Nearly eighteen months ago, Dr.Ashok Mitra had issued a warning to the Left Front Government in West Bengal, which is turning out to be prophetic. In an article that was published in the Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika (14.11.2007), Dr.Mitra had foreseen the disastrous outcome of the hazardous path that the Left Front was treading on. Dr.Mitra, who was the Left Front Government’s Finance Minister from 1977 to 1987 and who had resigned from his post because of policy differences regarding the path of development, had in the said article forewarned the Left Front Government as follows:
“Mamata Banerjee is the safest insurance for the current ruling party. Urban, rural masses may have become discontented with the Left Front, but whenever they imagine Mamata Banerjee’s ascent to power, the sheer terror of that possibility has made them vote for the Left Front. But if it comes to a situation that the hubris and ineptitude of leaders of the Left Front government frustrate them so much that they begin to think there is no difference really, it’s all tweedledum and tweedledee, that will be a real disaster. For notice the behaviour, patronage, programme, mode of action, speech of Mamata Banerjee – she personifies fascism. My ardent appeal to the central leadership of the party which I still love to think to be mine, please think it over, you shiver at the terror of Maoism, will that shivering compel you to throw West Bengal into the gutter of fascism?”
Mamata Banerjee is the leader of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), which outshined the Left Front in West Bengal in the 2009 general elections partly because of its tie-up with the Indian National Congress (INC) and mainly because of disenchantment a crucial section of the people with the Left Front. The fact that this section of the people of West Bengal have gone to the extent of reposing faith in the likes of Mamata Banerjee, who – in the considered opinion of Dr.Mitra – personifies fascism, is rather alarming. Within a week of being elected to Parliament, the AITC MPs have started vociferously demanding the dismissal of the duly elected Government of West Bengal, which is a dangerous portend of the machinations being hatched by the AITC to get hold of the reins of government in West Bengal by hook or by crook. Therefore, on the one hand, it becomes imperative to mobilise the secular, democratic and progressive sections of the people of West Bengal and elsewhere in the country to vehemently oppose such contrived plots. While, on the other, a parallel campaign to rectify the terrible mistakes committed by the Left Front is essential to win back the confidence of those sections of the people, who the Left Front has managed to alienate.
That the AITC at all managed to gain the upper hand after the Left Front had governed the State for 32 years is a sure sign that the Left Front had committed some horrible mistakes over this long stretch of time and especially after the Assembly Elections in 2006. That this debacle was not even anticipated by the Left Front speaks poorly about the organisational state it is in. Moreover, the Left Front has lost about 7.5 per cent of the vote [as per the figure posted on the Election Commission website] as compared to its tally of 50.18 per cent vote in the 2006 Assembly Elections. The most disheartening feature of this loss is that those who have deserted the Left Front constitute the rural and urban poor (including a substantial section of minorities) and sections of the middle-class who were won over because of the Left Front’s commendable performance in earlier years. It is still not too late to win back these sections, who the Left Front managed to alienate due to adoption of wrong developmental strategies and appalling organisational tactics. However, appropriate remedial measures to win back the alienated sections cannot be formulated without the Left Front carrying out serious introspection as to how and why such dreadful mistakes were committed in the first place.
Failure to Draw Lessons
That there were serious problems in the Left movement across the world was very evident when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed in August 1991, which effectively led to the downfall of the “Leftist” bastions elsewhere in Europe as well. It is rather disquieting that the Left movement in India made no effort to seriously analyse the reasons for the manner in which the Soviet Union and other “socialist” states chose to commit hara kiri. The Indian Left tried to pretend that nothing really happened when the entire Left movement the world over had suffered a serious setback. When acts of omission and commission by the leadership remain unquestioned, it opens the way for perpetuation of nepotism and corrupt practices, which have disastrous consequences. Moreover, by upholding the concept of “State of the whole people”, the existence of dormant bourgeoisie ideological influences that were still prevalent in the USSR and other “socialist” societies were completely glossed over.
