From the 27th of March, one of the most decisive regional elections in the recent history of India has begun and now continues. The Eastern State of West Bengal, one of the most populous states in the country, that accounts for around 9% of the seats in the parliament, will go to the polls on the 27th of March in an unprecedented 8 phase polling that will last till the 2nd of May.
By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inqilab April 4, 2021
Voting began on 27th March and campaigning is still in full swing with the ruling TMC (Trinamool Congress) and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) fighting as if this were a national election. Their energy overshadows whatever the other oppositional parties, the left front led by the Stalinist CPI(M) and the Congress Parties, could muster. What is at stake? The future direction of the third largest state by population, and the sixth largest state by GDP, within the Indian republic.
Historically, West Bengal and especially the city of Kolkata (then Calcutta), had been at the forefront of radical progressive politics. It was one of the centres of revolutionary activism during the colonial era, and the home of the Bengal renaissance, arguably it was the birthplace of Indian nationalism. After independence and partition, it continued to be of significance as a centre of radical left wing politics and ideas. Calcutta and West Bengal became one of the major centres of the communist movement in India, the others being Bombay (now Mumbai) and Kerala. In 1967, for the first time in the history of independent India, leftist parties came into a united front to oust an incumbent Congress Party government. Since then, West Bengal has been a bastion of oppositional politics in India and continues to remain so till today. Should the BJP come in power, for the first time since 1972, the same party would be ruling West Bengal, which also controls the central government.
The BJP with its reactionary agenda will put all its political muscle into destroying the opposition in West Bengal, including any nascent revolutionary force which might arise from the state. The eclectic and cosmopolitan culture of Bengal will be threatened by Hindutva, which will only cause discord between Hindus and Muslims, and alienate the various ethnic groups that reside in the state, and this will surely lead to unprecedented chaos and strife, hastening the political decay in the state. Against this dire future, stands another reactionary party, the TMC, though one with pretences of secularism. The left front led by the Stalinist CPI(M) and the Congress Party, have been progressively marginalized in the state with every election it lost. The Congress has been in decline since the rise of the TMC in 1998, and the CPI(M) began falling apart since their turn towards hard neo-liberalism and the forcible land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. In other words, only a feeble and corrupt force stands against the rising tide of Hindutva reaction in West Bengal.
How do the elections work?
A brief overview is needed for those outside India who are not familiar with the electoral system. India follows a model that has been defined as “quasi-federal.” In this model, several states exist with their own legislative bodies, however, the states themselves are not sovereign, unlike say, the United States, where a state can have its own flag and can’t have its boundaries unilaterally altered. A state’s ability to pass laws is also limited by the three lists of the Indian constitution which delineates powers between the central government, and the state government. Each state has their own Legislative assembly and every five years an election takes place to the state assembly. A state is presided over by the Chief Minister, and a governor who is appointed by the Central government. The Central government can only be elected through national elections. In the state elections, seats are divided up according to constituencies within a district, West Bengal has an assembly of 294 seats, each seat representing a constituency. The State Assembly represents a population of almost 90 million.
In addition to elections to constituencies, some states in India have additional local elections and bypolls for seats vacated by death or retirement. A unique feature of the system in West Bengal is a robust Panchayati Raj system for rural constituencies. Every five years, a panchayat election takes place for villages in the state where they may elect their local rural representative. The establishment of a robust electoral democratic system at the village level was the legacy of the Left Front government and contributed to a rapid rural development during their tenure. The last Panchayat elections took place in 2018 where the TMC dominated through a combination of winning voters by populist welfare schemes and brute coercion. West Bengal like most of India remains a largely agrarian and rural state where agriculture employs 66 % of the workforce and contributes 25% of the state’s economy. As such, winning the rural sphere is key to winning the state.
In addition to the Panchayati elections, there are municipal elections for every city in West Bengal. The most important of these municipal elections of course is that of the Kolkata Municipal elections, where the municipality of Kolkata and its suburbs are elected. The importance of this election is clear when considering that Kolkata is still one of the most important economic and political centres of the country, the largest port in the East, the richest and largest city in the East Zone, and accounting for a big chunk of West Bengal’s state GDP. Here, the TMC has a dominant position, having control of the mayor’s office since around the time they came to power in the state. Here too, the TMC has engaged in violence and often in collusion with established gangs linked with the party, to maintain its power.
A few key factors dominate the electoral landscape of West Bengal:
1) The disastrous economic consequences of the pandemic, coming on the heels of a failing economy already suffering from the effects of post-independence de-industrialization and economic marginalization. Some of the symptoms of these have been mass unemployment and sustained emigration of skilled workforce from the state to more industrialized regions of the country or to foreign countries.
2) The rise of polarizing politics, pitting Muslims and Hindus against each other. The core of this politics in relation to West Bengal revolves around the new Citizenship law, National Register of Citizens and issues over the ill treatment and institutionalized discrimination of Hindus in Bangladesh, as well as discrimination against Muslims within West Bengal.
3) The continuing political crises of every established party in West Bengal, most prominently the TMC (which is the ruling party in the state), but also of the Congress Party and the Communist Parties. The BJP has positioned itself to exploit the weaknesses of all the parties by tailoring its electoral strategy to win over the traditional bases of these parties, as well as engineering defections of party leaders from the TMC to the BJP.
A key turning point in the political history of West Bengal has been the peasant’s agitation at Singur and Nandigram. The agitation of the peasantry against forcible land acquisition at the behest of major multinational corporations propelled the present ruling TMC to power and brought down the Stalinist led Left Front Government which had ruled the state uninterruptedly since 1978.
