There was an adage during India’s struggle for freedom which said “what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow”. Likewise there was a time when the Left Front in West Bengal was considered a model for coalition politics and an undisputed forerunner to coalition experiments at the Centre like the National Front, the United Front, the NDA and the UPA. The long experience in coalition politics was Jyoti Basu’s USP when he was offered Prime Ministership in 1996. The Left’s continuous reign also gave a ray of hope for an alternative path to the country.
But all these came to naught when Mamata Banerjee’s “green” call poribortan was echoed all over the State wiping out Left rule.
The Left Front’s fall after 34 years in power and the rise of Ms. Banerjee against all odds drew enormous interest among the politically inclined across the country, mainly to explain the reasons behind this epochal transition. Also, many Left supporters questioned how a government which ‘transformed’ a state in terms of land reforms, protection of share croppers and the resultant growth of agriculture was felled by a call for another transformation (poribortan).
Ranabir Samaddar’s recent book, Passive Revolution in West Bengal 1977-2011 is a lucid explanation of the change of heart in West Bengal voters addressing both readers of political history and Left supporters, in a collection of articles and speeches from 1986 to 2012.
Notably, Samaddar, a political activist and columnist of repute, points out that the longevity of the Left rule itself had been the source of its decline: after depending on the party and a self-serving bureaucracy, the official Left had forgotten how to converse with society. When its dialogic capacity was at its minimum, the society’s capacity to make claims peaked. Here one may recall the famous announcement of Mr. Basu that “the Left Front government will not rule from Writers’ Building”. Clearly the Left Front’s decline has broader significance, which revolves around a core issue, namely, how do you govern in a democracy?
Another point to be noted is that unlike the coalition governments at the Centre, which relied on regional parties for their survival, the CPI (M) had a clear majority on its own all through and could have taken effective measures to revive the glory of Bengal.
Alienation of middle class
Through his articles, Samaddar explains that though the Left Front took pride in implementing land reforms, operation barga (registration of sharecroppers) and the Panchayati Raj, its lack of focus in key sectors such as urban affairs, infrastructure, industrialisation, health and education resulted in the alienation of the middle class.
Militant trade unionism and lack of preventive measures by the government led to the closure of traditional industries like jute, engineering and leather in the State and resulted in the weakening of the working class; it further eroded the base of the Left. Here, Samaddar points out that when many of the traditional industries closed down their operations in 1980s, the government apart from failing the working class by not taking measures to revive the industries, also failed to retrieve their vast land holdings into the custody of the State. Thus the support base of the Left i.e. the working class and middle class gradually eroded over the years of inaction.
When the era of globalisation and liberalisation after 1991 gave a hope of revival of industry in the State, the Left Front’s failure in establishing new centres of development across the state, and the lack of good road connectivity meant that most of the industrial groups which came forward to open shop in the state opted for the periphery of Kolkata like Howrah, North, South 24 Parganas and Hooghly.
To fulfill their demands, when the Left Front government began acquiring fertile lands for the oncoming industry, a large section of small, poor peasants and adivasis raised their voices against the move. Their protests were crushed with brute force which resulted in the Left losing support in the countryside too.
Though there were rumblings across the state on the failure of the Left Front in fulfilling the aspirations of toiling masses since 1987, when Singur and Nandigram erupted over land acquisition, the anger became complete across society. In an article written in 2008, Samaddar explained the reasons of such ‘civil war’ and warned the rulers in a most forthright manner as follows: “If the rulers want to avert the impending disaster, they will have to talk at all levels of society, they will have to bend down and say to those who are being ruled that they had committed grave errors and that they would now have to place dialogue at the centre of their governing policy. There is no shame in admitting mistakes and going for corrective measures”. The Left’s failure to quell the popular anger was evident in the drubbing of 2011.
The book comprises articles on issues such as urban apathy, influx of refugees, alienation of oppressed sections; it also gives an elaborate analysis on the history and the future of Bengal in a chapter titled “Eternal Bengal” which is indeed thought-provoking.
Samaddar, while pointing out the Left Front’s lapses all along, also gives a clear insight into the inherent weaknesses in the functioning of the Trinamool Congress under Ms. Banerjee. The recent rumblings in the State might prove him right on this prophecy too.
(V.B. Ganesan is a senior assistant editor with The Hindu)