Subho Basu & Auritro Majumder. Critical Asian Studies. Volume 45, Issue 2. June 2013.
In 2011, after thirty-four years in power, the Communist Party of IndiaMarxist-led Left Front in West Bengal was voted out of power. The Left Front was the world’s longest running communist government to be elected to office. The Left Front governed a population larger than most European, African, and Latin American democracies. This essay examines the rise and decline of the parliamentary communist movement in Bengal. The authors argue that the prominence of the communist movement can be traced to a social imaginaire and a notion of “social citizenship” that the (undivided) communists developed through their participation in grassroots-level workers, peasants, and refugee movements, and equally crucially, through hegemonic interventions in “culture” since the 1940s. This social imaginaire became the basis of a “commonsensical idiom” in Bengal through the political practice of the communists, parliamentary and otherwise. The decline of the parliamentary communist influence started when their core constituency of peasants and workers perceived them to be violating this basis of social citizenship in the wake of their adoption of neoliberal policies of development beginning in the 1990s. The regional noncommunist opposition in West Bengal in 2011 captured the imagination of the electorate by appropriating and translating this long developed notion of social citizenship against the Left government.
In 1997, a motley coalition of Left parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) came to power in the Indian state of West Bengal. The victory of the communists was not only sweeping but also surprising to the communist leaders themselves. Indeed, prior to the state assembly election in 1977 the communists had desperately sought an alliance with the then ruling Janata Party at the center, but this alliance never came to fruition. The communist-led Left Front decided then to fight the elections alone. They won a resounding victory, and from 1977 until the parliamentary elections of 2009, the Left Front continued to win in West Bengal, a large state with a population close to 91 million in 2011. Thus, in many ways, the parliamentary communists ruled over a population larger than most of the populous European, Latin American, or African democracies. The success of the communists was spectacular from another perspective. Since 1989 Indian politics had become very volatile, with anti-incumbency waves undermining popular state governments at the hustings. Yet the communists in West Bengal were able to evade such a fate. In the election in 2011, however, after completing nearly thirty-four years in power, the Left suffered an unprecedented defeat at the hands of a coalition of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a regional political party run by a populist leader, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, and the Indian National Congress, India’s oldest party controlling the central government. From holding 233 seats in a house of 294 seats in the assembly poll of 2006, the Left tally of seats was reduced to a mere 62 seats in the 2011 election. In contrast, the number of seats held by the TMC increased from a mere 31 to 184 seats. The defeat was so severe that Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, a longtime stalwart of the Left, lost the election by a margin of approximately 16,000 votes to a political novice, his one-time subordinate bureaucrat, Manish Gupta. The resounding success and spectacular defeat of the parliamentary communists in Bengal remains to be investigated and explained by historians and political scientists with interests in Bengal politics and communist politics worldwide.
By combining a historical materialist reading of popular movements with the Gramscian notion of the “commonsensical idiom” of politics, we argue in this article that the rise of the communists was due to their promotion of a notion of social citizenship through class struggle. By the term social citizenship we refer to the access popular classes have to sustainable livelihood and a cultural sense of belonging. The resounding electoral successes of the Left Front over three decades, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, point to support from a social coalition among intelligentsia drawn from the indigent middle classes, unionized white-collar working classes, and rural poor, comprising sharecroppers, agricultural workers, and a segment of middle peasants. This class coalition, we will argue, was sustained by a vision that aimed at structural realignment and transformation of the social relations of production. We use the term social imaginaire to describe this new vision. The later fall of the communists, we believe, was due to the Left’s violation of the political heritage of the social imaginaire that the Left had hegemonized in West Bengal.
This class coalition came into existence through the political practice of the Left that began in the late colonial era. By combining agrarian struggle for land reforms with the refugees’ demand for the recognition of squatter colonies in urban areas, as well as wage movements of the white-collar working classes primarily made up of clerical employees in public sector concerns, Bengal’s communists were able to consolidate their mass base, both in urban and rural areas.
This struggle grew alongside a powerful cultural movement spearheaded by Left-leaning, party-affiliated indigent intelligentsia. The cultural movement of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association, originating from the time of the Bengal famine in 1943, created art forms such as poetry, theater, songs, and films. These helped the communists capture the imagination of the socially powerful and culturally hegemonic middle classes of West Bengal. This cultural vision acquired the form of a social imaginaire. This was something the communists could transact on, despite their gradual departure from militant class-based political mobilization. This social imaginaire was also sustained by a highlighting of Bengali regional nationalism that portrayed all-India governments in Delhi as the exploiters of Bengali resources. Increasingly, the logic of regional nationalism backed by a notion of developmental capitalism displaced class struggle in communist political formulations. It was this contradiction inherent within communist political practice that contributed significantly to its decline as an alternative political force in India.
Moments of Birth
Located in the monsoon-fed alluvial plains of the lower Gangetic delta region of South Asia, Bengal was predominantly an agrarian region of British India. The colonial state’s intervention in Bengal’s political economy produced a curious amalgamation of rent-receiving, intermediate social classes along with enclaves of export-oriented, raw material-processing industrial zones and agricultural hinterlands. Introducing the “rule of property” in Bengal in 1793 under conditions of colonial capitalism resulted in the emergence of a surplus extracting rentier aristocracy. The early experimentation with indigenous enterprise by Bengali entrepreneurs died a premature death by 1848 with the collapse of the Union Bank of Calcutta. Since then, the Bengali rentier intermediary class, internally stratified along the lines of access to shares of peasant surplus, sought to transform itself into educated middle classes seeking clerical employment in the colonial administration.
The desire of Bengali middle classes to become the hegemonic capitalist class collapsed on the quotidian reality of colonial economic relationships. At the turn of the century, despite their best efforts, Bengali intermediate classes failed to translate their ambition to become entrepreneurs into practice. The gap that resulted from the failure of the indigenous capitalist class to grow was filled by immigrant, north-Indian Marwari traders, who emerged as the intermediaries between British capital and Indian producers of raw materials. The absence of a strong capitalistic ethos thus created a cultural environment of disdain for business among Bengali service elites and opened up opportunities for ideologies that would provide this intelligentsia with control over economic and political structures. Not surprisingly, then, many among the service elites of Bengali Hindu origin were drawn to revolutionary nationalism, blaming British rule for the economic decline of Bengalis and justifying a politics of assassination of individual British officials and organizing armed uprisings against the colonial state. World War I further encouraged these revolutionaries to seek assistance from Germany and neighboring Asian nations such as China. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was widely reported in Bengali newspapers. Ironically the British censoring of news of the events surrounding the Russian Revolution and the open hostility to Bolshevism attracted many such revolutionaries to new Bolshevik political principles. As the Russian Revolution coincided with massive strike waves among industrial working classes in Bengal, many revolutionaries became convinced of the efficacy of Marxist-Leninist political principles. Muslim politicians associated with the anticolonial revolutionary movement also felt that the secular ethos of the new ideology would enable them to overcome the Hindu-Muslim divides within the revolutionary movement.