It represented the failure of the CPI(M) and its policy of turning towards neo-liberalism, as well as the failure of the policies of the Jyoti Bose era which lasted up till 2000. The combined failure of their economic policy and the limits of redistribution of land without improvement in agricultural techniques created a situation where unemployment ballooned and remains a key crisis. The TMC was quick to take advantage of this frustration when they won the state elections of 2011, and now the BJP is attempting to replicate the same in 2021.
Overview of political parties involved
The ruling party of West Bengal today is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) presided over by its leader, Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji. They came to power by winning the 2011 state elections of West Bengal, overturning the CPI(M) led left front government which ruled for almost 34 years uninterruptedly. The party’s history goes back to the crises ridden days of the Congress party when numerous regional offshoots of the party were emerging in different parts of the country. In West Bengal, repeated failures of the party and the bitter legacy of the emergency period had resulted in them becoming alienated from the people. When their national leadership failed, the local branch splintered. The party fractured and from the split emerged the Trinamool Congress in 1998.
Over the next two decades, the Congress party became increasingly marginalized within the state as the TMC emerged as the main opposition against the ruling Stalinist led left front government. For most observers who had witnessed the party’s growth and trajectory, the TMC seemed to be stuck as an ever-weakening oppositional party in West Bengal, which had resigned itself to an almost perpetual left-front government since its election in 1978. The Communist Party had perfected a system whereby a combination of populist policies, welfarism, coupled with brute force and institutionalized corruption, ensured its hold over the state. This began to weaken once the former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, one of the longest ruling chief ministers in Indian history, stepped down. Power was transferred to a chosen successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya, whose rule was characterized by a dramatic turn towards neo-liberal policies. These would come to a head when the government saw stiff opposition from farmers in the agrarian towns of Singur and Nandigram. A key “success” of this turn was the hub of the petrochemical at Haldia, built on the deprivation of the local fishing and farming communities. The ruling party used much of the same coercive tactics which would be seen later.
The left-front government had attempted to replicate the “success” of capitalist industrial development in Haldia, by sending the police and its own lumpenized cadre force to coerce the farmers to acquire land for the benefit of multinational corporations, and the Tatas.
The resistance against this forcible land acquisition caught the attention of the nation and galvanized opinion against the left front government. The Stalinists, who had ruled West Bengal for nearly three decades so far, had their most dire crisis in the 21st century. This came just two years after their best electoral performance in the state and the national elections in 2004. Thus, what had been thought of as an unshakeable political force began crumbling.
Among the oppositional forces pitted against the Stalinists, there was almost no visible electoral left alternative and nothing close to a revolutionary party. The only major oppositional left party, the SUCI had aligned itself with the TMC. Outside of the electoral sphere, there was no revolutionary party with a mass base in Bengal who could have taken the leadership of the farmers, nor were they in a position to do so organizationally. The closest that any left wing force came to this, was the Maoists who had played a proactive role in opposing the establishment of the steel plant at Lalgarh shortly after the Singur agitation. The agitation in Singur and Nandigram ultimately came under the leadership of the TMC with Mamata Bannerji leading the charge against the left front government.
The agitation had received widespread solidarity from the urban youth and intellectuals who were angered and disillusioned by the actions of the ostensibly ‘communist’ government, taking land from the poor to give to the rich. The reputation of the ruling Left Front government did not recover, and when the national elections of 2009 came around, the CPI(M) saw what had been their single worse performance in the entire history of national elections. The left front saw their seat share nearly reduced by half in the parliament. It was certain from this point that they were on their way out, the question then was who or what would replace them?
The TMC, by being an offshoot of the Congress Party, had all the qualities of the Congress Party with the added quality of lethality owing to the entrenched culture of political violence present in West Bengal since the days of the emergency. The Congress Party had not only institutionalized corruption, but had also incorporated and institutionalized violence during this time, and much of it was directed against the communist movement in the state. The TMC had a core base among the state’s elite, this included the landed elite who had lost out due to the left front’s land reform programme, and the ascendant urban land owning bourgeoisie of the state, gaining wealth and power through real estate development. These forces allowed the party to gain money power and influence in the state, and once it seemed that the left front government was on its way out, many of the elite who had been invested in maintaining them in power, turned to the TMC to curry favour with the new rulers of the state.
The same ‘switch’ was seen in many CPI(M) cadres and leaders who were quick to turn away from the party and join their mortal enemies in the TMC. Of decisive importance would be the recruitment of criminal elements of the Stalinist parties, who had been instrumental in holding power in the state for the left front government, turning on their former bosses. Between 2009 national elections and the 2011 state elections the state witnessed unprecedented levels of violence in which hundreds of people were killed, mostly Communist Party cadres, at the hands of TMC aligned gangsters. During this time the party’s character was beginning to show more clearly, while having little in terms of ideological appeal, or expression, the party functioned around a strange cult of personality that had started developing around its supreme leader Mamata Bannerji. The party’s functioning increasingly revolved around her diktats and her desires. The party had gained an army of gangsters and had the backing of the state’s elite. Add to this mix, the party had also gained the favour of the frustrated petty bourgeois and labour aristocracy in West Bengal, who were both aghast at the heavy handed actions of the left front government, and desirous of economic development in the state, which had lagged behind the rest of the country since independence. Thus, the party placed itself firmly as an instrument of capitalist reaction in the state and imposed its rule with deadly force. However, the party had a weakness.
