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Why the Left Front did not Endure: Sharib Ali and Shazia Nigar

May 22, 2011

Guest post by SHARIB ALI and SHAZIA NIGAR

“But it is unlikely that such a review exercise will to lead to the kind of “reformed” Left that its critics are rooting for — a Left tamed by its defeat into accepting the set of economic policies that, in the name of growth, intensify and create new inequalities; a Left subdued… The relentless pressure being put on the Left today is precisely to give up its class approach, to adapt itself to neo-liberal realities represented by the set of policies popularly referred to by workers as LPG — liberalization, privatization, globalization”

Brinda Karat in The Indian Express

The op-ed piece by Brinda Karat is a brave effort at self defense after almost 5 days of uncomfortable silence following one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the left movement in India. The article, defensively titled ‘The Left will endure’, is revealing in a number of ways. One that the CPI (M) has nothing much left to say, and two, that most of what it says is an expression of many of the beliefs that the Left Front  continues to hold, or at least professes to hold – even with all evidence against the same –  in review of its performance in West Bengal.

But, before an analysis, it is necessary to point out that Karat’s use of the term ‘The left’ is also a little problematic as it cannot be said with certainty that all people or parties associated with the color red are willing to call the CPI(M) brand of politics their own, and, definitely, not all of them are necessarily in position at the moment to feel the need to say that ‘ the left will endure’.

What the article attempts is to argue:

  1. That the defeat of the Left Front in Bengal was somehow a defeat because of the values that the Left Front professes to hold – equal and sustainable growth, labor rights, class approach to issues, and its refusal to accept foreign capital, etc.
  2. That the critics have written the Left Front off, and are attempting to browbeat them into neo-liberal submission.
  3. That the Left Front record in Bengal has been most applaudable in terms of its commitment to people, secularism, growth, and maintaining a thriving democratic culture in Bengal inspite of the lack of a strong opposition.

Most of the above are only ‘theoretically’ true, and meet reality only at a tangent.

Apart from those alluded to above, the reasons most widely accepted and spoken of, both by critics and Left Front members, are those of the ideas of ‘disconnect’ and ‘anti-incumbency’. Disconnect between the party and the people; what the people thought, sought, and aspired to, and what the party thought that they did. And together with the analysis of the Left Front’s laxity, its heavy handedness, of its taking the people for granted and thinking of the state as its private backyard, and some fatal illusions of its own invincibility, the point is made that, therefore, the people got disillusioned by the party and wanted ‘poriborton’.

Though disconnect and anti-incumbency effectively explain a major part of the poll results, they do not in any way constitute all that the people felt or thought before giving their verdict, and quite consciously exclude the anti-CPI (M) anger that was building up post 2006.

For had it been entirely true, its electoral reflection should have been a gradual drop in the popularity of the Left Front before being finally voted out. But then, how does one account for the very last elections in 2006 where the Left Front’s victory was as spectacular as its defeat this time? The revolutionary quality of the term ‘poriborton’ warrants a much better explanation.

There is no denying the kind of work that the Left did in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The more than 30 year’s rule was, after all, a legacy of the trust gained at that time.  But it is now widely accepted that after that Bengal went on the path to stagnation. By the 90’s almost everything had almost come to a standstill – the economy was breaking down, more and more people were becoming jobless, education and heath sectors were stagnating, and there were hardly any opportunities. The city was truly becoming timeless. Let’s look at some of the statistics:

In matters of basic survival, The National Sample Survey 2004-05, had pointed out that “the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year” is highest in West Bengal(10.6 per cent), worse than in Orissa (4.8), know for its rural hunger in places like Kalahandi. Employment is also abysmall with more than 20% unemployed in 1999-2000, and much more right now.

In medical services the official Human Development Report (2004) points out that spending on and access to health services have stagnated. Some indicators — immunization, antenatal care, women’s nutrition, and doctors and hospital beds per 100,000 people — are below the national average. Also,West Bengal has also not opened a single new primary-health centre in a decade.

In matters relating to industries and economy The Hindu group of publication published two reports which pointed out that between 1984 and 2001 the number of industries in the State was almost static — 5,369 to 6,091. Also, during this period, the numbers employed in the organized industrial sector in West Bengal almost halved. In 2004 about 75% of the registered small scale industries in the State were sick, and that the Gross Fiscal Deficit as a percentage of State Gross Domestic Product was a whopping 8.5 per cent in 1999-2000, the highest among the States.

All these statistics, along with many more, come together with the one about reduction of poverty which Brinda Karat produced as a proof of the Left Front’s 34 years of work.

