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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 23, May 28, 2011

Left Defeat in Bengal: Lessons On How To Govern And How Not To

Thursday 9 June 2011, by Anil Rajimwale

The Left Front Government has been defeated after 34 continuous years, a record not only in India but perhaps in the world. But the defeat did not happen suddenly; it has been maturing over the years, with lots of signals being given out, which unfortunately were ignored. People had made up their minds much earlier despite the government’s Left character and several achievements. Thus, a long experiment has come to an end with lots of lessons. While the Left in power in Bengal showed how to rule, it also showed how not to rule. This is the dialectics of the objective and subjective situation.

People cannot be taken for granted. Nor can the rulers behave arrogantly; people will then certainly punish them.

When did the Left Lose?

WHEN and why did the Left lose? The question cannot be wished away, and it is yet to be answered. The event has lessons for the future.

Bengal was a unique case in many ways, and no credit due to it can be taken away. It is a record in India and drew attention the world over. Yet it lost its way somewhere on the way. A Left base and a Left Government is always a bastion and source of hope for the people, not only of the State but of the whole country. When they cease to be the source, they are gone.

The uniqueness lies in the fact that for three long decades the Indian constitutional system and the Left configuration lived in a symbiotic coexistence, something that defies traditional concepts. Bengal, Kerala and some other experiments proved the Left sectarian interpretations of Marxism wrong. There still are ‘Marxists’, of Maoist variety, who will not accept this. Yet, the Bengal Government was sought to be run on sectarian lines, which could only lead to its isolation from the masses.

Antonio Gramsci was right when he said that revolutionaries and democrats must first win the ‘positions’ on the social terrain, as also the minds of the people to establish hegemony. Bengal offered a unique opportunity in this direction. It went against all the traditional interpretations, and showed that much could be done and achieved for the common people by the Left in power. Bengal did a lot in agrarian reforms, though they were inadequate. It brought certain amount of peace and also acted as a deterrent to big vested interests and the anti-people forces. A launching pad was gradually created for all out radical reforms and transfor-mations. C. Achyutha Menon had earlier shown this in Kerala by undertaking the most far-reaching land reforms and other measures. His was the cleanest government that India has ever seen.

Bengal should have gone beyond the narrow ideological, theoretical framework. It did not; it did not even try.

Waiting for Changes, Lagging behind Events

BUT the Left Government in Bengal dithered and waited. For what? It did not take the decisive steps forward. That is unclear and intriguing, and is the key to its failure. Bengal should have been an example to the whole of the country in development, technology, education, health, public sector, culture, and absence of corruption, non-arrogance and closeness to the people. That is how one can democratise the Indian Constitution and parliamentary democracy. That is how one can build an alternative.

It could have achieved much. After all, Marxist and revolutionary ideology, policy and practice should be far ahead of others. But as practised by the Left Front, it did not. India’s first Metro was constructed in India in Calcutta, with Soviet help. What prevented the government there to make it a widespread network and thus an example before the country? Delhi has taken away that initiative.

Bengal should have been an example of modern development, and should have shown the path to the whole country. It could have shown how to use, build and develop the public sector, including in consumer goods and super-market chains. The government refused to consider that. As a result, today it is one of the most backward States. It should have been an example of adhering to the labour and industrial laws. Instead they were allowed to be violated. Bengal and Calcutta should have built the most modern transport, bus and tram system. Instead they were allowed to rot and virtually handed over to the private sector. Calcutta, after 34 years, still has hand-drawn rickshaws. How do you explain that?

Where are the electronic hubs and centres? How can a government, including parties with scientific outlook, miss this key factor of ultra-modern means of production? There was no programme for industrialisation and development, the minorities and backward sections were discriminated against, and the government just cut itself off from all criticism. People are the life-blood, and when this lifeline is cut off, it kills the living organism, even if it is a Left ruling dispensation.

Why did Bengal allow Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab etc. to take credit for development? It missed the reality of the growing new middle class, which is such an important growing factor in Indian society. The Left was cut–off, not just practically, but theoretically. The middle class intelligentsia, once a great supporter of the Left, was alienated through systematic but tactless measures.

The Gramscian terrain, once favourable for the Left, was queered. Durga Puja Samitis and Panchayats were allowed to go into the hands of the adversaries, instead of being carried forward through persuasion and creativity. This is just one example of the unique terrain presented to the Indian Left, particularly to the Communists. The battle for hegemony was lost; the election results were only its reflection.

The Left still retains more than 40 per cent of votes; it still has a chance to bounce back.

Class Base and Theory

THE Left tried to rule and consolidate itself solely through the rural masses, particularly the small and middle peasants. Consequently, petty bourgeois ideology began to seep in rapidly. No turn towards the new working class, modern youth, middle sections etc. was made. That is why everything was seen as political manoeuvres, tactical adjustments and piecemeal measures. Serious compromises with the corporates and MNCs and foreign companies were made, even without need.

Marxism, as both theory and practice, has suffered. How much have the new generations in Bengal been educated in Marxism and revolutionary theory? And why not? While many Rightwing governments have done their job in the field of ideology, the Left has not been able to do this mainly because of petty and middle bourgeois viewpoint and interpretation of the role of the Left Government: “The Left should remain, it should win.” For what? That went unanswered from the people’s viewpoint.

No effort to develop theory and generalisations based upon the three decades of Left rule have been made. Bengal is a mine of experience; yet the rulers did not try to develop theory and draw the necessary conclusions. Isn’t it strange, considering the history and present state of Marxism? That was a great failure of the Bengal experiment.

Corruption was institutionalised down to the lowest levels, and people at that level felt humiliated and alienated. It is was the result of a typical Stalinist way of functioning. This is one of the main reasons of the defeat. You cannot ride roughshod over the people. It is against the Leftist grain.

It is easy to criticise while in Opposition. It is far more difficult to rule and govern concretely. The next government will also face this problem. But why should those with scientific ideology not realise this, one fails to understand. How can you go all-out against liberalisation, concessions to the MNCs, SEZs etc. in the country, and try to implement the same in Bengal? Why Singur, Nandigram and so on? And many unbecoming acts associated with them?

Not an Easy Future

THE only answer is that the Left Government there was becoming bereft of clear ideology and direction. This is a great lesson for the future. Clashes have begun and the Left offices are being attacked, not a good beginning fo the new government.

It is not going to be easy for Mamata in future, faced with the concrete realities of policy matters. Contradictions are bound to grow. It was easier to attack the Left for its misdoings but far more difficult to really do something for the people.

The Left has shown certain maturity by declaring that it is going to act as a constructive Opposition. This should go some distance towards assimilation of democratic values. And in the meantime it should analyse what went wrong.

The author, a leading theoretician of the CPI, is an ideologue in the party.

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