A complete turn to Marxism as a political ideology was, however, tempered by the agrarian question in late-colonial Bengal between 1905 and 1947. Rent-receiving, increasingly indigent service elites and intelligentsia were predominantly high-caste Hindus in composition who survived by extracting surpluses from the primarily Muslim, Dalit, and adivasi (indigenous) peasantry. Throughout the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, peasant revolts and agitations, sometimes colored by ethno-religious consciousness among Muslims, challenged the already precarious pecuniary conditions of the Hindu intermediate social classes. Yet, it would be inaccurate to conceive of the agrarian question in Bengal simply in terms of confrontations between Hindu rent-receiving intermediary social classes and Muslim, Dalit, and indigenous adivasi communities. Historical evidence suggests a rough triad organized along zamindars(rentier-aristocracy) and their retainers at the top, jotedar (rich peasant-proprietor) classes in the middle, and, in the majority, subsistence-level peasant farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers at the bottom.
From the late nineteenth century onwards, colonial political economy also gave birth to export-oriented, raw material-extracting industries, and massive railway-based transportation centers. Though the pattern of formation of working classes was neither unilinear nor uniform, there came into existence a new working class in the jute, coal mining, and tea plantation industries, controlled by expatriate British capital. In the aftermath of World War I, this working class mounted an unprecedented offensive against the control of colonial capital. Between 1919 and 1921, Bengal witnessed a wave of strikes in the jute, coal mining, and railway industries of the province that alarmed the colonial administrative apparatus in Bengal. Against the background of the Russian Revolution, this offensive impressed upon a segment of Bengali intelligentsia the efficacy of the organized labor movement as a constituency in anticolonial struggle. Though inchoate in nature, processes of unionization emerged both among working classes and white-collar clerical employees, which contributed substantially—if not always directly—to the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress (Aituc) in 1920.
Labor movements, despite occasional internal conflicts along communal lines, opened up a secular space in a province divided by Hindu and Muslim religious nationalist ethos for a political intervention informed by socialist ideology. Leading this was a segment of Bengali intelligentsia drawn from both Hindu and Muslim intermediate social classes. In Calcutta, prominent among them was the Muslim nationalist writer Muzaffar Ahmad, who felt alienated by the Hindu ethos of militant revolutionary nationalism and was attracted by the news of the Russian Revolution and the birth of new Soviet State. Ahmad was not alone in this move toward revolutionary communist politics. Young nationalist revolutionary activists who were opposed to the Gandhian politics of nonviolent resistance against colonial rule sought a firsthand experience of the Soviet Revolution. In order to gain this experience, many revolutionaries took jobs aboard Russia-bound commercial ships as sailors and journeyed in this clandestine manner to the Soviet Union. Their aim was to learn more about the Russian Revolution and the organizational methods of communists. They also wanted to secure help for the Indian iIndependence movement. Among them was Gopen Chakrabarty, a former revolutionary nationalist and future labor organizer and a pioneering communist leader in Calcutta.
The 1920s was a decade of nationalist consciousness as well as of global political resistance against colonial imperialism. This was most obviously manifested in the rise of M.K. Gandhi, a British-trained South Africa-based lawyer, who played a pivotal role in reorienting the Congress-led nationalist struggle in British India. This globalizing consciousness, however, produced not only an awareness of anticolonial nationalism but also a socialist consciousness in dialog with labor movements and the revolutionary politics in Russia and Germany.
Moreover, this nascent radicalism began a process of “plebianization” of Bengali literary and cultural productions. In his poems, Nazrul Islam and authors such as Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, and Manik Bandopadhyay in their novels turned their attention to a complex world of middleand working-class lives. This led to the foundation of a new kind of social imaginaire that clearly broke from the earlier tradition of writing novels and poems on aristocratic characters such as the landed gentry, Rajput generals, and even Mughal emperors. This transformation in literary expression was accompanied by the establishment of the Workers and Peasants Party (WPP) in 1928. The WPP sought to represent the interests of the Bengali peasantry and industrial workers by attempting to form a united front between sporadic peasant struggles and the labor movements among the jute mill workers.
The Left was able to assert its presence in late colonial Bengal only when it formed a wider United Front that engaged in industrial and agrarian action. Its efficacy declined when it blindly accepted the diktat of the Comintern and abandoned cooperation with noncommunist allies. This was evident during the civil disobedience movement between 1930 and 1934. At the start of the movement, the Left organized coordinated joint actions with other socialists and Congress nationalists and was very effective in organizing strikes. But when the Left distanced itself from the Congress party and the anticolonial upsurge in the early 1930s, its influence reached its nadir. Despite such vacillations, however, Bengal witnessed the birth of an alternate political culture to the Congressand Muslim League-led rival nationalisms by the 1930s. This political ethos, inchoate in ideas and organization, nevertheless contained the seeds of a future development: a powerful communist movement in Bengal that cut across the increasingly polarized nationalisms in the Bengali colonial social formation along Hindu-Muslim lines. Importantly, the Left articulation of national liberation was based on, and corresponded to, a praxis that sought to forge class alliances, in contradistinction to those of both the Congress and the Muslim League that foregrounded tradition, community, and religious identity.
Politically, this new movement articulated a notion of inclusive social citizenship, as opposed to the ideals of political citizenship of the Congress party, which remained committed to harmony between capital and labor. During a strike in Birla’s jute mill in 1928, Moni Singh, a communist worker, could therefore critique Subhas Chandra Bose, the nationalist stalwart, for the latter’s defense of Birla’s interest.
By 1937, the communists in Bengal were able to coordinate a massive strike movement among the industrial working classes in the jute mills. The movement even witnessed the formation of red factory committees that challenged the hold of capital in the organization of production for nearly three months. The ruling Muslim League government, in alliance with British capital, was able to break the strike through repression, the promotion of Hindu-Muslim divisions, and partial concession to working-class demands.
By the 1940s, the communists began penetrating into the east Bengal countryside for the first time through various no-tax, no-rent movements among the peasantry. While the Muslim League remained the representative of the rich peasant entrepreneurial class and the Congress supported the landholding Hindu intermediaries, communists carved out a new political constituency among sharecroppers, agricultural workers, and small peasants. Led by the indigent middle-class intelligentsia, this emerging class coalition—between white-collar clerical employees, industrial working classes, and poor peasants—became the hallmark of communist mobilization in Bengal.
During World War II, communists stood aloof from the anti-British struggles launched by the Congress. Because of their antifascist commitments and socialist internationalism, their opposition to the Congress’s Quit India movement led by Gandhi did not affect their political activities significantly. In fact, this support for the Soviet war effort enabled them to work openly without restrictions by the colonial government. While such actions did isolate communists from the nationalist elites, it enabled them to consolidate their unions and support base among the subaltern social classes through careful political action from below.
Further, in the 1940s, particularly during the Bengal famine, the communist intelligentsia launched a new cultural movement, the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). The IPTA, despite its predominantly male and middle-class sensitivity, registered a new presence in the commonsensical idiom of politics in Bengal. The play Nabanna (1943), directed by Shambhu Mitra, marked the beginning of this new social imaginaire that sought to capture the vision of a future Bengali society structured on socialist principles. During the famine, communists inserted themselves at the grassroots level for relief work and mobilizing. The Communist Party of India (CPI) established a student health home run by its sympathizers from the medical community on a voluntary basis for poorer students who could not afford costly medical treatments in private or government-run hospitals. The communist Left thus managed to establish a strong presence in the grassroots social movements.
