WB Update : Can the CPI(M) Regain Lost Ground in Bengal

The stage has nearly been set for the forthcoming Assembly elections in West Bengal. Five years ago Mamata Banerjee had come to power with the grand promise of 'parivartan' (change), pitting the seductive subaltern imagery of Ma-Mati-Manush (mother-land-common man) against a 34-year-old CPI(M)-led government which had become highly discredited and arrogant in the eyes of even large sections of its own traditional electoral base. To her credit, she had emerged as a dynamic and responsive leader connected to the people and with the CPI(M) committing one blunder after another beginning with the forcible acquisition of highly fertile multi-crop land in Singur, the inexorable momentum of popular resentment finally catapulted the TMC to power ending 34 years of uninterrupted CPI(M) rule.

Five years on, Mamata Banerjee has little to show to the people of West Bengal as 'achievements' of her government apart from fulfilling the political promise of 'regime change'. The promise of restoration of democracy has fallen flat on its face as the state reels under the unmitigated totalitarian domination of the TMC in every sphere of life. Hundreds are dying of starvation in the tea gardens in North Bengal, scores of peasant suicides have been reported from the heartland of West Bengal agriculture in Bardhaman district, the public distribution system is in a shambles, but the government continues to be in a state of perpetual denial.

The Saradha swindling scam has ruined hundreds of thousands of small depositors who lost all their accumulated savings while thousands of young agents lost their livelihood and had to bear the brunt of the wrath of aggrieved customers. The CM trivialised the mega scam with her characteristically dismissive comment "ja gyachhe ta gyachhe' (whatever has gone has gone) and let a scam-tainted minister continue in her cabinet for months on end despite being arrested by the CBI. Land transactions and construction activities across the state are controlled by the ubiquitous 'syndicate' - extortion rackets akin to the mafia that combines corruption and terror under the patronage of the ruling party.

Shocking instances of rape and sexual violence that stirred the whole country became 'sajano ghatona' (concocted stories) or 'chhotokhato byapar' (small routine events) for Mamata Banerjee while one of her film star MPs could be heard issuing rape and death threats against TMC opponents on video. The much promised release of political prisoners never happened, rather we heard TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee's nephew and rising TMC star, brag in a public meeting how the TMC regime bumped off Maoist leader Kishanji in a fake encounter. TMC goons have a free hand in dictating 'law and order' in today's West Bengal in partnership with a thoroughly compromised partisan police force.

Despite the growing disillusionment among various sections of people, the TMC is yet to face any major electoral challenge in West Bengal. The BJP did emerge as a powerful force during the 2014 LS elections, but the rise of the BJP was arguably more at the cost of the CPI(M) and the Congress than the TMC. With the decline of the Modi wave and rise of powerful anti-BJP protests across the country, the BJP graph has again begun to go down in West Bengal, leading to a marginal recovery in the CPI(M)'s electoral performance. But by all indications, sections of the Left's core support base in rural Bengal that had gravitated to the TMC in the wake of Singur and Nandigram are yet to return to the Left fold. Herein lies the real crisis of the CPI(M) and the biggest comparative advantage of the TMC.

Unlike Kerala, where power usually changes hands every five years and the CPI(M) therefore has enough experience and practice of functioning periodically as an opposition party, in West Bengal the CPI(M) is faced with the challenge of virtually reinventing itself as a party of opposition. With its track record of betrayal and terror, the TMC government indeed gave ample opportunities for the CPI(M) to reinvent itself. But for reasons best known to itself, the CPI(M) did not manage to pin down the TMC government even on an explosive issue like Sharadha scam, letting Mamata Banerjee continue to retain Madan Mitra in her cabinet even as the latter remained formally arrested in the CBI case. Issues of tremendous public interest like starvation deaths in tea gardens, peasant suicides in Bardhaman or massive hike in power tariff or the many questions of democracy and human rights that stirred public opinion from time to time did not trigger the kind of oppositional pressure or agitational initiative West Bengal expected from a powerful Left opposition.

