That the Left Front was heading for its seventh consecutive win in West Bengal was never in any doubt. The focus of the 2006 election, held under the Election Commission's exemplary supervision, centred on the margin of victory. First, the turnout and the outcome were expected to establish the quantum of 'scientific rigging' that was claimed to have been widely prevalent in past elections. Second, and more important, the results would determine the political viability of the bid of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to chart a new course for the state. If the Left Front performed worse than 2001, it would mean a thumbs-down for Bhattacharjee's out-of-the-box thinking. Conversely, an improved result, particularly in the urban clusters where the left has been slipping steadily since 1991, would be tantamount to a popular endorsement of the so-called Buddhist line.
By improving its popular vote by 2.7 per cent and increasing its seat tally by 36 in a 294-member assembly, the chief minister has, for the moment, silenced sceptical colleagues who feared that flirtations with capitalism would meet the same fate as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee's India Shining campaign. Disaggregated data from The Hindu-CSDS exit poll indicate that swing to the Left Front was as much as 11.3 per cent in the 18-25 age group and 14.2 per cent among those with a college education. Among the salariat, the swing to the Left Front was 17.7 per cent in the urban areas and 17.5 per cent in the rural areas. With the traditional Left Front vote more or less holding ' the only exception was a 9.6 per cent dip in support among agricultural workers ' Bhattacharjee has succeeded in forging a spectacular Bengali consensus around his policies. Those with a stake in the future of West Bengal have endorsed him enthusiastically.
Had Bhattacharjee been the leader of a normal 'bourgeois' party, this resounding electoral endorsement would have constituted the last word on the subject. Apart from sniper attacks from a clutch of disgruntled party men, few in the Bharatiya Janata Party, for example, have the gumption to question the radical reformism of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, like Bhattacharjee, can win votes.
Unfortunately for Bhattacharjee, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is an abnormal party. It is a party-of-the-book and reposes primacy in Marxist theology as the way forward. For the CPI(M), winning elections is not the last word. Taking its cue from V.I. Lenin's early-20th century prescriptions for Czarist Russia, it sees elections and parliamentary democracy as merely a means to the end ' in the CPI(M)'s case a People's Democratic Revolution. Consequently, the regeneration of West Bengal, for which the Left Front secured a mandate, is subordinated to a far larger, and somewhat phantasmagoric, objective.
The ability of Bhattacharjee to reconcile his reformism with the self-image of the CPI(M) is not an academic issue. In a revealing interview to Ananda Bazar Patrika last Tuesday, the chief minister made some pronouncements which, judged by the beliefs of the CPI(M), amount to heresy.
First, he stated bluntly that 'we are not in a pre-revolutionary situation. Capitalism is unlikely to collapse now.' It is not necessary to be a rocket scientist to acknowledge the obvious. However, common sense is often at odds with the belief of old-style communist parties that it is inherently fragile and in a state of permanent crisis. Many Marxists, of course, have been unendingly predicting the 'final crisis' since 1914.
In its political resolution adopted at the 18th party congress in 2004, the CPI(M) spoke about the 'crisis in the world capitalist system and . the contradictions of world capitalism today', adding that 'programmes of liberalisation and structural adjustment are a response to the present crisis of capitalism'. To the party ideologues, any apparent capitalist boom is 'unsustainable' and the system is being artificially propped up by the 'increase in military expenditure' in the United States.
Second, stemming from his understanding that capitalism holds a long lease, Bhattacharjee argued, 'We are surrounded on all sides by capitalism.
'You cannot practise socialism by insulating yourself from this environment. This was the biggest error committed by the Soviet Union.' Once again, what Bhattacharjee is saying is not unique, but those familiar with the history of the Soviet Union will realize that he is also alluding to a debate that gave ideological cover to Stalin in his triumphant battle against the left opposition. At that time, the Trotskyists had rightly warned that 'socialism in one country' would lead to hideous distortions. However, their solution ' unending revolutionary turmoil throughout the world ' was both ridiculous and adventurist. By echoing the absurdity of enclave socialism ' as unreal as Mahatma Gandhi's faith in the self-sufficient village economy ' Bhattacharjee is tacitly casting doubts on the claims of both China and Vietnam to be regarded as socialist.
Finally, when asked whether his dream of a 'new society' meant communism, Bhattacharjee was remarkably honest: 'The old models won't work. The economy can't be bound in a political framework. We used to think that socialism can be reached through nationalization (state sector). The Soviet experience proved us wrong and China has learnt the lesson. Here there are so many different ownership patterns ' the state sector coexists with the joint sector, the cooperative sector, the private sector and even the foreign sector. Socialism is being examined in new ways. In Vietnam, they are allowing party members to turn businessmen!'
Bhattacharjee's suggestion that the economy be spared the travails of dogmatic Marxism is fascinating and undercuts ' in a welcome sort of way ' the very basis of communist politics. In lauding China's rapid growth through multiple channels of investment, he is obviously suggesting that communists need not be inimical to the big bourgeoisie, foreign capital and, for that matter, entrepreneurial comrades. At the same time, he is also indicating that instead of being all-pervasive, the state should confine its role to playing facilitator and creating the right investment-friendly environment. Even Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have objected to Bhattacharjee's formulation ' unlike Marxists, she too abhorred inefficient state monopolies.
'Who reads manifestos' the late Devi Lal used to ask. In most political parties, manifestos and resolutions are at best read by those who draft them. The CPI(M), tragically, takes its own pamphleteering too seriously ' as naturally befits the chosen revolutionary 'vanguard'. This is why Bhattacharjee may find that his innovative and inspired proposals to extricate West Bengal from its left-made disaster may be obstructed by communists waving the 18th Congress resolution, flaunting passages from Lenin 'himself' and hurling charges of revisionism and reformism. The Buddhist-Marxist confrontation may well turn ugly.
As he enters a new term with soaring popular expectations, Bhattacharjee has two choices before him ' either to press on regardless of what AKG Bhavan in Delhi thinks, or work towards a radically new party policy. The second option is cumbersome, daunting and is about as likely to happen as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh abandoning Akhand Bharat formally. It makes more sense for the chief minister to just get on with the job and let Prakash Karat stew in his own certitudes.