West Bengal, under the stewardship of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, reveals a changed reality. The new generation of voters, who have grown to adulthood in the 26 years that the CPI(M)-led Left Front has held on to power, has radically altered orthodoxies. If the young want to pursue ‘the sweet life of globalisation’, neither Bhattacharjee nor his party has any quarrels with it.
Neither Bhattacharjee nor CPI(M) boss Anil Biswas is an old school Marxist. At no time in the last three years has this been as clear as now. In an election in which two coalitions, one secular and the other Hindu nationalist, are scrambling for votes, the CPI(M) campaign slogan is not ‘save the nation from Hindutva’. The focus is on feeling good. The CPI(M) leaders have used the election to market their success as architects of a Shining West Bengal, drawing a distinction between the BJP’s version and its own.
Today, the state’s leaders are savvy, though not unprincipled, go-getters. As Bhattacharjee says, “West Bengal will outstrip Hyderabad as a destination for global investors by 2010.” For him, the issue in this election is the strategies that India will adopt to transform itself into a globalised economy, where the measure of success is the improvement in the quality of life of the lowest sections, in addition to the creation of wealth. Therefore, when the CPI(M) accuses the BJP of selling out to global capitalism, the fury is over the price at which the deal has been struck,not against the deal itself.
Therefore, businesses — big and small, the MNCs and the entrepreneur-investor — once ‘class enemies’, are now partners in development. And Bhattacharjee is not in the least bit squeamish about nagging a tired administration into giving land in Sankrail, Howrah district, to Pepsi to set up an agro-processing unit. Nor are CPI(M) leaders embarrassed at lobbying for a project that would have, in the past, sparked off a crisis within the party.
For someone who found the rigid rules of the CPI(M) claustrophobic because it discouraged democratic debate, Bhattacharjee is using skills he must have learnt during his 15-year tenure as the state’s information minister to communicate his vision and methods down the ladder. In doing so, he has begun to cut out the older, informal channels of communication and power that created a tangled network between Writers’ Buildings and the gram panchayat. Bhattacharjee’s technology of choice is video-conferencing. When he needs to communicate with a district administration, he organises a meeting that is attended not just by the district magistrate or the zilla sabhadhipati, but as many of the junior bureaucrats as are needed to get the job done.
His excursions into a space that no West Bengal CM had deigned to venture before — such as cultural events and art exhibitions — are not entirely to satisfy a personal interest; it is also a calculated exercise in communicating to people who have grown apolitical.
The CPI(M) is using appeals to self-interest and the ethics of personal achievement to bulldoze internal opposition. It was a near impossible task to disarm deeply entrenched notions of what the party stood for. To begin from scratch is easy. To manage an internal struggle over ideas is difficult.
Powered by alliances with IBM, Wipro, Mitsubishi and anyone else willing to use the knowledge resources, skilled manpower and ambitions of a youthful population, Bhattacharjee is gambling on the market for such a future. The CPI(M) remains a pro-poor party, as well as a pro-worker party. But the way in which it now fulfils its promises has changed.
Bhattacharjee, unlike his predecessors, is not wasting time agonising over carrying land reforms forward or about persuading trade unions to act ‘responsibly’. He is talking about value additions in agriculture that’ll convert mountains of rotting produce into cash for the farmer — even as he hopes that workers will understand what the collective bargaining mechanism of the trade union did not.
So when Nitish Sengupta, the Trinamool Congress candidate from Contai in Midnapore district, takes pride that the Life Insurance Corporation has declared his constituency as the top buyer in the country for its insurance products, he inadvertently points to the success of the CPI(M) in not only making the peasant richer but also an aspirant with a future.
Since the young and the old in West Bengal are eager to mimic the consumer culture of their peers elsewhere in India, Bhattacharjee clearly believes that it is up to him to find ways of delivering designer lifestyles at their doorstep.