While the TMC had succeeded in taking power, holding on to it required pacifying the increasingly powerful party ‘satraps’ with concessions. Each local leader of the party had built their own strong support base around bastions across various constituencies in West Bengal, and they did not like to share power. Unlike the Communist Party, the TMC never had a sound cadre culture nor a regimented party organization. As a result, divisions easily crept into the party, and conflicts within the party could often get bloody. One local example of this is the conflict between the MLA of Bidhannagar constituency, Sujit Bose and the Chairman of the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation, Sabyasachi Dutta. The former had his base in the poorer region of Lake Town which falls under the South Dum Dum municipality, and the latter has his base among the richer Salt Lake suburb. The fight between the two is one for influence over a wealthy and upcoming Eastern stretch of Calcutta where millions can be made from real estate and commercial developments. The TMC central leadership has had to try and pacify conflict at every turn, so as to keep their hold over this vital constituency. In the countryside and smaller towns, the infighting between the party’s factions are much bloodier and it is common to hear of people dying from factional infighting in the party.
In 2011, the party had won a clear majority in the state assembly and threw the once unshakeably dominant CPI(M) into the margins of Bengali politics. The course was set for a fundamental change in the political landscape of West Bengal, and indeed of India, as after this disastrous defeat in West Bengal, the Stalinist parties have largely remained at the fringes of national politics in India and bereft of any power or influence beyond their pocket of Kerala in the far South. The workers and peasants of West Bengal, who had powered a nationwide growth of the Communist movement, had also torn down their most prolific political expression. The CPI(M) led left front has only declined further after losing power in 2011. This collapse has been reciprocated by the rise of the TMC and their steady control and subjugation of every administrative institution within the state to their whims and in the interests of their corporate backers, chiefly the urban landowning bourgeoisie.
In the 2016 and 2014 national elections, the TMC rose to the pinnacle of their power sweeping both the state elections and the seats allocated for the state of West Bengal in the national elections, even pushing back against the rising tide of the BJP who swept the Congress aside in the 2014 national elections. It was a success of their politics of faux secularism, built in the image of the Congress Party. The TMC had created a bonapartist political system, where their supremo Mamata Bannerji could appear to be above class contradictions while being rooted in the capitalist system. She and her party could appear to be above social contradictions between religious and caste communities within West Bengal while being rooted in the interests of the class and caste elite. The complete decimation of the Stalinist parties in West Bengal caused conditions of demoralization and disintegration within their movement, those who were never of firm ideological convictions left the party and joined other mainstream parties. Those who left the party on ideological principles became independent or remain in opposition within the party.
Among the chief causes of the party’s decline has been the deaths of key leaders, the failure of the party to defend their cadre in the face of organized terror unleashed by the TMC, and the failure to realize the flaws of Stalinism, which led to the disastrous neo-liberal turn between 2000 and 2007. This has now left a void in the sphere of leftist politics, and under the right conditions could give rise to new more radical politics from the youth and the working class, whose frustrations only grow as the economy worsens. However, the TMC’s victory in the state of West Bengal followed by that of the BJP in the central government has given rise to an objectively reactionary situation in the state and an overall demoralization of the working class and youth. In this setting, the TMC could run amok with their lumpen gangs and terrorize the populace of the state in the service of the bourgeoisie. The Maoist movement was violently crushed, the Stalinist were beaten into submission. Independent activists were harassed and jailed, and a peasants uprising which threatened to become a second Singur style agitation, at Bhangar was crushed. This was a watershed in many ways, as it unquestionably exposed the class character of the party.
Beneath their populist schemes and pretences of standing with the people under the slogan of “Ma Mati Manush” (Mother, soil, and people), the TMC is nothing but a highly lumpenized party at the service of capitalism. The peak of their power and the most brazen act of terror was done during the panchayat elections when local village bodies elect their representatives. West Bengal has one of the most robust systems in the country, and one of the legacies left by the Stalinists in their 34 years long reign over the state. The TMC, through a thorough campaign of rigging and intimidation, succeeded in steam-rolling the opposition and utterly dominate the panchayat elections. In many cases, opposition candidates weren’t even allowed to file their nomination papers. The election results were challenged in the court of law, but the party managed to win there as well.
This proved to be the last straw that broke the back of the Stalinist Parties and the local Congress leadership. When the next national elections took place, the BJP emerged as the only party with enough organizational and material power to give any meaningful challenge to the TMC and so we witnessed defections from the CPI(M) to the BJP and it wasn’t simply party cadre or leadership who defected, but also of voters who sided with the BJP in national elections, only to weaken the TMC. The sentiment remains strong even today with many hoping the BJP will put an end to the TMC’s misrule over the state.
The sentiment is both understandable and obvious when seen in the context of the criminal misrule of the TMC in their ten year period. From the multi-billion dollar chit fund scam to the coercion during the panchayat elections in 2018, to the brutal suppression of the Bhangar peasant agitation. The TMC has since cleverly positioned itself as the only viable secular alternative in the face of the reactionary politics of the BJP, taking over from both the Congress and the CPI(M) and its allies. The TMC played a highly manipulative game using identity politics as a means of countering the class based politics of the CPI(M). After the latter’s selling out to capitalist forces, there was simply no vitality left in the secular class based politics that had originally propelled the party to power and kept it in place. The Stalinists, through their corruption and cynicism, had destroyed the solidarity that was built up from before independence in the struggle against forces of imperialism and capitalism. In the aftermath of their defeat in 2011, a most rotten and corrupt kind of politics had taken over in which a party like the TMC could thrive.
In a strange replication of the early years of Communist party rule, the old lumpen elements of the previous ruling party were now brought into the new regime. Those gangsters who had once worked for the Communist Party and acted as instruments of their power were now working for the TMC. One of the first things to emerge from a strengthened TMC was a mass killing of Communist Party cadre and suppression of Maoists in the countryside, the new regime suppressed dissent and attacked every facet of the old regime and its ideology. The attack against the Communist Party was not limited to the party itself, they now began to restrict and suppress freedom of organization especially in the workplace. At the same time, the party made sure that the rural sphere was won over through some important welfarist schemes like subsidised supplies of rice and subsidized transportation for students. A programme for women’s empowerment (kanyashree) by the government has recently won a UN prize. These schemes were a necessary concession to keep its power.
