To a student of political economy, the state of West Bengal is an enigma. Nowhere in the country, and indeed in very few places in the world, has economic stagnation coexisted with so much political stability for such a long time. If people had cared about economic prosperity one would have expected them to throw out the party in power through the political institution called democracy. Instead of doing that they endured their ruler, the Left Front government, for more than a quarter of a century. This seems to be a mystery. Is it then true that people are simply happy with the present set-up' Or does it mean that they are not happy but just unable to express their discontent through the ballot box because elections are widely rigged, as some of the opposition parties would like us to believe'
No one thinks that elections in the state are fair and perfect. But even the most simple-minded would hesitate to believe that the Left Front has managed to stay in power just by distorting and manipulating the electoral process to its advantage. The socio-political forces involved are somewhat more complex. Among other things, one has to keep in mind the arithmetic of universal suffrage. About 72 per cent of the people in West Bengal still live in the rural areas. Moreover, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and religious minority groups, who also happen to be the poorest, together account for more than half of the population of the state. Therefore, for winning elections, it is important to keep the villagers, especially their underprivileged sections, in good humour.
The Left Front has done precisely that and much more. It has given honour to the poor. It has included the poor in the decision-making process in the village through decentralization of power. It has given the poor a sense of belonging and identity. This pro-poor stance and especially the democratic openness have built a firm ground of popular support for the Left Front. In particular, it has more than compensated for the gross neglect of the cities, the urban population and the industrial sector.
This is how Kaushik Basu, in an excellent article recently appearing in this daily (“Beyond the party line”, Jan 12), explained the Left Front’s popularity in West Bengal. While I absolutely agree with his basic proposition, I also believe that it cannot explain the entire period of Left Front rule, especially the one since the Nineties. Indeed, the explanation given above leaves a number of questions unanswered. Honour may be extremely important, but a poor man cannot live by honour alone. His empty stomach needs to be filled. The Left Front tried to take care of this basic need partly through land reforms and mostly through the introduction of high yielding variety seeds along with multiple cropping in the agricultural sector. The latter measure led to output growth, especially of boro rice.
As a result, apart from honour, the poor, at least a non-negligible part of them, started getting two square meals a day. This did not mean, however, that economic growth took off in the state on a grand scale. Throughout the Left Front rule, West Bengal remained a middle-ranking state, occasionally gaining a place or two in the hierarchy and occasionally losing a couple. On the whole, in comparison with other major states, the position of West Bengal remained unchanged in terms of per capita state domestic product. This is but expected. A region cannot achieve spectacular growth without the industrial sector taking off in a big way. And this never happened in West Bengal, for industry was neglected for a long stretch of time.
Pro-poor redistribution without significant growth, however, kept the masses happy for quite a while. Then signs of strain started showing. There were several reasons for this. First, the process of redistribution of land to new bargadars and pattadars drastically slowed down from the late Eighties. While the total number of freshly recorded bargadars was about nine lakh between 1978 and 1988, the corresponding figure for the period 1988-98 was only ninety thousand.
Secondly, there was a slowdown of agricultural growth, especially that of foodgrains. Foodgrains production grew at a meagre rate of 2.39 per cent per annum during the period 1990-99 as against the very impressive growth rate of 5.5 per cent during1980-90. Finally, even for someone who had directly benefited from the Left Front’s redistributive policies, aspirations started to change leading to erosion of loyalty. Of course, human nature being what it is, this was not surprising.
All these tensions showed up in the panchayat poll results. The share of Left Front seats, which had peaked in 1988, went down in the 1993 panchayat elections and fell further in the 1998 polls. The trend was visible in all the districts of West Bengal. Finally, tensions were manifested through widespread pre-poll violence in 2003.
It is indeed a puzzle as to how the Left Front maintained its vote bank in spite of all these tensions. I shall argue that the Left Front could maintain its vote bank precisely because there was very little industrialization in the state. This sounds a bit paradoxical and needs to be carefully explained. Start with the acute unemployment problem. Gross neglect of the industrial sector coupled with militant trade unionism compelled industries to leave the state one after another. As a result, employment opportunities kept on shrinking. Those who had opportunities and the necessary skills left the state for greener pastures.
But the less skilled and the less fortunate ones had to stay on. For them it was absolutely necessary to earn a living within the state. With the size of the industrial sector progressively reduced, one could either hope to get a low level job in the government sector, or at the most could expect to venture one’s own petty trade. In West Bengal neither expectation stood a chance of fulfilment without a solid support from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Be it a trade permit or a clerical job in one of the state enterprises, be it a licence to run a public vehicle or simply the illegal claim to peddle trinkets in city streets, one needed the endorsement of the party.
The party was omnipresent, omnipotent and omnivorous. For an ordinary youth, existence without party allegiance was impossible. For the party, non-believers were not to be taken lightly. No wonder, people joined the party in hundreds and thousands, for it was the only hope of survival. This had a further snowballing effect. Expanding memberships built up the sinews of the party and projected it as an attractive alternative. This, in turn, helped the party to win over more converts.
This all-pervasive influence would not have been possible if the industrial sector were growing rapidly. Had there been an expanding industrial domain where the wretched youth could hope to get employed, his dependence on the party would have been much less. So industrial stagnation not only coexisted comfortably with political stability, but crucially helped to retain it. It is not clear whether all this happened by design or by chance. We do not know if industrial growth was deliberately suppressed to gain political support or whether ideologically industry happened to be a low priority in the grand scheme of things of the Left Front and this just worked out to its political advantage. Whatever be the case, one thing is quite clear.
Now the government is serious about attracting private capital into the state. Sooner or later this seriousness is bound to have a stimulating effect on industrial growth. It would be interesting to see what kind of effect it produces on the political attitude of the people towards their ruler.