Thursday, July 24, 2008

Left Governance in Bengal: The Prize and the Price

Sakyajit Bhattacharya
Created 2008-06-15 18:14

There have been some debates and discussions about the role of the government and a communist party after the election setback in panchayat. This article tries to explore the issue, not as an isolated subject in post 2000 period, but as a continuum from the 1964 policy formulation of the CPI (M).

In this context we should not forget that protecting the Left Front government is itself part of the class struggle. Having to tackle bourgeois landlord state oppression and capitalist aggression all over the country, the party as well as the government formed by the party must play an exemplary role of an alternative social structure, because such a government could offer an alternative to the bourgeois-landlord ruling coalition at the centre, challenging the whole basis of the ruling classes' consensus on economy and policy represented by the present regime in power in the centre. It must be a pro-poor/ people's government, and hence protecting the government also means protection of the interests of the oppressed class. That has been the understanding of the party for long now.

The CPI (M) had visualised the possibility of forming governments at the state level which would be challenging the class policy of the bourgeois-landlord governments at the Centre. Here is the much discussed article 112 of the party programme in 1964:

The Party will obviously have to work out various interim slogans in order to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing political situation. Even while keeping before the people the task of dislodging the present ruling classes and establishing a new democratic state and government based on the firm alliance of the working class and peasantry, the Party will utilize all the opportunities that present themselves of bringing into existence governments pledged to carry out a modest programme of giving immediate relief to the people. The formation of such governments will give a great fillip to the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the democratic front. It, however, would not solve the economic and political problems of the nation in any fundamental manner. The Party, therefore, will continue to educate the mass of the people on the need for replacing the present bourgeois-landlord state and government headed by the big bourgeoisie, even while utilizing all opportunities for forming such governments of a transitional character which give immediate relief to the people and thus strengthen the mass movement. (Author’s emphasis)

The party acknowledged the government to be a transitional one and admitted that the government will not solve all fundamental economic and political problems. For that, we have to walk in the path of extra parliamentary struggle.

But the idea somewhat changed with the possibility of forming a new government in West Bengal in 1967. In 1967 the CPI (M) CC, in a report named ‘New Situations and New Tasks’ once again emphasized the possibilities and limitations of these governments. It was mentioned that:

Our ministries, without either entertaining undue illusions about giving relief in a big way, or courting despair that nothing can be done under the present set-up, should always bear in mind that they as the Party's representatives, should strive to tender our bonafides to the people. Any failure on this score compromises the Party's political line in the eyes of the people; adversely affects the independent mobilization of the people, and their activities; and all this in turn, will not help us to resist and overcome the vacillations, wobbling and sometimes even possible backsliding of some democratic parties in the UFs and their respective governments. In a word, the UF governments that we have now are to be treated and understood as instruments of struggle in the hands of our people, more than as governments that actually possess adequate power that can materially and substantially give relief to the people. In clear class terms, our Party's participation in such government is one specific form of struggle to win more and more people, and more and more allies for the proletariat and its allies in the struggle for the cause of People's Democracy and at a later stage for Socialism.
(Author’s emphasis)

Here the party formulated a twin struggle against the rightwing elements within the party who were under the illusion that relief could solve all existing political and economic problems and the ultra-left elements that utterly dismissed the idea of treading the parliamentary path.

Also, the party differed significantly from its 1964 formulation by acknowledging the role of the government as not only giving relief, but playing as an instrument of struggle in the hand of the oppressed people. So, relief, though the main and immediate task, is not the only purpose of the government. The long-term task is to further the struggle of PDR.

Now, what should be the party’s standpoint regarding a left government that emerges under its leadership? In Namboodiripad’s words:

These should, on the other hand, be seen as a stage in the process of the further intensification of the conflict between the mass of the people headed by the working class on the one hand and the ruling classes symbolized by the Congress government at the Centre on the other. There is no question of the ruling classes permitting the 'peaceful replacement' of their regime by a new popular democratic regime. The only question is the method through which the ruling classes would try to subvert the popular democratic governments. Marxist- Leninists should therefore carry on a simultaneous struggle both against the negative attitude to the struggle on the parliamentary arena as well as against the illusions of a 'smooth and peaceful' advance through the parliamentary path disseminated by right opportunism. (Chile and the Parliamentary Road to Socialism, 1973)

The insufficiency of the relief programme has always been stressed. The CPI (M) made it clear that relief can’t be a permanent solution to the existing problems, and the communists must pursue the extra-parliamentary struggle towards the goal of PDR.