At the same time, no distinction was made between the Party and the Government. Thus, the “soviets”, instead of remaining directly elected democratic bodies of the working people, were converted to bodies into which members were practically nominated by the Communist Party, thereby, undermining the democratic character of the “soviets”. Once the voice of the working people was stifled, there was no one left to check the arbitrary actions of the Party leadership or to prevent the penetration of bourgeoisie ideological influences into the Party as a whole. The net result was the emergence of the likes of Gorbachevs and Yeltsins as leaders of the Communist Party (CPSU). This change in the character of the leadership of the CPSU paved the way not only for the demise of socialism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union but also to the privatisation of public wealth and the ascendancy of an emerging bourgeoisie to power in Russia and most of the other former republics of the USSR. The transformation that took place in the other former member states of the Warsaw Pact was also almost similar.
As a result of the failure to draw correct lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union, certain maladies that had slowly crept into the Left movement got entrenched in India as well. Of course, the Left in India has never wielded State power although it had assumed stewardship of governments in three states. However, before beginning to criticize the Left Front for the mistakes it has committed, it is necessary to understand the nature and the dimensions of the challenges that were before the Left Front Government when it assumed office in 1977 and to the extent to which it had managed to meet those challenges in the last 32 years. Therefore, first, it is imperative to assess the Left Front Government’s actual achievements in this regard.
The Left Front has governed the state of West Bengal (present population about 83 million) continuously from 1977 onwards.Implementation of land reforms and reorganisation of panchayats became the Left Front Government’s immediate priorities for tackling the problem of rural poverty, for empowering the rural poor, and for rural development of West Bengal. Land reforms had two components: tenancy reforms and land redistribution. Tenancy reforms were carried out though a programme called “Operation Barga”, i.e., the registration of the names of the sharecroppers in the land records with permanent and heritable right to cultivate the leased land. The 15-lakh sharecroppers, who were thus registered, are entitled to between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of the produce depending on the level of inputs provided by the landlords. The Left Front Government also managed to acquire about 15-lakh acres of surplus land and redistribute it among 28-lakh landless poor. At present, reportedly 84 per cent of land in West Bengal is owned by small (owning 2.5 acres to 5 acres of land) and marginal farmers (owning less than 2.5 acres), while under the said categories the ownership of land is only about 43 per cent at the all-India level. The Left Front also claims that through effective implementation of the provision of statutory minimum wage, the rights of agricultural workers are also protected adequately. Nearly 70 per cent of the population in the State is still engaged in agriculture.
West Bengal was dependent on the Central Government for meeting its demands for food till the 1980s. However, there has been a significant spurt in food production since the 1980s, and the state is now self sufficient in staple food grains. The cropping intensity in the State has also been increased from about 130 per cent to over 160 per cent during the last two decades. The State has achieved an all time record in food grains production and currently ranks first in production of rice in the country. It is also one of the largest producers of fruits & vegetables and produces nearly 28 per cent of the total potatoes grown in the country. Due to rising concerns about environment degradation, erosion in soil quality, depletion of natural resources and bio-diversity caused by indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides over the years, the Government has recently initiated steps to spread organic farming. The thrust on organic farming is also for helping farmers to reduce the cost of cultivation. West Bengal has been able to secure the leading position in fish-production in the country as well.
Reorganisation, reactivation and democratisation of the three-tier (village, block & district level) panchayat system, i.e., the local self-government institutions to encourage people to participate in the decision making process, was the other challenge that the Left Front Government successfully tackled. The panchayats, which are reportedly well represented by the landless, sharecroppers, and small & marginal farmers, played an active role in the execution of land reforms. Moreover, not only are 33 per cent of the seats in the panchayat bodies reserved for women (from 1995 onwards) but also they have substantial representation of dalits, adivasis and people of all creeds. [According to Frontline (06-19 July 2002): “A survey conducted by the Staff Development and Planning Department covering 100 gram panchayats revealed that more than 71 per cent of the panchayat representatives are small and marginal farmers. A recent study of panchayats in 25 blocks across 14 States presents a contrasting picture: 88 per cent of the panchayat members and 95 per cent of the panchayat presidents in these belong to the landed gentry. This glaring contrast is testimony to the success of the Left Front's development strategy, which is based on land reforms.”] With the devolution of substantial part of the State Plan outlays to the districts, various developmental activities – including local-level planning and implementation of various government schemes –came under the direct purview of the panchayats. This empowerment has made the panchayats a critical institution of local governance in the West Bengal countryside. The Left Front Government carried out land reforms and democratisation of the panchayats within the first two terms (1977-1987) of assuming office. One of the most notable contributions of the Left Front Government was in taking appropriate steps to ensure communal harmony and nurture secular values. Similarly, if divisive caste politics has not entered West Bengal, it is primarily due to the class-consciousness developed by the Left Front and its government.
