The title talks about a near impossibility. Not the ‘faux communists’ bit which is a universal reality today. Communists in the Lenin & Mao moulds have been out of stock & circulation for a long time. Russians today look upon Lenin as a marginal figure and the many statues of his dotting the cities and even the countryside are being allowed to fall wilfully into a state of disrepair & decay. Mao Tze Dong has been a ridiculed & vilified figure in China itself for some time now and the period during which he ruled is slowly coming to be ‘labelled’ as the period in modern history during which China suffered setbacks on all major counts – economic, political & social. Karl Marx is not considered either a major economic or social visionary by modern history.
Yet since the late 60’s, the Communists have held sway for a period exceeding three decades in the state of West Bengal and from time to time in the southern Indian state of Kerala. They have undergone several rebranding exercises, starting off as disciples of Lenin, Mao & Marx and then, over a period of time shedding quietly the Lenin & Mao labels and latching on to the Marx association.
Take a quick look at what they have achieved or not achieved during the three decades that they have held complete sway over the state of W. Bengal. They screwed up industrial relations in double quick time, leading to the headlong flight of a whole lot of industries out of the state. They toyed around with, subverted and eventually screwed the education system, grossly neglected infrastructural development projects and subverted the administration & bureaucratic processes thoroughly to the point of rendering them virtually non-functional. The same fate befell the police force. Instead of providing quality education, creating employment opportunities and engendering economic progress & prosperity, large numbers of young men & women were enrolled as official and unofficial party cadres in the cities & villages to enforce the party’s will and diktat in their neighbourhoods and local councils. The all pervasive cadres initially seeped in through breached embankments and soon became a deluge which invaded all levels of the administration & bureaucracy, local councils, panchayats (which are the local self-governing bodies for villages & rural areas) and most social & cultural associations as well.
Power corrupts and undeserving power thrust in the lap of a handful of people corrupts more. Many of the cadres, who were earlier poorly educated youths or unemployable men & women, soon became affluent, arrogant, near dictatorial personalities, owing allegiance only to their direct or dotted line bosses in the party High Command. Communism and democratic traditions being as far apart as chalk & cheese, this spawned a whole host of mini tin pot dictators who ran their borough, district or region pretty much as the party High Command desired, adding their own interpretations and vested interests to the High Command’s diktats in many cases. Dissent was ruthlessly trampled underfoot and snuffed out.
How did the faux communists then regularly manage to win elections every five years and remain in power for three decades? To understand this phenomenon, an understanding and appreciation of the some of the underlying factors is needed. The principal ones among these are mentioned below.
Like many other parts of the country, around the time the Communists first came to power in W. Bengal, agricultural & rural reforms had been traditionally accorded a rather low priority by previous administrations. The Left Front government, put this on a high priority, redressed some injustices which lowly paid and poor agricultural workers had suffered for long, inducted many farmers and agricultural workers as de facto cadres and in the name of putting in their place wealthy and powerful landowners (the zamindars or the large landowners in the pre-independence era) unleashed a barely concealed land-grab operation. The combined effect of all this was to swing the majority of rural votes in their favour. Since the rural areas and small towns sent many more members to the Assembly than the major city, Kolkata, this factor alone ensured that the Left Front and its dominant constituent, the CPM, remained in power during a number of elections.
They projected a veteran politician and a major personality like Jyoti Basu as their leader. The principal opposition, by comparison, was in utter disarray, did not quite have the mechanism to mobilize and energize their grassroots supporters, had no towering personality whom they could project as an alternative leader and projected an enervated and defanged front, losing some of their committed supporters in the process.
The latter half of the eighties and the nineties witnessed the rise of regional parties in India culminating in personalities with dubious track records and reputations becoming chief ministers like Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati & Jayalalitha to name a few. The CPM played the regional card shrewdly and fostered with the help of an often pliant local media and their extensive party machinery the fable that the Central Government had been treating the people of the state like pariahs and was wilfully choking off development activities that the state government wanted to undertake. Meanwhile, part of the Central government financial allocations and funds allocated for projects and various development activities in the state of W. Bengal were being siphoned off adroitly into the party coffers of the CPM mainly.
