Maha Mirza

The democracy of “who is a better Marxist in Bengal”

May 24, 2011
Activists of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) march during an election campaign rally. Photo: Reuters

Activists of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) march during an election campaign rally. Photo: Reuters

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.

* * *
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.

* * *
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.

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Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist. She is a graduate in economics and international political economy.

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12 Responses to “ The democracy of “who is a better Marxist in Bengal” ”

  1. Siddhartha on July 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Most of the communities in India (such as Bengali), are succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty’(American anthropologist Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is at all ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour/values to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting children those are born out of ignorance, extreme poverty. All of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct, an acute shortage of fine sense. If we the Bengali people, ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in our own life/attitude, involve ourselves in ‘Production of Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), at least initiate a movement by heart, the radical positivity, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101.

  2. Dr. Mahmudur Rahamn on May 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks to Maha Mirza for her very brief but well thought write-up on change of power in West Bengal.

  3. Sajjad Choudhury on May 27, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Good piece of research. Excellent!

  4. Humayun Kobir on May 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    A revealing piece indeed by Ms. Mirza with sweeping remarks! The originality of the article having no originality is certainly brilliant.

  5. Sayed Chowdhury on May 26, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Maha is absolutely right when she says, “the Left must have done something quite right to remain in power for a good long 34 years”.

    The polls result for CPIM in West Bengal appears like meting out of capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence, although it may be seen as an over simplification. The CPIM’s defeat is due mainly to three main reasons:

    1. When Westminster type parliamentary democracy gets institutionalised over a reasonably long period, public opinion is inherently polarised between two major political camps. In this case, CPIM and TMC-Congress alliance. Election soon becomes a ‘musical chair’or winning government becomes more like a revolving door.

    2. Long incumbancy (34 years is too long) gives rise to various kinds of governance problems, including vested interest and thuggery by party cadres, rising public dissatisfaction arising from comparing government’s performance with its own performance in the past, and short public memory about government’s past excellence and sensationalising by the media of only the negatives about the government and not presenting positive facts objectively.

    3. The elites and intellectuals in W Bengal assembled almost enmasse against the CPIM government because 34 year’s of CPIM’s pro-poor policies with rural/peasantry bias made this parasite class gradually irrelevant.A similar thing happened with the disgruntled Muslim voters, who as a single largest minority community, ceased to be beneficiaries of cPIM rule in recent years and turned away.

    I fully agree with Dr Sur above.When the dust will settle, history will give CPIM its due and will acnowledge its massive achievements.

    The good thing is:

    1. In the democratic system, public verdict in polls is a self-correcting process and the voters in W Bengal will hopefully soon realise what needs to be corrected and when.

    2. They will benchmark Mamata’s performance with that of CPIM.

    We probably will never know whether CPIM would have easily ruled W Bengal a bit longer – if Jyoti Basu was allowed by his party to become India’s PM.This remains a food for thought.

  6. Sayed Chowdhury on May 26, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Maha is absolutely right when she says, “the Left must have done something quite right to remain in power for a good long 34 years”.

    The polls result for CPIM in West Bengal appears like meting out of capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence, although it may be seen as an over simplification. The CPIM’s defeat for is due mainly to three main reasons:

    1. When Westminster type parliamentary democracy gets institutionalised over a reasonably long period, public opinion is inherently polarised between two major political camps. In this case, CPIM and TMC-Congress alliance. Election soon becomes a ‘musical chair’or winning government becomes more like a revolving door.

    2. Long incumbancy (34 years is too long) gives rise to various kinds of governance problems, including vested interest and thuggery by party cadres, rising public dissatisfaction arising from comparing government’s performance with its own performance in the past, and short public memory about government’s past excellence and sensationalising by the media of only the negatives about the government and presenting positive facts.

    3. The elites and intellectuals in W Bengal assembled almost enmasse against the CPIM government because 34 year’s of CPIM’s pro-poor and policies with rural/peasantry bias made this parasite class gradually irrelevant.A similar thing happened with the disgruntled Muslim voters, who as a single largest minority community, ceased to beneficiaries of cPIM rule in recent years

    I fully agree with Dr Sur above.When the dust will settle, history will give CPIM its due and will acnowledge its massive achievements.

