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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Why Fool Yourselves?

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by Ashok Mitra

In a country where three-quarters of the population are poor by any criterion, and at least one-quarter live below the level of subsistence, the Left cannot but be acutely relevant. What is perhaps of equal relevance is an adequate parliamentary presence on their behalf; otherwise the victims of persistent deprivation may seek advice and counsel from such armed bands as are roaming the forests of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The extremely poor performance of the Left in the Lok Sabha polls—the number of Left Members of Parliament has shrunk from 60 to less than 25— should in fact be a matter for concern. The heartland of India has of course always eluded the Left; its inability to cope with the class-caste dichotomy is well known. The Left influence has mostly remained confined to Kerala and West Bengal. In both these States, they have fared badly in the just-concluded elections. In Kerala, the electorate is in the habit of switching its loyalty from the Congress-led United Democratic Front to the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Democratic Front from one election to the next; the support for the two Fronts is also so tautly balanced that a marginal shift in the voting pattern results in an inordinately big shift in the number of seats won or lost. This has happened this time too: it is well on the cards that, come the next election season, the Left will recover lost ground. The circumstances are qualitatively different in West Bengal. On March 13 last, this column had occasion to let drop the following comment:

The prospect of the Left in the impending Lok Sabha polls seems somewhat dicey, but not on account of the Congress and the famous lady coming together. The determining factor is going to be the degree of erosion of the CPI-M’s mass base in the course of the past two-and-a-half years, which might amount to five per cent or more.

The poll outcome has vindicated the prognosis. The Left debacle in the State has nothing to do with the coming together of the Congress and the Trinamul Congress. In constituency after consti-tuency, the Left Front has lost simply because of a substantial swing against it, often to the extent of more than five per cent; in pockets where the issue of land acquisition had a direct bearing on the life and living of the local populace, the swing has been as much as 15 to 20 per cent. The parliamentary election was converted by general consensus into a straightforward referendum on the Left Front administration’s performance in the State. The verdict could not have been more clear-cut, with the electorate expressing its deep lack of confidence in the State Government. It is the same electorate which had, in May 2006, reinstalled the Front in power for the seventh successive time; the Front had then captured 235 out of a total of 294 seats in the State Assembly. An extraordinary reversal of fortune has come about in the course of a bare three years.

For supporters and devotees of the Left Front, to turn a Nelson’s eye to the reality of things will be self-defeating. The disappointing poll performance, a Front spokesman has reportedly suggested, is a by-product of the national wave in favour of the Congress. The swing towards the Congress across the country is, however, barely two per cent, the shift of votes against the Left Front in West Bengal averages to around six per cent.

Another explanation proffered for the Front’s debacle actually runs along communal lines. The poll reversal has occurred allegedly on account of the minority community voting solidly against the Left. This alibi, too, does not hold water. There is hardly any difference between the voting pattern in the Muslim-dominated constituencies in Murshidabad and that in Bankura where the minority community has a low presence. (Not that Muslims in the State do not have genuine reasons to feel unhappy with the Front Government. Leave aside the controversy over the Sachar Committee Report, the Home Department of the State administration has been enthusiastically endorsing the Bharatiya Janata Party line on supposed infiltration from Bangladesh and supposed goings-on in the madrasas.)

It will not do to run away from the crux of the matter. The main poll issue in West Bengal was the State Government’s policy of capitalist industrial growth; events in Singur and Nandigram were offshoots of that policy. Many sections, including staunch long-time supporters of the Left cause, had been shocked by the cynical nonchalance initially exhibited by the State Government on police firing on women and children in Nandigram. A series of other faux pas was committed in its wake, including the messy affair of the Tata small car project. The electorate reached its conclusion on the government’s putting all its eggs in the Nano basket. Once the Tatas departed, the State administration was dubbed not only insensitive, but incompetent as well. Questions have continued to be raised one after another: was it really necessary to take over fertile land at Singur, why could not the Tatas be prevailed upon to choose an alternative site, why did not the State Government apply adequate pressure on the United Progressive Alliance regime in New Delhi —which was assumed to depend upon Left support for survival—to pass the necessary legislation so that land belonging to closed factories could be taken over to locate new industries? And why was the State Government reluctant to lobby earnestly in the national Capital for adequate resources from Centrally controlled public financial institutions to the State exchequer, which could have ensured industrial expansion in the public domain itself—was this reluctance merely due to lack of resources or because of a deeper ideological reason such as a loss of faith in socialistic precepts and practices?

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A number of other unsavoury facts also need to be laid bare. A State Government does not have too much of funds or other spoils to distribute. But in a milieu where feudal elements co-inhabit with the petit bourgeoisie, persons in a position to dispense only little favours can also attract fair-weather friends and gather sycophants around them. Concentric circles of favour-rendering develop fast. Merit necessarily takes a backseat in official decisions. Corruption, never mind how small-scale, creeps in. Nepotism, sprouting at the top, gradually infects descending rungs of administration, including the panchayats. Much of all this has taken place of late within the precincts of the Left regime. The net effect is a steep decline in the quality of governance. The fall in efficiency is illustrated by the inept handling of programmes like the rural employment guarantee scheme. To make things worse, all this has been accompanied by a kind of hauteur which goes ill with radical commitment.

Those organising protests and agitations against the Left Front regime—and who have succeeded in bringing the State administration to a virtual standstill—are of course no lily-white species. They include a fair proportion of crooks, knaves and opportunists. But the voters did not sit in judgment on them. They voted against the Left Front; whom they voted for was of secondary concern.

The CPI-M still has, in the State, within its fold, thousands of sincere, selfless and dedicated workers and followers. A large number of them are unhappy at the way the State administration conducted itself in recent years, but the lopsided discipline of democratic centralism has kept them silent. Suggestions from outside—even from friendly sources—are generally not welcome in the party. An organisational structure of this nature does not allow scope for continuous appraisal and re-appraisal of policies and programmes; those within the set-up are apparently satisfied taking each other’s washing. On the other hand, if the status quo continues, the consequences of the doings of the government the party controls in West Bengal will have to be borne by radical-minded millions strewn across the nation.

There is a school of thought that the Left Front regime should redo its arithmetic, correct some of the mistakes it had committed and use the two years before the scheduled Assembly poll to stage a recovery. However, in the absence of a tranquil atmosphere, none of this will be achievable; the formidable lady will not grant the Front that tranquillity. Her minions can be expected to be permanently on the streets till the Left regime is reduced to a totally helpless and bewildered state. It will then stand even more discredited than what it is today.

Does it not make more sense for the Front Ministry to remit office immediately, seeking forgiveness from the people for the hurt it has caused to their hopes and sentiments? Some of the Front’s disaffected flock are likely to return to the fold following such a gesture. The lady too will have nothing to rail against any more. Should she, through New Delhi’s dispensation, attain her ambition to rule the State, the people would be provided an opportunity to assess objectively persons, parties and programmes?

Withdrawal from office will assist the CPI-M to attempt a new beginning in the State. It will also help it to shed some of the dross it has accumulated in recent times as well as some of the superciliousness creeping in at the top. A season of introspection could also persuade the party’s State leadership to take cognisance of a harsh truth: acknowledge that the slogan of development is no substitute for ideology; it only spawns an attitude of mind which places self-seeking on a pedestal and acts as breeding ground for an apolitical generation which either does not care to vote or decides that if capitalist growth is what is aimed at, it is more appropriate to vote for an unabashed capitalist party than for a confused Left.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)

The author, a renowned economist, was the Finance Minister of West Bengal in the initial years of the Left Front rule.

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