How does a Communist government rule over Bengal for around 30 years without a break? Good governance? Hardly. Bengal suffered a precipitous decline during this period. Industries shut down or fled and jobs dried up; the quality of health services and education plummeted.
Social stability? Possibly. In the beginning, people were grateful to have seen the end of the hooliganism that marked the unpopular Congress regime; the Communists also ran a resolutely secular government. Political stability? Again, in the beginning, after the tumultuous 1960s of unwieldy coalitions, people craved stability. Land reforms? Undoubtedly yes, for it gave the landless dignity and a decent living.
Left Politics in Bengal— Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists:Orient Blackswan,272 pages, Rs 245
Monobina Gupta attempts to answer some of these tricky questions in this semi-autobiographical account of the rise and decline of the Communist party and government in Bengal. Gupta, a journalist, is among many of her generation who embraced the Left, and then fell out of love.
Her book is a breezy account of the early, heady years of Communist rule, followed by the stasis and disillusionment that set in. But her nostalgia for the high noon of revolution is jarringly sophomoric and detracts from the meatier narrative in what turns out to be an interesting, but uneven book.
Gupta says that with every passing year the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, found it “more and more complex to balance the obligations of governance with its core politics of struggle”. Stagnation of key industries is blamed on intransigent trade unionism, discriminative federal policies and liberalization. The party destroyed every institution of any merit by packing it with mediocre supplicants—it was worse than what Gupta describes as a “dull culture of patronage”. People wonder why the Communists were—and remain—so comfortable with mediocrity and suspicious of excellence.
Gupta believes that the party’s “ideological spine” was broken because it led a comfortable life without any worthwhile political opposition. But it can also be argued that this bankruptcy happened even as the Soviet Union collapsed and China opened up its economy, leaving our unimaginative, homegrown Communists clueless. With its ideological underpinnings weakening and a dull leadership rewarding sycophancy and mediocrity, the party degenerated. “The party loomed like a powerful corporation beckoning one and all, political and social climbers, ideological ignoramuses, rank opportunists, tantalizing them with possibilities that had nothing to do with the ideology of politics,” says Gupta. She could be talking of the Congress party in India, but in reality it has been worse in Bengal.
Did the vice grip of the Communists have anything to do with the Bengali’s traditional suspicion of, and aversion to, capital? In no other state are politics and capital estranged the way they are in Bengal. Many social scientists believe that the Communists’ hostility to big business well into the mid-1990s—when Jyoti Basu unveiled a wishy-washy industrial policy—was embraced by risk-averse, anti-capital Bengal, where glorification of poverty is legendary (even today, stories of Satyajit Ray’s “struggles” in making films out of rickety, hot Kolkata studios with poor equipment are part of the Bengali lore. Nobody asks why the auteur was not given better conditions to work in).
The eclipse of the bhadralok is now eerily coinciding with the decline of Communist rule in Bengal. There are more compelling arguments though. Political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya believes that the CPM, with its impeccably run networks, created a “party-society” where the party plays, says Gupta, a “key mediating role in society, often by transgressing the lines of separation between private and public, civic and political, social and familial”.
The result has been the cretinization of what was once a forward-looking society. With its stale and lazy political rhetoric—everything uncomfortably capitalist these days, for example, is “neo-liberal”—the party appears to have lost its capacity to attract any talent or attention of substance.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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