The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Left with no answers
- A confused CPI(M) can't be good news for Bengal's revival

'The Party's exhausted political philosophy is supposed to cover everything from democracy to privatization, but it provides no answers for the cadres in the present world'. Thus wrote Gordon G. Chang of the Chinese Communist Party in his 2001 book, The Coming Collapse of China.

Much the same confusions bothered a large number of delegates at the 21st West Bengal state conference of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). As the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and other leaders sought to justify the Left Front government's open and aggressive hunt for domestic and foreign capital, the sceptics cried foul.

'Development for whom' and 'How to marry the communist ideology to this new-found development agenda' they asked. The party could end up paying a high political price, they feared, by so surrendering to capitalist manipulations. They seemed unconvinced with the argument by the state party secretary, Anil Biswas, who basically said two things: that the development agenda must have a 'class orientation' that would benefit the common people, and that the government's acceptance of foreign investment would be 'guided by the communist ideology'.

Now, this is not the first time that the CPI(M) has debated the issue of a state government run by it inviting Indian monopoly capitalists and even foreign investors to take part in the state's development. The first time a party session did so in great detail was way back in December, 1985, when the 12th congress of the CPI(M) defended the then Jyoti Basu government's policy of going in for joint ventures with Indian capitalists and multinational corporations. A further ratification came in 1994 when West Bengal became the first state to introduce a 'new industrial policy' to adjust to the new economic regime that the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh, brought in as finance minister to the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991.

Adjusting the party's policy to new or difficult situations is part of the theory and practice of any communist party. Such adjustments are given theoretical sanction by the Leninist distinction between 'strategy' and 'tactics'. But what happens when the tactics ' short-term responses to specific situations ' do not seem to have any relation to the long-term strategic goal of a social and political transformation'

After 27 years in power and after 20 years of wooing capital, this might seem a rhetorical question to ask. But the fact that such confusions have persisted for so long have important messages, both for the state of the party and for the chief minister's development drive. And remember that the delegates to the party conference who asked the questions are not just ordinary party cadre; they are important, middle-level leaders who guide the cadre in implementing the party's ' and the government's ' policy.

But before we try to read these messages, it could help to cite a few examples to understand the nature of the confusions. The government recently entered into a joint venture with an Indonesian group for the construction of a big township in Howrah. The CPI(M) politburo debated and cleared it before Bhattacharjee went ahead with it. Even so, a minister in his cabinet put in a written note against the project to the state party leadership.

The minister's argument was like this. It is alright for the government to take the help of foreign capital and technology in areas where such help is not available from domestic entrepreneurs. But a township project is no such area. Or take the debate at the party conference over the government's policy of offering land to private entrepreneurs for new industries. Some delegates from the North 24 Parganas wanted the government to do more to 'free' the huge plots of land locked by closed jute mills and small engineering units along the eastern bank of the Hooghly river.

Their compatriots from the South 24 Parganas wanted the government to do quite the opposite. They wanted Bhattacharjee to ensure that farmers do not lose their land to speculators and dubious investors who offer to set up industries or promote real estate but whose real intention is to grab land at cheap prices. The government's policy, they argued, could cost the party the support of not only the farmers who lose their land but also the larger number of landless and marginal farmers whose lives depend almost entirely on such land.

Many delegates from Calcutta feared that the government's emphasis on developing the city's infrastructure could lead to the exclusion of the party's main supporters ' the poor and the middle classes ' from the process. They did not deny that the civic facilities badly needed to be improved, but were anxious that the policies were failing to marry this to the needs of the poor. Once again, the chief minister's assurance that the change in Calcutta meant as much the new township, flyovers and the shopping malls as the improvement of the slums did not seem to convince the doubters.

One could argue that the doubters do not really matter if the party leadership has managed to get the development policies approved. That may not be the case, particularly for a party that is as dependent on the organization as the CPI(M) is. That is where Bhattacharjee may have a problem. He may be truly single-minded and clear-sighted in his attempts to bring in capital for the state's development. But even he has to depend on the party to make his attempts succeed. If the partymen remain unconvinced of his logic, they could queer his pitch in a hundred small ways, as they actually do with numerous small enterprises away from the media glare.

Worse still, an unreformed party will fail to create the kind of initiative that is needed to transform government policy into a popular programme involving large numbers of people. Since winning elections ' from the parliamentary to the municipal and the panchayat ' has become the primary objective of the party, the cadre may not be enthusiastic about working for a government policy that could alienate the party's traditional voters. This seems to have happened to the government's new agriculture policy which talked of introducing the diversification of crops and generally transforming agriculture into a commercial activity.

Add to this the confusion in the party ranks about supporting a Congress-led government at the Centre. The argument that this was a compulsion, and not a choice, imposed on the party by the necessity of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, is already wearing thin. It will be increasingly more difficult to sustain the argument as the United Progressive Alliance goes ahead with opening up the economy further to the private sector and the global players.

When the CPI(M)'s 12th congress put its seal of approval to the Left Front government's policy of joint ventures with Indian and foreign capitalists, the political scientist, Partha Chatterjee, noted that the party document has not only exposed the party's 'theoretical bankruptcy...but also taken away every shred of credibility from its resolution criticising the economic policies of the Rajiv Gandhi regime.' Twenty years later, when the party is travelling on the same development road, its criticism of the Manmohan Singh government's policy of economic liberalization lacks credibility even more.

The difference now is that the partymen themselves are becoming increasingly conscious of this lack of credibility. It is becoming more difficult to even put up a pretence of self-defence. A confused ruling party cannot be good news for West Bengal's economic regeneration, especially at a time when such a revival started looking possible.

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