Once upon a time there was an old Left Front. It was a political assortment headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which set up coordination committees to organize meetings, rallies and agitations. It also entrusted itself with the holy task of calling bandhs, usually without much provocation or apology. The bandhs paralysed the state of West Bengal. Coordination committees, omnipresent in the government and government-aided sectors, disabled public health, public education and public administration. They consisted of people, by no means insignificant in number, who got government-sponsored jobs as political favours or as rewards for their services to the party. A member of the coordination committee was spared the menial task of working for his bread. His primary responsibility was to attend political rallies and demonstrate to the public the sinews of the party organization.
Outside the government, there were formidable labour unions no one dared to mess with. A union leader had the right to come to his place of work late and leave early. His chore was to keep scamp capitalists under control, by teaching them occasional lessons through strikes and lockouts. The taming of the enemies of the working class reached such dizzy heights that factories and enterprises started closing down in scores and dozens, not exactly serving the interest of labour; but then in a struggle of this sort the individual was always asked to accept his ill fortune for the collective interest of the proletariat. The protests, the assumed struggle against blood-sucking capitalists, the total neglect of work in government-run schools, colleges and hospitals, the conscious encouragement of safe and loyal mediocrity in the highest places, taken together, led to a steady decline in the industrial and social sectors. Investors ran away from the state for better returns, talents migrated to other regions and countries in search of improved environments and of livelihood.
There was, however, an important brighter side. The Left took good care of the agricultural sector, not only in terms of redistribution of agrarian assets and income, but also in terms of technical progress and growth. On the political front, radical and widespread land reforms, involving both redistribution of land and assurance of tenancy rights to the actual tillers of the soil, kept the vast majority of rural voters in good humour. On the economic front, the reforms gave incentives to the cultivators to produce more by strengthening their ties with the land. In addition, multiple cropping was introduced in the form of boro cultivation, a high-yielding variety of rice farming aided by private irrigation from shallow tubewells. The result was an impressive growth of agricultural output, especially that of foodgrain, throughout the Eighties. Finally, there was notable decentralization of rural power through the three-tier panchayati raj system, which gave the rural poor not only a share in the decision-making process, but also a kind of dignity and social prestige unheard of in the previous political regime.
Unfortunately, the good times did not last long. By the beginning of the Nineties the geographical frontiers of boro cultivation had been reached as the water-intensive crop could not be extended to areas which were naturally dry. At the same time, the prices of paddy and potato failed to rise throughout the decade compared to the costs of cultivation. In fact, the latter kept on rising steadily due to rises in the prices of fertilizer, diesel and other essential inputs. So much so that, by official estimates, about 12-13 per cent of land reforms beneficiaries sold off the land they received as patta or gave up the right to cultivate the land they got as barga by the beginning of the new century. Indeed agriculture was rapidly becoming a hopelessly unprofitable activity.
The vote bank of the Left remained uneroded though. The coexistence of economic stagnation and political stability was an apparent puzzle, but in reality the former supported the latter. Stagnation and the ensuing poverty made a vast majority of the people helpless and crucially dependent on the small favours selectively distributed by the Left to those who remained loyal. To this was added a section of the privileged who aspired to climb up the social and economic ladder by remaining close to the party. Benefits of different sorts were doled out through a strong political organization and one knew, in no uncertain terms, that while remaining faithful to the party might give him a chance of getting a share of the pie, dissidence would without doubt get him nothing. This created a huge political society, consisting of people from the entire social spectrum, which sustained and was in turn sustained by massive economic inefficiencies. The inefficiencies, however, did not tamper with the political success of the Left, but actually enhanced it.
What was then the need to talk about an improved Left Front, about restoring efficiency and a work culture within the government, about attracting private investment to the state, about reviving the industrial sector which once thrived and prospered, about a change in the overall economic stance of the party' This is precisely what has been happening for the last few years and one wonders why. One possible compulsion could have come from a dwindling public treasury. To run a government one needed to generate revenues, and since the agriculture or the informal industrial sectors are not taxed, the exigency of reviving the formal industrial sector was gradually felt. The other possible reason is a change in ideology, not only within the Left in West Bengal or India but all over the Marxist world. The old state-controlled socialist mode of industrialization became suspect, the merits of private initiatives were appreciated and it was generally accepted that the bureaucracy should be kept out of the process of economic decision-making as far as possible. It was impossible for the Left in West Bengal to ignore such fundamental changes and remain isolated like an island.
We now have a new Left Front, if not completely from within or at the grassroot level, certainly at the top and in terms of an outer appearance. In spite of some contrary voices originating from within the Left Front, the top leadership has decided to take an unambiguous drive to restore the industrial climate of the state. There is no reason why we should not welcome the move. Indeed, industrialization seems to be the only long-term way out of our current miseries. There are, however, a couple of serious deficiencies which need to be immediately attended to.
First, if the process of industrialization is to be sustained in the long run, it must include the poor and the underprivileged. But the poor can participate in the market provided they have the basic education and training. They also need to be in sound health. Unfortunately, compared to socialist governments in China, North Korea, Cuba or Vietnam, where adult literacy figures have crossed the 90 per cent mark and public healthcare appears to be fairly decent, the achievements of the Left in West Bengal have been rather modest and inadequate. In these respects, the Left in West Bengal did not quite look like the Left. Second, though the top leadership is now talking about changes geared towards efficiency and market participation, the practice of political interference in health, education and government administration still continues. Selective doling out of political favours has kept mediocre party loyalists in important places, seriously compromising efficiency and excellence. Even if we assume that the top leadership is well-meaning, we have to admit that it has little control over the mammoth political society which has evolved over the last 30 years, delivering political returns and breeding economic inefficiency. If a new and improved Left Front has to really emerge replacing the old, serious attempts have to be made to remove these deep-rooted obstacles to prosperity.