However, much like the previous government, the new bourgeois government rules by managing concessions to its support base, chiefly the countryside and youth of the city, while satisfying its core interests. The urban landed bourgeoisie which had been strengthened and enriched during the Communist Party rule has eased into the new government and is stronger than ever. The new regime served its cadre by giving them an opportunity to enrich by becoming part of the real estate boom in the cities and towns of West Bengal, and are allowed to act with complete impunity. Not unlike the previous government, the new government undermined most institutions of administration and power and penetrated the levers of power to replicate the old methods of power. The difference now, however, is the TMC is far closer to the bourgeoisie, its core character is not in conflict with the support it grants to the bourgeoisie to enrich itself even if at the expense of the peasantry and proletariat. The industrial situation in Bengal has yet to recover from the ruination of the past, and a slow cultural counter-revolution now emerges in sync with the rise of reactionary forces in the rest of India, along with Hindutva.
For now, however, the TMC has established a tight grip over power in the state, using a highly lumpenized cadre to enforce its power by terrorizing any opposition, and financial power gained from bourgeois donors. It uses its power to undermine government institutions where needed and use the institutions of power to get its way when needed. While the CPIM implemented a method of ‘scientific rigging’ to ensure victory in successive elections, the TMC uses a clever tactic of coercion, bribery and terror to ensure victory in elections. The most capable opposition in Bengal today comes from the Hindutva based RSS.
The CPI(M) led Left Front and the Congress
Historically, both the Communist Party of India and the Congress used to have their bastion in undivided Bengal. One of the founders of the Congress Party hailed from Bengal and was a notable political leader of the pre-independence period, Surendranath Bandhopadhyay. Two of the most important founder leaders of the Communist Party hailed from the province of Bengal, Comrade Muzaffar Ahmed and M.N Roy (the latter would go on to found the Communist Party of Mexico as well).
The Stalinists in Bengal had built themselves on the base of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie with the working class being the third pillar of their power, but only a third pillar. The bulk of their strength was drawn from the peasant movement in the countryside and the student’s movement in the cities. This social framework would influence their political organization and tactics. When the Congress unleashed its reign of terror during the emergency, the party had to adapt to underground and armed work. After it had taken power, however, the political landscape in Bengal was left with a class of enriched and empowered lumpenproletariat who had profitted from their service to the Congress. In later years this lumpen force would play an important role in serving the new government. In the initial years, the Communists initiated several important reforms, chiefly comprehensive land reforms in the countryside, strengthening and reforming the Panchayat system to make it more representative, and strengthening trade unionism and labour laws in favour of the workmen. However, the programme of the Communists ended at these democratic reforms, the decaying capitalist order in Bengal could never be ‘saved’, nor could some reforms resolve it in a fundamental way. While it must be admitted that land reforms relieved rural distress to a considerable degree, it changed little in the cities where big industries continue to decline, and a flight of capital took place, depriving the working class of its foundation. Through the 80s and 90s, West Bengal had one of the highest growth rates in agriculture in India and the rural classes were empowered and enriched by the dual effects of the land reforms and representative reforms in panchayati raj. At the same time, the state’s share of national industrial production continued to decline.
The left front governnment failed to address the problems of the urban sphere. The Communist Party had developed its organization and tactics under constant threat and coercion from the Congress party, this created a very efficient core of cadre unjder the strong central leadership of the politburo. The Party’s programme – being limited as it was – never aimed at the full expropriation of Indian capitalism, once in power the party made its peace with the bourgeoisie and soon enough served a new emergent section of the landowning bourgeoisie which was ready to feast on the rotting corpse of the old industrial bourgeoisie of Bengal. The period of terror unleashed by Congress had created an empowered and enriched layer of the lumpen class who were now unemployed. The Communist Party adopted these into its fold and created a lumpen cadre of its own, drawn from this base. The decline of Calcutta’s industrial base which had been going on since the Great Depression had reached its nadir after decades of a near constant state of upheaval between 1935 and 1980. The Communists were faced with a failing bourgeoisie incapable of developing the means of production and decaying under a most unequal and corrupt administration set up under the Congress Party. Nowhere more was this visible than in the once thriving Jute sector.
Rather than nationalize the failing Jute and manufacturing industry, the Left Front allowed these industries to collapse in a free fall, encouraging only a cabal of crony capitalists linked with the party’s leadership. The government was also infamous for handing out deals with the urban landowning capitalists linked with the then Chief Minister Jyoti Bose, and his son’s company SENBO constructions. As the big industry died, and small informal industry rose, the working class and youth became weakened as a social force, since they lost vital bargaining power and was materially weakened. Calcutta too continued to decay and get sidelined within India. From a centre of art, culture, industry and revolutionary politics, Calcutta was becoming synonymous as a cesspool of poverty and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
The capitalists of Bengal were a spent force, the Communists had no programme to revitalize the industrial sphere, but their political commitments to the working class compelled them to strengthen the instruments of struggle, the trade unions and associations of workmen. Nothing less than nationalisation of the Jute and Engineering industries under workers control could have saved it from its moribund fate, but the party had no programme for such a revolutionary change. The plantation economy in the North suffered from the continuation of archaic colonial-era practices, while the industries in the South of West Bengal fell apart and the region turned into a rust belt.