A major reason for the inaction of the CPI(M) - the recent spurt in the Party's action programmes on the eve of the impending elections notwithstanding - must have been the credibility crisis that continues to weigh it down on almost every question. The critics of the CPI(M) find it easy to confront or silence the party with comparable examples from the past when it was in power. A bold and honest answer to this credibility crisis could have been to undertake sincere self-criticism, offer apologies to the people and effect a course correction in practice. But this was not to be. The party perhaps believed it could wait out the 'bad times', hoping for the people to forget the past and be driven by resentment against the TMC to return to the CPI(M).

With the CPI(M) performance reaching an all time low in the 2014 LS elections, there were talks of a review of the party's political-tactical line in the Visakhapatnam Congress. But the reluctant half-baked review turned out to be a strange zero-sum exercise. While the party talked of restoring the primacy of the independent assertion of the Left movement and building a broader and more effective unity of the Left, it left open the door for all kinds of opportunity electoral alliances in the name of specificity of state situation and flexibility of tactics in exceptional situations. No wonder then, that after the Congress one began to hear a clamour among many CPI(M) leaders in West Bengal for an alliance with the Congress.

It should be recalled that sections of the CPI(M) leadership have always blamed the party's 2008 withdrawal of support to the Congress at the Centre for its 2011 defeat and debacle in West Bengal. They argued that the CPI(M) had in the process driven the Congress into an alliance with the TMC and this is what proved the CPI(M)'s undoing in West Bengal. The 2014 LS election results, when the CPI(M) performance dipped further despite the Congress quitting the TMC alliance and going it alone, should have conclusively settled this issue, but the return of the Congress to the opposition benches in the West Bengal Assembly only encouraged the CPI(M) to explore the possibility of befriending the Congress and seeking it as an electoral ally. It is true that the TMC had dubbed the Congress in West Bengal a 'B team' of the CPI(M) during the UF-UPA phase of Congress-Left cooperation which helped it win over the Congress base and emerge as the principal opposition to the CPI(M). But if the CPI(M) takes this seriously and expects the Congress to leave aside its essential rivalry with the CPI(M) and instead antagonize a prospective partner for a possible 2019 anti-BJP coalition, it only shows the utter political desperation and bankruptcy of the CPI(M) in West Bengal.

The recent organisational plenum of the CPI(M) did little to steer the CPI(M) out of this desperation. The question of alliance with the Congress overshadowed the entire event including the Brigade Parade Ground rally held on the eve of the plenum. The assertion of CPI(M) central leaders that the question of election strategy will be decided by the state committee after the plenum only kept the 'suspense' alive and growing. And if anybody needed any further indication of the CPI(M)'s desperation to stitch an alliance with the Congress, it was provided by both the party's state secretary and the former Chief Minister in the post-plenum march from Singur to Salboni.

The Singur to Salboni programme starkly demonstrated the CPI(M)'s failure, nay refusal, to learn any lesson from the post-Singur decline of the party in West Bengal. While flagging off the march at Singur, CPI(M) leaders said they would withdraw the Singur land case currently under consideration of the Supreme Court. Not a single word was said about the plight of the people who lost their land and livelihood in Singur, no question was raised about the TMC government's betrayal of the Singur people and failure to provide them with dignified assured livelihood. Instead the entire occasion was used to tell the people that if the CPI(M) came back to power it would also bring the Tatas back, and give an 'ultimatum' to the Congress to make up its mind and join hands with the CPI(M) at the earliest.

Now Singur and Salboni were the two biggest examples of land transfer to corporate hands for the stated purpose of setting up industries. The Tatas dumped their proposed West Bengal project and migrated to Narendra Modi's Gujarat (land apart, the incentives offered by the Gujarat government included a soft loan of Rs. 9570 crore at 0.1% interest to be repaid in 20 years, free electricity, 100 acres of additional land near Ahmedabad for a township, four-lane road connectivity, waste disposal plant and free publicity for the Nano car with the government putting up hoardings of Modi and Tata across the state). Yet, having enjoyed this huge state largesse for years, Tata himself has now declared the Nano project unviable, a flawed and mistaken economic idea!

