Red Star over West Bengal
A few years ago I traveled around rural West Bengal to study the gains made by the Left Front government, notably as a result of the experiments in the devolution of power. By then I knew the statistical advances almost by heart. West Bengal has the highest agricultural growth rate in India, but this growth did not come at the cost of rural wages (whose considerable rise since the 1970s continues). About 2.5 million households gained land from the reforms, half a million households won title to their home-sites, and close to half a million women earned title deeds to agricultural land. The number of people under the poverty line, particularly in rural areas, has dropped precipitously (now at 26.9%, while it was 56.3% in 1977), just as the annual intake of calories has increased substantially. The data could envelop this column. But the numbers have human faces, and I was interested in the social forces unleashed by the Communist experiments in the state.
In Diamond Harbor district, in the southern part of Bengal, we drove on an unfinished, bumpy road along an irrigation canal. One of the people with me, an elected representative in the local panchayat or government, apologized for the state of the road. I had come from the USA, and he was aware that the roads there did not suffer from lack of inputs. Embarrassed by his apology, I asked him about the frequency of simple metal bridges that crossed the long canal, almost every five hundred meters or so. He explained that development funds generally came to the village earmarked for roads and electricity, useful things in themselves, but not always the first priority of the villagers. The devolution of power allowed the panchayat to use the money toward the bridges so that the villagers did not have to walk long distances to cross the canal. Meanwhile city slickers like myself would have to suffer the bumpy roads.
We got to the district headquarters and settled ourselves at the panchayat office. The head of the panchayat, a local school master, began to tell me about the different policies enacted by his administration: irrigation, electricity, better creches, control over the commons, etc. Suddenly a woman burst in and demanded that he inform her about a loan application for land improvements. Without apology or the deference that so often characterizes the relationship of the rural poor with authority, she told him that she had waited long enough. Besides, what was he doing wasting his time talking to people like me when he could be taking care of her loan application. The panchayat head apologized to her and to me, then he went to a cabinet, withdrew some papers, and spent some time talking to her. I left the room.
I remembered these incidents when I got the news that the Left Front government in West Bengal secured its sixth consecutive victory in the West Bengal elections last month. Since 1977 the Left Front has dominated the electoral arena, a record for any party, anywhere. With 199 out of 294 seats, the Left Front's new Chief Minister was jubilant, but also honest about the capacity of his government. 'The people of this state have known us for 24 years," said Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, "They know what we are capable of doing and what we have not been able to do." Mr. Bhattacharya is well known as an honest and capable man who left electoral politics about a decade ago to "dissolve himself into the masses," and only returned a few years ago. The Left Front recognizes that it is constrained by the wiles of finance capital and that its main task is to engendered power amongst the people. The "trap of global finance" (as Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik analyzes it in the New Delhi-based journal <Social Scientist,> September-October 1999) narrows the range of options available to the regional government in Bengal, since the agenda for governance is structured by the central government in New Delhi, currently led by the neoliberal Hindu Right.
The Left will continue to win in West Bengal in the near future for at least three reasons. First, it has been the agent of land reforms and the total reconstruction of agrarian relations in the state (with 200 seats of the 294 in rural Bengal, it is no surprise that the Left dominates the state). Second, even though the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has enough seats to form a government on its own, it treats the Left Front coalition as sacrosanct. The coalition is not formed to win elections alone, but it is held together by a principled program of action, itself mindful of the limited sphere of action left to regional governments around the world. Third, the opposition to the Left is enfeebled by infighting and the predatory urge for corruption, something that is unknown from the Left government (in 24 years the government has not been charged with any scandal, another record in these voracious days).
After the election, the Communists declared that they would govern according to three values: discipline, compassion and dynamism. Nirupam Sen, Minister of Industry, announced shortly thereafter that the Communists would be innovative in the industrial sector. "If we want to move even slightly away from the disease of jobless growth that marks the present stage of corporate capital worldwide," he noted, "we have to strive hard. And this is made more emergent in view of the wholesale adoption of the dictates of world monopoly capital by the BJP-run NDA government in Delhi, and Bengal is certainly not outside the purview, willy-nilly, of the national economy." With trade unions and mass organizations on alert, and with an energized Left Front, the ministries cannot afford to tarry. In good faith they must once again produce results against the tide of a historical dynamic dominated by mobile finance capital. The words compassion and dynamic are important, because, as Chief Minister Bhattacharya noted, "the bureaucracy is not functioning the way it should under a Left Front government. That's why my aim is to make the administration corruption-free, dynamic and more responsive to the needs of the people. For the last four months, I have been stressing on the need to improve the work culture. We will work towards this. It is in this context that the slogan of a new, improved Left should be viewed." This is a real, compassionate cultural revolution.