Through the decade of the 80s, the sub-continent receded into reaction. The Congress party came back in power after being driven out in 1978 and they returned with a vengeance. Bangladesh underwent another military coup in 1981 and the secular constitution was overturned in favour of an Islamic one, and reactionary Hindutva forces re-emerged in India after nearly four decades of being sidelined. The Communist government in West Bengal degenerated, as more and more power was concentrated around the Chief Minister, Jyoti Bose. The cadre system developed by the party over the course of decades of struggle was now subverted and corrupted into a system of retaining political power. Old lumpen elements from the Congress era were adapted into the party structure. Representative institutions like the Panchayat, trade unions and students unions became instruments of political power to serve the interests of the party. The party penetrated almost every sphere of administration and power. The bourgeois opposition remained largely feeble and sidelined with only pockets of power in a few districts like Murshidabad. The party retained power by balancing its interests in retaining power with concessions to the masses.
The system developed by the Stalinists was based on subverting every instrument of representation they had strengthened in their early years of rule. The lumpenisation of their rule increased as the new class of landed bourgeoisie emerged, largely at the expense of the industrial bourgeoisie. As industries declined the land held by industries within Calcutta was up for grabs, as were houses and mansions of the old elite and middle classes. While the rural sphere enjoyed better conditions than it ever did, the lack of industrialization in agriculture meant that the effects of land reforms would only last as long as more land could be distributed, and as long as the division and fragmentation of landholdings did not occur through inheritance and succession. By the 21st century the old methods had become untenable and the party required reform to sustain itself. Faced with a potential youth discontent the party decided to ease its restrictions on businesses and welcome in foreign investments and investments from Indian capitalists, this was the beginning of the party’s turn towards neo-liberal policies.
After two decades of high growth and relative prosperity, the agricultural sphere had begun to stagnate. With the priorities of the Communist Party shifting, the party was on the verge of losing their grasp over the countryside. The simmering discontent from the urban sphere owing to decades of economic stagnation and lack of industrialization, combined with peasant discontent which exploded in 2006. The combination of these two forces shook the regime to its very foundations. The vitality of class struggle and social dynamism in Bengal had been by and large lost to a most moribund regime and decades of reaction which set in after 1980. The bourgeois opposition led by the offshoot of the Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress, was now in a position to take power and had a chance to win over the peasantry. Mamta Bannerji positioned herself to take the leadership of the peasant struggles which emerged in Bengal, by the next parliamentary elections the Communists found themselves completely marginalized in the parliament and driven to the sidelines of Bengal politics.
The first shock of the party came in the 2009 national elections where the party’s seat share in the parliament reduced from 54 (the highest it had ever been) to around 27. They had lost their hold on West Bengal to the TMC, which at the time was aligned with the Congress Party. The state elections in 2011 saw the final collapse of the party and the beginning of the recession of the Stalinists from the national landscape. They were now only holed up in the far south, in Kerala and the hill state of Tripura. Soon they would lose Tripura as well, but to the BJP, retaining only their hold on Kerala.
One of the most epoch-making changes in the Indian political scenario in the last decade has been the precipitous decline of the main Stalinist parties, and at the core of this change has been the fall of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state of West Bengal. The defeat of the party in the state of Tripura can be said to be the completion of the process that began with the decline of the party with the uprising of peasants in Nandigram and Singur in 2006-7. However, what did not change, was the specific social and political system they left in their wake. This in turn was the product of several decades of social and political changes going back to the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 and the peasant rebellions which broke out in 1946.
Before the onset of WW2, the Calcutta-Hooghly region had been developed into one of the most developed capitalist regions in Asia, if not the most developed. Here was based the bulk of Britain’s colonial investments in the realm of finance trade and industry in Asia. Yet, a stone’s throw from Calcutta, one could find a sea of rural distress, with endemic poverty, social regression, starvation and impoverishment on an unprecedented scale. The rural economy was drained out for most of the colonial period to fund British imperialism and Calcutta was the foremost centre of this organized loot. By the 1890s however, Calcutta had lost its centrality to other emerging colonial metropolises, chiefly Bombay on the West coast of India, and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in Eastern Asia. When the Great Depression hit, the British colonies in the East suffered greatly, as the British found ways to shift the burden of the crisis on to its colonies. Calcutta had most to lose from this being the centre of colonial trade and finance, in Asia. The countryside too, suffered greatly as the crisis hit the agrarian economy of the Raj. The result of this impoverishment was the radicalization of the population of the countryside and the youth, ideas of revolutionary communism penetrated through Indian society and particularly in Bengal, Punjab and Saurashtra (present-day western Maharashtra and Gujarat). The role of the metropolises again is key in this transformation.
With Calcutta being the centre of the development of colonial capital in Asia through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was also a city where European ideas and European literrary works would be first distributed. The city became a centre of important social and intellectual changes during the so-called “Bengal Rennaissance”, parallel to this was the emergent social reform movement based from Pune and Bombay on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent. With the 20th century, Indian society, and particularly Bengali society braced itself for another renaissance, this time emanating from the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution.
The Communist Party of India was founded in Tashkent, Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on 17 October 1920, soon after the Second Congress of the Communist International by the founding members of the party ; M.N. Roy, Evelyn Trent Roy (Roy’s wife), Abani Mukherji, Rosa Fitingof (Abani’s wife), Mohammad Ali (Ahmed Hasan), Mohammad Shafiq Siddiqui, Rafiq Ahmed of Bhopal and M.P.B.T. Aacharya, and Sultan Ahmed Khan Tarin of North-West Frontier Province. Even before this event, there were revolutionary organizations in Bengal with leftist leanings such as the Jugantar and Anushilan Samity, inspired by the ideas of the French revolution. In the year 1929 and 1930, two great moments in the history of the Indian freedom struggle took place, Bhagat Singh bombed the Indian Assembly at Delhi, and Surya Sen organized the Chittagong Armoury raid. Both these events marked a high point in the pre-world war revolutionary movement in Indian history. The Congress party, which had become a hegemonic organization, commanding the modern independence movement, was not immune from this and its youth wing underwent a radicalization. By 1938, the presidency of the Congress party went to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who had consolidated the Congress left into the Forward bloc. When the second world war broke out, The British Empire went to war, dragging India with it, despite most Indians being unwilling to do so after the bitter experience of World war 1 and being further weakened by the negative effects of the Great Depression. Subhash Bose, leading the Congress as its president, at the time called for the elected ministries set up by the British, to be boycotted.
