If over-kill and pig-headedness hadn’t been the hallmarks of the CPI(M)’s re-conquest of Nandigram on March 14, conspiracy theorists may well have been justified in claiming that the incident was a diabolical ploy by the flat-earth society to discredit Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s perestroika. That the doctrinaire Left — somewhat over-represented in the top echelons of the politburo — had been less than happy with a chief minister who was visibly impatient with his ideological inheritance was apparent even during last year’s assembly election. The cracks were, however, expediently papered over because Bhattacharjee appeared to be surprisingly successful in selling a commodity that had been woefully in short supply in West Bengal since 1967: hope.
For the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the events in Nandigram have been a colossal embarrassment — and quite justifiably so. Blessed with a stupendous arrogance stemming from the conviction that they are always on the right side of history, the party apparatchiks blessed a police-cum-cadre action that had in the past invariably yielded results. Those familiar with the by-lanes of state politics may recall the horrible killing of 10 Trinamool Congress activists followed by the re-conquest of Keshpur, also in East Midnapur district, in January 2001. There was also Marichjhampi, the lynchings on Bijon Setu and so many others. The assault on Nandigram, allegedly to facilitate the homecoming of 2,500 party supporters who had been turfed out, followed precisely the same precedents and was governed by the brute logic of exemplary terror.
The depredations and strong-arm methods used by the CPI(M) to crush dissent and opposition have been well documented. Yet, while these human rights abuses may have created local ripples, they rarely occasioned national outrage. With its reserve army of intellectuals and fellow travellers, particularly in the editorial classes, the CPI(M) was successful in projecting West Bengal as an island of enlightenment in India. The rotten underbelly of 30 years of Left Front rule was always concealed by a membrane of progressivism. The imperious Jyoti Basu even took sanctimoniousness to dizzying heights by contrasting West Bengal’s apparent civility to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “barbaric” government.
The progressive edifice was always built on fragile foundations and, after Nandigram, shows signs of tottering. For the first time since the Naxalite movement of the late-Sixties, the CPI(M) is confronted by the revolt of the intellectuals. Over the past 10 days, there have been more protests by “intellectuals” than Jyoti Basu’s “business trips” to London each summer. Those notables the party had flaunted to mock the “upcountry” Ram bhakts, denounce Narendra Modi and ridicule empirical historiography have suddenly discovered their inner voice. With melodramatic Tagorean overtones, self-professed Left intellectuals have returned honours conferred on them by the state — presumably these were not awarded for services to the party — and described Nandigram as “worse than Jallianwala Bagh” because the killings happened under Left rule. The chief minister has been called a “killer” by those who had previously reserved this epithet for his Gujarat counterpart. The Minorities Commission, hitherto an obliging instrument of secularist indignation, has despatched a team to Nandigram — although it is doubtful it will do anything beyond claiming TA/DA. Incensed by the harsh treatment of colleagues who had gone to report on the happenings, even the media has turned hostile and replaced deference to CPI(M) stalwarts with probing insolence.
That the CPI(M) has been horribly scarred by Nandigram is obvious. In a statement marked by uncharacteristic humility, the CPI(M) general secretary, Prakash Karat, confessed that “The people have turned against us. We know that the people of West Bengal have high democratic consciousness and they have disapproved the police firing which resulted in 13 deaths in Nandigram.” Although this contriteness was not in evidence among Marxist MPs who prevented parliament from discussing a “state subject”, Nandigram has done to the CPI(M) what the Hungarian uprising of 1956 did to the Communist parties in western Europe — punctured its self-created aura of moral infallibility. Nurtured on the puerile assumption that the party is always right and supreme, Nandigram has planted the seeds of honest doubt among those who still perceive themselves as idealists in the murky world of politics.
The reverberations from Nandigram are certain to be particularly damaging to Bhattacharjee. Although it is quite apparent by now that the March 14 assault was a party decision imposed on a supine administration and had absolutely no connection with the proposed special economic zone, it is the chief minister’s reformist zeal which will be the first casualty. This is apparent from the rant of the progressives against the West Bengal government succumbing to the temptations of market economics.
The spirited denunciation of Buddha-nomics is not surprising. It is a feature of beleaguered ideologies to fall back on hoary certitudes to explain setbacks and debacles. Marxist head-bangers, for example, continue to attribute the collapse of the Soviet bloc not to the inherent inefficiencies and distortions of bureaucratic socialism but to Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘betrayal’. Likewise, West Bengal’s eclipse from the Resurgent India storyline has not been traced to the stagnation of the Jyoti Basu years but blamed on Bhattacharjee’s own revisionism — which, presumably, originated from keeping the wrong sort of company.
Monty Johnstone, a former Stalinist who became an enthusiastic convert to Euro-Communism, once proffered a devastating critique of Trotskyism that has a relevance to some of the debates around Nandigram. Trotsky’s revolutionary approach, he wrote, amounted to this: “Imagine the most desirable possible solution. Endow it with the force of imminent reality. And from that lofty premise revile all lesser objectives.”
To the critics of Bhattacharjee’s hesitant market-led re-industrialization programme, Sonar Bangla is a rural Arcadia dominated by “toiling peasants” who are naturally against the evil forces of globalization and “neo-liberal economics”. In this caricatured recreation of a morbid Ritwik Ghatak film, the goons of the fat-cat speculators attacked a community of contented peasants and triggered a wave of popular revulsion that finally forced an insensate government to eat humble pie and call off the march to modernity.
It comes as no real surprise that this mushy view has found ready takers in a state which has overdosed on romantic piffle about mass movements, popular struggles and insurrections — the political mythology that has sustained the communist movement. Add to this a popular mentality centred on entitlements — which translates into envy, cussedness, smug insolence and general bloody-mindedness — and it is possible to gauge why Nandigram has become the leitmotif of that Bengal which steadfastly refuses to change with the times. In the Nandigram resistance, we can glean the mindset that has facilitated the Left’s hegemonic control over West Bengal.
The CPI(M) must rue the fact that the excesses of its control junkies has placed it on the wrong side of the permanently aggrieved. In the natural course, and outside West Bengal, its sympathies would have been with Luddites of the Medha Patkar variety, the Islamists who sense their time has come to make a political mark and, of course, Leftist dinosaurs.
This wrong-footedness is, however, unlikely to be more than a temporary blip. The CPI(M) appears to have recognized that it is not worthwhile building a gateway to India Inc. in West Bengal if it leads to a corresponding dilution of draconian political control. Like its political mentors in China, the CPI(M) will always try to manage capitalism with a Stalinist face. If unwavering political control proves impossible, the programme of economic modernization will be cast aside effortlessly.
Nandigram may signal the end of the all-too-brief flicker of hope for West Bengal.