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West Bengal: Panchayat Election 2008 results and the future of the CPIM

The results of the Panchayat Elections have been declared in West Bengal. Going beyond the wildest imaginations of both the ruling Party and the opposition, rural Bengal has given its verdict against the CPIM. In its 31 years of uninterrupted rule, the Left Front has never taken such a hit. The fact that it was unexpected makes the crisis even more critical.

Naturally, one is forced to revisit all the debates surrounding the Left Front’s policies in the last two years. In this article, we will probe the debates in the light of the Panchayat Elections. We will try to show those honest, dedicated Party workers who still build their dreams around the Party that the leadership is taking them down a path of certain destruction.

We can begin somewhat like this: how does the CPIM top brass view the election results? Even with the bits and pieces of commentary that we have received till now, there is much scope for analysis.

1. A part of the leadership has endeavored to portray the results as “not too bad”.

That is to say, they are of the opinion that the results have been a little below par in some districts, something that can be mended. They would go as far as to say that the results have in fact been quite good, if one remembers the way the media, reactionaries, and a section of the intellectuals have spread false propaganda about the Party.

We have two things to say about this.

First: did those who are saying this now warn the Party beforehand? No. Because they couldn’t predict the impending disaster. Why is it then that they are turning away from reality now? Is there any greatness in deluding Party workers? Or is it that they themselves do not want to face the fact that they are disconnected from the needs and aspirations of impoverished rural people?

Second: Disputing the fact that the results have been bad shows reluctance in undertaking a journey of self-criticism and analysis. That is even worse, and is the biggest problem of the CPIM. It is treading the well-known path of dogmatic politics: an inability to find fault with oneself even as one is fast disappearing, or only to recognize those faults as legitimate as one finds oneself – to have one’s pride hurt in learning from others, particularly any opposition. The culture of listening to oppositional criticism with any measure of importance has disappeared from the Party. A section of the leadership’s insistence that the results have not been untoward reflects this averseness to self-analysis.

2. The second reaction that has come up from the Party is very common. For a long time, this has been the first reaction of the CPIM to any setback. At least the people of Bengal have heard this time and again. It is: “The people have not understood”. Implicit in this is: “We, the Party, have understood”.

The Party program that results from this mockery of self-analysis is: “The truth must be explained to the people in a better way”.

This process of “explaining” has a number of faces. First it is done with sweet words and proper humility. As that doesn’t work, the person doing the explaining gets impatient. And since what is indisputable above everything is that he is right, that he alone is privy to the truth, he cannot understand why the people do not understand him – the only reasons seem to be “backwardness” (for illiterate villagers) or vested interests (for educated city folk). People who do not understand and who will not obey are thus tagged either as “backward” or as “reactionary”.

Who will rescue those who have lagged behind but the Party? The Party must “force” them to move forward. That cannot be undemocratic, since behind this process of coercion is the Party’s knowledge of the truth, of what is right and what is wrong. Don’t parents force children to do the right thing?

As for the hardened reactionaries, they cannot be convinced – they must be made to obey. The process of buying obedience cannot always remain peaceful. In any case, a case of violence for the greater good has already been made in the Party’s mind.

It is in this way that an apparently democratic and humble viewpoint carries within itself the seeds of violence and coercion.

3. For the first time in two years, a section of the CPIM leadership have acknowledged “arrogance” as a reason for their disconnect with the masses. But the arrogance mentioned has been the arrogance of lower-level Party workers.

It goes without saying that this tactic of denying their own faults is far from reality. The leadership itself has been far more arrogant. Starting from the famous “We’re 235, they’re 30 – who will stop us?” to the inhuman “Paid back in their own coin” and Konar’s “We’ll make their lives a living hell” and the recent remarks from the Party about the Governor or about Swajan, it is beyond a shadow of doubt that on the list of arrogant people it is Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Biman Basu, Benoy Konar, and Shyamal Chakraborty who come on top. That is, if one leaves out people like Subhas Chakraborty and Lakshman Seth, any mention of whom in a context of Leftist politics can only pollute and vitiate the discussion.

One can say that they have very willfully percolated their arrogance to the lower level cadres. During the whole Nandigram crusade, they inspired the Party to higher and higher levels of barbarity by daily doses of calls for violence. The recapture of Nandigram with anti-social elements was justified by taking the Party to a state of war-like frenzy. “An eye for an eye” – that was the tune to which the entire Party marched, believing that it was a Peoples Army that was marching in Nandigram, when in reality it was the Party’s criminals and mercenaries who were marching.

