Bengal Shakes Off 34 Years of Communist Rule
Describing a victory in an election as "a second Independence Day" may seem somewhat excessive in the context of India's robust democracy, which is characterized by waves of anti-incumbency that create a continuous game of musical chairs.
But when Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, said as much after her party's rout of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in state elections in Bengal two weeks ago, many Indians accepted her statement at face value. The Left Front government she brought down had ruled the state, either by itself or in coalitions with other left-wing parties, for 34 years. The world's longest-running democratically elected Communist government had just been toppled.
After more than three decades of adornment in red, the streets of the West Bengal capital, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), were ablaze with the green of the Trinamool Congress. This 13-year-old party was formed by Banerjee, a veteran of the state's fractious and often violent political skirmishes who broke with the Indian National Congress in 1998. Newspapers, journals, and the Internet throbbed with analyses of her "Green Revolution" and its implications for an entire generation that had known nothing but Left Front rule and the progressive economic decline of West Bengal.
In a ringing front-page piece entitled "Historic Thunder" in the Telegraph, the largest-selling English-language paper in West Bengal, Ashis Chakrabarti wrote that he saw the election result not just as a rejection of the Left Front, but as a massive vote of confidence in Banerjee's one-word election slogan of poribortan (paw-ree-bawr-tawn), or "change." Observing that this was "no ordinary change of government", Chakrabarti outlined the onerous work of rebuilding that lay in front of Banerjee (popularly known as "Didi," or "Elder Sister") in every area of government, from law and order to the economy and education. He wrote:
"This party-first culture crippled many things -- economy, health services, the police and the administration. But its most damaging assault was on education which, under the long Left rule, became a matter of petty, sectarian politics that turned teachers’ bodies -- in schools, colleges and universities -- into what Chinese communists call 'work units' or' propaganda teams.'
"One of the first things she might need to undo is this complete politicization of education in Bengal. The irony is that the poor and the ordinary people were the worst victims of this suicidal policy. The more affluent, let alone the rich, could escape this easily — by just leaving Bengal.
"The same discrimination against the poor happened with the Left’s decision to abolish English from primary school curricula and to generally lower the standards of education in the name of 'democratization.' It created a new class division between those who were trapped in the Left’s education system and those who had the means to beat it."
Among the many ironies of Banerjee's victory was that she defeated a party that in many ways remained Communist only in name. In the last decade the CPM, after long years of militant trade unionism and hostility to business, had begun to actively invite large-scale industrial investment, only to find itself stymied by land-acquisition battles in the special economic zones that it sought to set up. In an essay in Tehelka called "Didi's Long March," the journalist Ashok Malik provided many insights into the peculiarities of CPM rule ("West Bengal is not a communist economy and not a pure market economy; rather, it is a CPM-regulated market economy"), pointing out that "Bengal has only 18 of India’s 600-odd districts, but 14 of India’s poorest 100 districts."
Unsurprisingly, the CPM politburo refused to treat the defeat as anything more than a temporary setback. In an editorial in the CPM journal People's Democracy, the party's general secretary, Prakash Karat, wrote:
"The defeat in West Bengal has led to a barrage of propaganda in the corporate media against the CPI(M) and the Left. The results are being portrayed as a catastrophe from which the CPI(M) will not be able to recover. Another line of attack pursued by some commentators is to pronounce the ideology of the Communist Party as an anachronism and the verdict as a culmination of the end of the relevance of socialism and Marxism worldwide.
"That these are patently false assertions can be understood by the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union had no material impact on the CPI(M). In fact, in the nineteen nineties, the Party grew and developed stronger, both in West Bengal and Kerala. As far as ideology is concerned, the CPI(M) draws on the theory and practice of Marxism by creatively applying it to Indian conditions. This is not a static position but one which evolves constantly."
Perhaps the most perceptive response to the election from a member of the Left Front came from AB Bardhan of the CPI, a partner in the coalition, who said: "One thing the Left has underestimated is that a great Indian middle class has grown up in the last few decades. " He also acknowledged that the Communist regime had fallen out of touch with the aspirations of the people it governed.
The significance of the achievement of Banerjee, one of two women who came to power in these elections (the other was J. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK in the southern state of Tamil Nadu), isn't limited to West Bengal. Writing in the Hindustan Times, Mukul Kesavan, one of the sharpest observers of Indian politics, pointed out the obstacles that female politicians have to overcome in a patriarchal country:
"India now has four chief ministers who are women. They are single, they don’t have children and they are routinely represented in India’s print and electronic media as temperamental viragos.
"This tells us something about both the unselfconscious misogyny of our journalism and the toll that Indian politics takes of women who want to exercise power in their own right."
In her long career in politics (documented by India Today in an excellent photo feature), Banerjee has faced challenges not just patriarchal, ideological and cultural (she was thought too much of a street fighter by Bengal's middle-class, who long rejected her) but also mortal danger. One of the strangest responses to her victory came from Laloo Alam, a member of CPM's youth wing, who nearly killed Banerjee when he split open her skull with a bamboo stick called a lathi, during a violent confrontation in 1990. After the election, Alam, who is still on trial for the crime, was quoted as saying:
"For 34 years, the CPM progressively killed the state. We were blind followers then, didn't look beyond the party. We were wrong. Mamata is like a panacea for the battered people of this state. We have reached the rock bottom when it comes to development. Only Mamata can pull us out of here."
Clearly, everybody loves a winner.