By Nilotpal Basu
THE continuation of the Left Front government in office without interruption for the last 34 years has been somewhat of an enigma to its friends and foes alike. This was clear on February 13 at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. The Bengal corporate media is infamous for its pathological hatred towards the communists and the Left. Obviously, in recent times, they have been euphoric. At long last, they feel that their dream is on the threshold of coming true. After the electoral setbacks suffered by the Left in the 2008 panchayat elections and more significantly in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and 2010 municipal elections, to them ‘the moment of reckoning’ had arrived. But alas! The huge gathering of human beings who recently converged on the ground constituted the largest ever popular mobilisation for a long time. A million and a half men and women, poor and resolute, waving the Red Flag high in the sky, authored the signature tune of the coming battle. This had left the correspondents representing the same corporate media in two minds. In my interaction with some of them, I asked them to explain what they saw. They were clearly left guessing. The gathering defied the very premise of the premature obituary of the Left Front that they had written.
THE VITRIOL AND ITS BACKGROUND
Why does the continued existence of the Left Front provoke such a sharp response? The answer is not hard to find. The process of neo-liberal economic reforms in the last two decades has travelled far and wide in India. The philosophy and ideology of this process has gripped not only the major ruling class parties; even regional outfits have been overwhelmed and co-opted by this phenomenon. Therefore, in the current neo-liberal environment in the country, consensus is not being sought to be evolved but ‘manufactured’.
But the Left is the spoilsport. But for the Left, there would be a smooth sailing for manufacturing that consensus, notwithstanding the several dissenting voices. Obviously, in a country like India, the market-led straightjacket cannot address the unevenness and diversity that is the heart of Indian nationhood. And, obviously, the Left – with its critique of the neo-liberal market-led and finance-driven capitalism – can and does act as a fulcrum for rallying round all these processes and forces who suffer from such a paradigm. The poor, i.e. the working class, much of the downtrodden sections of the peasantry, the agricultural labour, the burgeoning number of working people in the unorganised sector and the socially disempowered, i.e. the tribals, the dalits, the minorities and the women can all come together against the neo-liberal paradigm.
But, on the other hand, if the Left is not around, these processes of potential resistance can come to nought. It is precisely for this reason that domestic and international drivers of the neo-liberal process are so hard pressed to undermine or weaken, if not eliminate, the Left. In the recently leaked out cables from the US embassy in New Delhi, brought out into the open by the WikiLeaks website, we find a candid admission. The cable states: “The worst scenario for the US-India relationship would be one in which a "Third Front" forms a government that excludes both the Congress party and the BJP. Under those circumstances, the communist parties will likely wield great influence in a coalition. Nevertheless, the nuclear deal and a closer strategic relationship with the United States have generated an extraordinary public debate in India during the last year. We have won this debate hands down and, as a result, the US-India relationship has a strong foundation on which to grow over the coming decades.”
It is apparent that the urgency for securing India-US strategic partnership was actually a euphemism for interlocking India into a subordinate relationship in furthering the US imperialist interest in the Asian region. Absolutely crucial to this gameplan was the undermining of the Left in the 2009 parliament elections. It follows that the strike had to be where it hurts the Left the most. West Bengal, with an uninterrupted 32 years of Left Front rule, was the bastion of the Left movement.
Therefore, undermining the Left Front government and the Left movement was an imperative. Therefore, the traditional anti-communist and anti-Left vitriol, which has been a continuing phenomenon, assumed a new urgency and compulsion. The process of bringing together of all the anti-Left forces, which had started in the aftermath of the developments in Nandigram, combined with this new regional and global dimension.
Such an unprecedented rally of the anti-Left forces of all conceivable varieties would have by itself been difficult in achieving its political objective. It was necessary to attack and defame the Left Front government and the Left movement not from a neo-liberal rightwing platform but with pseudo-Left posturing. A major thrust of this attack was to question the very Left credentials of the seventh Left Front government. The fact that the degenerate and ideologically bankrupt Left adventurist band of 'Maoists', for their own political foothold, was embarking on physical attacks and unleashing campaigns of violence against and physical elimination of the CPI(M) and the Left cadre, brought the otherwise unlikely forces together in this process of grand alliance building. That the 'Maoist' vitriol routinely parroted ‘revolutionary jargons’ helped put in place this line of attack.
