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Nandigram and the Left


However much the  CPI(M),  including the rather overly ebullient chief minister of West Bengal, may regret the police firing at Nandigram on March 14, the last word does not seem to get said on the issue.

Things have now come to a pass when as well-reputed a socialist as Surinder Mohan has called upon the Left-Front (LF) allies of the  CPI(M) to withdraw their support to the government in West Bengal and begin to look to forge a “genuine Left  movement after the defection of the CPI(M) from the camp.”  Surinder Mohan, believing that “those who sell their loyalties to the affluent vested interests cannot dismount from the tiger they have decided to climb on, so easily,” considers the   CPI(M) to have done so. (Mainstream, March 30-April 5, 07).

Let me say forthwith that, my own questions or reservations about the  CPI(M)-led government’s policy directions notwithstanding, I stand staunchly by the LF.  I  do so because I hold its history and role over the last three decades as having been pivotal in modulating India’s centrist political culture to the good on a wide spectrum of national concerns, and for being indubitably the most credible organized force against majoritarian fascism.

I could supplement that with a rather more petty middle-class predilection:  I think that by and large the austere and educated decency of Left leaderships is often a heartening relief from the noisy abusiveness of much else that is increasingly on offer. In the Nandigram case, for instance, after all the defence put up by spokespersons of the CPI(M), and not all of that gratuitous, the March 14 killings of 14 civilians have drawn reiterated remorse from the party.  This in itself seems refreshing when it is recalled that no regrets are forthcoming from Narinder Modi or anybody else from the Sangh Parivar for the unthinkable brutalities of Gujarat 2002 even five years after the carnage. 

Much has gone wrong at Nandigram, and the fact that there is substance to some critiques of the CPI(M)   in the matter cannot be denied.  Indeed, the fact that  this much is now acknowledged by party leaderships as well is not the least of reasons to refuse the deleteriously myopic ( reactionary or romantic) invite to throw the baby with the bath water.  Apologies, therefore, to Surinder Mohan of whom I do think highly.  And to other friends who may have like thoughts in mind.

II

The attack on the  CPI(M) has come from disparate quarters, and objectivity requires that these be sifted one from the other.

There are, first of all, those whose  breastbeating bears less on the lives and interests of the Bengal peasantry, more on seizing upon the moment to see the back of the LF—something they have failed to effect through the democratic process over seven consecutive elections to the Assembly.  Indeed, there is here much of the crocodile in evidence.  It should not be forgotten that these are forces who till the other day bemoaned the “flight of industry” from West Bengal, holding the  CPI(M) especially culpable for having pampered the peasantry inorder to consolidate its “vote bank.”  That their own erstwhile “vote bank” among the city bhadralok is today impatient for industrial development seems suddenly  a matter of secondary concern.  Therefore, the less said here the better.

Greater respect is due to critics who are understandably disillusioned that an occurrence like the March 14 firing should have happened under a LF dispensation.  Such disillusionement then reflects on the quality of expectation that wide sections of progressive Indians have come to associate with the general culture of Left politics.  Thus, whereas state violence vented on   civilians may seem routine enough in many parts of the country, that it should have happened in West Bengal has shocked many.  That a number of  CPI(M) workers were killed, burnt, and evicted from Nandigram between Jan.,3 and March 14 has justified  the fatalities of March 14 as little as Godhra justified the Gujarat carnage, although the analogy is merely an argumentative one. I may hasten to add that, having read a full account of the events at Nandigram between January and March, I am able to sense the impotence that the state must have felt at its near-total exclusion from the area.  The tragedy clearly lay in the gross ineptitude with which the state then chose to approach the problem.

A third category comprises non-party Left ideologues of proven commitment who cannot reconcile their learned and idealized constructions of Left praxis with the messy contradictions on the ground.  Whereas it would be all-too-easy to dub their concerns as aspects of “abstraction,” it must be remembered that they perform the all-important task of holding the practicing Left to its own highest pronouncements.  Having read carefully the findings of the  Citizens’ Committee which visited Nandigram to see the situation first hand, its crucial conclusion that “the vast bulk of the villagers” were “opposed to the take-over of land and most are refusing compensation” throws up a  disquieting question—disquieting in that one is speaking in the context of a LF-governed state.