By the end of the war, through their united front strategies, cultural movements, and peasant mobilization, the communists could create a mass-based social movement among sharecroppers demanding a better share of agricultural produce. More importantly, white-collar employees who considered themselves part of the culturally hegemonic Bengali middle classes participated in massive strike actions. Bank employees, post and telegraph as well as railway workers, alongside the peasantry and industrial working class, now became the new social constituency of the communists. Thus, through a combination of mass movements and cultural movements, the communists created a social imaginaire that influenced not only the war-impacted middle classes but the urban working class and poor peasants as well.
By the eve of Indian independence from British rule, the communists had emerged as an alternative to both the Congress and the Muslim League. This social coalition manifested itself most tellingly in the election results of 1945 when Jyoti Basu, representative of the Bengali middle class and its intelligentsia, won a seat in the Bengal Legislative Assembly for the communists. Elected alongside Basu was Ratanlal Brahman, a working-class representative from Nepali-speaking tea garden workers, and the peasant activist Rupnarayan Ray. The communist social imaginaire at the moment of independent Indian nation’s birth therefore represented a social coalition of middle-class intelligentsia, white-collar clerical employees, unionized working classes, and the rural poor. Importantly, however, the communist leadership remained firmly in the hands of high-caste, Hindu, males who had the potential of being integrated into Bengal’s mainstream parliamentary politics.
Moments of Struggle
The ascendancy of the communist movement could be traced to the struggle they launched during the crisis period in Bengal in the 1940s. It was during this period, through their participation in grassroots social movements, that the CPI became a mass political party. In the decade of the 1940s, Bengal suffered a danse macabre, a man-made famine that took the lives of nearly 3.4 million people. As the impact of the famine declined, unprecedented levels of communal violence consumed Calcutta for nearly ten months in 1946. These killings, which came to be known as the “Great Calcutta Killings,” triggered violence in rural Bengal and the neighboring state of Bihar. In 1946-47, a million refugees who had neither shelter nor access to other resources poured into Calcutta from eastern Bengal. In West Bengal, the volatile communal situation drove Muslims to take shelter in areas deemed to be safe. While some Muslims were ghettoized in Muslim majority areas scattered throughout West Bengal, others migrated to East Bengal. Communal tensions did not end with the partition of British India; they continued through the 1950s and even into the 1960s, triggering fresh migrations of refugees into West Bengal. As a result, the ancient regime in Bengal died a violent death. The partition put an end to the dominance of the zamindar class and made paupers of segments of the former rentier aristocracy and their dependents in Bengal.
In the midst of this social upheaval involving refugee migrations and changing class composition in the period between 1946 and 1950, Bengal also witnessed a sharpening of the class struggle over land. Demands made by the Tebhaga (sharecroppers) movement between 1946 and 1950 for two-thirds of the total agricultural produce from the lands they cultivated, shook both north Bengal and the Sunderban region of southern Bengal. Calcutta, a city built for 3 million people, witnessed a huge influx of refugees, who squatted on the property of the landholding classes. These east Bengali Hindu refugees, who were often drawn from high-caste backgrounds, blamed the Congress government for their plight. They felt that despite their hardships, they were being sacrificed in a deal between the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan. A vast majority of this segment of the dispossessed and pauperized population turned to the Left as a viable political alternative for securing their rights. The educated among this group would later contribute their acquired cultural capital to the Left cause in West Bengal for generations, forming one of the major factors of the Left hegemony in various cultural fora.
As class struggle sharpened in Bengal and elsewhere in India, particularly in the princely states of Tripura, Hyderabad, and Travancore, the CPI itself faced deep internal struggles over appropriate strategies to capture political power. While in the mid 1940s, the party followed a united front strategy and articulated a vision of the future through cultural movements, buoyed by the success of agrarian struggles and its newfound popular acceptance in the midst of the dire postcolonial situation, the party decided to launch a revolutionary war against the Indian state. The postwar moment in global history certainly saw similar communist successes in regions as disparate as China, Korea, and Vietnam, on the one hand, and France and Italy, on the other. Both in agrarian societies and in advanced industrialized capitalist nations, war brought communist successes to the forefront.
The revolutionary line that advocated capturing power through urban guerrilla action and rural mass uprising had limited impact on industrial working classes and the rural poor, however. The CPI found itself isolated as the Indian state banned the party and arrested most of its leaders. In areas where communists had established bases among the peasantry, such as the Sundarban regions of South Bengal and the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, the government sent armed forces to curtail their activities. It is at this particular moment, as India’s bourgeois elites moved toward parliamentary democracy, that the CPI entered the arena of electoral politics. The CPI demand for universal adult franchise in the 1940s and the institutionalization of that process after Indian independence facilitated the party’s move toward parliamentary electoral democracy as a valid means for capturing state power. More importantly, the Soviet Union encouraged the CPI to engage with the parliamentary process in the hope of recruiting Nehru as an ally of the Soviet bloc.
Participation in elections, however, did not end the internal conflicts within the party. Radical advocates of revolutionary war remained skeptical of the new line. Within the party intense debates took place over the character of the Indian state and the party’s relation to the Congress government, which espoused a certain form of state-sponsored developmentalism. Nonetheless, the party’s participation in diverse forms of local movements provided them with a mass base in Bengal. Hindu refugees particularly interpreted the hostility of the Congress party toward squatter colonies as a form of class oppression. The rhetoric of class oppression also appealed to the former intermediary tenure holders who faced sudden dispossession and who had to search for their livelihoods in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. Though the refugee question had a distinct caste composition, the party was entrenched among highcaste Hindus who had settled around Calcutta, even while namashudra (lowercaste) refugees sent to distant parts of Madhya Pradesh found little in terms of concrete support from the party except for the slogan that “all refugees would have to be settled in Bengal.” Despite its high-caste character, refugee movements in Calcutta remained a de facto urban land reform movement that exposed the inability of the state to evict squatters. Indeed, one Left bastion among the refugees in Calcutta came to be known as “Bijoygarh” (literally, a fortress of triumph), a symbol of the victory of the initial phase of this urban class struggle.
While class remained a component of the Left movement, populist issues that cut across class lines, such as the movement against a one-paisa fare hike in the British-owned tramways in 1953, gained enormous popularity among the urban middle classes. In rural Bengal, the CPI-led popular movements against the chronic shortages of food. The nexus between the bureaucracy, local Congress leaders, and rice mill owners gave rise to further food shortages in Bengal. By participating in movements from below, organized by subaltern social classes themselves, communists began tasting broader electoral success. By 1957, Jyoti Basu, scion of an elite professional family and the quintessential symbol of a Bengali bhadralok (middle-class) Marxist, was elected the leader of the communist opposition in the Bengal Legislative Assembly.