Without the ministries the British had lost a very important instrument to pacify the Indian people. The Indian people only became further radicalized, and as the dual effects of the depression and the 2nd world war continued to deprive the poor of the country and radicalize the youth. Britain’s exploitation of India to fund it’s war effort culminated in the Bengal famine. Up to four million died in the province of Bengal alone. The famine destroyed the social fabric of the state and threw whatever remained of the colonial status quo asunder. The peasantry was now irreversibly radicalized while social tension and decay in the countryside had deepened existing social and cultural relations. The industrial region around Calcutta was falling apart under pressure from wartime mobilization, refugees from Burma and the Bengali countryside, and the raiding activities by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Kido Butai. Though the war was won by Britain, they were about to lose their empire.
In 1945, the British intended to secure their rule over India by demoralizing the populace, the Red Fort trials of the captured Indian National Army commanders, was meant to do just that. However, the move backfired spectacularly. Rather than demoralize, it galvanized the public around the trial, the youth of Calcutta was the first to respond, taking out protests in solidarity with the INA soldiers, the protest rally grew and threatened a youth-led uprising in the financial and industrial heartland of the British raj. Several streets of Calcutta were barricaded by armed student youth in an upsurge that would be foreshadowing an even greater even to come. Some months later, a mutiny broke out in the ranks of the RAF in India, this would be followed by one of the greatest of the uprisings in pre-independence history, in Februrary of 1946 when the naval ratings at Bombay mutinied. The mutiny in Bombay (now Mumbai) was followed by similar actions in Karachi, Calcutta and Madras. Soon after, a general strike gripped the country, the masses of the cities and countryside were up in arms from North to South and East to West of the Indian sub-continent. This movement also saw involvement from the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, which had formed just a few years earlier in 1942. They played a leading role in organizing the textile workers of Bombay.
However, the revolutionary forces at this time, was far too weak and nascent in giving this spontaneous uprising any cohesive leadership. The Congress party still held hegemony over most of India and the Muslim League held sway over most of India’s Muslim population. The Stalinists were the third pole of power in this equation. However, they viewed the two hegemonic bourgeois parties as the only legitimate leadership for the masses and called on them to unite in support of the mutineers. Neither the League nor the Congress was about to support the mutiny, and the support of the Communist Party amounted to little. Eventually, the mutiny was crushed and the uprising fizzled out, with no small help from the Congress Party which had thrown its weight against the mutineers, but this uprising proved to be the last nail on the coffin over British rule in India. Lord Mountbatten was dispatched with the singular task of overseeing the transfer of power from Britain to the Indians, and looming large over this was the question of partitioning India.
After their bitter experience with the Indian ministries, the Muslim League had adopted the Lahore Resolution in 1940 which sought to create a separate Muslim homeland, its precise relation with India was not yet defined, however. In 1946, there was no sign that there would be any concession to the League and, in response, the League began a countrywide mobilization under the call of Direct Action Day. In Bengal, Husseyn Suhrawardy was the chief minister of the state, he had deliberately lessened the police forces on advise of a British officer, to allow greater freedom for the protestors of the League, at the same time the Hindu Mahasabha, who had the greatest support from among Hindu capitalist classes and Hindu aristocrats based in Bengal and particularly calcutta, had mobilized and armed their cadres. An inevitable clash ensued and Calcutta saw the worst rioting it had ever witnessed in its history and this remains the worst rioting the city has witnessed to date. The initial killings of Muslims were responded to with the killings of Hindus, and as news spread there were reprisals and riots throughout Bengal and then the rest of Northern India and Bombay. Thus, two decades of revolutionary developments that had been building up till now were reversed in a single orgy of communal hate. After the riots the partition of India became irreversible.
What was not decided, however, was the manner of partition or the borders of the new nations, nor particularly the fate of the princely states which accounted for a quarter of the area of British India. What ensued was a tug of war between the Congress Party and the Muslim League, on how India would be partitioned and which territories would go to whom. The British were in no position to stay on in India nor were they desirous of staying on in India any longer than they had to, Mountbatten had decided to prepone independence by a full year from 1948 to 1947, and timed independence to coincide with the surrender of Japan, 15th August. To oversee the partitioning of the Raj, the Viceroy called upon a British judge, Cyril Radcliffe, who had no prior experience whatsoever with Indian matters, nor any understanding of the society of India, all he had to work with what a very perfunctory guideline for partitioning the subcontinent along religious lines with weightage to ‘other factors’. Cyril Radcliffe had attached a great amount of weightage to these ‘other factors’, decisive among the consideration was the fate of Calcutta. Not long before the partitioning of the sub-continent, Husseyn Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose had chalked out plans for a separate state of Bengal, and offered the proposal to Lord Mountbatten, however, the plan failed to go through. Though the viceroy was interested in the proposal, and Jinnah too would have preferred the whole of Bengal as part of his future Pakistan, the Congress vehemently opposed the plan desiring Calcutta and its headwaters (flowing through two Muslim majority districts in North-Central Bengal, Malda and Murshidabad) to remain within India, along with vital industries along the Hooghly and around Calcutta.