They believed that if once Nandigram could be captured assertively, then it could be converted to another Keshpur. Rural Bengal would get the message that opposition to land-acquisition would meet the same violent fate.

It goes without saying that the leadership’s strategy was short-sighted. And when today they pass the buck to their lower level members, it shows their inability to take responsibility.

4. Conspiracy Theories:

For the last two years, the CPIM leadership has continuously explained to their members that right-wing reactionaries and the ultra-Left have joined hands, and in collusion with the “ruling classes”, undertaken a program of false propaganda against the Party.

The Party believes, as mentioned earlier, that it alone knows the true Leftist path. It alone knows what is good for the people, and it alone works to protect their interests. And since this conflicts with the interests of the “ruling classes”, the result is false propaganda.

At first this theory couldn’t be propped up properly. The first question one asked was: weren’t the interests of the ruling classes being hurt before? Why is it that now the ruling classes have gone on the offensive? Why is it that even those intellectuals who were preaching for the Left Front in 2006 have suddenly become members of the “ruling classes”? Especially when, the program of industrialization that the CPIM has undertaken can only make big capital happy, and it is in fact making them happy. From the CII to the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, all organizations of industrialists have praised Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Nirupam Sen with unreserved sincerity.

The 123 Treaty and the US hand could not have come at a more opportune moment. In the style of the classic heart-stopping whodunit, the theory was proposed that since the CPIM was opposing the 123 Treaty, Uncle Sam had funded the Trinamul Congress, the Maoists, and the civil society to weave a web of conspiracy. Innovative, no doubt. The problem is, the debacle in the Panchayat Elections is being explained by this theory and focus is being removed from self-analysis. The more the CPIM relies on such imaginative leadership, the more it will face such debacles – one doesn’t need to know too much about politics to understand that.

5. The results and the policy of industrialization and land-grab.

As of now, the little one gets from the newspapers shows that there is acrimonious debate over this inside the Party. One section claims that land-acquisition played no role in the election results. Purulia, Bankura, West Midnapur – places where land has been acquired or will be – have voted for the CPIM. And in South 24 Parganas – where the issue hasn’t even come up – the Party has faced a debacle. This shows a lack of correlation between the issue of land-grab and the election results. Another section disagrees and claims that the events that unfolded around the issue of land-grab created fear in the minds of people, the overall reflection of which was shown in the Panchayat Election results.

Clearly, the first section, who are speaking for land-grab and industrialization centered on big capital, are the majority. This section is without doubt quite won over by the perceived virtues of capitalism. They don’t give two hoots about things like revolution etc. That isn’t on their agenda. They believe firmly that whatever can be done must be done within the parliamentary setting, and thus remaining in power is the final word (they do not always say as much, due to lingering embarrassment over claims of being Marxists). To them, being “Leftists” implies at most an effort to have a government that is a tiny bit more pro-people than the Right. How much they have succeeded in doing that is on open display.

This section never had any qualms about grabbing land at any cost for capital-centered industrialization (manufacturing or real estate). They still have no second thoughts or guilt, and will brook no delay. They have completely internalized the following classic dictates of neoliberalism:

(a) All other States are bending over, giving concessions to big capital. If we don’t, industrialists won’t come. We will be “left behind”. (b) Whatever be the costs of land-grab and displacement, “trickle down” will ensure greater employment in the long run. Thus, people who lose their livelihoods will be reabsorbed somehow.

Clearly, this is a capitulation to neoliberalism and has nothing to do with Marxism, working class, etc. What is sad is that in an all-India scenario, it is by dealing with these questions that the Left differentiates itself from the Right. The CPIM leadership has such unshakeable faith in the above two dictates that even amidst the debacle of the elections, they have asserted that land-grab must be done with renewed vigor for the sake of industrialization, and that that is the way out of the crisis.

The second section, which believes that land-grab is the reason behind the debacle, is further divided into two parts. One part doesn’t oppose land-grab. From a political point of view, nothing much sets them apart from the first section. But they are willing to go slow. They want to “explain” to the people the truth that they alone understand, they want to take people with them by conviction and not coercion. They have been won over by neoliberalism, but unlike the first section, they would rather preach than shoot – in that sense, some semblance of a democratic mentality has lingered on. And it within this part – a minority within a minority – that there are some members who are totally against the industrialization policy or are vacillating. They play no role in setting the direction of the Party. According to this writer, it is this section of the CPIM that is the most progressive within the Party, and whether the CPIM will ever play any role in the Communist movement in India depends on how vocal this section is, and whether it can raise itself to a position of influencing Party policy.