Clearly, the disjunct between the LF government and the inhabitants of Nandigram bespeaks a majesterial tendency to take people for granted, ostensibly because much benefit has accrued to them from LF governance in land policy.  This paternalistic bent of mind underscores the pitfalls that often await those who succumb to the temptation to put arbitray markers to the dynamics of democracy.  That dynamics, alas, rarely permits the luxury to do-gooders to rest on their laurels.

Indeed this hiatus in the  CPI(M)’s democratic praxis is testified to by a slew of statements made not just by leaders of the  CPI,  RSP, Forward Block but by no less a person than Jyoti Basu who has squarely upbraided the chief minister for his cavalier attitude not just towards LF partners but members of his cabinet.  If there be truth to these aspersions, I will need to add my insignificant citizens’ voice to the caution that distinguished well-wishers of the Left have expressed. Any time that a Left political culture succumbs to a complacency that entices it into  authoritarian impulses, the consequences can be not just contingent but far-reaching.  In this regard, the   lessons of the history of socialist regimes in the recent past can be forgotten at grave peril to the future of Left politics. This is indeed a course that threatens to bring into question the very assumptions which inform the personality of the  Left; its status as an alterity in the terrain of economic principles already in jeopardy, the  Left stands to become a party to the obliteration of its status as a political alterity as well.  Think that this sort of charge has been articulated formally by be CPI at the conclusion of its two-day state conference.  The party introspects that the LF in West Bengal has failed to emerge as a model in the country; its only job seems to be merely trying to stay in power (Hinduatan Times, April 10, 2007). Somewhere in that inter-party polemic must reside a grain of truth.

III

Then the larger question:  the chief minister of West Bengal is on record as having said that nobody should have any illusion that what the LF is “doing” in West Bengal is “capitalism”.  I recall that Prakash Karat, now General Secretary of the CPI(M), writing in an issue of the Marxist, expressed himself similarly to the effect that it would be a theoretical absurdity to expect just one state in India to operate an economic system outside the Indian capitalist path of development.

The candour in these articulations is laudable.  That, however, still leaves the question as to the quality and axes of equation the LF ought to have with the current phase of Indian capitalism.  For example, is it to be understood that the state government has no choice in the matter of endorsing the proposition that the only capitalism possible now is one that inevitably passes through the SEZ?  And I make no exception here for the SEZ idea as its contours and terms of operation might be modified in line with stipulations made by the Left.  Given that those stipulations as of this minute remain unendorsed by the UPA government, in its present form, to mention but one detail, the tax concessions proposed for SEZ investors (this according to a finance ministry estimate) would result in a revenue loss of some 1,60,000 crores!  That being the case, wouldn’t the cost-benefit status of SEZs in relation both to investible revenues and employment generation in the state sector seem dubious in the extreme? And are we to believe that the corporate SEZ investor will place employment generation ahead of the maximization of profit? Or create for us the sort of infra-structure which may be useful to the common Indian but useless to him?

The point is that during the tenure of the UPA government the Left has from time to time made a stream of people-friendly interventions in economic policy initiatives dear to the heart of those at the apex of financial management (and dear to the heart of those that forged the Washington Consensus of 1990).  Be it on the question of disinvestments in public undertakings, the operation of the FDI regime, convertibility of the currency on Capital account, the scale of corporate taxation, corporate incursions into the retail market, futures trading in essential food items, Employees Provident Fund  , opening up the Insurance sector, the scale of investments in the social sector, public investments to enhance the prospects of weaker sections, the pricing of petroleum products, or the operation of labour laws and worker’s rights—the burden of Left interventions has been to guide Indian capitalism away from globalised monetarism towards a humane welfarism.  The central Left endeavour has been to preserve the primary role of the state and to dissuade the ruling class from massive transfer of assets to private hands.

