Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Three Decades of Left Front Rule in Bengal
By Prabhat Patnaik
THE Left Front’s completion of three decades in office in West Bengal by winning every single popular election since 1977 naturally raises the question: how has this been possible? A phenomenon such as this does not belong to the realm of the “small change of politics” (to use BTR’s phrase). It can occur only under certain specific historical circumstances, namely when the political formation in question comes to power in the midst of an acute social crisis and is successful in leading society out of that crisis. And this is exactly what the Left Front in West Bengal has done.
The acute social crisis that had come to a head in West Bengal in the mid-seventies can be traced back to its colonial past. Bengal was the first region in India to be colonised by the British and faced the massive impact of the drain of wealth that began immediately after Plassey. This impact, whose manifestations were de-industrialisation, impoverishment of the people, and a string of famines, which lasted almost till the end of British rule, also altered the structure of the economy in crucial ways. The Permanent Settlement of 1793, a mechanism erected for effecting the drain, did not just create a class of parasitic intermediaries. It also entailed an almost total absence of investment by the colonial rulers in irrigation or the agricultural sector (since such investment yielded no additional revenues to them). This, in the context of the acute pressure of population on land that de-industrialisation generated, meant agricultural stagnation, and an intense exploitation of the peasantry through rack-renting. The abysmal state of the peasantry worsened further in the period of the Great Depression when the decline in the terms of trade greatly increased peasant indebtedness and loss of land. Even though sporadic efforts had been made to provide some succour to the peasantry before independence (for instance by the Fazlul Haq ministry), the situation continued to remain grim. The last straw was the huge burden of financing Britain’s war against Japan, which was unjustly put on India as a whole but affected Bengal to the greatest extent, trebling the price of rice in less than two years and resulting in three million famine deaths with another half a million rural households being reduced to beggary.
ROOTS OF SOCIAL CRISIS
The post-independence land reforms of the Congress government, even though they broke the power of the erstwhile zamindars, succeeded only in strengthening the class of jotedars which had come up just below this layer and had become the real centre of local power even before the end of the colonial era. No doubt some rich peasants moved up into the category of owners from that of tenants, but the bulk of the toiling peasantry remained steeped in misery. And once the easy prospects of increasing cropping intensity had got exhausted by the end of the fifties, the agrarian crisis resurfaced in all its old ferocity, to a point where it was almost taken for granted by scholars, both in India and abroad, that Bengal had reached an agrarian impasse.
The industrial front too presented a cheerless picture. Old industries like jute which had come up in the colonial era faced bleak prospects. The engineering industry, which had surfaced towards the end of the colonial era and prospered for a while on the basis of catering to government orders, especially of the railways, went into terminal illness with the mid-sixties recession which marked the end of the era of active public investing. The Freight Equalisation Scheme ensured that the edge that Bengal would normally have enjoyed in a whole range of new industries because of proximity to coal and iron ore reserves, got blunted. For all these reasons, in the case of industry too, as in agriculture, it appeared to be the end of the road for Bengal.
The social crisis was born out of this impasse. The peasantry was mired in poverty and stagnation, with little prospects for improving its position; the working class, employed largely in industries which were declining, faced unemployment and ruin; and the urban middle class faced bleak job prospects. The situation was explosive, and yet attempts by revolutionary extremists to change the situation by force came a cropper. The bourgeois-landlord State sought to control the situation through semi-fascist terror, for which Left extremism provided it with an excuse. It unleashed this terror against the CPI(M) which lost nearly 1200 cadres over a short span of time.
The terror in West Bengal provided the backdrop to Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency rule, which it preceded and merged into. But the net result of this terror was only to keep the social crisis simmering below the surface. Or to put it differently, on top of the basic social crisis which remained unresolved, West Bengal experienced additionally the impact of Left extremist and semi-fascist violence. It could neither move forward to a revolution, nor carry on in the old way. It was caught in a logjam. The Left Front government which came to power in 1977 broke this logjam; and therein lay its real historical contribution, because of which it has remained dear to the hearts of the people of the state for so long.
In the countryside, it broke the social power of the jotedars. Operation Barga recorded unregistered tenants and thereby gave a legal status to the sharecroppers who until then had been at the complete mercy of the landlords. In fact the term “sharecropper” is a misnomer, since it suggests as if he received a fixed share of the crop; instead, it was typically the landlords’ men who harvested the crop and handed over a pittance to the bargadar who had done the actual cultivating. The Left Front government promulgated a simple rule: whoever cultivated the land was alone entitled to harvest the crop. The harvest therefore went into the bargadar’s possession in the first place, and it was he who then handed over the landlord’s share, against a receipt. This increased the tenant’s income. In addition, by assuring him of a fixed share of the produce, it increased the tenant’s incentive to introduce better agricultural practices and increase output. Moreover, the receipt obtained from the landlord, since it indicated that the tenant had some right over the land, also acted as a collateral for obtaining credit. This improvement in the tenants’ position, together with the distribution of ceiling-surplus land, brought about a change in the correlation of class forces in the countryside which formed the basis for an agricultural revival.