The CPI was deeply entrenched in Bengal electoral politics, backed by a social coalition of clerical employees, Hindu refugees, and a segment of rural poor, but internal dissension within the party over electoral politics persisted. Nonetheless, reactions among party members and the rank-and-file to electoral politics were mixed. A segment of CPI members wanted to utilize the parliamentary democratic process to capture political power and address issues related to social inequities, but other members doubted the efficacy of the parliamentary democracy strategy to achieve the party’s goal. Despite internal debates over the possibilities of capturing power and initiating reforms through electoral democracy, in 1957, Kerala, a south Indian state within the Indian Union, elected its first communist government, which enacted major land reforms in the state. While this victory convinced some communist leaders of the efficacy of the electoral path, the outcome of the Kerala experiment also confirmed the apprehensions of those who were doubtful of electoral strategy. The communist government in Kerala was systematically undermined by elite rebellion against a proposal for secular uniform education in the high schools, and the government of India used this elite movement spearheaded by various religious organizations to arbitrarily dismiss the popularly elected Kerala government on the grounds of a declining law and order situation. This experience unleashed a sharp debate within the CPI over the strategy and practice of revolutionary politics and further divided the party.
This division in the party sharpened during the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. While pro-Soviet elements, more inclined to treat the Congress as representative of the progressive national bourgeoisie, condemned Chinese aggression, centrists within the party dismissed the event as a border clash that needed to be resolved through dialog. The Left faction in the party, however, described the war as Indian aggression against China, deliberately designed to take attention away from the food crisis. The party faced massive state repression on the grounds of “betraying” national interests. Left-wing communists alleged that pro-Soviet elements within the party betrayed them to the police. This debate foreshadowed the split in the CPI that would later divide the Indian communist movement.
Yet, neither state repression nor internecine conflicts among communists undermined their popularity. Indeed, in 1962, communists increased their share of votes as well as seats in the elections to the provincial legislature and emerged as a powerful force. The party was now divided into three factions: pro-Soviet groups, who characterized the Congress as progressive national bourgeoisie; centrist groups, who regarded the Congress as the embodiment of the alliance between the landholding classes and the monopoly capitalists; and the Left, which viewed the Congress as the party of the comprador bourgeoisie. The twin issues of determining the Indian communists’ relation to the Indian National Congress and international allegiance after the Sino-Soviet split brought the decades-long debates within the party to a breaking point. In 1964, centrists and the Left forces entered into an alliance and broke away from the CPI to give rise to a new political party, the CPI-Marxist or CPI-M.
Notwithstanding the debates and differences among the communists, the social imaginaire they engendered had now become a part of the commonsensical idiom of politics in Bengal. Indeed as factions repeatedly referred to the social imaginaire it remained a powerful tool of popular mobilization in everyday politics. The communist upholding of the refugee cause was portrayed on film by Ritwik Ghatak, in street theater performances pioneered by the IPTA, and in Utpal Dutta’s memorable performances in the proscenium theater. This established the communists as a hegemonic cultural force in Bengal despite the significant differences within the party, as well as between party lines and Leftist “intellectuals.”
Many Bengalis were convinced that the Congress-ruled central government had been discriminating against them—and the entire state of West Bengal. The new urban middle class, which emerged from the squatter-controlled refugee colonies, viewed land reforms in a positive light. Communist songs and poetry were regularly recited as part of the rhetorical ritual of the movement, reminding urban Bengal of the plight of the peasant masses. Labor militancy and unionization of white collar employees, in dialog with cultural movements and “little magazine” activities, strengthened this communist social imaginaire in West Bengal. Thus, we conclude, it was not the theoretical debates over the class character of the Indian state, but rather the cultural movements and militant street-based action that made the communists into a powerful, visible, and viable political force in Bengal.
Despite the splits in their own ranks, communists were helped to political dividends by the division in the ranks of the West Bengal Congress over government policies for lowering food prices for the poor. With the death of the charismatic Congress leader B.C. Roy in 1961, the Congress became a factionridden party with individual leaders squabbling over their presumed patrimony. The east Bengali Congress leader Prafulla Chandra (P.C.) Sen adopted a policy of requisition of rice from mills. Rice mill owners and the rich peasants (jotedars) represented by the veteran nationalist Ajoy Mukherjee revolted against Sen’s leadership and formed the Bangla Congress. Ironically, the CPI rallied with the rebel Bangla Congress that represented the interests of the rich peasant lobby. The CPI also included in its so-called People’s United Left Front the Forward Block (FB) and Bolshevik Party of India (BPI). Meanwhile, the CPI-M, under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, formed alliances with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), the Samyukta Socialist Party, the Marxist Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, and the Workers Party of India. The CPI-M-led front was called the United Left Front. In the 1967 elections, the People’s United Left Front, and United Left Front together secured a majority over the official Congress party. After the elections the two fronts came together to form a political alliance to govern the province. This dispensation was called the juktafront (United Front). The CPI-M was the largest party in the front. Intense debates over the efficacy of joining the juktafront government took place within the CPI-M. Communists were reluctant to join the government but, faced with popular enthusiasm, accepted the responsibility after a detailed innerparty debate. Jyoti Basu was an advocate for joining the government, while Promode Dasgupta and the party rank and file were skeptical. The CPI-M thus became part of the “bourgeois landlord state” at the provincial level and faced the task of reconciling the contradiction between delivering its stated goal of the people’s democratic revolution, on one hand, and delivering social justice through the parliamentary and constitutional mechanisms offered by contemporary Indian “democracy,” on the other.
Moments of Introspection
Though the Left had limited presence in the Indian Parliament in 1967, its coming to power in the province of West Bengal that year triggered an upsurge in popular movements. In the United Front government of 1967, Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee came from the rebel Congress faction; Jyoti Basu, the CPI-M leader became the minister of finance and thus controlled the purse of the government. Harekrishna Konar, the radical peasant leader of an erstwhile “untouchable” caste, became the land reforms minister of the United Front government, while Subodh Banerjee of the SUCI controlled the Labor Department. Urban Bengal soon witnessed massive unrest marked by a new form of agitation called gherao, confinement of the management to their offices by agitating workers. This movement evolved in response to the retrenchment of nearly 72,000 workers in 1967-68, a retrenchment made possible because of the previous Congress government’s close alliance with industry leaders. Throughout urban Bengal, strike movements paralyzed smalland middle-scale industries. This Left-led labor militancy initiated a flight of capital from the province. Nonetheless, industrialists took an adamant stand against any compromise on the gherao issue. In a meeting on 4 May 1967, they refused a government proposal for a moratorium on closure, layoffs, and retrenchment for six months in return for a written undertaking from workers that they would desist from gherao. More importantly, they even refused to accept a government representative as a member of the industrial committee that had been formed to look into individual cases of retrenchment and layoffs. They further declined to accept any of the committee’s recommendations unless they were unanimous. The central government openly supported the stand taken by industrialists. Indeed, they rather encouraged industrialists to defy the order of the state government. Meanwhile within the state government differences arose among constituents. As strikes were primarily organized by the Aituc, which was affiliated to the CPI and CPI-M, the Praja Socialist Party, a small noncommunist socialist group, condemned the strike action; newspapers hinted that the Bangla Congress, part of the government, might switch sides and join hands with the Congress party if such radical actions persisted. The state government remained adamant that they would not allow police intervention in “legitimate” labor disputes. All over India, the English-speaking dailies condemned with one voice the politics of gherao, while CPI leader S.A. Dange advocated using gherao as a weapon in collective bargaining. Y.B. Chavan, the central government’s home minister, warned the United Front ministry that if it did not curtail labor militancy the central government might intervene.
