The News International (Pakistan) - April 22, 2013

by Praful Bidwai

Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee must be India’s most abrasive and volatile political personality. She goes hysterical at the slightest sign of dissidence. But she exceeded even herself with the tantrum she threw when confronted by a protest in Delhi by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) activists against her trivialisation of the custodial death of Students’ Federation of India leader Sudipta Gupta in Kolkata as a “petty” matter.

When Banerjee went to the Planning Commission in Delhi last week, 20-odd CPM activists demonstrated at one gate of the building, with police permission. The police advised her and Finance Minister Amit Mitra to use another, protest-free, gate, and offered to escort her.

As if spoiling for a fight, she refused and insisted on entering the first gate in a private car. She was heckled. In the melee, Mitra’s shirt was torn. Nobody was injured. The CPM politburo promptly apologised. But Banerjee cancelled her meeting with India’s finance minister, abruptly returned to Kolkata saying Delhi isn’t “safe”, and spent three days in hospital. TMC activists immediately ransacked and torched hundreds of CPM offices in West Bengal. They also vandalised parts of Kolkata’s prestigious Presidency College.

Banerjee’s tantrum has further antagonised Bengal’s urban middle class, dominated by upper-caste Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas, who despise her for lack of good education, and her coarse language and manners. But she has partly succeeded in diverting attention from Sudipta Gupta’s tragic death, and in turning the tables on the Left on the eve of West Bengal’s local body elections.

The CPM is paying dearly for the Delhi protest, which turned sour, although not violent. With scores of its West Bengal members arrested, the CPM is on the defensive, but doesn’t know how to counter the repression it faces. As politburo member Sitaram Yechury admits, it has “lost some ground” thanks to the TMC’s “politics of terror”.

Banerjee is on a collision course with the state election commission on the dates and deployment of central forces during the coming panchayat elections. The elections are important to demonstrate her continuing hold over the state even after her sweeping victory in the 2011 assembly elections. Whichever way the election dispute is resolved, one thing is clear. The TMC will intimidate CPM cadres to ensure that they don’t file nominations in about a third of all panchayats.

In this, ironically, the TMC will be seen by many as replicating what the CPM often did in power. True, muzzling opponents has long been institutionalised in Bengal politics. To understand the irony (and its limits), one must recall the polarised, violent past of that politics.

Bengali nationalism was never fully integrated into India’s larger Freedom Struggle, but dominated by ‘revolutionary terrorists’, and later by Subhash Chandra Bose’s militarist anti-imperialism. Post-Independence West Bengal was polarised and volatile, and saw stable Congress rule for less than 15 years before plunging into popular agitations for food, etc, leading to the Congress’s defeat. Then followed two United Front governments, composed of numerous Left parties, led by the breakaway Bengal Congress, and followed by Central Rule.

The period 1968-71 saw immense turmoil, industrial unrest, workers’ gheraos of managers, 7,400 arrests without trial, over 400 ‘political disturbances’, 1,771 political murders, and nearly 200 deaths in police firing. The Naxalite movement, born in 1967, spread to the cities. Industrial capital fled West Bengal.

Yet more violence came with President’s (Central) Rule in 1970-72, the SS Ray-led Congress government of 1972-75 - which seized power through rigging - and the emergency that followed. Egged on by Indira Gandhi, and aided by the Congress-led Chhatra Parishad students’ union, Ray severely repressed the Left, arresting, beating and killing hundreds of its activists, and crippling democratic politics. The TMC is the direct heir of the Chhatra Parishad.

In 1970-72, an estimated 600 CPM members and 320 Naxalites were killed in prison. Hundreds of young men suspected to be Naxalite members/sympathisers were killed in broad daylight. Many more were illegally detained and tortured. A particularly gruesome incident was the Cossipore-Baranagar police massacre of 150 Naxalite sympathisers during President’s Rule. As a reporter wrote: “dead bodies were everywhere - bodies with heads cut off, limbs lost, eyes gouged out, entrails ripped open...They were ... thrown into the Hooghly...”

The state cynically exploited intra-Left rivalries to eliminate its opponents. The Naxalite movement was subdued and the parliamentary Left weakened through mass-scale human rights violations. 1967-1977 in West Bengal was the most violent decade in any Indian state since 1947, and extracted a heavy price from democracy.

It’s only when the Left Front, mainly comprising the CPM, Communist Party of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Block, came to power in 1977 that law-and-order was re-established and the democratic process resumed in Bengal. The Front released political prisoners and put the police on a tight leash. It embraced political moderation, or India’s version of Social Democratic politics - despite its rhetoric of revolutionary overthrow of the ‘bourgeois-landlord’ order led by the ‘big bourgeoisie’.

The Front initiated the Operation Barga land reform, which registered tenants and gave them security, pioneered panchayati raj, and greatly decentralised governance. It also worked for balanced centre-state relations. Soon, however, the reform momentum ran out. By the late 1980s, conservatism set in, particularly in the CPM.

The CPM’s cadre base expanded enormously, and had to be accommodated in power structures. The party machine was lubricated with commissions from state contracts. Party supporters were given plum jobs as rewards for loyalty. Corruption and bossism grew. In 1994, the Front adopted a new industrial policy without internal discussion, which favoured the main class enemy: the ‘big bourgeoisie’.

Aggressive land acquisition followed, alienating the CPM’s core-support among small and middle peasants. The Front criminally neglected health, education, food security and other public services. West Bengal’s social development indices fell. It adopted an elitist ‘industrialisation-at-any-cost’ policy. But the state didn’t attract much industry. Unemployment and unrest soared.

To sustain these policies, and maintain its hegemony, the CPM marginalised the other Left parties and resorted to coercion against its critics - a tactic learnt in 1970-76, perhaps in self-defence. The Left Front’s support among the poor shrank. Yet it could repeatedly win elections - setting a world record of 34 years of uninterrupted democratic rule - because the opposition was weak and got further divided with the 1997 Congress-TMC split. By 2006, the Left had 235 of the assembly’s 294 seats, TMC a mere 30. The Left’s arrogance grew.

With Singur and Nandigram (2007-8), the Left’s base started eroding rapidly, especially among small peasants and landless workers. Muslims, strongly supportive of the Front because of its secularism and containment of communal conflict, started drifting away after the Sachar Committee exposed their low status and under-representation in government jobs in West Bengal relative to other states.

In 2008, the Left withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance, paving the way for a TMC-Congress coalition in West Bengal, which swept the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2011 assembly elections.

The TMC is trying to shore up its fortunes through violence. It’s tempting, but wrong, to see the CPM and TMC as clones. The CPM drifted, or was forced, into violence, and used it selectively. The TMC is quintessentially violent, and knows no other politics.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: