India's Left Front has completed 30 years in power in West Bengal — a monumental achievement. Never before has a political alliance, leave alone an ideology-driven coalition, governed any Indian state for so long.
Nowhere else in the world have Communist parties won free and fair elections to rule a country or province the size of West Bengal (population 80 million) consecutively for three decades. This reaffirms the relevance of the Left’s policies and its consummate practice of democracy. The LF’s long West Bengal tenure can’t be attributed to manipulative politics. The Left parties, led by the Communist Party (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party, have sunk deep roots among the masses.
Last year’s Assembly elections, probably the most tightly monitored in any state, conclusively disproved the charge that rigging was responsible for the Front’s success. It won 235 of 294 seats against a robust opposition.
The LF’s achievements are many and impressive. The greatest include land reform — the most successful outside Kerala — an unblemished record of communal harmony, relatively clean, stable, governance, advanced panchayati raj institutions, and above all, politicisation and empowerment of the masses.
Operation Barga, which gave 2.3 million cultivators tenancy rights, accounts for more than one-half of the total acreage transferred under land reforms in India.
Only slightly less impressive are the high increases in crop yields, and urban renewal, that occurred under the LF. The Front has transformed dilapidated Kolkata into a flourishing metropolis. The LF’s performance is creditable in some social sectors: a 210 per cent increase in literacy and a halving of the infant-mortality ratio. The urban poverty ratio is 14.8 per cent, well below the national average (25.7 per cent).
However, the Front’s record in some other respects is middling or poor. Public spending and access to health have stagnated. Some indicators—immunisation, nutrition among women, and number of doctors and hospital beds per lakh people—are below the national average. West Bengal hasn’t opened a single new primary-health centre in a decade.
The rural poverty ratio annually declined by 2.24 percentage-points between in 1983 and 1993. But the decline has slowed down to 1.15 points. Today, the rural poverty ratio is 28.6 per cent, slightly above the national average.
The percentage of rural households not getting “enough food” is highest in West Bengal (12 per cent), almost double that in Orissa/Assam.
An alarming indicator is the number of school dropouts. At 9.61 lakhs, this figures is even higher than in Bihar (6.96 lakhs). Of India’s 24 districts which have more than 50,000 out-of-school children, 9 are in West Bengal. No less embarrassing is the rate of suicides (15,015), the highest among all states in 2005. A disturbing aspect of West Bengal’s reality is starvation deaths among the workers of tea gardens. In Jalpaiguri, the health department recorded 571 starvation deaths in 15 months. Informal estimates put the total since 2002 at 3,000 deaths. This is a shameful blot on the Front’s record.
Yet another dark spot is the Front’s failure of inclusion in respect of religious minorities. Muslims form 25.2 per cent of the state’s population. But their proportion in government employment is an abysmal 2.1 per cent, even lower than Gujarat’s 5.4. This represents the downside of the LF’s record of protecting the minorities against violence.
Clearly, West Bengal hasn’t yet become a model state. The LF must undertake serious introspection and return to a strongly pro-people, inclusive orientation if it’s to become one.
Regrettably, the LF leadership’s priorities seem to have turned elitist. It now obsessively promotes industrialisation at any cost, at the expense of peasants and workers. It has set its mind upon projects like the Singur car factory and Special Economic Zones.
The results were brutally evident in the firing in March on SEZ protestors at Nandigram. This grievous blunder betrayed the Front’s own core-constituency. No argument about “provocation” or a “conspiracy” between the Right and the Extreme Left, can justify the gunning down of 14 peasants. Unfortunately, the leadership of the LF, in particular the CPM, has not learnt any lessons. The Nandigram victims have been given no compensation. No major CPM leader has visited Nandigram.
On the 30th anniversary, many Front leaders spoke the same language of growth that they (rightly) criticise the Congress for. Most stressed that W Bengal has the highest GDP growth rate (8.55 per cent) of all states. Worse, they ruled out rethinking on neoliberal industrialisation.
Chief Minister Bhattacharjee said: “There is no turning back from industries...” Even CPM general secretary Prakash Karat said: “[W]e have to adopt industrialisation… Industrialisation cannot be achieved without the help of capitalists like the Tatas.”
Is there no alternative to private capital-led industrialisation? Prabhat Patnaik, the party’s pre-eminent economist, strongly counters this. He argues: “When the Tatas or the Ambanis invest, they do so not out of their savings: they obtain finance from various institutions… The public sector can do exactly the same…”
However, leave alone undertake investment, the LF refuses to regulate industrialisation in the public interest. It’s zealously wooing all manner of businessmen, including the Salim group linked to Indonesia’s super-corrupt Suharto family. This approach threatens to weaken the LF’s greatest collective strength: unity and ideological cohesion. It could erode the Left’s support among workers and peasants and eventually turn it into an elitist, social democratic entity favoured by the middle classes.
That cannot give the Left a viable and relevant future. If the LF wants to build on its achievements, overcome its flaws, and offer an alternative radical vision for society, it must correct course — urgently and sincerely.