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The Coming Crisis in West Bengal

The Coming Crisis in West Bengal

The studies in this special issue on local government and politics in rural West Bengal that were carried out in 2003-06 ask the question, "What explains the extraordinary stability of Left Front rule in West Bengal?". The papers - one based on a large sample quantitative survey across all districts and the others on close ethnographic observation of six purposively selected gram panchayats - find merit in both the explanations suggested in the literature on contemporary West Bengal politics: one, the institutional effectiveness of the structures of rural government and mobilisation of political support built by the Left Front and, two, a form of clientelism in which the Left parties hold their supporters under some sort of permanent dependence. The studies, however, propose several nuanced modifications of the arguments and also offer some new explanations for our consideration. However, several critical events have taken place in West Bengal since 2006 (Nandigram, Singur, the results of the panchayat election of 2008). Is it then possible to shift our perspective and read the results reported in these studies as an answer to a different question? Instead of the question that has been conventionally asked about West Bengal, could we ask: "What are the reasons internal to the institutions of government and politics in rural West Bengal that might endanger the stability of Left Front rule?". This brief introduction to the special issue offers the beginnings of such a reading.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN RURAL WEST BENGAL

The Coming Crisis in West Bengal

Partha Chatterjee

The studies in this special issue on local government and politics in rural West Bengal that were carried out in 2003-06 ask the question, “What explains the extraordinary stability of Left Front rule in West Bengal?”. The papers – one based on a large sample quantitative survey across all districts and the others on close ethnographic observation of six purposively selected gram panchayats – find merit in both the explanations suggested in the literature on contemporary West Bengal politics: one, the institutional effectiveness of the structures of rural government and mobilisation of political support built by the Left Front and, two, a form of clientelism in which the Left parties hold their supporters under some sort of permanent dependence. The studies, however, propose several nuanced modifications of the arguments and also offer some new explanations for our consideration. However, several critical events have taken place in West Bengal since 2006 (Nandigram, Singur, the results of the panchayat election of 2008). Is it then possible to shift our perspective and read the results reported in these studies as an answer to a different question? Instead of the question that has been conventionally asked about West Bengal, could we ask: “What are the reasons internal to the institutions of government and politics in rural West Bengal that might endanger the stability of Left Front rule?”. This brief introduction to the special issue offers the beginnings of such a reading.

Partha Chatterjee (partha@cssscal.org) is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Columbia University, United States.

C
rises often tend to come out of the blue. Most studies of social institutions as they function under normal and s table conditions do not convey any indication that the structure may be about to collapse. And yet, historical studies of critical or transformative events would have us believe that the crisis was building up all along, that it was the cumulative product of a process, and that a perceptive observer should have seen it coming. It is a difference in perspective that p roduces, as it were, two entirely different narratives of the same process.

The reports published here on local government and politics in rural West Bengal will bring this question to mind. These studies were carried out in 2003-06. The principal question they asked was: “What explains the extraordinary stability of Left Front rule in West Bengal?” There are two principal explanations that have been suggested in the literature on contemporary West Bengal politics. One is the institutional effectiveness of the structures of rural government and mobilisation of political support built by the Left Front (LF), and in particular its principal constituent, the CPI(M), that has been able to respond to some of the key demands of large sections of the middle, poor and landless sections of rural people. The continued effectiveness of this structure ensures the continued electoral support for the LF. The other explanation suggests a form of clientelism in which the Left parties hold their supporters under some sort of permanent dependence by making various governmental and other benefits conditional upon their continued electoral support. The present studies – one based on a large sample quantitative survey across all districts and the

o thers on close ethnographic observation of six purposively selected gram panchayats – find merit in both explanations but propose several nuanced modifications of the arguments and also offer some new explanations for our consideration.

However, several critical events have taken place in West B engal since 2006. The agitations over the acquisition of agricultural land for industry led to a prolonged standoff followed by police and party violence in Nandigram in March 2007, dramatic electoral losses of the LF in the panchayat elections of May 2008, renewed agitations over the Gorkhaland demand in Darjeeling, the withdrawal of the Tata Motors plant from Singur, and now, the adivasi agitations in Paschim Medinipur. Suddenly, there is a sense of impending political crisis signalling an end to the long era of stability.

Is it possible to shift our perspective and read the results reported in these studies as an answer to a different question? Instead of the question that has been conventionally asked about West Bengal, could we ask: “What are the reasons internal to the institutions of government and politics in rural West Bengal that

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might endanger the stability of Left Front rule?” Let me offer the beginnings of such a reading.