But still, the party decided to join the government in 1977. The common understanding was that the government won’t last long due to the conspiracy of the bourgeois-landlord ruling class. The bitter experience of the two Namboodiripad governments in Kerala and Juktafront (United Front) was still recent. In the internal period, the task was to popularize the government as much as possible through the relief programme so that people could have an idea about an alternative system. People could have an idea of how oppression by the semi-capitalist semi-feudal state structure can be toned down by the relief activities carried by a Leftist government. It would not be the permanent solution, but a populist approach that remained a path not experimented by other bourgeois governments.
Even in the seventies, the party was not sure about forming a government and about the longevity of the government even if they were formed. Namboodiripad, in the above article, time and again drew parallels between the experience of Chile, of Allende, and his own experience in Kerala and concluded that an elected leftist government had high possibility of being bought down by the ruling class conspiracy. B.T Ranadive, in 1978, expressed his opinion that the bourgeois ruling class will never voluntarily hand over power, and if communists come into government without changing the semi feudal structure, the ruling class will positively put all its effort to topple the government (Carrillo’s “Eurocommunism and the State”, 1978). The general understanding, even after the formation of the left front government, was that the government will be short-lived, and so the party quite logically stressed on the task of providing the oppressed masses as much relief as it could with its limited power and tenure in the government. The understanding remained unchanged in the first few years of the Left Front government in West Bengal.

But the apprehensions of the communists were refuted by the people of West Bengal. The Left government remained in power for years. Each election was won with landslide margins, and the relief activities became so popular, especially in rural areas, that the opposition parties went on to become organizationally demobilized through the popular appeal of the Left Front government policies. Land redistribution programme, especially Operation Barga, and the restructuring of the Panchayat Raj, helped the government to concretise its position almost permanently in rural Bengal.

This might be looked upon as not only a story of immense success, but also a source of ideological problem. If mere relief activities can help the party stay in the government for years, then what is the need to talk of PDR, of extra-parliamentary activities? The party was now in a dilemma: it did not, for a single time, deny the necessity of PDR. But at the same time, relief proved to be a sustainable path to form an alternative system that was hoped to serve an exemplary role to the oppressed masses of the country. The party talked so much about the insufficiency of relief, about why relief or such kind of ‘transitional’ governments can’t bring the real solution-and now the relief showed to be sustainable, at least with regard to the vote bank, and the government perhaps remained no more transitional.

As a rational being, the party went on combining the path of relief with left-democratic governance within the existing set up. It acknowledged that relief was insufficient to solve the basic socioeconomic problems, and at the same time went to explore more and more the possibilities of gaining peoples’ support by left governance, even within this existing system and with limited power.
This was perhaps best described by Jyoti Basu in 1985:

The Left Front government in the state of West Bengal has limited powers. It has to operate within a capitalist federal economy. The constitution, contrary to federal principles, does not provide for the needed powers for the states and we suffer from a special disability because the union government is ill disposed towards our government. In such a situation, we have been explaining to the people why we cannot bring about fundamental changes even though the ideology and character of our government are different from those that characterize the government at the Centre. But we do hold that by forming the government through election it is possible for us to rule in a manner which is distinctly better and more democratic than the way followed by the Congress party at the centre and in many other States. It is also possible to give relief to the people, particularly the deprived section, through the minimum programme adopted by the Left Front. We have been attempting to do so by motivating the people and enlisting their support and sympathy. Our objective is to raise their political consciousness along with giving them relief so that they can distinguish between truth and falsehood and friends and enemies, and realize the alternative path which will free them from the shackles of Capitalism and Feudalism and usher in a new modern progressive society…..The left and democratic state governments can help and expedite this process even with their limited powers. It is with such a perspective and objective that we are functioning in West Bengal.
(Left Front Government’s Industrial Policy: Some Aspects, 1985)

So, there had been a fine shift from the 1964 stand. Twenty years ago a ‘modest’ relief programme was thought of which was admitted to not solve the basic problems. In 1967, the party document made the allusion of the feasibility of doing something ‘more’ than relief. In 1985, though relief was still looked upon as insufficient, it is admitted that state governments can do a considerable work in order to expedite the task of PDR. It is not only relief, but educating people so that they can identify the real danger and struggle to make a progressive society. While in 1964 the aim was to popularize the government within limited time span, the vision now widened. The relief is seen to be sustainable and the government is seen to be a powerful weapon to bolster the mass movement, even within the bourgeois-landlord structure, because now the government was not transitional anymore. Other factors were the hostile nature of the Centre and the discriminatory policies which made the government explain more and more to the people the odds against an elected left government. The common understanding prevailing was that the current set up and the bourgeois ruling class will block the activities of a left democratic government though there is much scope for development works (a significant shift from the 1964 formulation).

