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Post-Election Blues in West Bengal

The Trinamool Congress government's policies in West Bengal are leading to suicides of small farmers, a reign of terror in the Jangalmahal area and a curbing of academic and trade union rights. Its student activists beat up students and teachers who do not profess loyalty to the party. Will the CPI(M) which led the previous Left Front government for 34 years and paid the price for its insolence and corruption be able to go back to building a mass base among the poor?

COMMENTARY

Post-Election Blues in West Bengal

Sumanta Banerjee

experts to bring about changes in the existing labour laws, including a proposal to prevent government employees from forming trade unions. Some of the Bengali intellectuals and social activists who backed her to the hilt during the last elections now shamefacedly admit that they

The Trinamool Congress government’s policies in West Bengal are leading to suicides of small farmers, a reign of terror in the Jangalmahal area and a curbing of academic and trade union rights. Its student activists beat up students and teachers who do not profess loyalty to the party. Will the CPI(M) which led the previous Left Front government for 34 years and paid the price for its insolence and corruption be able to go back to building a mass base among the poor?

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

Mamata Banerjee wants Kolkata to wear the colour...Blue…which has begun to coat everything in the city – road dividers, tree trunks, bridges and public urinals...

– The Sunday Express Magazine, 19-25 February.

Krishak, tumi atmohatya koro na/mod kheye maro/sarkar taka debey

(Farmer, don’t commit suicide/Drink yourself to death/The government will compensate by paying your family).

– A poster on a Bengali website

T
he whiff of black humour in the poster has been inspired by the recent incidents of self-extinction among villagers in West Bengal – suicides by debt-ridden farmers unable to sell their crops, and deaths from drinking hooch. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has responded to the first by dismissing them as false propaganda by the Communist Party of India-Marxist – CPI(M), and to the second by announcing monetary compensation for the victims. With a new breed of politicians under her leadership rapaciously grazing the lawns of power in Kolkata (recolo uring them blue!) large sections of the rural poor and urban middle classes of West Bengal, who voted them to power last year, disappointed by the left government and lured by her populist rhetoric, are now annoyed. The main causes of this annoyance are: (i) her admini stration’s moves to serve the interests of her party’s local bosses in the procurement of paddy from farmers this year, (ii) persecution and atrocities by the security forces in the Jangalmahal area – which exposes how she has reneged on her earlier promise to stop such acts, (iii) widespread violence in college campuses, marked by assaults on teachers by the Trinamool’s student activists, (iv) the issue of an ordinance that curtails the autonomy of universities and vests the bureaucrats with power over them, and (v) the appointment of a committee of

march 3, 2012

should not have gone the whole hog, but still feel that she should be given some more time. But the “more time” that they want to allow her will be used to continue the same old authoritarian policies and partisan practices that were followed by her predecessor, the CPI(M), during the closing decades of the Left Front government. It will only go towards reinforcing the more violent forms of institutionalisation of her party’s control over administration and society in West Bengal.

Crisis in Rural Bengal

In the agricultural sector, the administrative machinery dilly-dallied in buying paddy from the farmers at the officially fixed support price in November last year. This helped the middlemen and rice mill owners (who have shifted their loyalty from the CPI(M) to the Trinamool) to wait till the impatient farmers resorted to distress sale and then make a profit by selling them in the open market at higher prices. Meanwhile, many small farmers, left with meagre earnings after the distress sale and unable to pay back the debts incurred in buying inputs, found no alternative but to commit suicide. This class of small farmers will be gradually marginalised – and ultimately eliminated

– by the latest taxation policy of the Trinamool government. It has ordered its land revenue officials to issue notices to every farmer to pay up overdue taxes, in order to meet its ambitious target of collecting Rs 1,200 crore from the agrarian sector this year – a jump from the earlier target of Rs 400 crore. Small farmers, already impoverished by the distress sale and squeezed by debts, are now threatened by this new imposition of tax. They may be forced to sell their lands to land sharks, who in turn will sell to corporate business houses – in a repetition of the pattern followed in Rajarhat, the new township coming up near Kolkata.

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

In the other troubled part of West Bengal’s agrarian sector, Jangalmahal, Mamata Banerjee has discarded her erstwhile Maoist allies (whom she used before the elections to drive out the CPI(M) cadres from there), and is now openly implementing the central home ministry’s counter-insurgency policy, as apparent from her allowing the security forces to kill the Maoist leader Kishenji in a false encounter. These forces have unleashed a reign of terror in Jangalmahal, arresting and persecuting anyone who dares to protest. In a bid to buy off sections of the tribal villagers and divide them the government has promised to recruit 10,000 young men from among them as special police constables to fight the Maoists. It is obviously taking a leaf from the Chhattisgarh government’s plan to legalise the notorious Salwa Judum as a paramilitary force.

Coercive Methods

In the field of higher education the violent acts of Trinamool cadres recall the coercive methods of the CPI(M) student activists. The latter used to drive out their rivals from the students’ unions, and hound their teachers who dared to defy diktats from Alimuddin Street (the CPI(M) headquarters). The most shameful instance being the treatment meted out to the noted leftist scholar, the late Santosh Bhattacharya. He had recorded in his book Red Hammer Over Calcutta University, that as vice chancellor of Calcutta University during 1984-87, he refused to buckle under CPI(M) pressures and consequently faced harassment from the party’s student activists and teachers. Today, with their party in power, the Trinamool cadres are following the same model of violent agitations in order to replace the college administrators (who were appoin ted during the CPI(M) regime, and therefore suspected of political partisanship) by Trinamool-backed nominees. Fast on the heels of their beating up of the principal of a college in Raigunj in north Bengal in early January (which evoked widespread protests from the academic community), the principal of Rampurhat college in Birbhum was kept hostage in his office for hours on 11 January. The Trina mool student cadres relented only

Economic & Political Weekly

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march 3, 2012

after he lost consciousness, and then allowed him to be taken to hospital. Such acts are now compelling the Bengali academics who supported Mamata Banerjee to rethink. One such leading erstwhile supporter, the educationist Sunando Sanyal, in a recent interview with a Bengali newspaper condemned these acts as “kangaroo court” justice. He compared them with Maoist practices in the forests of Jangalmahal, which he regrets, are now being replicated in the “civilised society” which he inhabits! (Bartaman, 7 January 2012).

But these incidents of daily campus violence have overshadowed an ordinance that the Trinamool government has announced. It has dangerous implications for autonomy in higher education institutions. The hurry with which Mamata Banerjee came up with the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2011 (No 3), and its provisions, give rise to suspicion of a nefarious attempt to increase bureaucratic control over universities in the state. On the plea of freeing universities from the control of political parties (a trend which marked the running of academic institutions during the three decades of Left Front rule), and restoring democratic functioning, the Trinamool government is reinforcing the party’s control over academic institutions through the bureaucracy. Henceforth, the vice chancellor will be nominated by the chancellor (the state’s Governor M K Narayanan), and the university’s senate, syndicate and other bodies will have no representatives from the nonteaching employees’ bodies and student community. Their members will be nominated, instead of being elected.

In sync with these authoritarian steps in the academic sphere, the government is aiming at curbing trade union rights of government employees. Banerjee has set up a committee of “experts” to revise the existing labour laws and service rules of government employees. The committee has reportedly suggested the deletion of the clause “full trade union power” that was inserted in their service rules under the Left Front regime. (Ironically however, the Left Front during its rule, refused to register any government employees’ organisation as a trade union thus legally depriving them of “full trade union” rights

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although it allowed the CPI(M) controlled coordination committee of government employees to hold meetings and issue press statements.) Opposing trade union rights for government employees, the Labour Minister Purnendu Basu cites the colonial legislation of 1926 on trade unions (which is still on the statute book) which has no provision for unions for government employees. But such legalese conceals the more politically partisan intention of the Trinamool government to legally cripple its opponent, the coordination committee of government employees, and declare illegal any move of protest that it might make against the present regime’s anti-trade union policies.

Continuity and Departure

We can surely detect a pattern of similarity between the violence of the CPI(M) cadres and those of the Trinamool as well as a continuation of the party-controlled hierarchical structure of patron-client relationship which had crystallised over the last three decades. Under this structure, the local party boss retains control over every right of the citizen (whether it is building, buying or selling a house; admitting children to schools, starting a career in any occupation – avenues which will be blocked unless you pay the party boss a fixed amount). It makes the citizen depend on a long hierarchical chain from the local village or urban “dada” through the district political leader and the MLA, and personal proximity to some government official in the quotidian struggle to obtain every little facility that is his/her normal right.