After 2006

The Left front was quite aware of it. And so was Buddhadeb Bhattacharya when he came to power in 2000 and tried to get things moving. His effort to change the face of Bengal by being much more open to economic reforms, as compared to his predecessor Jyoti Basu, spoke of a certain new beginning. This, along with a number of almost divine interventions like the 2002 Gujarat riots, the right wing government at the centre, Mamata’s failure to unite the opposition and her alliance with the NDA, culminated in the spectacular 2006 results where the Left Front swept the polls.

But after 2006, it was a complete reversal. The new CM went a tad too far- almost into the lap of neo-liberalism.  Henceforth it was a story of how the Left Front successfully, and finally, managed to break off its already alienated relationship with every group of people that had been their staunchest supporters right from the very beginning – the minorities, the intelligentsia, the workers, the industrialists, and even most of the Marxists themselves. External factors came together here too, but in quite the opposite way – the findings of the Sachar Committee, the tremendous rise in Mamata’s popularity, and, for once in Bengal, a strong and united opposition. All odds were stacked up against the Marxist in this show, and every single one of those cards was put in there by the Marxists themselves. Some recently, and most in a 34yr long history.

Minorities and the Left Font

An essential element of the decline of the left is the alienation of the minority community from its government. The left in Bengal recognized no other color apart from the red of revolution, and had espoused a one line policy on all matters relating to religion and religious groups – that of not being ‘Communal’. This practice of color blindness was believed and practiced in their circles to prevent discrimination based on religion. Statistics brought out by Mr. Abu Saleh Sharif, member of Sachar committee, reveal the conditions of Muslims in the state that arguably sat at the altar of ‘secularism’. While Muslims comprise 25% of the total population of West Bengal, only 2.1% of them are employed at government jobs. Only 50% of Muslim children have access to primary schools, out of which only 12% complete matriculation. In a revealing contrast 54% of SC/ST children attend primary school of which 13% reach matriculation.

The above statistics, which reveal a condition much worse than Gujarat – a state where Muslims are the most discriminated against, are a consequence of the professed, self congratulatory policy of being ‘anti-communal’. A policy which works in a surprising number of ways. This linear perspective, at one level, reassured the Muslims as it kept the Hindu right-wingers as well as an active policy of discrimination at bay, and kept the votes coming in. At the other, it worked wonders for it became the best excuse for dismissing any dialogue which was directed at looking at either the condition of minorities or their empowerment. It was a magic wand for pursuing a passive form of discrimination – positively making no effort to empower the minorities – and 34yrs of it brought about a mess that only statistics can reveal. Everyone had a vague idea, for it could be seen all around. But there was nothing definitive, and then, anything is better than the BJP. The Sachar Committee report came in and it was time to panic.

The history of the left in Bengal has, however, witnessed two ‘events’ when the CPI (M) came to terms with the category of religious minority. In the first instance the Left helped the Muslims to survive. In the second the Left hoped to survive with their help. It didn’t. At the time of the communal riots in 1964, when Muslims were being massacred across the state, the CPI (M) cadre stood guard outside Muslim mohallahs protecting their lives. It was this act that sealed the faith with which Muslims in Bengal casted their vote in favour of the CPI (M) year after year. What the act symbolized was an assurance of survival and not the guarantee of a dignified life. And it was this realisation from which stemmed the interaction the CPI (M) attempted as a last resort almost four decades later.

Realizing their bleak chances of survival as the ruling party, the CPI (M) doled out policies to appease the minorities. 10% reservation for OBC Muslims was suddenly declared. But the attempt was largely symbolic for only 10% of the 7% of reserved seats for OBC’S was granted. That essentially meant 0.7%. There were several similar efforts. A school, in which one of the writer’s father teaches, was refused a minority institution status on one pretext or the other for 10 years, until just before the election when it was suddenly and inexplicably granted a ‘no-objection’ certificate. Had the attempt been an honest one, it would have still meant something. But election goodies for an angry quarter of the population came a little too late, and was probably too ill advised.

Intelligentsia and the Poor

Nandigram, Singur, and Lalgarh were probably the breaking point in the Left Fronts association with the people.  A government which came as a messiah of the people – introducing land reforms, protecting its minorities, and deriving its ideology and strength from the common people – turned its back on them when it tried to snatch their land away and give it to corporates who wanted to roll out cars and chemicals that the people to whom those lands belonged could only dream of. It was almost a historical blunder – not so uncommon in red history all over the world. In haste to incorporate the famed Bengali ‘aspiration’ after a long hiatus, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya forgot some of his own lessons.

