As expected, the Communist Party of India Marxist is slated to win again the state elections in Bengal—increasing its hold upto a possible 3/4 majority. When you consider that this is the same party which has held sway for 30 odd years now, that is some feat in a democratic society.
Many readers of RTDM, on different occasions, have expressed their amazement as to why and how the CPM has remained in power for so many years without opposition of any sort, impervious to anti-incumbency, sympathy waves and other political opinion sweepers that have remoulded the landscape everywhere else.
Now may be a good time to look at that.
One group of people would say that the CPM has tentacled itself into the system in such a way that it is almost impossible to remove them. They point out the education system where from VCs to school-teachers, you get ‘in’ only if the party approves of you. The CPM, according to them, thrives on the migration of industry from the state that their militant trade unionism brings about. This is because the consequent loss of jobs and unrest it creates allows the CPM to tap into a steady flow of dissatisfied men and women who can be “caderized” with the least amount of effort.
The secret of the CPM’s success, they opine, stems from its realization that people hate corruption as long as they are not a part of it. Which is why the CPM has democratized corruption by letting a large section of people benefit from it. Each section of the party down to the lowest foot-soldier is given some privilege in proportion to his/her influence unlike in other parties where the leaders eat up everything leaving only the empty plate for their underlings. Similarly, under the guise of land reforms, the CPM government took land from one and distributed it to hundreds of party men (basically illegal encroachers) thus creating vote banks in all perpetuity.
And to make things doubly sure, they point out that the CPM has, over the years, engaged in massive rigging which unlike the Bihar/UP version frequently does not entail actually capturing booths but instead consists of voter intimidation and fudging electoral rolls. “Scientific rigging” it is called and the way it operates is that in the “posh areas” of the city, CPM workers jam lines with bogus voters thus irritating the “bhodrolok” (gentle folk) who consequently leave the line after standing for hours—and then their “false vote” is cast. In many places, the line is intentionally kept in the hot sun so that people will just go home. In the inner city, bike gangs of CPM musclemen keep watch so that people do not go out to vote.
The clincher: CPM has been in power for so many years simply because they have never allowed the development of any credible alternative. Opposition leaders were allowed to have their own “spheres of influence” i.e. fiefdoms where they are the only “big bosses” (with its concomitant benefits). In return, they are asked to merely make the right noises but otherwise do nothing—an arrangement that suits them fine since they also get to have their snout in the trough. As a result, they too become part of the “system”.
If you ask another group of people, they will point to CPM’s glowing achievements in rural land reforms that have been lauded by independent evaluators. They will also mention the undeniable fact that corruption in the CPM is on a much lower intensity than in political parties all over India. Jyoti Basu is never weighed in gold, no one rolls at the foot of Buddha, the weddings of the daughters of the top brass do not bring the city to a halt. Party functionaries are by and large literate, most ministers have college degrees, some have PhDs ( unlike Mamata who has a fake one ) and no one rules from inside a jail. And their record in maintaining communal harmony in a state that witnessed the worst pre-Independence violence is worth applauding.
In short, the reason that the CPM is in power for almost thirty years is because they are the best choice in Bengal—a reasonably clean, truly secular party that towers over the alternative: a bunch of in-fighting local musclemen who have no policy other than to do away with the Left (and that too for appearance’s sake only).
So given these two opposite viewpoints, which one is the truth? All of the above. And that includes the contradictions.
Growing up in Calcutta in the late 80s and early/mid 90s it was difficult to have any love for the CPM. Frequent load shedding (power cuts), abysmal condition of roads, industries fleeing from the state one by one. Of course, some may point out that the power situation became much better in the mid 90s but that was perhaps because there were no industries left for which there was always an excess supply.
If one wishes to understand the state of Calcutta in those days, one needs to see the movie “Atanka” (Terror) in which a schoolmaster is intimidated by local roughs after he witnesses a murder where one of the murderers used to be his star pupil. “Atanka” depicts a Calcutta where local toughs backed by politicians are the law. They exercise total control over the community and spend their time extorting money under the guise of “Puja” and locality events and engaging in political violence.
When a person in the movie tries to protest, they make his maidservant falsely accuse him of inappropriate advances, extort money from the poor man to pay off the “abused” maidservant and then publicly humiliate him. When another (the schoolmaster) tries to rise against the gang headed by his former student, he is beaten up, his son has his ribs broken and his daughter has acid thrown in her face.