The critical issue that undermined the United Front ministry was the policy for food procurement. The CPI and CPI-M gained popularity by organizing movements, popularly known as the “food movement,” against shortages of food supplies in West Bengal. They demanded stringent restrictions on the procurement of food by rich peasantry and wholesale dealers engaged in largescale trade. They were also dissatisfied with the central government’s allocation of food for Bengal and demanded that prices for essential food items be fixed. This led to clashes with P.C. Ghosh, the former Congress leader and then food minister in the United Front Government. The CPI-M strongly criticized the food minister and held large public meetings calling for his resignation. The situation became complicated as the central government sought to organize a food supply agreement with the U.S. government. But the Lyndon B. Johnson administration was clear that it would not supply India food on an everyday basis unless the government of India followed a clear policy of adopting Green Revolution technologies. CPI-M leader A.K. Gopalan protested against such dependence on U.S. aid and refused to participate in an all-India government-sponsored discussion of the issue.
The most significant movement initiated by the United Front government was a land reform movement that imposed ceilings on landholdings. The reforms were implemented by mobilizing the peasantry from below. The strategy was to assemble peasants under the banner of the CPI-M-affiliated peasant unions to engage in collective paddy cutting of the landholders’ land. Bureaucrats were often forced to attend peasant assemblies and assist them to obtain their shares of produce and land as promised by the United Front government. This peasant movement, which wanted to seize the surplus lands of the landholders, sparked clashes between rich peasants and absentee landlords, on the one side, and poor and middle-class peasants, on the other. Such mobilization of peasants to implement government policies opened up possibilities for further radical action, as it became evident in the case of what came to be known as the Naxalite rebellion.
In the remote region of West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, in the Naxalbari police station, local CPI-M activists led by a segment of the party’s district committee began appropriating and distributing land within the framework of the land reform acts put in place by the United Front government. In so doing they transformed the peasant struggle into a decisive struggle for the capture of State power. The movement started when adivasi workers occupied vacant land on tea estates in order to cultivate food. With the food crisis reaching its height in March 1967, this peasant action was critical. In the fracas between police and the peasantry, a police officer was killed. In retaliation the angry police attacked and killed nine peasant women. The alarmed Calcutta leadership of the CPI-M cautioned the local leaders not to engage in a struggle for power from below at this particular conjuncture. Charu Mazumdar, secretary of the Darjeeling district committee of the CPI-M, opposed the party’s diktat, however, and instead presented a radical thesis of a spontaneous revolution from below through the action of the peasantry. He argued that the more violent the local peasant action, the greater would be the spontaneous peasant uprising. Taking a cue from China’s Cultural Revolution, Mazumdar emphasized the spontaneous nature of revolution through radical armed action.
Mazumdar’s call soon led to a second phase of militant armed struggle among university and college students. The students burned down “bourgeois” educational institutions such as the Hindu School and engaged in urban guerrilla action against the police. In 1967 Jyoti Basu, with the permission of the CPI-M leadership, ordered the repression of the peasant uprising and the student agitation. West Bengal plunged into a vortex of violence. The CPI-M developed differences with Food Minister P.C. Ghosh, who promptly defected from the United Front. Using his departure as a pretext, the governor of West Bengal dismissed the United Front government on 16 November. This dismissal further escalated violent protests against the governor, who then suspended the democratic electoral process altogether by imposing presidential rule in West Bengal in January 1968.
In the election held in the midst of violence in February 1969, the Left scored a massive electoral victory; however, the Left factions could not remain united. On the other side of the political divide, the Congress resurrected itself as the party of its leader, Indira Gandhi. Rebel congressmen returned to their natal political home, the Congress. The CPI remained committed to its ideology of viewing the Congress as a progressive bourgeois force and allied with the latter for the elections. However, the different segments of the parliamentary Left now clashed with one another over their respective political strategies and to preserve their constituencies through force. The CPI, the CPI-M, and the newly formed Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML), the breakaway Left faction of the CPI-M led by Charu Mazumdar, engaged in further violence against each other.
Despite spiraling violence, the CPI-M’s mass base continued to grow because of the ongoing class polarization in rural Bengal. The party’s mobilization of sharecroppers, agricultural workers, and middle peasants against landholding peasant proprietor classes produced political turmoil and electoral dividends for the CPI-M. In urban areas, students and youths affiliated with the CPI-ML continued to attack police and the “revisionist” CPI-M. At the same time, across West Bengal’s international border, the Pakistani military junta unleashed a massive genocide in East Pakistan directed against the Bengali nation’s language movement, which had snowballed into a struggle for national self-determination. The junta’s actions led to another large influx of refugees into West Bengal.
Political violence reached an unprecedented high and the central government seized upon the conflicts to continue presidential rule in Bengal. Elections in 1971 returned the CPI-M as the largest party in the provincial legislature; however, the party failed to form a government in West Bengal. Soon after, the Indian military intervened in East Pakistan and defeated the Pakistani Army in alliance with the Bangladeshi Muktibahini (liberation army). Subsequently, Indira Gandhi used her newfound popularity to hold assembly elections in West Bengal that were, as commonly acknowledged, marked by gross electoral irregularities. Between 1972 and 1977 the newly elected Congress government under Siddhartha Shankar Ray, in alliance with the CPI, unleashed massive violence on both the CPI-ML and the CPI-M. Mass murder of CPI-ML cadres by the Congress as well as the police ironically cleared the ground for the CPI-M to emerge as the largest oppositional force both within parliamentary politics and outside.
Political developments in West Bengal in the period from 1967 to 1977 thus marked a distinct shift in the politics of the CPI-M. The party’s growing electability demonstrated the efficacy of parliamentary politics as an arena of struggle. Violent clashes with breakaway radical communists and the resulting suppression by the State convinced CPI-M leaders of the failure of revolutionary insurrection. They thus became committed to using parliamentary means to return to power, purging and silencing those who were skeptical about the parliamentary path. In the face of the Congress government’s massive repression, CPI-M leaders remained cautious about overt radicalization of the cadres. They feared that repetition of labor and peasant militancy of late 1960s would invite more repression.
Party cadres were now brought under the control of the CPI-M’s centralized political apparatus. Party leaders developed a practice of socializing members through a long process of integration into the party structure. Starting as Auxiliary Group (AG) members, cadres were then promoted to candidate membership and finally full membership after proving their loyalty to the party leadership. The party established a number of party-affiliated organizations among peasants, workers, and youth groups, though these organizations remained formally independent of the party. Party members were supposed to guide and mobilize disaffiliated party members around the official party line; discipline now triumphed over spontaneity and loyalty replaced political ingenuity as the mechanism of party political activities. Thus emerged a distinct corporatist culture of the party and its affiliated organizations based on the principle of democratic centralism in which central control superseded democracy.
Despite losing the elections in 1972, the new CPI-M gained moral capital by opposing the corrupt, faction-ridden Congress party. At the all-India level, almost all political parties came together against the Congress party’s dynastic “democracy.” Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay increasingly became politically isolated. To make matters worse, in 1975 the Allahabad High Court rendered a guilty verdict against Prime Minister Gandhi for violating Election Commission norms. Instead of accepting the verdict, Gandhi declared an internal emergency in the country and suspended democracy on the advice of the Congress chief minister of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Democracy, even in its nominal form, would return in India only in 1977, when elections were held again after being suspended for two years. Returning from their clandestine semi-underground conditions, CPI-M leaders now exercised enormous caution before contesting the provincial legislative elections on their own. In West Bengal the party sought to make adjustments not only with other Left parties, but also with the non-Left Janata Party. The Janata Party’s “unrealistic” seat sharing demands led the CPI-M to contest the 1977 elections on its own.