New Rural Institutions

It is well known that in the early years of LF rule in West Bengal, i e, between 1977 and 1983, the combination of land reforms and the new panchayat institutions produced a historic shift in the structures and practices of power in rural society. Until then, rural politics in most villages of West Bengal was dominated by large proprietors who used to be zamindars or tenure-holders in colonial times. The new structure almost entirely ousted the old landlord class from its political and social position in rural society. In those parts of West Bengal where there existed a strong movement of poor and landless peasants led by the Left parties, the transition came as the successful conclusion of a long and hard struggle. But not all districts were equally mobilised. Where the Left parties were weak until 1977, the land reforms programme and the formation of the panchayats produced a new sense of movement to change the old structures of power. Every village in West Bengal has its own story of the “old days” when zamindars and big men dominated rural life, when the poor s uffered from economic oppression and social humiliation, and how things had changed since the 1980s. The large historical story can be easily told, therefore, of a shift in rural power from the old landed classes to others. The problem is to describe the composition of the new power structure.

Most studies of the structure of landed property in West Bengal since the 1980s show that there are almost no large owners of agricultural land any more. Land is distributed in small plots among middle and small owners. It is also well known that the 1980s saw a considerable rise in agricultural output with multiple cropping made possible by the widespread use of groundwater irrigation, chemical fertilisers and new varieties of seeds. This made small farms economically viable while providing employment round the year to the rural landless. But this in itself does not tell us anything about the new power structure. To understand that, it is better to look at how power is actually exercised in rural West Bengal.

Every account speaks of the ubiquitous presence of the “party”. One knows that despite some general characteristics of democracy in India, each region and state has its own peculiar practices and idioms of democratic politics. In West Bengal, the key term is “party”. It is indeed the elementary institution of rural life in the state – not family, not kinship, not caste, not religion, not market, but party. It is the institution that mediates every single sphere of social activity, with few exceptions, if any. This is indeed the true significance of the shift from the old days. Every other social institution, such as the landlord’s house, the caste council, the religious assembly, sectarian foundations, schools, sporting clubs, traders’ associations, and so on, have been eliminated, marginalised or subordinated to the “party”. Rural life is literally inconceivable without the party. The authors of the ethnographic studies published here have referred to this phenomenon as “party society”.

When one hears “the party” in West Bengal, one is liable to think immediately of the CPI(M). But that would be a mistake. It

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is undoubtedly true that the universal mediating role of the party in virtually all social transactions was pioneered by the CPI(M) in the period after 1977. But, as numerous reports indicate, the role has been emulated by all the other parties, whether partners of the CPI(M) in the LF or parties of the opposition. In fact, there is now a modular form of party activity to which all parties aspire, dictated by the socially established role that a party and its functionaries are expected to perform in rural life. When more than one party functions in a village, they either compete to control particular social institutions and activities or set up rival institutions. It is often pointed out that the CPI(M), by virtue of a more efficient structure of discipline and command and a more systematic procedure of training of cadres, is usually more effective in penetrating and controlling every social institution in the villages where they dominate. But where they do not, other p arties seek to perform the same functions.

These functions include not only the political management of village-level governance, which local political leaders may be expected to carry out in all democratic societies, but much more. As the present studies confirm, the party and its local functionaries are the principal arbitrators in all social, family and personal disputes and the principal facilitators when individual villagers need help in matters of health, education, finances, employment or travel. Although it is not one of its statutory functions, every gram panchayat spends a considerable amount of time holding salishi or arbitration hearings on a variety of disputes involving property, marriage, social norms, morality, often with little regard for distinctions between the public and the private, and seeking in most cases to find a resolution that would be most acceptable to all contending parties.

In some ways, this reflects the absence of other social institutions such as landed patriarchs, caste councils or religious leaders who in the past might have performed such functions. It also reflects a social preference for avoiding the more formal machineries of the police and law courts in resolving such disputes. The latter are widely seen to be expensive, time-consuming, corrupt and insensitive to the specific demands of fairness in a particular case that only those intimately familiar with local histories and peculiarities could be expected to know. The widespread popularity of arbitration by panchayat bodies prompted a move in 2004 to put a stamp of quasi-legal recognition on such settlements, but staunch opposition by associations of lawyers forced the government to withdraw the proposal. Nevertheless, salishi by panchayat leaders, whether of the LF or others, continues to be widely practised.