Time went by, a whole new neo-liberal arena opened up for the country, the one party dictatorship in the Centre went to oblivion, but still the Left Front continued its regime in West Bengal. Huge mass popularity, along with concrete organizational force and weak opposition, helped the government to continue its popular relief policy. But after 2000, the party programme aimed at something more than relief or task of PDR. It acknowledged the huge achievement of the Left Front government and admitted that an exemplary alternative social system can be formed even within the existing structure that will serve as a lighthouse to the toiling mass in the ocean of capitalistic and feudalistic repression.
The huge success story of the government made the following change in the party programme:

the Party will utilise the opportunities that present themselves of bringing into existence governments pledged to carry out a programme of providing relief to the people and strive to project and implement alternative policies within the existing limitations. The formation of such governments will strengthen the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the people’s democratic front. It, however, would not solve the economic and political problems of the nation in any fundamental manner. The Party, therefore, will continue to educate the mass of the people on the need for replacing the present bourgeois-landlord State and government headed by the big bourgeoisie even while utilising opportunities for forming such governments in the states or the Centre, depending on the concrete situation, and thus strengthen the mass movement.
(Change is shown in Italics)

So, the party now envisioned a left democratic alternative which is more than relief, or at least projected to be.

The problem is what task this alternative government will carry on. Can it set up any alternative structure in the existing set up, or any alternative social system? Within this bourgeois landlord set up and more so in the neo liberal arena, the state governments have very limited power to go in the path of human development. What a Left Front government can do at best is to consolidate the relief programme and strengthen the mass movement. It is only relief that can be possible within this existing structure. Without an entire change in the system no alternative governance can be set up. If a Left government is there, it would then go with mere alternative ways of relief which would popularize the party more and more, but it is certainly not an alternative set up.

The problem lies here. If we talk about alternative government in the current set up, we basically recognize the sustainability of the relief programme, (might be in some alternative way). The party, in post 2000 period, is perhaps not considering relief as a transitional phase (very natural formulation, because the government is no more transitional!!). Rather, through alternative governance, the party now theorizes the possibility of remaining in the government for a long term. That might be problematic. As long as we know that relief is transitional (1964 formulation) and so is the government, it is the path of revolution, through extra parliamentary struggle, that remains with us while the scope of relief gradually decreases in this neo-liberal regime. We could then explain to people that relief can’t ultimately solve the basic problems. It is the PDR that is the only solution.

But once we formulate that the immediate task is to remain in the government and thus make an alternative government, we in fact recognize the permanency of relief. The reality that relief is bound to fail is denied. No explanation on the ultimate fruitlessness of relief is floated in the grass root, and the realization of this fruitlessness in lower level is gradually lost. This is evident even in the party documents where no mention about the transitional character and ultimate failure of such state governments in the existing set up, which would compel the mass along the path of PDR, is penned down. The realization that protecting the Left Front government is itself a day to day class struggle for the interest of PDR, not for the interest of remaining in power or mere relief, is lost in the lower strata of the party.

The idea of relief has also changed significantly. In the first half of the Left Front governance, relief was something that was related to a regime better and more democratic than the Congress rule, as apparent from Jyoti Basu’s speech. But later, the idea was transformed in providing a human solution to the suffering of the masses under the neo liberal policies. The common idea is that there is no alternative of the New Economic Policy imposed by the Centre, but the Left government can work out a human face of the big capital which will provide the toiling mass limited relief. The TINA (There Is No Alternative) mentality is now deeply connected with the idea of alternative government. Previously, the alternative seemed to be the path of PDR when the transitional relief programme failed. But since the permanence of relief is given legitimacy, now the idea is how to work out a humane solution of the neo-liberal structure, without changing it.

Therefore, when big capital sharpens its aggression, no radical alternative comes out. The government goes on with consolidating relief which proves to be insufficient in the face of neo-liberal attack. A surrendering policy then becomes dominant in the entire socio-political sector, and the TINA (There Is No Alternative) mentality becomes triumphant. Then the government has to walk down the same path of the neo-liberal industrialization dictated by big capital. The mere difference lies in making it more human, more sensitive to the peoples’ cause. But no radical policy of rejecting the path and working out for some alternative policy comes out.

It is the task of the party, not the government, to be much more cautious in directing the government to educate people in identifying the basic problems. The Communist Party, we believe, will be ultimate victorious in the struggle of poor peoples’ quest for a better society. It is the duty of the CPI (M), as the vanguard of the proletariats, to aim its directives towards PDR and to not, at any rate, deviate from this goal. The Left government led by the CPI (M) is an instrument in the hand of poor people. The party must not sacrifice this powerful character. Each election, each path of the extra parliamentary struggle is a necessary stone in the path of PDR, a class struggle. The very essence of this class struggle must not be sacrificed.

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