By this time, owing to both political practice and the repression of the Congress government, the CPI-M actually commanded the commonsensical idioms of politics. The social imaginaire formed in the 1940s to restructure the political economy of Bengal now became the primary image of the party. Its rhetoric centered on the earlier notion of inclusive social citizenship based on land reforms, universal secondary education, and workers’ access to managerial power within industry. This prompted the Left to organize a radical election campaign that led to the Left winning a historic victory in 1977 by capturing a two-thirds majority in the legislative assembly, defeating both the Congress and the Janata Party. Even a sprinkling of former CPI-ML members, who had joined the electoral contest, won seats in the assembly.
Interestingly, the Left’s moment of triumph at the hustings came about not by promising a people’s democratic revolution, but by heralding a social democratic program of agrarian and industrial reforms as well as an improved academic and health care environment. The Congress under Indira Gandhi appeared to have abandoned the party’s earlier vision for the establishment of a robust welfare state in India (championed most notably by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi’s father and independent India’s first prime minister). Ironically, despite maintaining that people’s democratic revolution was its ultimate goal, this social democratic vision of social justice was transformed into a political agenda by the CPI-M; this political agenda provided the party with the moral capital to win the provincial elections in West Bengal. By 1977, a significant proportion of the people of West Bengal were regarding the CPI-M as the party that stood for social justice and redistribution. It was this understanding of the Left Front government (headed by the CPI-M) that inflected the popular imagination as well as the commonsensical idiom of politics in the province—an understanding that would sustain the Left Front and the CPI-M for over three decades at the helm of power in West Bengal.
Moments of Consolidation and Decline
In 1977, the CPI-M-led Left Front captured the national political imagination by implementing the Sharecroppers’ Registration Act (SRA) and holding panchayat elections in 1979, fulfilling the demands of the Tebhaga movement from 1945. The SRA stipulated that a sharecropper would retain 75 percent of the produce if s/he supplied seeds, ploughs, and other implements of production. The Act also declared the eviction of sharecroppers illegal and gave the rural poor bargaining power with rich and middle peasants. Critics of the Act claimed that through such tenancy reforms the CPI-M actually institutionalized the vestiges of neo-feudal social relationships instituted from the days of Permanent Settlement.
Notwithstanding such critiques, through this Act the Left Front politically mobilized 1.2 million sharecroppers in rural Bengal. Instead of administering the SRA simply through the state bureaucratic machine the party mobilized the peasant unions and the cadres to deliver such reforms through collective action. The police were instructed to act on behalf of sharecroppers and the peasant union representatives. These very initiatives tended to undermine the earlier domination exercised by the rich peasantry in the countryside.
Under the Left Front, the panchayat now became an elected political body that delivered central government programs at the grassroots level without the mediation of bureaucratic intermediaries. Central funds could now be distributed through the members of the three-tier panchayat institution, elected by the rural population. To win the election in the panchayat, the Left depended upon the non-landholding, service-dependent rural middle classes who were often public sector employees, especially schoolteachers. In class terms, an alliance was forged between the rural poor and a segment of the middle classes and unionized public sector employees. In cultural terms, however, unionized public sector employees were often drawn from high-caste Hindu social backgrounds, with middle-class cultural capital. Thus, in a sense the Left broke the economic stranglehold of the former rentier aristocracy and rich peasants and replaced it with public sector-dependent service elites’ hegemony, a predominantly male, high-caste, and middle-class Hindu culture.
The CPI-M with its corporatist structure and long-standing socializing mechanism became the critical patronage distribution center in rural Bengal. The rural poor, now organized through various types of unions, depended on the party-controlled panchayats for ration cards to access subsidized food grains, government loans, and low-priced high-yielding varieties of seeds. They became involved in negotiations for higher agricultural wages. The panchayat also generated temporary jobs through “food for work” schemes and sought to create semi-permanent assets by digging wells and ponds and constructing roads. Self-help schemes for rural women, healthcare schemes for women and children, and adult literacy programs were organized through the auspices of the panchayats. This corporatist political structure provided a seeming stability in rural society and transformed class struggle into a ritualized form of bargaining over wages. This class coalition was sustained through a soft Bengali nationalism that claimed that successive Congress-controlled central governments had systematically deprived the rural poor through a discriminatory attitude toward Bengal.
In Bengal the Left created a new policy of electoralism, whereby elections were held not just for panchayats, provincial legislatures, and the national parliament—all of which were constitutionally mandated—but also for positions on school committees and in local clubs, youth welfare societies, and self-help associations. This electoralist policy put cadres and party workers constantly in an agitational mode. Campaigns for student unions, municipalities, and neighborhood associations similarly kept the party workers busy in urban areas. While elections created a venue for permanent mobilization and kept the polity in a state of constant excitement, the selection of candidates and the process of conducting elections remained highly bureaucratic, with the central party apparatus exercising control over the party’s political mechanism. This type of innovative political engagement and mobilization separated Left politics in West Bengal from that in other states.
This electoralism was reinforced by rituals surrounding annual conferences of organizations affiliated with the CPI and CPI-M. Annual conferences of party-affiliated student, teacher, and trade union organizations always included songs, sloganeering ceremonies, and the raising of flags to the wider cause of the fight for socialism. Besides, the party itself organized member renewal drives during the main party conferences and mobilized cadres in festival-like gatherings. Mass meetings, processions, staging plays, and singing songs all reinforced the hyper-mobilized state of party cadres and supporters. Thus, the CPI-M was able to create a political culture of activism even without organizing major mass movements along class lines.
The CPI-M and the Left Front government sponsored annual cultural festivals and youth festivals through the State Department of Culture and Information. Nonparty members were often mobilized on such occasions to participate in debates, discussions, plays, and songs. These taxpayer-sponsored activities institutionally reinforced the very social imaginaire that constituted the commonsensical idioms of politics in Left-ruled Bengal. This hyper mobilization and constant reinforcement of the commonsensical perception of social imaginaire of citizens’ rights enlarged the party’s membership among the masses.
The CPI-M used innovative methods to reach the masses. For instance, it built newspaper stands on street corners and in bus and railway stations to carry its party organ, Ganashakti. Copies of the publication were also pasted on the walls of public buildings. In these ways the party communicated its news (and ideological claims) to lay readers who would not have otherwise seen the party’s newspapers. In addition to CPI-M affiliated organizations, other parties in the coalition published their own periodicals to communicate the parties’ and government’s messages to their members. This created a wider, alternative, and counter-hegemonic information network for party supporters and movement sympathizers.
Commercial newspapers and larger news concerns constantly criticized the Left Front government’s decisions, but the constituents of the Left Front’s, particularly CPI-M’s, counter-hegemonic circuit of information became an alternative world of information sharing and cultural exchange that the commercial media was unable to penetrate. Thus, the party faithful had access to party-related information in readymade forms.