That being the record—and a most laudable one at that—why need the Left bite at the SEZ apple at all?  And then for the Left   to function as a facilitator to the SEZ investor certainly stands to be seen as comprising  a turn around that neither benefits the people of India nor the future of Left politics.

As to industrialization, it now turns up that West Bengal does infact have waste and fallow land far in excess of the 1% spoken of by the chief minister.  One is aware that inter-state competition in the matter of attracting corporate investment in industry is a reality.  But does that necessarily mean that the  LF enter into that competition on the terms set by the corporate sector?  Surely, the LF in West Bengal is possessed of other forms of intellectual and governmental initiatives, together with the great asset of an unperturbed social milieu, that can be offered as LF USPs.  And why should the LF be perceived to be taking away from those that it spent three decades of struggle and governance to give to (indicated are the magnificent achievements of according ownership and permanent tenancy rights to various sections of the farming community—achievements that have indeed placed the LF among international record books) and giving to those who are, in theory at least, still regarded as class enemies? And how credible does such a course render the Left’s harangues against precisely such practices in other parts of the country?  It would be useless to pretend that  public peceptions spawned by these contradictions do not  yield transformed negative equations in social relations in ways that threaten to undermine the identity of the Left per se.

It is also rather hard to credit wholly the proposition that little revenue and employment generation can be looked to via the small scale, and medium entrepreneurial and retail sectors that may be based on agricultural production.
It is a question as to whether the big and basic industry route or a creative amalgam of the latter is more conducive to enhancing rural incomes and purchasing power.  Certainly, where industry wishes to come, it ought to be within the resource of an LF leadership to inspire such industrialists to show something of the pioneering spirit which informed their initiatives at the dawn of independence. Surely, the Left can hardly be seen to be consistent in demanding, on the one hand, higher taxation (including capital gains tax) on corporate incomes, and, on the other, offering to them incentives at home.

I think of Cuba that has no limousines, and none of the accoutrement of consumption that goes with the limousine culture.  What it has though is the world’s best health care system, and the world’s best educational system.  Where in the calculations of the LF in West Bengal do these priorities figure? And let me also say, excusable flourish I hope, where in the quality of Left mass interactions is the glow, the communicated warmth, the seamlessness that is so radiantly apparent everytime a Chavez or a Castro meets with the throng of their people?  Why is it that Left public culture seems always one of “telling” rather than of “sharing?”  Why has that smiling lightness of being given way to the unsociable sang froid of the bureaucratic visage?  Why has the Left’s all-knowingness frozen into a stance of rigid top-downism?  The Indian Left, methinks, needs not only to boldly assert its opposition to a capitalism that aims to drink at the common Indian’s jugular, but it also needs to put on a face that draws to it the armies of the destitute and the expectant so that at some point its present telos of humanizing capitalism metamorphoses into a conviction and an energy of another kind.  That will require that it gladly grow beyond its own skin to forge alliances with the best of the social movements now on the ground, unmindful of being always in the front line.  The Left needs to sing a song that draws many a melody into one resounding symphony, always feeling most at home with the disabled drummer in the back of the orchestra, and always cautious that it is not seen to be anxious to be the loudest voice.

Meanwhile, we need to realize that one Nandigram does not render the CPI(M) obsolete, does not render it a found-out collaborator, does not cancel its historic struggle against sectarian and fascist politics.  Remembering the grievous fault-lines of our history as a nation, that last by itself testifies to our continuing need for the CPI(M), and the LF.  If the CPI(M)  does not seem cognizant of our existence (nobody says hello to me even at close quarters), we must remain cognizant of its in the conviction that, acknowledged or not, its ear is open to the selflessly rational and the provenly caring.

Let the CPI(M) begin anew, acknowledge its own best self-criticisms, and put its best foot forward in the march towards the million footfalls.

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