domestic or foreign, in retail sector.” “There should be no divestment of public sector enterprises, instead, state enterprises have to be protected.” (Sounds familiar? Jyoti Basu must be giggling in his grave!)
And last but not least, “No foreign capital in sectors other than high-quality technology and other industries, indispensable for the country.” (By the way, this is a clear-cut copy-paste from CPM’s 2005 manifesto).
And my personal favourite one: “TMC Opposes the construction of all shopping malls in Bengal”. (A perfectly ideal Maoist society?)
No wonder they say, didi is simultaneously riding not two, but at least three boats. She has gathered the traditional left voters dejected by the Left Front’s policies, the ultra-leftists who always thought of the CPM as bourgeoisie, and also the traditional right wing and feudal interests.
The point is, whether Bengal can boom like Bangalore, or glow like Goa, is not really a simple black and white matter of ‘getting rid of the Lefts’. Let us not overlook: the era of liberalisation and reform has come to manufacture a peculiar form of democracy, which generates political outcomes, rewarding only the few rich, and punishing the many poor.
In a time when ‘farmer-crashing’, ‘poor-trashing’, ‘worker-bashing’ policies have been proven to be super healthy for India’s economic growth, when India’s super power craving has been knotted and wedded with a baggage of some eight million displaced farmers along with 2 million dead ones, when the 780 million Indians (living under 20 rupees a day) have become the “gutter” of the hyper-affluent India, the very mathematics of the so-called ‘minus-Left’ led prosperity for West Bengal, sounds pretty much like a shaggy dog story. The ‘way out’ for Bengal is rather imbedded in its age-old cultural debates: industry vs. agriculture, growth vs. farmers, and development vs. displacement.
This is rather the distinctive delicacy of West-Bengal’s democracy. Leftism has been so deeply implanted in its culture, and pro-farmer policies been localised to such an emancipating level that whoever enters Bengal’s power politics, is left with no other choice but to be a ‘Left’.
Heads Left wins, tails Left wins too.
Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist. She is a graduate in economics and international political economy.