The last one and a half years have been the period of a life and death battle for the Left movement in West Bengal to overcome these forces and their machinations in order to secure and defend its bastion. Obviously, the battle is not being fought within the geographic confines of West Bengal alone.
It is very important, therefore, for us to comprehend and assimilate the implications of this political backdrop and fight back this vitriolic offensive to undermine the Left movement in the country. Therefore, it is also important to comprehend the basic thrust of the direction and record of the seventh Left Front government which has carved out a course that stands in sharp contrast to the policies pursued by the central government and other state governments steeped in neo-liberal thinking.
WHAT IS THE LEFT PREMISE?
What is the Left premise in the present times? This question has to be revisited in the light of the so-called Left critique to deny the Left credentials of the seventh Left Front government of West Bengal. This critique obviously fails to recognise the fundamental distinction between State power and office. In the context of the Constitution in a bourgeois-landlord State, and given its specific characteristics, the state governments are not invested with State power in a Marxist-Leninist sense. On the contrary, the elected office which the Left has come to occupy with the support of the people is under constant policy challenge and attack. The fact that such a battle has continued for as long as three and a half decades cannot change this basic reality. The very existence and continuation of the government was essentially a testimony for the constant class and democratic struggles but for which this unlikely phenomenon could not have become a reality. Therefore, to effect basic changes in such a framework would be an impossible task. Not only that; even to carry out tasks in the interest of the people, in contradistinction from the neo-liberal policy direction itself, has become an increasingly difficult goal to accomplish.
In this context, it is important to understand what constitutes the basic task of the Left in office in the present times. To start with, a Left government would have to do everything possible to sensitise the people for putting up a resistance to imperialism --- particularly in its present avatar as a driving force for neo-liberal globalisation. Obviously, constrained as it is by the limitations of constitutional powers, this would imply the taking up of an initiative to ensure government intervention in economy, particularly to insulate the people from the disastrous consequence of profit-driven market-oriented aggressive. This would also imply major initiatives in addressing the growing inequality and unemployment inherent in the lopsided growth-centric paradigm which benefits the corporates and other economic elite disproportionately. In the Indian context, this would also mean addressing economic and social injustice which adversely affects the socially vulnerable sections like the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward communities, women and religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
In the present times, the Left premise would also necessitate an underlined urgency in addressing the challenge of communal and divisive forces. And this agenda would have to address simultaneously along two directions. The first would be to strengthen the process of unity of diverse identities and create conditions for mutual respect and harmony, so that people belonging to different identities can and do mobilise unitedly against common policy threats which endanger their life and livelihood. Along with this, and no less importantly, sections who do suffer economic and social injustice on the basis of their identity would have to be provided an equal opportunity by unleashing specific targeted measures for positive discrimination.
To sum it up, in the present context, the Left premise would comprise a fight against imperialism and neo-liberal globalisation, against communalism and the politics of division, and strengthening a strong sense of social justice.
QUESTION OF IMPERIALISM
It was Comrade Jyoti Basu who set out the approach of the Left Front government on this crucial question. His constant refrain was that ‘socialism cannot be built in isolation in West Bengal.' However, what we could do is to constantly sensitise the people on the dangers of imperialism. And there is no question of giving up this conviction. It was during the seventh Left Front government that the question came up so sharply. It was brought up by an agitated US ambassador in India, viz David Mulford. He was objecting to the castigation of US policies and military occupation in Iraq by chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, in one of those mammoth gatherings at the Brigade Parade Ground. While the government of India was in the process of coming ever closer to the US administration of George Bush, Buddhadeb boldly put forth that the anti-imperialist and humanist traditions of our legacy should inspire us to oppose and protest the barbarity which the US imperialism has embarked on in Iraq, causing death and destruction to millions of Iraqi people. Peeved by this, Mulford objected saying that if the West Bengal government is looking for foreign investment, particularly US investment, how can the chief minister dare to criticise the US actions.
