What the Left Front Did Wrong in West Bengal

The curiosum of a ‘red regime’ with a knack to get re-elected term after term for over more than three decades within the ambit of a full-fledged multi-party democracy has finally disappeared.  The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has not merely lost the poll in West Bengal, it has been made mincemeat of.  Its vote share has come down from close to 50 per cent five years ago to around 41 per cent.  Three-fourths of the Front ministers have failed to get re-elected.  Its chief minister has been demolished by a retired civil servant who had once served under him.  The debacle in West Bengal is in stark contrast to the Left’s performance in Kerala, which too had gone to the polls.  The anti-incumbency factor has long been regarded as axiomatic truth in that state; the electorate has never reposed trust in the same party or the same coalition of parties for two consecutive terms.  This time, that tradition was very nearly breached by the Left Democratic Front, which received the same percentage of votes cast as it did five years ago.  It could have, in fact, returned to power had only some 900 votes spread over three constituencies been cast differently.  The CPI(M) chief minister has been re-elected by a thumping margin, each of his cabinet colleagues, too, has won comfortably.  Although, technically, the ULF has failed to retain power, admiration for the 87-year-old warrior, inflexible in ideology, who led it, remains sky high; the morale of the CPI(M) is unaffected.

That will hardly make up for the grim setback in the eastern state.  West Bengal has long been the citadel of radical thought and praxis for those who consider the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party to be of the same ilk and look towards the Left for inspiration and guidance in the struggle of the nation’s underprivileged and exploited millions.  The assiduity with which the CPI(M) had welded together the lower peasantry, workers in both the organized and the unorganized sectors, as well as the middle class battered by inflation and worklessness drew wide acclaim.  The endeavours of the Left Front government in West Bengal in its initial phase to effect thoroughgoing land reforms and administrative decentralization were pace-setters for the rest of the country.  Similar plaudits were showered on it for its success in organizing a national campaign, cutting across political divides, for a major restructuring of Centre-state relations with a view to transforming the polity into a genuinely federal system.  Enduring Left dominance in West Bengal was the hypothesis around which radical dreams began to be woven in the nooks and corners of the country.

Many of these dreams soon petered out.  The initiatives of the Left Front government taken in different directions were allowed to dry up; the regime gradually became a weary stereotype.  Its earlier pledge to reach decisions on the graver issues of the day with the advice and counsel of the people was given the short shrift.  This tendency was strengthened, one suspects, by a shift in the class character of the party loyalists in a number of districts which experienced burgeoning prosperity from the Front’s rural reforms.  The story of the past decade has been cataclysmic for the Front.  How much cataclysmic has been finally revealed by the devastating results of the state assembly polls which have rendered the Front and CPI(M) leaders shell-shocked.  The top brass of the CPI(M), and therefore of the Front, are reported to be still apparently researching and analysing the reasons that would explain the calamity.  An opportunity to do a good turn should not be missed.  So here below is, for the benefit of these leaders, a synoptic presentation of facts the rest of humanity is aware of but they apparently are not.

1. At a certain time in the early 1990s, successive electoral triumphs goaded the state CPI(M) bosses into the belief that the party was invincible, that they had the permanent lease on West Bengal.  In the fiercely competitive multi-party milieu the Left Front government was functioning in, any mistake, big or small, on its part, would be pounced upon by the Opposition — that elementary truth was ignored.

2. The assumption of invincibility encouraged sloth in both ideology and praxis.  Since the people would always be with them, party leaders and ministers decided to experiment with policies not quite in consonance with Left praxis.  Rapid industrialization was greatly to be coveted for the sake of growth in income and employment.  The 2006 state elections had given a mandate to the Left Front to go ahead with an industrialization programme.  There was too much of a bother in launching new industrial projects in the public sector because of the dearth of financial and technological resources.  Why not instead accept the reality of economic liberalization and allow private tycoons to move in on a big scale?  After all, revolution, Marxist theory says, was the culminating point of capitalist development.  Why not speed up that process of capitalist growth in West Bengal too with the help of private capital?  As a green signal to big industry, the Front regime sponsored the replacement of sales tax, the most important source of revenue for the states, by a Centralized value added tax, thereby warming the heart of the corporate sector which had long dreamed of an integrated national market unhindered by the labyrinth of various kinds of sales tax regimes in different states.

3. This major shift in ideology and praxis had the severest impact on the Front’s peasant base, unquestionably the principal bulwark of its strength.  Tycoons were invited to build industry, but industry could not be built in air; they had to be provided with land.  Rapid acquisition of land of the size and specificity preferred by private capital became the priority item.  The promise to consult the people before taking crucial decisions was forgotten, panchayat bodies and kisan sabhas were sidelined, bureaucratic procedures took over.  The rest is tragic history.