Another segment that the Left pushed to the edge was the 80,000 strong coastal community of Haripur with its proposal of a nuclear power plant at the cost of their land and livelihoods. Sensing the weak ground the Left was treading on, weeks ahead of the assembly elections, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee claimed that he was willing to reconsider the project in the light of the nuclear disaster in Japan. Mamata, on the other hand, declared that if she was to come to power, the project would be scrapped. People of Haripur’s loss of faith in the left was not an isolated incident, and came together with several others who felt disenchanted and disenfranchised.

It was not surprising to hear Mamata in those places, and in all places thereafter, using the same words and talking of the same commitments that the Left had once made to the people in its early stages. And it wasn’t just words. Travelling from village to village, sometimes on foot, meeting and listening to as many people as possible, eating and sleeping with the people, Mamata entrenched herself firmly in a space that the Left had created, occupied, and then abandoned in self indulgent assurance.

It is this vacuum, which resulted out of the politics of abandon practiced by the Left that Mamata Bannerjee capitalized on. While the Left unleashed a reign of terror in rural Bengal, Mamata protested, languished in jail and spoke for the disaffected in the parliament. ‘Poribartan’ then, along with ‘Maa, Mati, Manush’, emerged as the right election war cry in this state of eternal abandon.

The defining moment in the shift of allegiance came when the government fired on the demonstrators at Nandigram and the way in which it dealt with legitimate and democratic expressions of dissent. A series of acts which managed to anger and completely dissociate not just the people, but also the intelligentsia. For a group of people already disillusioned by lack of opportunities, unchanging syllabuses, rampant red tapism, and strong arm tactics of the Left in every sphere of life, the violence against the people and some of their own was the final straw.

But for those of us who grew up in Bengal, the acts of violence against the people came as no surprise. If at all there was any, it was the expression of disbelief at the idea that the Left could go to this level even when everyone was watching. For, one of the most remarkable achievements of the left’s 34 year rule has been the destruction of the body politic of Bengal right from the lowest level of the private family to that of legislation. And that destruction happened through intervention in all spheres of community life. An intervention based on the swagger of power and violence. One aspect of this, as someone sarcastically remarked, was the decrease in the number of pending court cases. And it is true. The CPM style durbars with their private hearing have made Bengal stand high in terms of pending court cases. In Bengal only 1.9m cases are pending in the subordinate courts as compared to 3.9m in Gujarat and 4.1 m inMaharashtra.

For all who grew up in areas beyond the few posh ‘bhadrolok’ ones, political violence has been a constitutive element of all organized life. In the area – Metiabruz, a suburb of Calcutta, where one of the authors has grown up – more than 10 ‘well known’ murders have taken place in the last 10-15 years. Scratch the people a little and they will tell you how it happened.

History has been witness to the fine distinction between communism and Fascism. It has also been witness to the frequent erasure of that line, and Mamata Bannerjee made it a point to get that noted “if a government stays in power for a long time, every step of that government becomes like that of Fascists”. People noticed. And that is how the ‘revolution’, though very different from the one that had been promised, materialized inWest Bengal. Fortunately or unfortunately is still the question.

Mamata Banerjee

However, it is grossly undestimating Mamata Bannerjee to attribute her victory entirely to a vote of anti-incumbency. Her work with the people had been recognized right in 1984 when she beat the CPI (M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee. And for the last 10 years, regardless of her ideology, and how well she is able to perform, her association with the people has been remarkable – it had a quality which put the communist of Bengalto shame. While Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was present in merely 25 rallies, Mamata made her presence felt in 250 of them. Where the left was absent, Mamata was assuring. Where the left practiced a regime of terror implemented by party cadre, Mamata sympathized. And she played politics. While her Bengali manifesto, intended for the working class, steered clear of any mention of SEZ’s and heavy industries, the one in English catering to those with the power to invest, harped on industrialization. And above all she was able to inspire the people, and choose people to fight with her who could inspire. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now as new winds blow in Bengal, along with violence, one may look forward to ‘poriborton’. But it is sad that it comes at the expense of a party which had once inspired millions, and still, at least the color to which it belongs to, continues to inspire many.

Sharib Ali and Shazia Nigar are students of Media and Cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2011 9:57 PM

    A brilliant piece. There may be areas of disagreement ( not me) but the construct of the article has a dialectical tone. I wrote a commissioned piece for DNA. Perhaps this has elements of complementarity with the former. The URL is http://www.dnaindia.com/india/analysis_mamata-banerjee-daughter-courageous_1545405

  2. 0x101 permalink
    May 22, 2011 10:56 PM

    Communists in India are real hypocrites.
    They advocate anti-capitalism to you.
    But their children are living in USA/EU.