New Style of Leadership

All of this indicates that the exercise of power in rural society through the institution of the party consists of a continuous and daily process of consensus making. At the minimum, this must mean keeping at least a majority of the people sufficiently satisfied to ensure their continued electoral support. But since electorates

EPW is grateful to Pranab Bardhan for help in putting together the papers in this special issue.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN RURAL WEST BENGAL

are notoriously fickle, it is also unwise to permanently alienate a substantial block of opposition supporters. This partly explains another enigma of the LF: why has it continued with a permanent coalition of four major and several minor partners when the CPI(M) could have held a majority on its own? Besides, since the new power structure did not derive its authority from property holding or caste loyalty or religious affiliation but from its claim to ensure livelihood, dignity and fairness, it was necessary for it to demonstrate that it could mediate on behalf of all. Hence, in spite of the continued rhetoric of class demands, the actual practice of power, once the old propertied classes had been effectively neutralised, consisted in resolving disputes, making consensus and maintaining social peace.

These new functions of the party at the village level also required a new type of leader. The old Congress regime was associated, in most parts of West Bengal except where there was a strong Gandhian grass roots peasant movement, with local leaders who derived their authority from landed property or caste loyalty or religious associations. The new local leaders of the LF derived their authority from their participation in political movements and by the fact that they represented “the party”. In other words, their authority was not derived from economic or cultural power but was established autonomously in the political domain. It usually meant a style of leadership that emphasised a simple lifestyle, moral virtue, close familiarity with and easy access to the people, an eagerness to help them in coping with their everyday problems and an ability to communicate with authorities outside the village. While such leaders would frequently intervene in local disputes, they had to maintain a position of neutrality and could not be seen to be permanently identified with any particular faction or interest in the village. As studies carried out in the 1980s showed, the typical local leader of the LF to emerge as panchayat pradhan and party representative was often a schoolteacher.

This situation has evidently changed in the last decade or so. Among the most important reasons are changes in the conditions of agricultural production and the growing importance of nonagricultural activities in rural society. The changes have created unprecedented demands that the local institution of the party is now required to fulfil. There lies, I believe, the main internal dynamic that now threatens the political stability of rural West Bengal.

The following studies describe in detail the various features of the political management of distribution of governmental benefits in the gram panchayats. They show quite clearly that the effort to retain partisan support and also to maintain consensus results in a very thin distribution of benefits across a large spectrum of beneficiaries. But there is nevertheless a clear tendency in favour of scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and landless persons in the distribution of benefits. What is interesting is that there is pressure to maintain an equal distribution between villages, even though some villages may have more needy persons than others. This may be because each gram sangsad area has a representative in the gram panchayat and each representative claims an equal share of the total benefits distributed by the panchayat. Further, the recurring benefits are more closely tied to partisan support than one-time benefits. This strengthens the argument of clientelism. It is also known that each village has something like a rotation system of beneficiaries, since many more people have to be promised benefits than can be accommodated in a specific programme. There are complaints, of course, that those who are close to the party in power get more benefits, and that villages where the gram panchayat is run by a different party from the one that runs the higher-level panchayat samiti or zilla parishad are discriminated against. This appears to be true irrespective of which parties hold power at the higher and lower levels.

Another significant finding is that when a village is dominated by the party in power in the district, it tends to get more benefits than when it has two parties in close competition and the gram panchayat alternates from one to the other. This is true even when the two parties competing are coalition partners within the LF. The explanation is that since the zilla parishad controls the distribution of benefits among the gram panchayats, there is a tendency to favour the villages that vote for the dominant party in the district and penalise those that do not.

It is also clear that there is a visible expression of partisan support in the form of attendance at election meetings and, especially for the poor and SC/ST sections, at gram sabha meetings. But there is virtually no urge among these partisan supporters to participate in the deliberations of these meetings. It is taken for granted that decisions will be made by the party leaders among themselves; the role of supporters is to express their support and hope for a fair distribution of benefits.

It needs to be stressed that although at the state level there appears to be an overwhelming dominance of the LF, as one moves down the territorial ladder and comes to the village level, there is intense competition between political parties. In 2003, nearly a third of the gram panchayats were controlled by opposition parties; in 2008, more than half of the villages in West Bengal are in the hands of the opposition. Loss of support for a party at the local level often means that local leaders switch from one party to another, or form factions within the party. Political stability in West Bengal has meant the dominance of the Left at the state level but under highly competitive conditions in the localities.

Managing Illegalities

There is one aspect of the political management of rural life that is rarely talked about in academic discourse, although it is a c ommonplace in everyday public discourse in West Bengal. That is the political management of illegalities. The sway of illegality in the daily lives of most people in rural society is astounding in its range and depth. From land records to barga rights to minimum wages, the official records do not show the real picture. This is not, however, a simple story of bureaucratic corruption. In most cases, it is a politically mediated result of attempts to find fair and consensual solutions to the intractable problems of p overty and inequality. Thus, landowning families who have effectively moved to non-agricultural occupations may be persuaded to allow others to cultivate their land without any formal transfer of title or tenurial rights. More people may be accommodated in a public works programme at less than minimum wage

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without the official records showing the discrepancy. The “below poverty line” lists are almost always inflated.