A parallel challenge confronting the Left Front Government was industrialisation of West Bengal. According to the Left Front leaders, this challenge could be discussed in two phases. In the first phase – 1977 to 1991 – the Left Front government was working under a regime where State regulation of the economy under a capitalist path of development existed. The role of the central government and the nature of centre-state relations were different in this period. The centre had licensing powers for industry and allocated resources for public investment and development. During this period, West Bengal suffered from discrimination. The successive central governments would discourage industries being set-up in West Bengal and utilised the licensing power to the detriment of the state. The centre also wielded its financial powers in a manner to deprive the state of public investment. In this period, the Left Front had to wage continuous struggles to oppose discrimination.
The second phase in which the Left Front government is now working began in 1992 and continues upto now. This is the phase of liberalisation and the deregulation of the State control and intervention in the economy. It is also marked by the push for neo-liberal policies and the drastic cutbacks on State investments. The centre’s withdrawal from welfare and social sector responsibilities has also had a serious impact on the state. The Left Front government adopted an industrial policy in 1994, following which the industrial scenario in the state witnessed a turnaround. During the period from 1992 to 2006, nearly 1,400 industrial units were set up in West Bengal with a realized investment of over Rs.32,000 crores and creating direct employment for over 2 lakh persons in the organized sector alone. The number of new industrial proposals in West Bengal is increasing progressively, especially in sectors like Iron & Steel, Chemicals & Petrochemicals, Food Processing and Information Technology. From a total production capacity of about 1400 MW in 1976, West Bengal has now become a power-surplus State with a total production capacity of 8400 MW of power in 2008 and supplying part of it to neighbouring States. A large number of engineering colleges and industrial training institutes in the State have ensured a steady supply of skilled manpower.
While maintaining and upgrading the existing public sector enterprises in the state, particularly big centrally run PSUs, the Left Front government began to take the initiative to attract private investment so that the state could have a strong industrial base and acquire high technology. While promoting private investment, the government was committed to defending the interests of the working class and their trade union rights. The state government has supported small-scale industries as a matter of policy. The number of small-scale industries working in the state increased from over 19 lakhs in 1994-95 to over 27 lakhs in 2005-06 with employment in these industries during this period increasing from over 44 lakhs to nearly 55 lakhs. West Bengal already ranks first amongst all states in respect to both number of working units and employment generation in the small-scale sector.
While the Left Front Government has succeeded in implementing land reforms, democratisation of the panchayats, improving agricultural and industrial production, etc., there are other areas where progress is not wholly satisfactory. This happens to be mainly in the social sector. When the Left Front Government assumed office in 1977, the incidence of poverty in West Bengal was over 65 per cent, well above the then national average of around 52 per cent. However by 2008, the incidence of poverty has declined to about 20 per cent, which is just below the national average of around 22 per cent. The existence of such a high level of population below the poverty line is certainly a cause for concern. Similarly, literacy is still only around 69 per cent (2001 census) although there was significant improvement during the last 30 years since literacy was below 39 per cent at the time of the 1971 census. The progress achieved in the area of health infrastructure is also not very spectacular since the various achievements are only close to or not very much higher than the national average although there are significant improvements in the various health indicators due to the overall development in the rural areas. About ten per cent of the villages in the state are yet to be electrified despite the fact that the state produces surplus power and supplies it to neighbouring states.
Doubts have also been raised regarding some of the claims made by the Left Front Government especially regarding the status of the landless labour. It is alleged that a significant section of the landless labourers across West Bengal are not being paid the statutory minimum wage. Also, despite the existence of sizable poverty in the state, the lackadaisical manner of implementing NREGS by the Left Front Government was truly baffling. At one level, people had become passive recipients of the benevolence bestowed by the Left Front Government. At another level, the Left Front Government had taken people for granted; they are increasingly kept away from the decision making process. Governments that try to implement policies (irrespective of the correctness of such policies) without taking the people into confidence are doomed.