The Congress eventually won out, and Mountbatten who prioritized a speedy exit for the British preferred to take a position which would reach a consensus. Thus, the partitioning of the sub-continent went ahead, and Bengal was divided along communal lines, with a Hindu majority state of West Bengal and a Muslim majority state in East Pakistan. However, the unresolved questions of the countryside remained and this would play a decisive role in post-independence developments
Immediately before and after independence, the Indian political landscape saw the rise of various peasant movements in various parts of the sub-continent. Chief among these were the peasant movement in Bengal and Hyderabad. While the Hyderabadi rebellion had expanded into a revolution that threatened to overturn the monarchy, the movement in Bengal was pitted against the remaining system of zamindari which had dominated the rural economy since the days of the East India Company. Zamindari was one of the major and lasting remnants of British colonialism, and a source of much misery and destitution of the peasantry of Bengal. The Te-Bhaga movement centred mainly in West Bengal, called for the rights of sharecroppers. By the 1950s major democratic struggles were being waged in both West Bengal and East Pakistan, in the latter, the language movement broke out after Jinnah imposed Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan despite a majority being Bengali speaking. Alongside this was the Santhal movement in Western East-Pakistan led by Ila Mitra, a radical communist peasant leader. The Pakistani state had shown its inherent character when they launched vicious repression on both movements and used communal rhetoric to divert public attention in a reactionary direction. Riots against Hindus ensued in which thousands were killed in the Barisal district of East Pakistan, the refugees ended up in West Bengal and the Indian state of Tripura and were mostly comprised of lower-caste Hindus.
The riots against Hindus saw the resignation of the pakistani minister of law, Jogendranath Mondol, who had only a few years earlier played a decisive role in Bengal politics ensuring the victory of Ambedkar to the constituent Assembly from Bengal. That seat had to be vacated after the partitioning of Bengal and, with it, the Bengali lower caste had lost their political clout in the Indian parliament.
In the coming years, these events would play an important role in shaping the political landscape of Bengal. The destitute and deprived refugees from East Pakistan would gravitate more and more towards the Communist Party who grew in strength as rural distress and inequality remained unresolved. In 1955, seeing the upsurge of peasant radicalism, the Congress party had to give in and abolished Zamindari in Bengal in 1955. The old aristocracy in West Bengal was now ended, just five years earlier, the same had been accomplished by the provincial government in East Pakistan. This however, was only a part of the overall trajectory of the decline of the old ruling elite of Bengal, bulk of the non-Hindu immigrant capitalist class who had benefitted from colonialism (the jews, the Armenians, the Greeks and various other European ethnicities) had already left Bengal leaving their industries and businesses in Indian hands, or in bankruptcy. Bombay fared better than Calcutta in this, as it had a relatively smaller share of European controlled businesses than Calcutta.
The industrial decline of the Calcutta region had begun decades earlier, going back to the Great Depression of 1929 and the bank failures of 1935. This had in part radicalized the youth of Bengal and already weakened the upper classes of Bengal, after independence, and partition, the unresolved issues of unemployment, inequality and impoverishment remained and only became more pronounced. The drain of wealth from Calcutta to Bombay and the Indian heartland increased pace with the promulgation of the freight equalization policy of the Indian state, and the loss of source of raw materials for Calcutta’s lucrative jute industries, the bulk of which was found in what had been Eastern Bengal.
Thus, the post-independence period saw two trends in Bengal, the continued radicalization of the masses of the countryside and youth of the cities which channeled into building the Communist movement, and the decline of the old elite along with the economy of Bengal and especially fo Calcutta. This trajectory of decline gave West Bengal its present political landscape and shaped the growth and development of the existing parties in the state. The Communist Party grounded itself on the mobilization of the peasantry and working class, while the Congress party remained the party of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, however, it was losing support among these sections locally as well.
With the failure of successive Congress governments to reverse the trajectory of economic decline, frustrations among the urban middle class of petty bourgeoisie, labour aristocracy and intelligentsia (commonly considered as the Bhadralok class in Bengal), found them uniting with the most visible opposition party, the Communist Party of India. By this time, the party was fully entrenched in the Indian parliamentary system and had dropped all pretences of revolutionism. The party suffered through a period of crisis, faced with the challenging question of the Indo-China war in 1962 and then the rise of Naxalism, the united CPI split in 1964. The largest of the two and the most politically influential was the CPI(M) which would go on to lead the left front government of West Bengal between 1978 and 2011. When the party came to power following the election of 1978, they found West Bengal in a ruinous state, it’s industries had declined to a nadir, agriculture was in a state of crisis, the ill effects of the refugee caused by Pakistan army’s genocide of Bengalis in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), remained. The flight of capital caused by the turmoil, in addition to the discriminatory treatment by the Congress-led Central government, had sapped out West Bengal and Calcutta’s leading position in the Indian economy.
While the left did not cause the deindustrialization of West Bengal to happen, they can be justly blamed for failing to revive industries. On the contrary, not long after they came to power, West Bengal became one of the first states to allow a private corporate monopoly to supply power to a city, the CESC (Calcutta Electric Supply Company). Rather than remodel public sector enterprises into a new socialistic model, and remove corruption and mismanagement endemic in them, the left front government simply let public companies and utilities rot. Its dark history of arbitrary land acquisition was well known, as well as supporting sectors of capitalists in the state who in turn funded the party. Chief Minister Jyoti Bose himself lived a very bourgeois lifestyle, his son headed a construction company that received favouritism from the government. However, the legacy of the left in the countryside was far brighter, the party’s literacy programme and land reform programme proved to be a key to alleviating poverty and raising the literacy rate of the state. Today, West Bengal is one of the more literate states, and within the East zone, stands as having the best Human Development of all states. This is despite it’s poorer economic performance. It was the left’s comprehensive land reform policy and rural welfare, and the development of a robust Panchayati system, that allowed the party to retain popularity for over thirty years. However, this success wouldn’t last forever, as the positive effects of land reform began to fade, growth in agriculture slowed down, a greater population meant more fragmentation of land holdings, and fewer industries meant fewer job prospects. Those who could not sustain themselves through agriculture and could not find a job despite having a sound education would have to migrate to other states in the country or to other countries.