Let us now come to what we have to say.

The section of the leadership which has tried to convince people that land-acquisition did not influence the election results are making a mistake. Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapur – the land taken there has often been non-cultivable. We do not have examples where land-acquisition in those places has led to loss of livelihood of people. On the other pole is Singur, where six people have already died due to lack of healthcare or depression and suicide. In Nandigram, people would have had to part with their lives, land, livelihood – everything. In Dankuni too plans are underway. People in all three places have rejected the CPIM in the elections. Thus, the verdict is clearly against displacement.

Along with this is the undemocratic, muscle-flexing face of land-acquisition, the pulverization of local resistance by the police and the Party’s anti-socials, the barbaric “Nandigram Line”. People have been terrorized, they have become angry, and their hatred has shown itself in the polls. Of course there are other reasons – the ration riots, the Sachar Committee Report, the dissatisfaction of the CPIM’s allies, etc.

But those who only wish to place importance on other reasons, and thus take focus away from the afore-mentioned ones, are only furthering the cause of big capital.

It is not possible for any party to at once advance the cause of neoliberalism and to hold on to the loyalties of working people indefinitely. This is clear in every state of India. Side by side, it is also partially true, albeit undemonstrated, that if a party were to give priority to the causes of the working class, industrialists would boycott them.

The CPIM has abandoned the interests of the disadvantaged primarily due to three reasons:

1. The CPIM believes that whatever jobs big capital can create, the associated glamour and extent of investment are capable of creating an aspiration, an aspiration that gives many people the hope of getting jobs. Marginalized people are constantly entering and exiting the circle of aspiration surrounding big capital. If the Party has the keys to this movement, then it can maintain its influence on the marginal. This was how it was possible to be on the side of big capital and still have control over working people till now. It is clear that till 2006, this formula worked fine.

2. The CPIM could not have imagined that this process of industrialization could have caused such sufferings just during its preparation, far from its fruition. The fact that this suffering created such a gulf between them and the people was also not on the cards. There was no understanding of the possibility that a government could face dismantling even after following the path of big capital. Rather, they thought that this was the most certain way of remaining in power. Perhaps due to their organizational strength and the resultant self-belief.

3. The third reason is perhaps the most critical. Leftists have always acknowledged the government as another tool for struggle. There are many tools of struggle, and the government is one. But the CPIM leadership has for a long time put every other means in the back burner. They have theorized thus: “relief” is no longer a temporary or intermediate issue, it is the permanent issue. The aim is to remain in power in a long-lasting government. A Party for which this is the be-all and end-all, coupled with the habituation of thirty-one long years, is expectedly terrified at the thought of not being in the government.

In conclusion, then, this is what they have become: it is fine to not build a movement with workers and peasants. It is sufficient if influence is maintained (in other words if the votes keep coming in). If big capitalist development gives that certainty, why not! In the factories, it is sufficient to hold on to influence without engaging in workers movements, but simply by maintaining bargaining power with the management and contracting part-time workers. It is sufficient to hold on to influence without any peasants movements, but simply by controlling the dispensation of job possibilities, government schemes, and aid.

This path has been followed successfully for the last twenty years. What the CPIM has failed to understand is that the selflessness of struggle and the influence born of power are not the same things. And that when big capital advances, even “relief” programs fall flat on their faces. Then the people cannot be bought over by dispensing relief. What is needed is a movement. Because they have failed to grasp this, the working class has long since started to abandon the CPIM. From the 1990’s itself, when VRS was used in the factories to lay off workers while CITU leaders were busy explaining that movements could not be made, if they were the factories would shut down. And now it is the turn of the peasantry. One or two land-grabs have made the CPIM wobbly, demonstrating clearly the shallowness of relief schemes.

The West Bengal CPIM is thus facing a crisis that they have never faced previously, that questions many areas of their central politics. The advance of big capital has made the limitations of relief politics clear. They are confronted by some clear questions:

1. Will they stand for big capital or for peasants and workers? (The days of appeasing both are drawing to an end).

2. Will they cling on to the government at any cost? Or will they lead working people in their struggle – in the face of possible threat of boycott by big industrialists?

3. Like a right-wing government, and with other right-wing governments, will they continue the competition of giving concessions to industrialists and making SEZs? Or will they stand with the various anti-SEZ struggles, big and small, that are growing all over the country, stand with all the peasant movements that are growing up against displacement?

It is the answers to these questions that will determine the fate of the CPIM.

Translated by Kuver Sinha, Sanhati