Mulford, a rightwinger as he was, had no clue about the approach of the Left Front government. The latter has not been opposed to private investment, or for that matter, foreign investment. But that is for bridging investment gaps, accessing technology not available within the country and, most importantly, to spark employment. It is never ever to compromise on the distinct anti-imperialist legacy of the Left. That glorious tradition remained intact during the last five years. It is essentially for this role of the Left movement and its recognition by the Left Front government that Kolkata still remains home to the largest anti-imperialist congregations of people in the country.
The challenge of neo-liberal globalisation and international finance-driven policies of the union government is, indeed, a humongous one for a Left government, more so if the latter is not merely attempting to provide some relief to the people but also to set out an alternative policy course with the limited powers available to a state government.
The whole question of expanding powers of the state governments and a restructuring of the centre-state relations has been a major contribution of the Left movement, particularly of the Left Front government of West Bengal, in the struggle for strengthening our democracy through progressive devolution and decentralisation. While pursuing the objective of reinforcing democracy and national unity, such a direction of restructuring would obviously help expand the space for the Left Front government to pursue alternative policies. With the onset of neo-liberal economic reforms in this country in the early nineties, the overreaching role of the central government, which played an impediment to the strengthening of the powers of the states, was replaced by the growing role of markets in determining policy in crucial sectors of the economy and the society. Thus the new environment of the reforms directly undermined the intervention by the government in the interests of larger sections of the people.
FIGHT AGAINST INJUSTICE
Therefore, during its tenure, the seventh Left Front government went on to carry forward the unique programme that had changed the correlation of political forces in the state --- land reforms. Initiated much earlier, the West Bengal land reforms experience has now attracted attention not only of the economists and development experts inside the country but also internationally. In our country, in spite of its dwindling share in the GDP, agriculture continues to provide livelihood to 65 per cent of the population. In such a context, the continued land reforms in West Bengal are a major bulwark against the neo-liberal course of corporate takeover of land and the entry of multinationals in food and agri-business. Since 1977, the small and marginal farmers of West Bengal have acquired 11,27,000 acres of free pattas. Today, 84 per cent of cultivated land in Bengal is owned by small and marginal farmers --- in contrast to the national average of a mere 34 per cent.
That this process also acts as a principal instrument to address social justice is borne out by the fact that recipients of such land redistribution are comprised of 37 per cent from scheduled castes, 18 per cent of scheduled tribes and 18 per cent from the Muslim community. A significant number of these pattas are joint pattas in the name of a man and his wife, establishing the principle of gender equality. That is why today, notwithstanding the fact that West Bengal accounts for only 3 per cent of total agricultural land in the country, it accounts for 22 per cent of land redistribution.
With a smokescreen sought to be created around the developments in Singur and Nandigram, there was a concerted attempt to portray the seventh Left Front government as one which embarked on forcible occupation of agricultural land for the corporates, giving a go-by to its earlier legacy. But the facts speak something else. During the tenure of this government, 16,700 acres of land has been distributed by 2009-10 and another 6000 acres in 2010-11. The land redistributed by the seventh Left Front government alone may be equal to that in the rest of the country during the last 20 years.
Obviously, this emphasis on ensuring land for the small and marginal farmers has been accompanied by expansion of the irrigation facilities. Ignored by the central government and denied of any major central investment for big irrigation projects, the development here has been based on utilisation of ground water through the decentralised initiative of panchayat institutions. As a result of this, just from a 28 per cent of irrigated land in the state in 1977, the proportion has increased to 72 per cent, almost doubling the crop intensity. This has led to increased production and productivity in agriculture. From 74 lakh tonnes in 1976-77, agricultural production is now 170 lakh tonnes. During every year, in the last five years, the GDP growth in agriculture in West Bengal has been far ahead of the national GDP figures in this sphere.
Thus the land and agriculture policies of seventh Left Front government of West Bengal stands in contrast to the neo-liberal direction of opening up agriculture to foreign multinationals in agri-business and retail trade. The new challenge, of course, is how to develop more storage capacity, agri-processing, and a modern supply chain infrastructure where the value of production can be ensured mostly for the producers. If this is not again a Left policy, what is?
