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From the other side

The CPI(M) is all set to sit in the opposition in West Bengal. Instead of stalling the state’s progress, the ‘new Left’ must take democracy more seriously, writes Sumit Mitra.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:29 IST
Sumit Mitra

With barely three weeks to go for the West Bengal assembly poll results to be announced, there is little doubt now that the commies will sit in the opposition, and that too with not too many seats to share among them. For Bengalis, it is time to celebrate, for restoration of normal democracy, if not anything else. For them it has indeed been a harrowing experience living for 34 years under the rule of a crazy lot who fancied themselves as little Stalins clad in dhoti, with all the dictator’s crookedness and criminality but without an iota of his power and talent.

The question now is: when the current lot of CPI(M) leaders are directed to the opposition benches, how will they define their new role? It may not be correct to assume that, put in the opposition, it will act much like its siblings in Kerala and Tripura where the party, unlike in Bengal, has at no stage enjoyed a perpetual lease to govern. But Bengal is a different story, where, though the party’s authority is limited to the state’s boundary, its long tenure, comparable to an extent to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan (1955 to 2009, with a 11-month break in 1995), has turned the CPI(M) into what is often called the party of governance. The term is not always a compliment. In Japan, the LDP rule was marked, among other things, by kaban, or a briefcase loaded with cash. In Bengal, the CPI(M) could not have had too many kaban because its misgovernance left the people too poor to pay hefty bribes. Nevertheless, being in power too long must be painful to lose.

It is likely, therefore, that the CPI(M) will be out to prove what its leaders are already telling the electorate, that it will ‘regret’ if it votes Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool-Congress alliance to power. In this exercise, it will be futile for it to imitate its own strategy in 1972, when, after calling the election held in that year “rigged,” it directed its 14 MLAs to boycott the assembly for all its five years. The times were different, parliamentary and assembly proceedings were not shown on television as they now are, so such obduracy will only recoil on them. Besides, one reasonably expects the Left Front to win a lot more MLAs now than in 1972, so it will be stupid to gag a voice so loud.

The CPI(M) can, of course, cast itself in a role as obstreperous as possible both within and outside the assembly. It can bitch about every new bill in the assembly and go berserk on the streets, in conformity with its trademark public behaviour. That will be an action replay of the 1960s and 70s when the party and its trade unions not only had the dubious distinction of putting the word ‘gherao’ into the Oxford English Dictionary but were also primarily responsible for forcing a flight of capital from the state, which has not flown back ever since.

The CPI(M) is already projecting its 60-ish and foul-mouthed housing minister Gautam Deb as its wartime general, subject, to a great extent, to his winning the election from Kolkata’s north suburb of Dum Dum where Bratya Basu, a theatre producer and political greenhorn, is giving him a run for his money.

In his abrasiveness, and tendency to paint every democratic contest as a do-or-die combat, Deb is a true Stalinist who owes his persona to the late Promode Dasgupta, former state chief whose fanatical intolerance of other people’s points of view is legendary.

It will be sad if an unreformed Deb leads the CPI(M) in Bengal for the next five years as that has a strong possibility to spoil the state’s chances to attract investment capital after a decades long drought. The state’s investment figures should shock everybody, including sympathetic souls at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Of the $193 billion that India has received between 1991 and now in foreign direct investment (FDI), of which the share of Delhi alone is 19%, that of West Bengal has been a ‘revolutionary’ 1%. Besides, of the 450 ongoing Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects in India, valued at Rs224,175.8 crore, West Bengal accounts for only five projects, valued at Rs2,055.4 crore, or less than 1%. It’s obvious that if the opposition leaders force their cadre into kicking off a fresh round of civic unrest, it will leave the task of regenerating Bengal as elusive as it was.

But the question that needs to be addressed is: what will the CPI(M) gain by blocking the state’s road to progress, and at what cost to itself? Most probably it will gain nothing but its name will be mud forever. The early round of the 2011 census has brought up the interesting fact that education is at last spreading among the state’s younger age groups with impressive speed, the number of those who are just matriculates in the 20-39 age group having gone up 50% since the previous census even though overall population has increased by only 13.93%. Bandhs, show of lathi, throwing bombs and showering vulgar abuses on those who think differently are Neanderthal tactics for which the number of admirers may taper off with the spread of education and influence of the digital media.

Bengal’s ‘new Left’, if it comes into being, must take democracy a lot more seriously than it did in the past. The impasse that has now been created between Banerjee and the Left, resulting mainly from the latter’s morbid fear that she’d wrest power from them, should be removed, with the Left going more than half way to do it, being its architect in the first place. That may help Banerjee give up her obsessive desire to ‘outleft’ the Left in every manner, be it in the matter of land acquisition, or in allowing unionisation to spread everywhere, including the civil uniformed forces. Tomorrow’s Left must help her turn Right a bit so that it can adapt its legacy of philosophy to the new millennium and a changed constituency.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.