4. No directive was issued to the police to handle delicately the agitators against forced acquisition of land.  They shot down in cold blood unarmed women and children of peasant stock, something hitherto considered inconceivable for a Left administration.  Disenchantment spread like wildfire among all sections.  The cynical manner in which Front ministers and state-level party leaders tried to brazen out the killings further infuriated the people.  Those who had been hard-boiled Left supporters got alienated too — and it now seems for ever.

5. The notion of invincibility was the progenitor of another deadly vice.  The feudal ethos nurtured in the subconscious of the Bengali middle class dies hard, even in those who join the radical movement.  The conviction that their party was, and would always be, supreme in the neighbourhood fostered both hauteur and superciliousness, which in turn ushered in cronyism coupled with sycophancy.  Opportunists made hay.  Corrupt elements penetrated at different tiers of both administration and the party structure, sometimes dragging down to their own level even those till then of unimpeachable integrity.  In a land of hero worship, examples of snooty behaviour at the top filter down all the way, affecting as much the administration as the political frame; the panchayats too fall prey.  All this has happened in West Bengal during the past decade.  While scams of the magnitude that is the staple of New Delhi living were not there, petty corruption was rampant.  Moreover, cronyism is the arch enemy of efficiency.  Bosses love to see their trusted people occupy important and not-so-important slots in every sphere where the government exercises administrative or financial control.  Merit ceases to be the main criterion of selection, whether in a sensitive administrative post or an academic body or a cultural institution.  This is one main reason for the growing disaffection of an influential section of the middle class.  Above all else, inefficiency is synonymous with incompetence; the quality of administration receives a heavy knock.

6. The chemistry of cronyism and democratic centralization is fatal; centralization stifles democracy.  Leaders at different levels are told only what they love to be told; dissenters are either ostracized or thrown out.  A grotesque manifestation of the malady was the ridiculous self-confidence of the Left leadership on the eve of vote counting: not to worry, the Front would once more be returned with a comfortable majority.

7. The ego factor has another consequence: whoever ventures to offer a friendly admonition not to the liking of ministers and leaders is treated as an enemy, thereby creating enemies of former friends.  One such well-meaning advice offered in the wake of the Lok Sabha polls was as follows: in the developing situation, the Left Front ministry would be severely handicapped to carry on; the longer it lingered in government, the greater was the risk of its getting further discredited, the wiser course would be to humbly admit the mistakes the Front regime had committed, seek forgiveness of the people with bended knees, quit office, and go back to the rigours of constant mass contact.  The suggestion was spurned.  The sequel: over the two years its government clung to office, a further 2.5 per cent of the electorate moved away from the Left Front.

8. All that the state leadership of the CPI(M) reluctantly owned up to following the 2009 Lok Sabha polls was that some regrettable lapses had occurred in the matter of land acquisition.  They also promised a ‘rectification’ programme to weed out corrupt elements from the party.  In practice, the ‘rectification’ campaign meant many of those who ought to have been ‘rectified’ in the first place were themselves put in charge of the campaign.

9. It has been an article of faith with the Left to protect and fortify the federal polity which India supposedly is.  In the past, it used to oppose vigorously all proposals for raising a police force at the Centre since maintenance of law and order is a state subject.  Forty years ago, the Left Front in West Bengal was at the fore of a fierce struggle to prevent the induction of the Central Reserve Police Force for enforcing law and order in the state.  What a somersault — for the past two years, the Front government was lobbying hard for more and more Central police personnel to put down the so-called Maoists.  The killers marauding as Maoists deserve to be taken care of.  But, even on such an issue, it was gravely erroneous for a Left regime to identify itself totally with what it otherwise deems to be a retrograde regime in New Delhi.  Overzealousness on the part of the Central forces helped to make up the mind of the large adivasi population in the disturbed region; they voted massively against the party which had brought the CRPF in.

10. The Front’s poll campaign went haywire, with more emphasis on personalities than on issues.  Campaigners spoke in different voices: one of them was heard reiterating the theme of compulsory acquisition of even small holdings, some others could hardly conceal their conviction that if only the breach with the Congress had not taken place in 2008, things would have continued to be hunky-dory.

The catastrophe in West Bengal does not still negate the importance of a resolute, ideologically pure Left formation to mobilize resistance against the ongoing loot in the name of economic liberalization.  West Bengal, with all its problems, will remain a rich hinterland from where a fresh Left initiative could spring.  But the masses have conveyed a message: they have developed a deep dislike for some faces, the present set of state party leaders, who, apart from their other sins, are squarely responsible for the travails thousands of sincere and dedicated party members and supporters are now going through; they will simply not do.

No apology is necessary for such plain speaking.  Was not this expression once making the rounds in some circles: ‘Comrades, we call this self-criticism’?

Ashok Mitra is a former Finance Minister of West Bengal state in India and a former Member of Rajya Sabha.  This article was first published in The Telegraph on 20 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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