Singur and Nandigram are symbolic of the self-righteousness, arrogance, and ineptness with which the Left Front Government had handled the entire issue of taking over agricultural land for industrialisation. Moreover, the Left Front Government tried to formulate and implement policies without apparently taking the peasantry and the land-less labourers, who were likely to be deeply affected by such policies, into confidence. Since the affected people had had no role in the formulation of the said policies, they easily fell prey to rumour mongering and become victims of irrational fear. The deep indifference and insensitivity with which the Left Front Government handled the Rizwanur Rahman case was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The opposition, led by the AITC, was allowed to take full advantage of the mistakes that the Left Front were committing. (Due to the reluctance of the Left Front to admit that it had committed mistakes, the Left Front was engrossed in defending the mistakes instead of taking remedial action.) While the opposition exploited the situation to the hilt, the Left Front loyalists paid the price. On the one hand, the Left Front had completely underestimated the mischief-mongering capability of the AITC and its ilk, and on the other, it had overestimated its own strength and the extent to which it could withstand the onslaught without being overwhelmed by the AITC. As a result, the AITC and the INC are now having the last laugh.
With regard to the functioning of the panchayats, Dr.George Mathew, Founder Director of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, had made certain pertinent observations. Soon after the West Bengal panchayat elections of 2003, in an article titled “West Bengal - Still a role model for Panchayat Raj”, Dr.Mathew had noted as follows: “The most notable achievement of the CPI (M) Government is that clientelism and patronage, based on religion, caste, communal or feudal interests, have almost disappeared from West Bengal. They are now along party lines in the State. It may be seen as a higher level of social development but if it leads to violent tensions and conflicts, then steps are needed to stem the rot.” [PUCL Bulletin, July 2003, http://www.pucl.org/Topics/
It is true that the repeated attempts by the forces of reaction to push the clock back in favour of the rural rich is leading to outbreak of class conflicts and increased tensions in the rural areas. However, it would be a grave mistake if the Left Front in West Bengal does not take appropriate precautions to avoid falling into the trap being laid by the forces of reaction, which is trying to dictate the rules of the game. Instead, it would be in the best interests of the Left Front to carry out a public campaign to prevent political violence and expose the machinations of the forces of reaction in this regard. It was also appalling to read reports that the AITC had rigged elections in certain pockets even in Kolkata [the claim here is not that the AITC won because it had rigged elections] apart from the whole-scale rigging perpetrated by the BJP in the Darjeeling hills in the recent Parliamentary elections. [The failure of the Left Front to force open the eyes of the Election Commission to the blatant rigging that was carried out in Darjeeling and the complete blackout of the entire incident by the “democratic” media are equally shocking.] How is it that the Left Front had not taken adequate steps to eradicate this malady even 32 years after governing the state? While the Left Front in Kerala too has failed to take necessary steps to end political violence, booth capturing is not a problem that is prevalent in Kerala. A public campaign against political violence and booth capturing even at this late stage can go a long way in strengthening grassroots democracy.
It is very unfortunate that the Left Front in West Bengal had failed to heed the clarion call of the CPI (M) General Secretary, Mr.Prakash Karat, about the fundamental necessity of seeking the support and solidarity of all democratic and progressive forces in the country for defending the achievements of the Left Front Government. In an article titled “Defend Left Front Government of West Bengal”(24.06.2007), Mr.Karat had noted as follows: “The Left Front government as it enters its fourth decade in office requires the support and solidarity of all democratic and progressive forces in the country. The three decades of Left Front rule is an outstanding testimony to the vital role of the Left and its indispensable relevance for building an alternative to bourgeois-landlord rule. Defending the Left Front government is imperative for all those who cherish democratic values and wish to see a Left and democratic alternative in the country.”[http://pd.cpim.org/2007/
The Left Front in West Bengal should have been far more responsive to the various criticisms being levelled by the rest of the secular, democratic and progressive sections of society against the various acts of commission and omission on the part of the Left Front Government over the years. Instead of responding to the complaints positively and engaging the critics in a healthy debate, the response most often appear to have been to dismiss the criticisms as unwarranted and motivated. The Left Front, in fact, began to question the very credentials of the critics instead of examining the veracity of the criticisms. Many of the critics on their part chose to gloss over the positive contributions made by the Left Front Government and instead began to overplay the negative aspects of its rule out of proportion. Extreme sectarian attitude on both sides has precipitated the present outcome. Nevertheless, the urgency of building and strengthening the unity of the secular, democratic and progressive sections in this country cannot be over-emphasised.
END OF PART - 1
The next part of this article will deal with the criticisms raised by the rest of the secular, democratic and progressive forces in the country against the Left Front Government and how they could have been dealt with.