On the question of management of the food economy, during the last three years the Left Front government has provided rice at Rs 2 per kg to around 2.63 crore people. The government had to spend Rs 500 crore to enforce this programme. This, again, is in contrast to the direction of reduction in food subsidies and exclusion of huge sections of the population from the ambit of food security through an unrealistic definition of poverty levels and by restricting the public distribution system to a small section of the population.
Similarly, the seventh Left Front government has ensured major advances of those sectors of the economy like small and medium scale enterprises which do not require big investments. In fact, both in terms of number of enterprises and generation of employment, West Bengal has been occupying the first position in the country for quite some time. At this point in time, West Bengal has 28 lakh small industrial enterprises which employ 55 lakh people. This is achieved through increased budgetary support for facilitating the survival and consolidation of such units.
RECORD IN SOCIAL SECTOR
The seventh Left Front government has particularly taken head on the policy course sought to be pushed by the central government. In education, its major thrust has been to ensure 100 per cent enrolment and sharp reduction in the dropout rate during the earlier period. Professor Amartya Sen is on record appreciating the unique initiative in Bengal through Sishu Siksha Kendras (SSK) and Madhyamik Siksha Kendras (MSK), supervised and run by panchayats which have played a pivotal role in reducing the dropout rates. Effective implementation of the midday meal has been the other major factor. These kendras have appointed teachers from the neighbourhood and belonging overwhelmingly to the disadvantaged social groups like SCs, STs, OBCs and Muslims. The state government provided security of tenure and enhanced the remuneration to these teachers.
In higher education, the state’s approach is in complete contrast to the direction of privatisation and commercialisation. In the last five years alone, 74 colleges have been started and five new universities established. These are mainly in backward areas or in those with dense SC, ST, OBC and Muslim populations. Two universities have been created specifically for the Muslim communities --- one under the state government and the other, a centre of the Aligarh Muslim University. It is because of these efforts that sections hitherto excluded from access to higher education have been able to overcome the earlier hurdles. On the other hand, efforts are on to enhance the quality and performance of the universities to bring them national and international recognition and appreciation.
The West Bengal public health system is unique and treats 73 per cent of the total patients undergoing treatment in the state in government facilities. The number of patients accessing services in the primary health centres and rural hospitals is improving rapidly. On the basic health parameters like birth rate, death rate, infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate, West Bengal is way ahead of the national average; on some of these parameters it occupies the first or the second position. Here also, the thrust is on improvement of the health sector through public funding --- in contrast to emphasis on private investment in five star speciality and super speciality hospitals.
Finally, the seventh Left Front government is reinforcing its earlier initiative for ensuring social security for the workers, particularly in the unorganised sector. It has embarked on a massive programmes that bring together provident fund, health insurance and special packages for the exigencies of accident which they might have to suffer. This is bringing an upheaval in the unorganised sector workers’ sense of belonging.
A major initiative following the Ranganath Mishra commission recommendations has been to expand the number of OBCs to 53 and extending 15 per cent additional reservation for these communities. Of these, 10 per cent are reserved for Muslim OBCs. Out of the two crore six lakh crore Muslims in the state, one crore 82 lakh Muslims will now benefit from this step. Coupled with this positive discrimination, the hugely expanded investment in education for the Muslims in madrasahs as well as other institutions of education for all stages, including universities, has set out a dramatic course of improvement for Muslims in the development process. Now the empowerment of minority Muslims is not merely through a remarkable level of land ownership but also through educational empowerment.
THE BATTLE AHEAD
In today’s context, if this is not an active Left policy, what is? It is precisely because of this record of the seventh Left Front government that it has come under attack from the extreme rightwing and, of course, imperialist interests. The added dimension today is of attacks from the pseudo-Left platform, spearheaded by the 'Maoists' and their intellectual apologists. However, that such an attack can be successfully met is more than evident from experiences in the past. With the support of the democratic, progressive and the Left movement in the country, the Left movement in West Bengal will definitely overcome this new challenge. The people of West Bengal are preparing for that very big battle.
People's Democracy, April 03, 2011