This was Calcutta’s reality in those days — a city shrouded by fear. AndÂ worst of all, there was no dissenting voice. No opposition to speak of. They were either afraid, had sold out or were dead.
And then Mamata Banerjee arrived on the scene. Honest, brave and never backing away from a fight, she presented a stark contrast to Jyoti Basu’s arrogant “I don’t care for anyone I will win elections anyways” attitude. Matters came to a head when in full daylight, a CPM goon crunched open her skull when she was walking down a busy thoroughfare. I remember my mother coming to pick me up when I was in Class IX ,doing a BASIC course in a computer institute because violence had broken out in the streets. On the way back, I was treated to a snapshot of CPM Rajya I will never forget: gangs of men descending from different corners of Gariahat (a busy intersection) with hockey sticks and acid bulbs. And this was supposed to be one of the “gentler” areas of the city.
This was the time around which, the CPM , despite its seemingly impregnable hold of the State, started losing votes in Calcutta. In parliamentary elections, only one CPM candidate won from Calcutta. The Calcutta municipal corporation was lost by the CPM. This was unthinkable.
And then something very significant happened. Jyoti Basu, under whom the law and order machinery had gone south “stepped down” and Buddhadeb came to power. Buddhadeb was always a bit of a maverick—he had quit the CPM a few years ago in protest against the widespread influence of land developers in party politics.
Buddhadeb, a young (by Indian standards) and corruption-free man, brought about a sea-change in the way Bengal was being run. He consciously started working on curbing trade-unionism and promoting IT (something the CPM always frowned upon as an imperialist conspiracy that takes away jobs). Indeed when I went to Calcutta after some time last year, I was bowled over by the change the man has brought to Calcutta. He had accomplished within 3 years (roads and infrastructure) what I had not seen in my 24 years in the city. Captains of industry were singing paeans of praise for him. And most importantly, he had rolled back the principle of “Keep the people dissatisfied and angry”. Calcuttans had jobs, the city seemed more upbeat, areas that had once been hotbeds of violence and murder had been transformed into capitalist centers of affluence.
Suffice to say, I was very very impressed.
Has Buddha managed to reform the CPM? Perhaps not and that is because he still has a constituency to cater to and compromises to make. What he has done so far, though significant, is still merely a drop in the ocean because decades of bad decisions need to be reversed. It is something Buddha accepts: unlike many Indian politicians he is not averse to accepting that his party has made mistakes. For example, he is keen to roll back the misguided populist measure of the CPM by which English was being taught only from Class 6 in government schools which greatly handicapped Bengal students who had to appear in competitive all-India exams administered in English. Whether he will be able to do all that he promises is a totally different matter but at least the right noises are being made.
Politics in India has always been personality-based and Buddha’s pro-market, forward-looking approach that seeks to distance itself from the CPM’s traditional ideology-driven baggage has given CPM a new relevance in today’s global economy. In a way, CPM is Communist in name only as far as Bengal is concerned. And thank heavens for that.
The message of CPM’s well-deserved resurgence has gone across. And that is why in centrally administered polls which have universally been acknowledged to have been fair, 70% of the electorate have voted and it seems that the CPM will strengthen its gains.
Yes it is also true that there is no alternative to Buddha. None.
Because Mamata Banerjee has shown herself to be moody, irrational and divisive. She also has been unable to offer anything in terms of a positive policy. Her misuse of bandhs (originally a CPM weapon) on every little occasion has contributed in no small way to the general disillusionment with her.
Summing up, Buddha has many challenges to face: not the least from people who want the old system to continue. But he has shown, by his actions, that he indeed is ready to do whatever it takes to attain his goals— even if that means going against the trade union dadas who have historically had a stranglehold on CPM policy. He has ideas for agriculture and for industry and during the election has aggressively highlighted the fact that he has a positive agenda for the state’s progress and not the standard (Down with the Congress, down with the Trinamool) drivel we are so used to.
Of course Bengal is not just Calcutta and his job has just begun.
Here is wishing him the best.
God damn. Growing up in Calcutta in the 80s and 90s, I never thought I would be ever saying this about a CPM chief-minister.
But it is true. Buddha is the best we got. By a long long shot.
And the CPM has won this time mainly because it deserved to.