(rediff.com, 30 August 2010)

by Praful Bidwai

What the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dreaded the most in West Bengal, its bastion for 33 years, has happened. Ms Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress Party (TCP) held an extremely well-attended rally at Lalgarh in the Jangalmahal region bordering Jharkhand on August 9, enlisted the support of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), and threw down the gauntlet to the Left Front. She stridently read out an elaborate political chargesheet against the CPM and announced the end of Left “hegemony” and the beginning of “a new era” in West Bengal.

The CPM cried itself hoarse against what it called Ms Banerjee’s “unholy” alliance with the Maoists, who control a section of the PCPA. This didn’t quite square up with the PCPA’s publicly expressed ire with Ms Banerjee for not articulating its demands.

The CPM was reduced to making a lame appeal to the Congress (its own rival!) to distance itself from the TMC on the Maoist violence issue which, it reiterated, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is the “greatest internal security threat” to India. This cut no ice. Ms Banerjee had thrice appealed for non-violence at Lalgarh. Whether she did so at the goading of non-TCP people on the dais such as activists Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh or writer Mahasweta Devi is irrelevant. She didn’t endorse Maoist violence.

Finally, the CPM merely expressed a pious wish: namely, the Trinamool-Congress alliance, widely expected to win next year’s Assembly elections, would somehow collapse, creating a thin sliver of hope for the Left Front. But wishes are one thing, strategy is quite another. It’s extremely doubtful that the CPM has a political strategy to snatch victory from the jaws of likely defeat.

At least, the deliberations of the CPM’s Extended Central Committee in Vijayawada on August 7-10 to review the political situation didn’t convey that impression. This was the last large plenum to be held before the next party congress. The congress, which was due next year, stands postponed because of the West Bengal and Kerala Assembly elections.

The Vijayawada conclave, attended by more than 350 delegates, produced no change of political line. The CPM reiterated the resolution of the last party congress (2008): oppose the United Progressive Alliance’s neoliberal economic policies and pro-US foreign policy, combat the communal Bharatiya Janata Party, and strengthen the CPM’s base among underprivileged people.

On a less charitable view, general secretary Prakash Karat manipulated the party at Vijayawada into covering up the strategic and tactical failures at the top which contributed to the party’s rout in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Crucial here was the Left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA in July 2008 over the US-India nuclear deal, and its super-opportunist attempt to cobble a ragtag front with dubious leaders like Ms Mayawati and Jayalalithaa and Mr OP Chautala. The West Bengal CPM was extremely unhappy with this because it threw the TMC and the Congress into each other’s arms.

Mr Karat conceded that the timing of the withdrawal was controversial; it might have been wiser to withdraw support in November 2007, when the UPA sent the deal to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet, the Vijayawada meeting didn’t revise the Central Committee line that the defeat is explained by “state-specific” factors including governance, “arrogance” and corruption. The only sop offered to the state leaders was a rousing call for unity in the coming elections. Mr Karat may have shrewdly bought some insurance for himself for a post-2011 defeat. He can quote the Vijayawada resolutions in self-defence. But that won’t help the CPM.

Organisationally, Vijayawada made little advance—for instance, by resolving differences between Kerala Chief Minister VS Achutanandan and party secretary Pinarayee Vijayan. Mr Achutanandan didn’t attend the meeting for health reasons. The show of unity highlighted in media briefings reflects necessity (the impending elections) rather than genuine reconciliation.

The CPM has reason to worry about the elections. In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front is widely expected to lose the elections. Its tally plummeted from 19 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2004 to only 4 seats last year. The LDF’s tenure hasn’t been distinguished by bold pro-people programmes. Mr Achutanandan has been fighting damage-control battles against his own colleagues.

Mr Vijayan, tainted by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, faces a CBI inquiry—the first politburo member of a Communist party ever to have been charged for corruption. Many pro-Left analysts I know don’t believe that the see-saw pattern of the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front winning alternate elections will repeat itself.

