Early last year, Prakash Karat met Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and told him not to allow US firm Warner Brothers to build multiplex cinemas in Calcutta. The CPI(M) general secretary told the West Bengal chief minister that this would hurt the party’s chances in student union elections at Delhi University. Bhattacharjee, who saw the investment as both job-creating and helpful to his Calcutta revival plans, must have wondered at the tenuous link. But he acquiesced. Soon afterwards, he sent Karat a newspaper article about communist-ruled Vietnam welcoming a Warner Brothers plan to build multiplexes across Ho Chi Minh City. It was another small example of how the general secretary is prepared to wage ideological crusades to the last Bengali.
India’s communist parties have lived a charmed life. Their political structure resembles a chimera, a beast with three different heads: a regional party of Bengali subnationalism, a Keralite caste coalition and a Delhi-based leadership made up of armchair Marxists.
The most curious element is the national leadership. Bengali communists joke about the Delhi comrades, saying “they can’t win a single panchayat seat between them”. Yet the regional party more than tolerates them. Bengal communists, with an unparalleled 30 years of successive election victories under their belt, lets a group of ageing student radicals act as their spokesmen and dictate their parliamentary agenda. The pragmatic Delhi communists, like Harkishan Singh Surjeet, understood this peculiar situation and furled their political sails accordingly. The ideologues, like Karat, seem blind to their true position and are slowly pushing an agenda detrimental to the interests of the Bengal party.
Why does Alimuddin Street accept this partnership of the unbeatable and the unelectable? The answer lies in the curious nature of West Bengal communism. The Bengal communist leadership is largely upper-caste urban elite. And so are its policies. Social scientist Yogendra Yadav has pointed out that even the Gujarat government has a better record of hiring Muslims and Dalits. Ross Mallick, author of a seminal work on Bengal’s political economy, ‘Development Policy of a Communist Government’, argues the communist party ceased to be revolutionary after its re-election in the 1970s. “Even its land reforms affected a very small elite group and was corrupted quickly over time.” Ambedkar used to dismiss Indian communists as “a bunch of Brahmin boys”. Yet the image of the Left is that of a party dedicated to the interests of the poor and pink-hued progressivism.
One reason this spin is successful lies in the comrades’ barrage of class-war rhetoric. They talk the Left talk. Loudly. Hence the pictures of Stalin on walls in Calcutta. Hence the ritual stoning of the American Centre on Chowringhee — even though its Calcutta library is the most-used in the world. Hence the utility of having a group of JNU fellow-travellers spouting about inequality and imperialism. As Mallick notes, “The communists keep their ideology rhetorical, they don’t bother to implement it on the ground.” If anything, they use Marxist rhetoric to avoid social reform. One remembers the then chief minister Jyoti Basu telling the Mandal Commission, poker-faced, that “caste was a legacy of the feudal system” and thus “no longer relevant for West Bengal”.
The strategy was brilliant. Intellectuals and students were for a long time uncritical of the Left. Even now Bengal communists scoop up a disproportionate number of poor voters while dishing out only words in return. Bengal communists have won election after election despite being unable to arrest a state-level economic decline that had begun soon after Partition. The Delhi communists played their role in all this illusion.
Not that there weren’t tensions between the two. Says Mallick, “The national leaders always felt the West Bengal party made too many compromises from the 1970s onwards.” However, this pamphleteering didn’t rock the relationship. In the end, the Delhi ideologues were just talkers, their redspeak couldn’t affect the West Bengal party’s fortunes.
But the 1991 reforms changed the rules of the game. The economic growth in west and south India have forced the communists to abandon their do-nothing economic policies. With reforms spreading to Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, Alimuddin Street has changed its stripes. Basu didn’t have the mindset to make the necessary Great Leap Forward. His successor, Bhattacharjee, has shown a greater inclination to become the Bengali Deng Xiaoping.
This is breeding a contradiction between state and national leadership that is becoming harder to paper over. So far the two have a deal, says political scientist Aseema Sinha of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whereby “the national leadership does not interfere in the pursuit of pro-reform policies in West Bengal” while the state party is silent about “national stances” that contradict what the CPI(M) is doing in Bengal.
But the Bengal economic renaissance requires policies increasingly incompatible with the stance of the Delhi communists. Bhattacharjee wants six private airports. He needs supply chains to link rural farmers with big city shops, so he wants Wal-Mart. He wants infrastructure investment, but that will fall short until the door is opened to foreign insurance companies. Japan and Israel, two US military allies, are among the state’s biggest investors. Karat plots day and night against all of this, forcing Buddhadeb to make tortured excuses. Sinha points to the CM’s absurd claim that Bengal’s reform polices are more “indigenous” than their central counterparts even as the state uses scores of World Bank and UK aid advisors.
PM Manmohan Singh, because he knows India will falter if the eastern state doesn’t boom, has been happy to give it a helping hand. Bhattacharjee counted on Singh’s help to modernise Dum Dum airport and Haldia port. The Centre was committed to providing Rs 100 billion for local infrastructure. The contrast with Karat, whose prescriptions are inimical to Bengal’s development, is striking. Unsurprisingly, when Singh used to meet Bhattacharjee and ask for help in moderating Karat, the CM would slap his forehead — Karat was a migraine for him too.
The Bengal communist leaders are past experts at coopting or obliterating their movement’s fringe elements. Basu and E.M.S. Namboodiripad, argues Mallick, were moderates who joined the more radical CPI(M) when the party split in 1964 and successfully tamed it from within.
Alimuddin Street needs to recognise it has a new fringe element in its ranks. Karat’s decision to play Russian roulette over the Indo-US nuclear deal has come at a poor time for the West Bengal party. The gains of economic reforms are some years down the line. The pains are already here — most notably in the Nandigram killings. Unsurprisingly, the West Bengal party is the most interested in compromise solutions like the ‘expert panel’ to review the deal.
Singh has long noticed the gap developing between the Delhi and Calcutta comrades. His interview to the Calcutta-based Telegraph was an appeal to the West Bengal party to recognise their genuine interests. However, ideology is still too intertwined into the party’s legitimacy. Many in the state party don’t accept that the logic of economic reforms means the volume of the Delhi squawkbox needs to be reduced. “Eventually, the Bengal party needs to speak up and not genuflect before the national party,” says political scientist Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University-Bloomington. “Karat is the Peter Pan of Indian politics — because he doesn’t govern anything he’s never had to grow up.” Sinha points out a more practical problem: thanks to recent deaths, Bengal holds only four of the CPI(M) politburo’s 17 seats. She argues change will come “only when the politburo undergoes a generational change”. The state party should note Calcuttans feel Singh’s arguments have merit. A TNS poll says 64 per cent of them supported the nuclear deal and only 11 per cent blame Singh for the crisis, above the national average.
Karat and the Delhi communists are as distant from the public pulse as an Indian politician can be. They are running against the tide of history. Mao Zedong had a name for their sort: “All the reputedly powerful reactionaries are merely paper tigers. The reason is that they are divorced from the people.”
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society, New York