  3. Debraj Bhattacharya permalink
    May 23, 2011 8:46 AM

    Good article. There are however certain paradoxes which deserves greater scrutiny. Firstly, the strongest base of TMC happens to be southern Bengal, which in fact is the area that has benefited the most from the development process of last 30 years. Both Hoogly (Singur) and East Midnapore (Nandigram) are relatively better off districts than say Purulia or Uttar Dinajpur. Yet the revolt against LF actually started in these districts – Purba Medinipoire , Hoogly, the two 24 Parganas. Secondly while the electorate have shown tremendous courage in throwing out LF they have also elected a large number of candidates (35%of MLAs) who have criminal charges against them, the maximum being from TMC.Thirdly, if one looks at East Midnapore, then one can see that the authoritarian rule of LF has been replaced by the authoritarian rule of the Adhikari family but the people seem to be perfectly happy with that as TMC has won 16 out of 16 seats.Finally, while on the one hand there was a massive upsurge against neo-liberalism at Singur and Nandigram the electorate and the intelligentsia seems to be perfectly happy with a neo-liberal Finance Minister from TMC.

  4. miao permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:33 AM

    “Her work with the people had been recognized right in 1984 when she beat the CPI (M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee.”

    Oops! This is quite over-the -top. The truth is: Mamata Banerhee was a political non-entity during 1984 elections. However Congress(I) performed remarkably well because of the strong sympathy wave after Indira’s assassination. There are enough anecdotes like women putting coins doused in sindoor into the ballot box along with the ballot paper, to pray for the well-being of the “orphan” Rajiv. Little-known persons like Ashutosh Laha won from a constituency like Dumdum in that election. In fact, Mamata lost the very next election in 1989 from the same constituency by a margin of nearly 30,000 votes.

  5. Abdul permalink
    May 23, 2011 1:50 PM

    “For, one of the most remarkable achievements of the left’s 34 year rule has been the destruction of the body politic of Bengal right from the lowest level of the private family to that of legislation. And that destruction happened through intervention in all spheres of community life. An intervention based on the swagger of power and violence. One aspect of this, as someone sarcastically remarked, was the decrease in the number of pending court cases. And it is true. The CPM style durbars with their private hearing have made Bengal stand high in terms of pending court cases. In Bengal only 1.9m cases are pending in the subordinate courts as compared to 3.9m in Gujarat and 4.1 m in Maharashtra”.
    I am not sure what did you mean by this para. Are you people suggesting that high number of pending cases is good? Aren’t this a sign of the success of the decentralization of power through panchayats? Nevertheless, I must congratulate you for this article. But, I am sure that all those deviations which had been there in the left will be addressed soon and it will win the trust of the people.

  6. sharib permalink
    May 23, 2011 4:39 PM

    What i mean abdul is not the decentralization of power through panchayats, but rather, local goons holding their own mafia type courts where u have to go and pay haazri. And i am sure you understand the implications of the term ‘Haazri’. In every area there is one or the other person who resolves various disputes based on who is involved, who supports him, and what can be gained by that action. ‘rulings’ are swift, and they dont necessarily mean justice. And then its silence coz u are not supposed to go against that.

    This is even worse than the Sicilian ‘omerta’ for there is still a sense of justice in that. Here its all a power game, and sheer arrogance. I dont want to go into the examples that i am aware of, but, lets just say, its anything but decentralization.

    And of course i dont mean that pending case are good. But its not exactly an achievement if it comes at this cost, right?

  7. sharib permalink
    May 23, 2011 4:41 PM

    And of course, in the line u have quoted it should be ‘Left Front’ rather than the ‘Left’.

  8. sharib permalink
    May 23, 2011 4:47 PM

    Thanks Sankar. Read your piece. Very frankly, i am a little uncomfortable with TMC. But what i think these recent events will bring about in the end is a strengthening of democracy in a place that badly needed it. Whether Mamata is able to deliver or not, it is a win-win situation for the people.

  9. sharib permalink
    May 23, 2011 5:05 PM

    And Abdul u r right. After all is said and done, what one is really looking forward to is a return of the Left-not just politically, but also from where it all started from. The ‘left ideal’. And i believe this TMC win will only hasten the process.

  10. January 18, 2013 1:35 PM

    heh !!! what will you people say now after 22 months of TMC rule ?? Where is ‘PORIBORTON’ pushing Bengal towards ???

    CPIM bashing ( and not positive criticism ) has become a fashion by a section of self proclaimed leftists … Why didn’t we get a single article by Sankar Mitra ( well I don’t expect one from him ) or Sharib on arrest of Prof. Amibikesh Mahapatra , Mamata’s direct attack on media and newspapers , ambivalence on Park Street rape case , insulting Tania Bharadwaj , wrongly arrest of Shiladitya Chaudhury – a poor farmer ??

    And you guys have no answer … Try to be honest to yourself !!!!

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