Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bengal blues for the reds

Bengal Blues, Left Woes

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Posted online: Mar 21, 2009 at 1602 hrs

One of the most fascinating contests in this electoral season will be in West Bengal. For the first time in three decades the Left looks seriously vulnerable. If recent trends in panchayat elections are any indication, a Congress-Trinamool alliance will give the Left a run for their money. Even the BJP has been making marginal inroads into this one impregnable bastion.

The leadership of the Left is acknowledging that this will be the toughest election the party has faced in years. The state government is itself responsible for things coming to this pass. Buddhadeb Babu may be well intentioned in his recognition that the state needs a new development model. But his own party is now seriously responsible for the unconscionable governance failures in West Bengal. The Singur agitation was not so much a sign of anti-capitalism in the state, as it was a sign of the breakdown of elementary governance capacities.

The governance failures of West Bengal, on virtually every indicator that matters -- roads, health, education, nutrition, poverty, infant mortality -- have recently been well documented in searing report by my colleague Bibek Debroy and his co-author Laveesh Bhandari. Even the much touted success in growth in agricultural productivity and decline in rural poverty has been tapering off for years. There is no question that West Bengal is ripe for a paradigm shift in its development model.

There is also no question that the local CPM has become a huge obstacle to the progress of the state. No matter how much Bengali intellectuals, out of a sense of misplaced nationalism, sanitise the issue, the CPM’s implication in violence, intimidation and coercion is extensive. It is now deeply implicated in the political economy of petty corruption in the state. It has virtually destroyed intellectual life in main institutions of the state.

The CPM has freely capitalised on its record on communalism. But the simple fact is that under the surface, there are deep currents of communalism brewing in West Bengal. The Taslima Nasreen case and the arrest of the editor of The Statesman were, in their own minor ways, indications of the warped and bizarre interpretation of secularism the party has operated with. But deeper down, there are rumblings of discontent on the Bangladeshi migration issue. And the CPM, despite having been thirty years in power, has barely been able to change the tenor of debate on these issues amongst the middle classes in Bengal. In fact, a case could be made that if the BJP had got its act together, Bengal would have provided a propitious fishing ground. The calm surface of politics there is deceptive.

It is in this context that Mamata’s achievement should be gauged. No matter what one may think of her policies or her mercurial ways, the simple fact is that she has single handedly kept political opposition alive in West Bengal. Anyone who knows how difficult it is for any non-Left force to operate in the state, the risk of violence it entails, will appreciate the sheer courage and doggedness it has taken on Mamata’s part to keep open a political space. I suspect the BJP did not engage in mass mobilization in Bengal, not because there was no traction for them. In some ways the state is ripe for a critique of pseudo-secularism. It was simply that they were too afraid. Mamata’s armchair detractors in Delhi underestimate this achievement.

She probably overplayed her hand in the Singur agitation. But the fact is that the demands she made on behalf of the poor were not unreasonable. She knew the possibility existed that the Tatas could move. But what no one could have bargained for was the fact that Gujarat would not just offer land to the Tatas, but such a huge implicit subsidy from public funds. It was natural that the Tatas would take the deal. But two things have to be acknowledged. First, the terms of the deal have not received as much public discussion as they should. And it has certainly reduced the Tatas' incentives for a reasonable settlement.

But it is important to draw the right lessons from this episode. It would be a mistake to conclude that the Trinamool is some kind of Luddite anti-capitalist party, while Buddhadeb is the saviour of capitalism. The right lesson is that the state government has diminishing capacity to manage conflict, and an insurgent politician was stepping into the breach to portray herself as a defender of the poor.

The election outcome is still an open question. Will urban Bengal rally around Buddhadeb? What will be the effects of delimitation? Will the CPM party machine kick in? These are all open questions. But we should keep our fingers crossed for West Bengal. When longstanding, somewhat authoritarian, regimes begin to weaken, all kinds of forces begin to emerge. It is hard to predict how it will all turn out. West Bengal is ripe for such a churning.

It is also such an unconscionable shame that the CPM could not use its immense political hold on the state to do better for its citizens. At the national level, there is also a great need for a sensible Left. At the national level it was the only party that for five years performed. At the very least, its cautionary breaks on our unthinking embrace of the United States, was a sign of its better judgment. But the evidence from West Bengal is now decisively in: the party has become an obstacle to creating opportunities for the poor.

There are signs of immense confusion within the Left. It is encouraging the Third Front, because it recognizes its weaknesses in its home bases in West Bengal and Kerala. Its best shot at remaining relevant and to consolidate, is intelligent alliances elsewhere. It is right to insist that there is enough disenchantment with both the BJP and Congress to open up the space for something new. But it is mistaken in supposing that it has a leg to stand on. It risks losing its distinctiveness even more. It obdurately resisted playing the caste card for fifty years, when that card carried some pretence of empowering the marginalized. But just at the point where the caste card has become not a vehicle for empowerment, but of raw assertion of political power, the Left has gone and embraced it wholesale. The ideological confusions in the Left are a sign that it cannot run on its governance record, and is now flailing. Perhaps if it had paid as much attention to Buddhadeb’s weaknesses as it had to Bush’s, it might not have been in such a state.

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