At Salboni in West Medinipur, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government had given 4,000 acres of forest land and land cultivated by adivasis and other peasants (the government falsely claiming the whole area to be ‘arid’) for a 10 MT integrated steel plant and a power plant to produce 1600 MW power. Nothing has happened in almost ten years since then, and now after Mamata Banerjee begged Jindal to set up something before the elections the latter has consented to set up a 2.4 MT cement plant over 134 acres of land which, if everything goes to plan, will start producing in 2018 and employ around 1,000 workers including only about 200 permanent jobs.

When Singur is mentioned, most people in West Bengal do not see dreams of the Tata plant that could have been, they are reminded of the brutality and arrogance with which the Buddhadeb government had forcibly acquired the land. When Salboni is mentioned, people are reminded of how successive governments and the Jindals have duped them with empty promises of employment. We are now living in a situation when the cruel economic reality of agrarian crisis, massive unemployment and growing poverty and inequality is tearing asunder the myth of corporate-led development and industrialisation even in industrially advanced states like Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Instead of taking on the neoliberal myth of corporate-led industrialisation and fighting for an alternative path of employment-generating pro-people development, the CPI(M) in West Bengal is now trying to outplay Mamata Banerjee in her bid to woo corporate capital with more and more sops. In the recent investors' summit Mamata went so far as to pledge her loyalty to the investors in her own inimitably blunt and candid style, telling them “you are my employer, I am your employee”. Having earlier lost out to Mamata over the issue of land acquisition, Buddhadeb would now like to challenge and defeat Mamata at this game of wooing the corporates. For a party which has lost large sections of its once committed mass base, this is surely not the way of regaining the support of the people.

The CPI(M) had come to power rather unexpectedly in 1977 on the plank of restoration of democracy after the ravages of Emergency. It had consolidated its influence and secured its rule through land redistribution, Operation Barga and regularisation of the panchayati raj system. But three decades later, it had to leave power having been thoroughly discredited on the very same planks of land, peasant rights and democracy. There can be no shortcut to recovery by riding piggyback on the Congress and 'promising' more Singurs and Salbonis to the people of West Bengal. Communist revolutionaries must boldly reject this desperate suicidal course and combat the terror and betrayal of the autocratic TMC regime to uphold the Left banner in West Bengal.

Box 1

'Jabab Chai' Rally at Shahid Minar in Kolkata

Against Mamata Misrule and CPIM’s Betrayal

Several processions of peasants, agricultural labourers, workers from jute, tea, construction and other non-formal sectors, students and youth, and others marched to join the ‘Jabab chai’ (Demand Answers) rally at Shahid Minar in Kolkata on 21 January. They came holding banners and placards from different corners of the state to the Maidan braving a chill in the wind. Women constituted a large segment of the rally.

The meeting began with rousing songs reflecting the rally’s mood, by cultural activists Halishahar Sanskritik Sangstha, Chalar Pathe from Bujbuj, Mira Chaturvedi from North Bengal, Raka and Sanjay, Biswarup Basak, Nitish Roy and Ashok Chakravarty. An adivasi team from Bankura also gave a dance performance.
Party General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, State Secretary Partha Ghosh, Politburo members Swadesh Bhattacharya, Kartick Pal, Arindam Sen, and Dhurjoti Bakshi as well as state committee members and mass organization leaders were on the dais.

