Dating back to over a hundred and fifty years, with heavy wooden doors, ceilings reaching into the skies, a sprawling verandah overlooking a yard with ancient banyan trees, the Circuit House in Bankura is a curious mixture of the raj and independent India. The latter adorns the wall in the form of portraits of artists like Ramkinkar Baij and Jamini Roy, and the bookshelves, where tomes left behind unwittingly by visiting bureaucrats (Do-it-Yourself Plumbing and Heating, The Economic Development of India by Brian Davey) rub shoulders with books that may not be there quite as purposelessly, for, read carefully, they could just win the Communist Party of India (Marxist) a few more adherents among the vulnerable: Das Kapital, three volumes, and the collected works of V. I. Lenin.
My visit to Bankura and, just before that, to the Sunderbans, had nothing to do with tourism. It was driven by curiosity. On most indices of development, Bengal is trailing. Its rank, on India’s inter-state scorecard, has slid, not just in terms of per capita income, but even on social indices such as literacy, morbidity and the progress of higher education. Talk to a random person in Calcutta and he will tell you the disaster that the CPI(M) government has been for the state. How then does one explain the CPI(M)’s electoral popularity and unwavering rural support' It is this conundrum that compelled me to cut into my Calcutta vacation and travel.
Bankura’s terracotta horses, elephants and other artefacts are known the world over. But hardly anyone knows of Panchmura, one of the primary villages in which these are crafted. After spending a while talking to the artisans who produce these works, we drove to the village of Taldangra. Here we spent a long time talking to villagers and, in particular, to the pradhan, Sagar Goswami, the upa-pradhan, Sandhya Mondal, and several members of the gram panchayat. During this conversation, and also from talking to various people in the BDO’s office in Dhokra, one thing that became clear was the Left Front government’s policy of inclusiveness in rural areas. The attempt has been to reach out to all communities and caste groups. Ordinary Muslims, poor Hindus, the scheduled castes and adivasis that we spoke to told us how panchayat members came to their homes, ate with them, visited them during their festivities and rarely discriminated on grounds of religion and caste.
One of the panchayat members we talked to, Ajit Basuli, was a peasant farmer. Well-versed in global politics, he argued with me about intellectual property rights and international labour laws. While he clearly took the “party line” on most matters, it was impossible not to be impressed by his personal simplicity and his commitment to the poor, irrespective of their religion or caste. He has learned the language of the Santhals, written a play in that language, and spoke passionately about the importance of mankind’s common human identity. A part of this may well be politics, but I also know that not all politicians speak like this. This kind of behaviour must have helped keep the winds of fascism away from the state.
It has been remarked, and I am sure that there is truth to this, that there is discrimination against those who are not members of the CPI(M). This is deplorable of course, but not as bad as discrimination against people for some innate characteristic of theirs, such as race or religion. Faced with a party-based discrimination, people can at least pretend to be sympathetic to the party. Indeed this is happening in rural Bengal; far more people claim to be communists than are communists or have a clue about what communism is.
One notable quality of the Left Front administration that I could see in the Sunderbans and in Bankura district is its commitment to the poor and its relatively open decision-making process. The commitment to the poor one would expect from a left-wing party. What is surprising is the democratic openness, especially since the world’s most important communist nations failed so miserably in this regard. Here people seem to have a voice in what projects are undertaken. And further, this is what has curbed runaway corruption and helped prop up support for the left front.
The Left Front’s symbols are visible in rural Bengal in a way that is un- imaginable in Calcutta. The CPI(M)’s official newspaper, Ganashakti, is easier to get hold of than Ananda Bazar Patrika. Its pages are pasted on public boards for people to read. The symbols and slogans of the party leave little space on mud walls for locally favourite films like Boumaar Bono- baash. This propaganda blitz is also testimony to the organization and reach of the party and the panchayat. No other party in India has this kind of rural organization.
This is what makes Bengal’s overall poor performance a tragedy. With such well-developed grassroots organization, and so many committed party workers, why has the state failed economically' The answer is simple: just commitment is not good enough. A group of people — whether they be social workers or political activists — genuinely interested in helping the poor can do some good, true, but in overall effect they cannot match up to the benefits that can come from a bunch of entrepreneurs and industrialists who may have no interest in poverty removal, but set up factories and firms to maximize their profits. The heightened demand for labour that comes from a vibrant industry, and the consequent (unintended but inevitable) increase in the bargaining power of labourers, can rarely be matched by merely providing direct financial and rhetorical support to the workers, no matter how earnest the support.
It is the failure to understand this principle that explains Bengal’s trailing economy; and this is what distinguishes India’s and China’s communists. The Chinese figured out this principle in the Seventies. They realized that the laws of economics are like the laws of nature. These have to be understood from the observation of facts and the use of reason. Ideology may help shape our values and objectives, but has absolutely no role in understanding the link between policies and their effects. In the world as it stands today, if one particular country or region wants to prosper, it needs to attract industrialists, multinationals and entrepreneurs.
This realization cannot come too easily to a political party, left or right, that is moored in a fixed ideology. Such moorings usually lead to a reflexive tendency to defend a position rather than to check it out against facts. This comes out clearly from Eric Hobsbawm’s recent autobiography, which is also a magisterial, if personal, history of 20th century communism. Writing about his fellow-communist, the charismatic Rajni Palme Dutt, he observes, “[The] night he spent in my house in Cambridge…had left me with a lasting admiration for his acute mind and a lasting conviction that he was not interested in truth, but used his intellect exclusively to justify and explicate the line of the moment.” I believe that China’s “adaptation” of communism came from its good fortune of having a few creative leaders who realized the truth and had the gumption to carry the cadre with them.
I do not know if there are such leaders here. But, given the organizational advantage that the Left Front government in West Bengal currently has, and the relatively greater honesty of its leaders, if it can break away from the ideological shackles and change its industrial policy, it can, I have no doubt, be one of the fastest growing regions of the world.