The CPM’s defeat could be worse in West Bengal. If the Assembly vote follows the last Lok Sabha pattern, the Left Front’s score will fall from 235 (of 294 seats) to 110-120 seats. But it could sink even lower. In 2009, it lost support in all of West Bengal’s regions, barring Jangalmahal, comprising West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts, which accounts for 6 Lok Sabha and 41 Assembly constituencies. In 2006, the LF had swept the region, winning 37 out of 41 Assembly seats. Even in 2009, it won 5 of 6 Lok Sabha seats.

Now, the picture is different. On the 2009 pattern, Trinamool leads the LF in 130 constituencies in seven Central and Southern Bengal districts. The Congress has a hold on Northern Malda and Murshidabad. The TMC needs 147 seats for a majority. If it expands the opening it recently made in Jangalmahal and dents the CPM’s tribal base, then an emphatic victory is assured for the TMC.

That’s why the CPM mortally fears Ms Banerjee’s foray into Lalgarh. The CPM’s much-dreaded armed cadres (Harmad Bahini) “captured” Jangalmahal from the Maoists only recently. Now, the CPM risks losing it to Trinamool whose thugs can unleash even more violence against the Left. Indeed, if the Trinamool comes to power, there will be large-scale bloodshed in West Bengal—a prospect no public-spirited citizen can relish.

The CPM itself is in no small way responsible for bringing matters to this pass. Its policies have eroded some of its early gains since its rise to power in 1977—including land reforms, panchayati raj, women’s empowerment and joint forest management. The erosion began in the early 1980s.

By the early 1990s, the CPM became increasingly complacent as it won election after election without having to do much for the people. District and lower-level leaders and cadres developed a stake in the status quo and getting a cut in various contracts—whether for school buildings or labour supply for construction.

Power, a strong magnet, drew in all manner of people, including unscrupulous operators with no commitment to Left-wing ideas. More than two-thirds of the CPM’s present membership in West Bengal was recruited after 1977. Monobina Gupta, a journalist and a CPM cardholder for years, has lucidly documented the process of the party’s alienation from its base in her just-published book Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists (Orient Blackswan). The cadres got mired in corruption. The party turned against its own former supporters.

Further degeneration came early this decade when the CPM embarked on rapid industrialisation at any cost by attracting private capital through sweetheart deals, tax breaks and undeserved subsidies. The Singur and Nandigram crises were direct effects of this misguided policy and heightened the party’s alienation from the people. The state and the party unleashed violence against the people to take away their land, crush their resistance, and “teach them a lesson”.

Singur and Nandigram became household synonyms all over India for the loathsome betrayal of the people by the very forces which rose to power thanks to their support.

The CPM’s base among Muslims also eroded thanks to Nandigram, the Rizwanur Rehman case, and the growing realisation among West Bengal’s Muslims after the Sachar Committee report that they have had a raw deal. Although they form 25 percent of the population, their representation in government is only 2.1 percent. They have the least exposure to modern secular education.

Impending election defeat should have shocked the CPM into sincere, deep introspection and self-criticism, even if painful. This should have impelled radical course correction. But the CPM leadership chose to behave like an ostrich. Worse, it came down heavily on inner-party critics.

When party members and committed sympathisers demanded free and open debate on policies, strategy and tactics and criticised the organisational doctrine of Democratic Centralism—which concentrates excessive power at the apex and discourages, indeed outlaws, real debate except at party congresses—Mr Karat answered them by asserting that Democratic Centralism is essential to Leninism even today and indispensable for a revolutionary party.

Censorship will prolong the status quo—a recipe for decline, disaster, marginalisation, and eventually, demise. Unless the CPM leadership admits that its basic strategy is in deep crisis, and that the rot isn’t limited to state-related factors but reaches the top, it will learn nothing and do nothing to change course. The CPM could then go the same way as the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union, East Germany or Romania. And that would be a terrible tragedy for Indian politics.