If one moves to non-agricultural activities, the illegalities are endless. Almost all husking mills in West Bengal are unlicensed. Most of the trade in agricultural commodities, in spite of laws and regulating institutions, is effectively unregulated. Most rural shops and roadside markets are regulated politically, not legally. The same goes for rural transport. In all such cases, we will find that the law is either too restrictive or too cumbersome or too expensive to be acceptable and, therefore, it is the local political leadership, belonging to one or the other “party”, which steps in to regulate the transactions. With the recent decline in profitability of small peasant agriculture and the growing importance of non-agricultural occupations in the village, the range of political regulation of the so-called informal sector of economic activities in rural society has increased phenomenally.

Moving to white collar occupations, the situation is even more astonishing. With the spread of higher education, the two most important white collar occupations in rural areas are teaching and government employment. Both are firmly under the political control of “the party”. As far as teaching is concerned, all recognised institutions from the primary to the higher stages are fully supported by government funds and recruitment is through official service commissions. These are known to be politically controlled. But more important is the fact that the profession of teaching includes the massive activity of private tuition which is legally unregulated and hence politically regulated. A recent example of the problems that may be caused thereby is the case of the unlicensed training institutes for primary schoolteachers. It has been explicitly recognised that the problem is political.

We can go on multiplying examples from unlicensed medical practitioners to unlicensed businesses. The problems have been compounded in recent years with the huge expansion of infrastructure funds at the disposal of panchayat bodies. This has increased the demands on the managerial abilities of local political leaders. Most gram panchayats now have an elected pradhan, and a pradhan chalak, i e, one who drives the pradhan. There is a new generation of local political leaders for whom the political management of benefit distribution, and hence the management of illegalities, has become a career. The question is: can the inherited structure of the Left political party adapt itself to the new requirements?

There is one more aspect of the political management of illegalities that has not drawn the attention of scholars. Managing illegalities necessarily means a certain negotiation with the structures of the law and the police over jurisdiction. Rural West Bengal has never seen the Weberian ideal where the state holds a monopoly over legitimate violence. Rather, the political mediators in local conflicts have always used violence, or the threat of violence, as a strategic resource to be deployed in the task of building consensus and keeping the peace. The success of this instrument depends on its effectiveness as a threat rather than its actual use and on its being kept localised and limited. This in turn depends on the moral credibility of the local party leadership in resolving conflicts in a fair and generally acceptable fashion. In recent times, this credibility has been waning.

The strains are palpable. A large sample survey carried out in 2006 showed that while most people in West Bengal thought of the panchayat structure as a fact of life that had come to stay, a surprisingly large number thought that most panchayat members were corrupt. A significant number felt that the activities now entrusted with the panchayats would be better carried out by government departments (Bhattacharya et al 2006). These findings do not indicate a lack of faith in local governmental institutions but rather a pervasive distrust in the moral authority of those who claim to mediate, on political grounds, the contending claims to livelihood, fairness and dignity. It is this popular distrust that signals the coming crisis in West Bengal.

Reference

Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan, Partha Chatterjee, Pranab Kumar Das, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, Manabi Majumdar and Surajit Mukhopadhyay (2006): Strengthening Rural Decentralisation (Calcutta: Centre for Studies in Social Sciences).

CHINA SINCE 1978 December 27, 2008 Inequality and Its Enemies in Revolutionary and Reform China –Ching Kwan Lee, Mark Selden Property Rights and the Social Costs of Transition and Development in China –Carl Riskin Rural Industrialisation and Spatial Inequality in China, 1978-2006 –Chris Bramall Double Movement in China –Shaoguang Wang A House Divided: China after 30 Years of ‘Reforms’ –Robert Weil Light and Shadow of an Inarticulate Age: Reflections on China’s Reform –Pun Ngai Socialism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle: The Political Economy of Modern China –Minqi Li China’s Rural Reform: Crisis and Ongoing Debate –Dale Jiajun Wen Globalisation Meets Its Match: Lessons from China’s Economic Transformation –Dic Lo, Yu Zhang For copies write to Circulation Manager Economic and Political Weekly 320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email: circulation@epw.in Economic & Political Weekly february 28, 2009 vol xliv No 9 45
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