At the same time public investment in agriculture, especially in irrigation, was stepped up greatly. Given the skewed distribution of fiscal resources between the centre and the states, and the centre’s propensity to treat the magnitude of total devolution of resources to the states and their inter se distribution across states, as matters over which it had absolute discretion, the West Bengal government faced severe fiscal punishment for the political sin of being Left. But it fought back vigorously. It championed the rights of the states against the centralisation of fiscal resources and powers, and united state governments to carry forward the fight for a genuinely federal structure. At the same time, notwithstanding the acute fiscal difficulties into which it had been pushed, it ensured substantial increases in plan outlays.
The combination of land reforms and increased public investment in the countryside, made West Bengal, for the decade of the 1980s, the state with the highest rate of growth in agricultural output. During the neo-liberal nineties, agricultural growth declined everywhere in the country, but even so West Bengal’s performance was relatively better. This agricultural revival, and the general re-fashioning of the West Bengal countryside, occurred within a whole new set of institutions, the panchayats, where again West Bengal was a pioneer in the country. Panchayati raj which until then had been a virtually defunct concept, retained by the Congress government in its official documents largely in deference to the Mahatma’s memory, was given a whole new life and became, under a Marxist dispensation, a powerful instrument of democratic decentralisation.
The agricultural revival put purchasing power in the hands of the peasants and labourers and enlarged the domestic rural market, which in turn stimulated significant rural industrialisation. To this was added a whole new set of initiatives on the part of the state government to enlarge the modern industrial base of the state. With the big bourgeoisie chary of investing in West Bengal, these initiatives entrusted the public sector with a leading role, of which the Haldia petrochemical complex, the most ambitious industrial project completed in the state to date, was a direct off-shoot.
CHALLENGE POSED BY NEO-LIBERALISM
The adoption of neo-liberal policies at the centre since 1991 has become a major constraint on the Left front’s pursuit of its old development trajectory. A central feature of that trajectory was active government intervention and investment; but neo-liberalism wants a “withdrawal of the State” (a euphemism for State intervention confining itself to providing “incentives” to domestic and foreign monopolists and financiers). The Left Front government had energised agriculture by freeing the peasantry from jotedar hegemony, by using the government to succour the peasantry against landlords, something which the Nehruvians had only planned on paper but never succeeded in doing; but neo-liberalism wants the peasants to be left to the mercy of the “market forces” which means being hegemonised by corporate capital making encroachments into the agricultural sector.
The Left Front government had given the public sector a prominent role (and has had remarkable success even of late in reviving public sector units); but neo-liberalism wants the State only to promote private corporate capital, both domestic and foreign, through the so-called “public-private partnerships”. The Left Front government had stepped up plan outlays significantly; but neo-liberalism forces expenditure deflation on the State, including on state governments, through inter alia the so-called fiscal responsibility legislation (which West Bengal has held out against till now). In short, neo-liberalism poses a major challenge for the pursuit of a Left development strategy at the state level, such as underlay the remarkable success of the Left Front government.
This challenge however has to be met and overcome. There are still enough possibilities within the system which can be used. For instance, the Central Sector Schemes (which the centre itself formulates on the implicit assumption that they would remain unutilised) can be fully utilised to the benefit of the poor. A bold and imaginative fiscal effort can be made, which can frustrate the neo-liberal policy of imposing expenditure deflation on state governments. The public sector can be brought back as a counter-weight to private corporate capital, by converting even small budgetary resources into large investible funds through imaginative methods of financial leveraging. This counter-weight can be used to place a clear limit on the extent to which the state government can accommodate the demands of would-be private investors, and to specify clear criteria, protective of the interests of the basic classes against corporate encroachment, on the basis of which alone approval can be given to such investors.
In short, the scope still exists to ensure that neo-liberalism’s attempt to derail the Left from its established development trajectory, to coerce it into accepting a neo-liberal trajectory instead, and to force it to adopt measures that would drive a wedge between itself and the basic classes on whose support the Left subsists, does not succeed. The Left Front government which has successfully waged many a battle will no doubt emerge triumphant from this one too.