But there is a difference in the organisational structures of the two parties, which can be traced to a certain extent to the political beliefs they adhere to. The Trinamool Congress is a patchwork of factious groups – disgruntled ex-Congress politicians (led by Mamata Banerjee, Subrata Mukherjee) of a new breed of pseudo-left Bengalis who joined Mamata in the wake of the Singur-Nandigram-Lalgarh agitations (like the present Education Minister Bratya Basu, the Labour Minister Purnendu Basu), and members from the corporate sector (represented by the ex-Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) chief Amit

COMMENTARY

Mitra, West Bengal’s finance minister, and Dinesh Trivedi the Trinamool-nominated railway minister in the United Progressive Alliance at the centre). These disparate groups and individuals are bound together not by any common ideological vision, but by their political belief in the omnipotence of a single personality – Mamata Banerjee. But her politics of populism, being rooted in her personal idiosyncracies (like painting Kolkata blue), and political opportunism (like allying with the BJP, and later with Maoists and ditching them soon thereafter), often put her colleagues in the uncomfortable situation of having to do constant flip-flops to suit her demands. Unlike this personality-centred politics of the Trinamool Congress, the CPI(M) has had a tradition of collective leadership moored in an ideologically-based political programme – however flawed it might have been in its implementation during its three-decade long rule in West Bengal. Even during the heyday of CPI(M) rule, there was no personality cult built around Jyoti Basu (who in fact at one stage was prevented by the central party leadership from being sponsored as a prime ministerial candidate). While the Trinamool party cadres are an undisciplined lot, and the different factions owing loyalty to particular leaders are indulging in violent conflicts (described as goshthidwanda or factional fights in the Bengali press), the CPI(M), during its rule managed to keep its ranks together under a tight leash in a strictly controlled network of patron-client relationship.

It was thus able to mobilise them for both constructive programmes like a successful adult literacy campaign in the 1990s as well as destructive operations like the ones against peasants in Nandigram and Lalgarh 10 years later. Following the loss of power the CPI(M’s) ranks are now deserting the sinking ship, and joining the ruling Trinamool Congress. This is the pathetic outcome of the CPI(M) leadership’s short-sighted policy of recruiting greenhorns to enlarge the party, without educating them in politics.

At their recent state conference, the West Bengal (CPI(M)) leaders admitted that a lot of jetsam had floated into their organisation and that district level functionaries had become arrogant and corrupt. This is a realisation that should have dawned upon them much earlier when their friends and critics warned them against these trends. The state leaders have now announced a rectification campaign. But reports from the districts indicate that the same local leaders, against whom charges of corruption and high-handedness are levelled, continue to call the shots in the organisation there, thanks to their proximity to the state headquarters at Alimuddin Street. Besides, many cadres feel that the blame for the party’s defeat cannot be simply passed on to the lower level leaders and functionaries, and must be shared equally by the top bosses – former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, state party secretary Biman Bose, and leaders like Gautam Deb, Nirupam Sen, who till the end of the elections continued to dismiss insolently all warnings about the party’s losing popularity, and bragged about its impending victory. A more serious

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march 3, 2012 vol xlviI no 9

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

difference seems to have cropped up among the party’s top echelons in West Bengal about the industrial policy that was followed by the CPI(M) when in power. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Nirupam Sen and the bulk of the state leadership maintain that there was nothing wrong in inviting the Tatas to Singur, or the Salim group to Nandigram. They believe that it was the administrative and organisational failure in convincing the people that led to the party’s defeat. But Abdur Rejjak Mollah, a senior CPI(M) leader who

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was a minister in the erstwhile Left Front government, has now publicly challenged this basic policy of industrialisation, and blamed it for adversely affecting the interests of the peasantry who, as a result, deserted the party. Lashing out at the pro-corporate sector bias in his party-led government’s industrialisation policy, Mollah says that the CPI(M) should have strictly controlled the pattern and modes of investment by the corporate honchos so that the interests of the rural poor were protected. In his

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words: “If the party has to survive, my slogan is: ‘CPI(M), go back to the Bagdipara’ (the locality of the depressed caste of poor Bagdi agricultural labourers)” (Bartaman, 7 January 2012). But this is a rather tall order for a party whose present leaders and cadres have been domesticated for years within the corrupt and comfortable home of electoral politics, and will find it difficult today to move out to adopt the old communist practice of living among the poor to build up a mass base.

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Economic Political Weekly

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march 3, 2012 vol xlviI no 9

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