In his opening address CCM Abhijit Mazumdar spoke briefly on the deplorable situation prevailing in Bengal under Mamata regime with special emphasis on the starvation deaths of tea workers. Partha Ghosh then spoke, exposing the ruling TMC’s deliberate plans for unleashing terror on any sort of democratic protests. Peasantry and the working population in Bengal are reeling under severe crisis pertaining to price hike, lack of access to food, deprivation from minimum wages, unemployment, poor people have already been fleeced of their petty reserves by the chit funds run and supported by the MPs and ministers of Mamata cabinet. He also vehemently criticized the Chief Minister for letting loose lumpens in all sectors and called it a ‘Syndicate Raj’. He also stressed the need to resist every attack on democratic rights and the need for a massive left and democratic resistance that would keep away from opportunistic coalitions with the corrupt Congress. He warned that TMC is only an off-shoot of the autocratic Congress and it would be suicidal for CPIM to join hands with them. Comrade Mina Pal spoke of the struggles of working women and working people in West Bengal, and the need to strengthen these. Kartick Pal took on the CPIM for committing shameful criminal deeds in Singur and Nandigram and asked CPIM leaders to accept the responsibility of their wrongdoing and apologise before the masses. That only can pave the way for a consolidated left counter-offensive in the forthcoming assembly election.

As the principal speaker of the rally, Comrade Dipankar said that in 2011 only the ‘signboard’ of the ruling party in Bengal had changed and the people of Bengal has been suffering the bane of misrule for the last 5 years. In 2014 there had been a change in the Central Government too with BJP coming to power with absolute majority. And an uncanny similarity is being seen in the function of both the governments, with tall promises amounting to nothing. All over the country people’s protests are taking on to the streets in large numbers. In Bengal similar protests are also visible. A concerted left resistance is needed now to overthrow the Mamata regime. He expressed his surprise over the CPIM view and insisted that the people of Bengal will never accept a CPIM-Congress unholy alliance that denies the historic legacy of left movements here. The need of the hour is to call for a struggling left unity on the bulwark of mutual faith and respect. The future of leftism depends much on the united struggle, not in opportunistic electioneering. The people of Bengal have already discarded the efforts of the communal-corporate BJP to expand their strength. BJP has no future in Bengal. Our immediate task is to reiterate the urgency and strengthen the unity of the toiling masses to fight out the enemies of the people.

The rally was presided over by State secretariat member Com. Basudeb Basu.

Box 2

Criminal Mischief in Malda

On the 3rd of January this year, a large gathering of Muslims took place at Kaliachak in Malda district of West Bengal to protest the provocative and abusive statement on Prophet Muhammad, made by a Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh a month ago. The protest rally had been mobilized by the Edara-e-Shariya, and was led by several religious leaders from different political backgrounds including a prominent former CPIM leader Abdur Rauf.
In spite of several announcements, the crowd was quite volatile. Many have reported that some local youth were in fact deployed from the crowd to encircle and protect the three Hindu temples inside Gharialichak.

However, the rally was hijacked and sabotaged by criminals of Kaliachak, who egged the crowd to ransack the Kaliachak Police Station and committing arson. The arson was focused – it was aimed at burning documents of cases relating to forged rupees notes, illegal arms trade, illegal poppy cultivation etc. This diversion was certainly done by some unseen hands of criminal dons backed by the ruling party TMC.

There were only fifteen policemen to handle the mammoth rally –who including the OC fled away scared by the aggression of the hooligans. Although the incident occurred before 12 noon, the reinforcements of police and the RAF came to the area from Malda district headquarters as late as 4 pm. It is a well known fact that the administration had since long built-up a connivance with the local criminal dons and this time it proved to be true again.

The arson did affect a few shops owned by Hindus close to the police station – but it is clear that the main target was the police station alone. The fact that the motivation was not communal is indicated by the fact that the Hindu temples in the area remained untouched, as did most Hindu-owned shops and homes. The BJP has tried to fan up communal sentiments over the matter by spreading the canard that this was a Muslim attack on Hindus and a massive communal conflagration – but this is far from the truth.

It needs to be investigated if there were any vested interests behind the protest gathering itself, that had manipulated people’s sentiments to create a pretext for attacking the police station. The CPI(ML) visited the area on January 6th, and submitted a memorandum to the DM demanding stern action against the mischief makers, and seeking an enquiry into the nexus between the district police and the local criminals. In an all party meeting held by the SDO, our party representative urged for peace and suggested ways in which to help bring the situation back to normal.

But indiscriminate police raid now ongoing in the area are creating fear and panic in the Muslim community. The main organizers of the rally and the criminal dons backed by the ruling TMC are absconding.

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