Furthermore, frequent general strikes (bandhs) against discrimination by the central government, blood donation drives to raise funds for the construction of thermal power stations, and youth processions on cycles from northern Bengal down to the southernmost town of Haldia to highlight the demand for a petrochemical unit in Bengal, to cite a few instances, raised public awareness each year in a manner that was unprecedented in West Bengal’s history.
The CPI-M thus created a “party society” in which local committee members controlled access to admissions in schools, colleges, and universities; helped ordinary folk gain admission into government hospitals; raised funds during natural disasters; and even were arbiters of divorce settlements and extramarital affairs. While such an extensive presence in the everyday life of ordinary citizens is not uncommon in communist regimes, the CPI-M’s party culture is unique in that it was created through popular hegemony and orchestrated through electoral means.
The Left Front made a breakthrough in increasing agrarian production and provided relief through unions to informal sector workers, thus creating a sense of entitlement for the poor. This entire exercise of communist involvement in social issues and participation in the quotidian life of the working poor, both in rural and urban areas, nurtured and sustained the idea of social citizenship. The very political culture and social imaginaire that it promoted in a ritualistic manner generated a commonsensical notion of fairness and an idea of citizenship. Without departing from the Hindu majoritarian ethos of Indian politics, it was the Left Front and the Left Front alone that was able to maintain communal harmony and peace in West Bengal. In the early stages of the Left Front government its most notable achievement was to prevent anti-Sikh pogroms in West Bengal in 1984 such as those that had swept through cities in the north in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Similarly, in a sensitive border state where nearly 25 percent of the population was Muslim, the party was able to maintain a reasonable degree of peace in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. Though the CPI-M-led Left Front did not address the issue of high levels of unemployment among Muslim minorities, the very absence of communal conflicts in West Bengal confirmed its secular image among Muslims in particular and secular-minded citizens in general. This also confirmed the idea of social citizenship and reinforced the social imaginaire that the CPI-M and the Left was promoting. These acts provided the party with moral capital and confirmed certain aspects of secular-democratic citizens’ rights that the social imaginaire associated with the party had pushed, even as the communists neglected to adequately address social marginalization.
Social peace was achieved at the cost of a gradual distancing from class struggle as a vehicle of mass mobilization. As the Soviet Union collapsed, and China aggressively advocated state capitalism in order to promote economic development, the CPI-M and the Left Front adopted the policy of attracting foreign direct and indigenous capital for investment in West Bengal. From the mid 1980s onwards, the government courted industrialists to invest in Bengal to shore up the state’s lackluster industrial performance. In1994 the CPI-M and the government it led in Calcutta adopted a “New Industrial Policy” that opened the door for large capital investment from monopoly houses against whom the manifesto of the party had promised to stage the people’s democratic revolution. Thus veteran chief minister Jyoti Basu showered favor on a local industrialist, R.P. Goenka. Later on his successor, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, invited Tata, one of the largest monopoly houses in India, to invest in Bengal; and the government made efforts to acquire land from the peasants near Calcutta against their wishes for Tata to set up industries. They even promised to establish special economic zones for foreign capitalists. More importantly, they sought to ignore the objections of labor and peasant unions against the new tilt in their policies.
Ironically, the party at the all-Indian level opposed the liberalization and deregulation drives engineered by central governments from 1991 to 2008 under the leadership of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Throughout the 1990s this duality of courting capital and opposing liberalization undermined the party’s stature as the harbinger of an alternative policy of development. The CPI-M’s new neoliberal policies were manifested dramatically in 1997, in the Left Front’s efforts at urban restructuring in the capital city of Calcutta. “Operation Sunshine,” as it was called, was a state-sponsored effort to drive out street vendors and informal working populations from major avenues in the city in an effort to reclaim “public space.” Kanti Ganguly, a state-level CPI-M leader, pointed to the irony in this crackdown: “I once helped hawkers [vendors] invade the sidewalks. I was wrong. They were helpless refugees then. Now they do not need this kind of help.” Operation Sunshine offered an instance of the Left Front struggling in the period of neoliberalism to reconcile the contradictory aspirations of its class coalition and a resultant tension in the social imaginaire, between the urban middle and informal working classes.
The penchant for social peace in the framework of “party society” enabled the party to gloss over the resurgence of identity politics among the Dalits and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in north Indian politics. The rise of social justice movements spearheaded by the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav in neighboring Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, undermined the Left’s ability to deal with the question of caste within the analytical framework of class.
National “compulsions” of the CPI-M-led Left Front to defeat the Hindu-nationalist BJP meant that the Left often aligned itself electorally with identity-based political parties. Thus, the class-based mobilization of the Left existed uneasily in northern India with the Left alliance with caste and identity based politics. Indeed, by the end of the 1990s, low-caste leadership in the West Bengal CPI-M party had been relegated to the district levels.
Similarly, the issue of the rights of ethno-linguistic minorities to claim self-governance even in West Bengal gave rise to a conflict in Darjeeling district, the Himalayan region of the state. Nepali-speaking middle classes and even tea-garden workers who were once the most critical supporters of the CPI-M demanded secession, in the form of the Gorkhaland movement, from Left-ruled Bengal. This was also the period of the ascendancy of different types of identity politics, such as the Kamtapuri movement in north Bengal, positing solutions for the plight of Bengal’s indigenous Rajbansi and “tribal” population. In addition to sidelining caste and ethno-linguistic questions in the state, the party failed to address the women’s movement, which was gaining prominence in India at this time. The Left Front government systematically implemented an affirmative action program for women in the three-tier panchayat raj, but the CPI-M—as well as the other communist parties—remained unmoved by the challenge of feminist politics. The party organization’s own socialization program was male centered and very few women held leadership roles in local, district, and provincial-level party organizations. This lack of attention to questions of gender became a particular handicap for the party when the opposition produced a populist firebrand leader in the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee.
Notwithstanding such difficulties the CPI-M continued to win elections between 1991 and 2009, a period when anti-incumbency waves shattered wellentrenched, local-level political structures elsewhere in India. The social “peace” that the party had created was preferred, arguably, by a substantial section of the population in comparison to the caste and communal violence that had swept through northern India since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. The combined effect of patronage politics, strong party organization, and grassroots-level social and economic reforms, when contrasted to the intensification of divisive identity politics elsewhere in the country, meant that the Left Front retained its rural strongholds in West Bengal.
Indeed in 1996, the party came close to actualizing its national political line of isolating both the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the Congress as national-level alternatives. The “Third Front” of various regional parties including the Left were able to secure a simple majority of parliamentary seats at the hustings, as Indian politics moved from an era dominated by urban English-speaking, high-caste Hindu middle-class elites to vernacular elites from rural backgrounds. The newly elected regional bosses offered Jyoti Basu the position of Indian prime minister. Curiously, the party failed to capitalize on the very logic of the politics it had pursued throughout the 1990s, of trying to build a non-Congress party, non-BJP alternative at the national level. Indeed the party had remained deeply engaged in parliamentary politics and its power base was maintained by the parliamentary mobilization it had been able to orchestrate in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. Yet, members of the CPI-M politburo and central committee felt that the party would not be in a position to implement a Left manifesto within the framework of such a heterodox coalition. The Left Front did not join the new United Front (UF) government and instead chose to support it from outside. The UF government was built on the alternative “Third Front” politics championed by the CPI-M, but the party restrained its most senior leader, Jyoti Basu, from becoming prime minister. As a disciplined member of the CPI-M, Basu accepted the party’s diktat, but he called it a “historic blunder.”