    The good thing is:

    1. In the democratic system, public verdict in polls is a self-correcting process and the voters in W Bengal will hopefully soon realise what needs to be corrected and when.

    2. They will benchmark Mamata’s performance with that of CPIM.

    We probably will never know whether CPIM would have easily ruled W Bengal a bit longer – if Jyoti Basu was allowed by his party to become India’s PM.This remains a food for thought.

  7. Dilshana Parul on May 26, 2011 at 11:12 am

    “People finally got rid of the Left when no ‘Left’ was left in it” ……. And “whoever enters Bengal’s power politics, is left with no other choice but to be a ‘Left’.”

    …….More than enough to cherish the existence of left idea …..
    Great job indeed Maha. Enjoyed the piece a lot. Keep it up.

  8. afsan chowdhury on May 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

    A fine post. A rational jargon free defense of the Left is not usually seen.

    My take is that in several countries where socialism arrived, land reforms was always the most popular and immediately handled sector, particularly in dominantly agro societies like China, Vietnam and even West Bengal. But these reforms were hardly ideological moves and any good government should have done it. It didn’t essentially transform the production relationships or even interfere nor integrate the peasantry into a sub-national question problem solving.

    It’s in the days after land reform that causes the crisis in socialism. In China the Great Leap Forward or agro-revolution caused the greatest Asian famine and subsequent pauperisation of the Chinese economy creating both the extremists -Gang of Four -and the Capitalist Roaders -Chou and Deng – that led first to the Cultural Revolution and then the capitalist revolution in present China.

    In Vietnam and Kampuchea, it failed horribly and pushed the case for market reforms much against the will of the CPs there. In earlier Soviet Union, the NEP didn’t have much agro issues but later collectivisation of agriculture including Kulak killing again led to agriculture failures and many famines.

    It’s true that land reform in West Bengal was popular but as always its impact is limited in time and space. The limits of agro-production is quickly reached and once that happens, industrial development becomes critical but also very difficult as WB scenery shows. Buddhadeb’s industrial policy failed for many reasons but lack of public support for land transfer by peasant to the state was one, socialism’s great dilemma.

    Land reforms doesn’t lead to understanding of historical economic needs. Benagli peasants remained exactly that and without overall development, without adequate compensation they couldn’t cope with the demands of the NI Policy. Socialism has always failed with industrial development though for a while high production can be sustained as it was in Soviet Union but the final outcome has been surprisingly consistent all over where socialism was attempted.

  9. Dipen on May 26, 2011 at 5:10 am

    Thank you Ms Mirza,

    This is so far one of the best post-election analysis on West Bengal I came accross! Not only well researched, but also beautifully written!! Thanks for all the important facts and the powerful analysis!

  10. Meer Ahsan Habib on May 25, 2011 at 1:08 am

    It has been 34 years and you must go! That is such a ridiculous way of thinking. But it was one of the driving factors in West Bengal election. The Left made two big mistakes – first they could not sense the Nandigram air and secondly they did not support the Indo-US military treaty. The second one resulted into a no failed confidence move by the opposition including the Left.

    You are right the Left does not have any Swiss bank account and therefore, they lacked from the ability to buy votes to win the no confidence which their counterpart did at ease.

    Let me thank you for such a nice write up – completely different way of presentation and different point of view as well.

  11. Dr.Kishaloy Sur on May 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Maha Mirza,
    Can Capitalists like the Congress Party attain such a feat like land reform? If I take aside land reform, Jyoti Basu single-handedly solved power crisis in West Bengal. By actualising metro-rail, he solved the problem of intolerable traffic congestion in Kolkata. If anyone claim nothing had been done in last 34-year of CPM government, he is in complete denial of hard facts.

    Can the Capitalists achieve such a feat which had been attained by CPM government under leadership of veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu?

    I am afraid not!

  12. Towfique on May 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    An analysis of genuinely objective at the root of reality! Thanks.

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