The severe electoral defeat of the CPM and the Left Front in West Bengal will have dismayed and disappointed well-wishers of the Left,while some of its critics and opponents have already written its epitaph. If in Bengal,as happens in other parts of the country,the Left had lost every alternate election,perhaps the kind of fundamental questions on the ideology of the Left and its very existence would not have been raised. The change of governments,as in Kerala,would then have been taken as part of a normal democratic cycle. The mistake,it would appear,is to have won elections seven times in a row!
It is not inconceivable that after 34 years,the slogan of change should have found resonance as it did in West Bengal more so in the context of the coming together of a largely disparate range of political forces,from extreme Left to Right,with a little help from some in the media who played as opening batsmen in the team. According to provisional figures put out by a TV channel,while the index of opposition unity (IOU) in Bengal against the Left was as high as 84 on a scale from 1-100 where 100 represents total unity,in Assam the IOU against the Congress was much lower,at 60.
At the same time,as the leadership of the Left has repeatedly stated,the subjective factors for the huge reduction in seats,the weaknesses and shortcomings,the various factors that have played a role will not be brushed aside,but identified and addressed. Intrinsic to the structures of a communist party is the culture of open and frank debate,criticism and correction. Unlike in most other parties,there is little room here for sycophantic choruses or a one-leader-decides-all syndrome in the decision-making and accountability processes at different levels in the party. These discussions take place within party forums and the conclusions are publicly reported. It is curious how contemptuous mainstream commentators are in their reference to this uniquely democratic process as being regimented.
But it is unlikely that such a review exercise will to lead to the kind of reformed Left that its critics are rooting for a Left tamed by its defeat into accepting the set of economic policies that,in the name of growth,intensify and create new inequalities; a Left subdued into silence and non-action while labour rights are bulldozed; a Left which will acquiesce into accepting the almighty sway of foreign capital in the name of meeting the perceived aspirations of youth. This is not to say that policies remain ossified and unrelated to changes that take place in society. On the contrary,change is essential and inevitable but in which direction and for whose benefit?
Social analysis based on the existence and development of different classes in society,with their divergent and often contradictory and conflicting interests,inform,in large measure,the economic and social policy formulations,the actions and movements of the Left. In Bengal,the Left movement was built brick by brick on the basis of this understanding,and the Left Front government was born in the crucible of the class struggle. In office,within the limited rights and resources available to state governments,the Left government had to a great extent been a symbol of alternative policies to those followed by the Central government,particularly through its historic achievements in the field of land reforms,development of agriculture,decentralisation and growth from below,and promotion of small and medium scale industries with a focus on providing employment. Ironically for those who see no development in Bengal,it is the World Bank that has assessed Bengal as being among the top states in the country in the reduction of poverty. Moreover,at a time when India was being torn apart by sectarian strife,Bengal under the Left became a beacon of hope for secularism.
The relentless pressure being put on the Left today is precisely to give up its class approach,to adapt itself to neo-liberal realities represented by the set of policies popularly referred to by workers as LPG liberalisation,privatisation,globalisation. In the 90s,in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union,the offensive of rightwing ideologues did see several Left formations in Europe succumbing and turning into appendages of this or that dominant ruling class formation. In India,the Left withstood that offensive. In todays situation,the defeat of the Left in West Bengal has given new hope to the array of anti-Left forces but once again,such hopes will be belied and a stronger,rejuvenated Left committed to the interests of the working poor,the middle classes and the socially discriminated-against sections of society,will emerge from this experience. This will no doubt be helped by the fact that even in this election,over 41 per cent of the voters in Bengal stood with the Left.
In a parliamentary democracy,parties that have lost the elections are expected to accept the verdict and play the role of a responsible and constructive opposition. In spite of the absence of such a political norm in Bengal when the Left was in government,the Left Front has publicly committed itself to playing such a role. But the main concern today lies in the large-scale attacks that have already started through the planned,by no means spontaneous,targeting of party offices and worse,party supporters and workers. In a span of just three days,in areas where the people voted for the CPM,two local leaders have been killed,hundreds of homes of supporters burnt and families displaced. These families can return only if they pledge allegiance to the ruling combine. In the face of this violence,in the days ahead it is not just the Left and its supporters who will be tested,but the norms and functioning of Indian democracy itself.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo and a Rajya Sabha MP