Intimidation, a committed bureaucracy consisting of committed and sympathetic officers, rigging of votes systematically in a number of constituencies & districts and excellent mobilization of the committed vote bank helped them considerably, especially in the rural areas and small towns, for the first two decades of their rule. The opposition did not help with their inability to project a credible leadership alternative for long, infighting within their ranks and a series of unfortunate moves periodically which served to alienate sections of the populace and had the mainstream media opining that they were not quite a viable alternative after all.
Strategic alliances and external support provided by the CPM to central governments, even when it was ostensibly totally at variance with their professed philosophy, helped to confuse and divide the opposition. A classic example of this has been their off and on support to the Congress party for well over a decade, helping them to come to power at the Centre even while they were supposed to be battling the CPM led Left Front for power in W. Bengal. Such shrewd moves helped to propel the CPM to become unofficial kingmakers, confused & demoralized sections of the opposition supporters and helped to split the opposition vote thereby securing victory margins for the CPM & its allies in a number of constituencies.
Long years in power have their rewards. The official & unofficial donations and largesse from industrialists, businessmen and traders grew exponentially, born out of their desire to survive under the new dispensation or to openly curry favour with the leaders who appeared to be safely ensconced in the corridors of power for quite some time to come. You need funds to win elections and the financial resources of the CPM in the state far outstripped the sum total of resources that a fragmented opposition had.
Elated at what they saw as a shrewd, infallible strategy and the long years in power, the arrogance and hubris of many of its leaders ballooned disproportionately. Jyoti Basu’s son for instance became an unabashed capitalist and entrepreneur and quite a tainted one at that. Some leaders, under questioning by the media openly stated gruffly that they were Communists and not ‘gentlemen’. Over the years the Left Front and its principal constituent the CPM, became the monarch of all that they surveyed and cast their eye on.
When they realized that the state economy could not quite thrive on the basis of agriculture alone, they made ham-handed and ineffective attempts to bring in new capital investments in manufacturing and services. It takes a certain degree of competence and understanding of present-day economic and political realities to achieve this. Sadly the leaders of the CPM did not have it. Years of subverting the administration and boosting their cadres and sympathizers to positions of power & influence ensured that they did not have a competent and efficient second tier who could take care of such turnarounds. Many investors were wary and suspicious of the fact that the genie of anarchy, militant trade unionism and frequent stoppages of work that they had let out during their initial years in power could not quite be bottled effectively now. Poor infrastructure and scant developments in this area which nowhere kept pace with the demand, discouraged others.
The arrogance and the fruits of being in power for three decades in W. Bengal fostered an ivory tower syndrome. Prakash Karat who had never ever stood for elections in any capacity, far less won one, became the supreme leader of the CPM in India and started pursuing policies which were quite opportunistic in the short term and disastrous in the long term. The Chief Minister of W. Bengal Buddhadev Bhattacharjee and his minions engineered a virtual land-grab operation from villagers and farmers to woo a major industrial group and give away 1000 acres of land for a pittance to them, to enable them to set up an automobile plant and trigger setting up of ancillary industries in the immediate vicinity. The wheel had indeed come around full-circle. When the principal opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee, took up cudgels on behalf of the section who had been induced or forced to give up their land for compensations well below prevalent market prices, as per the provisions of an ancient and obscure regulation hastily dusted off and implemented by the local government, the industrial group belatedly realized that the various promises and assurances given to them by the Chief Minister and his team did not amount to much and withdrew. Not for the first time during his tenure, the Chief Minister had egg on his face.
During the recently concluded Parliamentary elections, the principal opposition party in W. Bengal, Trinamool Congress and its leader, Mamata Banerjee, finally got its strategy right by teaming up with the major national party, the Indian National Congress (Congress) and contesting the elections together. The people, fed up by decades of Left front misrule, delivered their verdict resoundingly and the alliance romped home with a clear majority of seats from W. Bengal. In most segments for which assembly elections to the state legislature are held, the Left Front suffered defeats and had the Assembly elections been held at the same time the Left Front would have been swept out of power. Since the assembly elections were not due at the same time, the CPM and the Left Front managed to cling on to power in W. Bengal for the time being.
The writing is on the wall and the end of CPM and Left Front rule in the state is well in sight. Historically, nowhere in the world have the Communists been swept out of power by a free and fair electoral process. One wonders whether the Indian Communists will give up their three decades old bastion by readily submitting themselves to established democratic processes in the near future. The answer to that could be a watershed and a major test for India’s democratic foundations & processes.