Within four years of this incident Basu had retired from active politics. In 2000, he was succeeded by his longtime lieutenant in West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya promised aggressive industrialization and implementation of more deregulated “liberalized” politics and economics. The party could still gloss over its contradiction between rhetoric and practice. Paradoxically, the CPI-M committed itself to opposing deregulation and structural adjustment programs (SAP) by the BJP-led coalition government in Delhi, but followed the same policies in West Bengal, claiming that the quasi-federal structure left little room for the provincial governments to experiment with alternative industrial policies.
Bhattacharya’s enormous electoral dividend came as a result of the curious coincidence of three crucial factors. First, the Hindu supremacist BJP government openly engaged in a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. In West Bengal, the CPI-M’s main adversary, a breakaway faction of the Congress led by populist demagogue Mamata Banerjee, alternated between allying with the BJP as well as the Congress in seeking to challenge the political hegemony of the Left. This attitude of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was critically punished by the electorate; given that nearly 25 percent of the electorate comprised Muslims, Banerjee’s “secular” credentials suffered in the alliance with the BJP, especially vis-à-vis the Left.
Second, Bhattacharya aggressively courted Calcutta’s middle classes by promising investments from India’s largest monopoly house headed by Ratan Tata. The Left government garnered promises from Indonesian multinational concerns such as Salim Industries to support infrastructural development. Indigenous industrial conglomerates such as Jindal Steel and Videocon also promised investments in the steel industry and consumer goods industry in West Bengal. Moreover, the central government approved an investment in Haldia for a petrochemical hub.
Third, Bhattacharya followed a new policy of aggressive personal campaigning that contrasted with the former chief minister’s rather distant approach to governance.
The West Bengal Left’s sweeping victory in the 2004 parliamentary election was a reaction, it can be argued, against the BJP government’s propaganda of national “growth” and the real life pogroms that threatened India’s economic development even in the view of India’s Hindu middle classes. The Left, and particularly Bhattacharya, assumed that its electoral victory signaled approval for rapid industrialization through investment by monopoly capital. The Left argued that in Bengal through land reforms, panchayat raj, and the process of unionization, they had created an alternative structure of governance that would prevent monopoly capital from exerting undue influence in the social fabric of West Bengal. In reality the Left forgot its own historic lessons. In a predominantly agrarian state with a massive concentration of population in agriculture, any drive toward industrialization would require acquisition of land from the peasantry. For more than four decades segments of the Left had highlighted the tillers’ right to the land they ploughed; they had promised to struggle against the alliance between monopoly capital and landed aristocracy.
Thus the party’s drive to acquire land in a fertile region of south Bengal for the Tatas, a monopoly capitalist house, exposed the fissures of the class coalition that the Left had stitched together over four decades. More importantly, this gesture stood in symbolic opposition to the social imaginaire that constituted the commonsensical idiom of Left politics in West Bengal. The Left won the legislative elections in 2006 with a handsome margin not because these contradictions were not sharp enough, but because the opposition leadership lacked credibility in the eyes of the Bengali electorate. Yet within two years of the massive 2006 mandate, as noted below, the contradictions inherent in Left policies between urban middle-class constituents and rural middle peasants were sharpened not so much by the moribund opposition but more so by radical Maoists and a segment of the intelligentsia who once constituted the pocket borough of the Left.
What happened next was truly a surreal moment in Bengal’s political history. In 2007 in east Medinipur district, a mere notice of land acquisition by the nearest city development corporation provoked massive peasant unrest against the CPI-M-led Left Front government. Located within 100 miles of Calcutta, the district was easily accessible to the media and the peasant unrest was highlighted to the fullest extent. Indeed this unrest took place in a region where the Left controlled all local government institutions. Local party activists and residents revolted against the district committee and effectively immobilized the district and state-level bureaucratic administration. The Left Front government decided to intervene in the situation by ordering the police to fire on the peasants. This incident, which led to the death of fourteen people in Nandigram, provoked unprecedented popular disgust against the government. Police firing on peasants is not new in India; nor was the casualty rate high compared to earlier incidents. The real issue was that the Left, which claimed for itself the mantle of the savior of the peasantry from the dominant class coalition of monopoly capital and landed aristocracy, was now using the police and party cadres to acquire land for monopoly capital in the east Medinipur district.
In Singur, near Calcutta, the Left Front government began acquiring fertile farmland, in this case for Tata Motors to set up a car manufacturing center. Peasant agitations sprang up in resistance against the land acquisition drive and this opposition triggered a much wider all-India revulsion against the Left. The commercial media and concerned Marxist intellectuals became critical of Left Front policy. Within the Front itself smaller constituents like the Forward Bloc and the RSP expressed their disapproval of the CPI-M’s decision. Confusion within the ranks of the Left, coupled with the collapse of the class coalition that the Left represented and the undermining of the social imaginaire that had sustained the Left in power, produced a debacle for the Left in the 2009 election, when for the first time since 1971, the Left lost the majority of seats from West Bengal in the national Parliament. This erosion of popularity remained unchanged in the following months and in April-May 2011 opposition forces led by the Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee finally accessed political power in the provincial elections for the first time in thirty-four years.
The rise and fall of the Left in Bengal exposes the limits of social democratic experiments conducted within the institutions of parliamentary democracy in South Asia. The class coalition made up of indigent intelligentsia, white-collar unionized public sector employees, and rural poor was not able to withstand the onslaught of the neoliberal transformation of India’s political economy. Through political practice and cultural movements, the Left had created a social imaginaire that altered the commonsensical idioms of politics in Bengal in favor of such a class coalition. In the end, however, the contradiction between rhetoric and practice and the gradual marginalization of class struggle itself undermined the fragile social peace that the Left had created over the last thirty years.
The continuing affective significance of the social imaginaire discussed in this article and its role in the departure of the Left Front in 2011 are important to remember. The campaign slogan of the opposition led by Mamata Banerjee, and supported by sections of the Maoists was “Ma, Mati, Manush” (mother/land, land, and people). This popular slogan, and the campaign that developed around it, highlighted the affective ties of belonging based on the social relationship between material resources, “land,” and collective identity, “people.” Moreover, as a message emanating from the opposition, the slogan posited this triangulation as “resistance” against an oppressive state. Ironically, the coordinates of this formulation, and the social imaginaire it gives voice to, testifies to the very legacy of the communist Left in West Bengal. The language of the communists, it can be argued, was appropriated and used by the opposition— including Maoists—to signal a popular rebellion, in a manner reminiscent of Marx’s description in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “Precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries….”
The final attempt to gloss over the emerging class contradictions between middle classes imbued with neoliberal dreams and the plight of the rural poor and the industrial working classes through the courting of monopoly capital ended the unique communist experiment with parliamentary democracy in West Bengal. It will be of interest to see how future sociopolitical coalitions seek to engage with the communist-generated social imaginaire and notions of social citizenship in West Bengal, and beyond.