Seeing the relative decline of the state, the left front’s failure to develop the economy and it’s obvious hypocrisy towards the capitalist system, frustration grew both in the city and the countryside. It was this frustration that the Trinamool Congress would exploit to propel itself to power. All that was needed was a single spark, one clear example of weakness of the left front government, and they could be toppled. That came in the Singur land agitation. Despite their failure in the city, the Stalinists had real successes in the countryside which buoyed their popularity, which was shattered by the neo-liberal turn. Not only did land redistribution slow down, they resorted to forcible acquisition of land to hand over to corporations. The party was shaken to it’s core. In earlier times, they could get away with the most murderous repression, like they did at Marichjhappi, but not any more.
The CPI(M) led left front government fell in 2011 and the TMC came to power. The new party had none of the pretenses of being a working-class party. The TMC did espouse a populism inspired by the old Congress Party, but it was very firmly in the camp of the bourgeois and petty bourgeoisie. Like the old Congress of the Indira Gandhi era, the TMC presented itself as a populist party, but one which was committed to the capitalist status quo. The defeat of the left front, first in the 2009 parliamentary elections, and then finally in the state elections saw the hegemony of the Congress Party grow in the centre. During the 2009 elections the TMC had freely aligned itself with the Congress, but promptly turned on them after winning, this way the TMC was able to exercise an independent hegemony over the state, free of any influence from the Central government. The new rulers of the state kept much of the trajectory of neo-liberal economic growth in the state but added organized large scale violence in the equation to consolidate power. The suppression of the peasant movement at Bhangar and the vicious suppression of Maoists in the western regions of the state are evidence of this. The TMC had come to power by challenging the interests of foreign industrial investors, and retained that when in power, but kept its connections to the local landowning bourgeoisie, and their interests. They were given more freedom than ever before, and growth in the state would be powered by construction and real estate, while agriculture stagnated.
In ten years of their rule, the state of West Bengal did grow economically, but in a most unequal and uneven manner. Unemployment remains a major issue, with West Bengal having greater unemployment than the rest of India, owing to decades of central government discrimination it lagged behind in infrastructural development, and owing to the corruption of the left front government, the state has been placed on a neo-liberal economic path, where the rich have only gotten richer while the poor remained poor. The frustrations of the youth and working class have been decisive factors in influencing past elections in West Bengal, as have the demands of the East Bengali refugees from what is now Bangladesh. These influences continue to be seen, and far more clearly now, that West Bengal is seeing the rise of ‘identity politics’ where previously there was little to none. The descendants of the Dalits who fled from what used to be East Pakistan, and were one of the main beneficiaries of the left front’s land reform agitation, now demand jobs and recognition in terms of their identity. Unfortunately, they have turned to the BJP for the fulfilment of their demands.
The politics of West Bengal today gives us a picture of extreme decay. Gone are the days of principled class-driven politics, and the solidarity between communities, united in revolutionary struggle against British imperialism. The 34-year reign of the Stalinists under the Left Front Government resulted in the replacement of idealism by cynicism. This was especially clear when many cadres and leaders of the CPI(M) defected to the TMC, and then to the BJP. At this point, the BJP is fielding cadres and politicians recruited from such engineered defections from both the TMC and the CPI(M) . It has gotten to the point where it has become hard to differentiate between the major parties.
The social structure of Bengal, to which the rest of the country and many within the state have remained oblivious, has now been revealed. For the first time since independence and partition, the Dalits of Bengal are asserting their place in the political landscape of Bengal, as Dalits. Old divisions between Hindus and Muslims have once again been opened up, and for the first time in a long time, Hindu-Muslim riots have made their mark in West Bengal. The appearance of West Bengal as a supposedly ‘culturally advanced’ state where identity politics had no place, has been shattered, and the communal politics of north India has now entrenched itself.
An air of cynicism and depression has fallen on the state, many who dread the victory of the BJP are rallying behind the TMC as the only viable alternative to the BJP, while many who were discontented or outright terrorised by the TMC are rallying behind the BJP as the only viable opposition. In this polarization, the two other parties, the Congress and the CPI(M) find themselves marginalized. The confusion and cynicism of the scene has led to many fall back on voting for the party and their representatives based solely on voter loyalty. The Congress for instance has a loyal base in the Muslim majority district of Murshidabad, where their local leaders enjoy the support of a loyal base, while in Nandigram, which had seen the most active mobilization against forcible land acquisition, many loyal supporters of Subhendu Adhikari (long considered the no.2 leader of the TMC, but has now defected to the BJP), remain committed to him, because of his role in mobilizing the peasantry during the agitation in 2006.
The overarching issues important to the people vary based on which community one approaches. The Muslims of West Bengal are justifiably worried about the consequences of a BJP government in power. On the other hand, many Dalit refugees from Bangladesh have been convinced that they would become beneficiaries of the new Citizenship Amendment Act, and would be immediately recognized as citizens, thus support the BJP. The TMC was the first to place the Dalit communities in the forefront, with Mamta Bannerji’s appeal to the Matua Mahasangsthan, an organization of the Dalit Namasudra Matua community who are mostly descendants of refugees from Bangladesh, and whose holy shrine lies in Bangladesh. The TMC however, failed to keep their support. Now the BJP has been able to secure their support primarily on the plank of granting citizenship. Many of whose kin live in Bangladesh, and are subjected to harassment, violence and systemic discrimination against Hindus would indeed be able to find it easier to emigrate to West Bengal.
The youth want jobs and better prospects in the state, better working conditions and better standards of living. The farmers want a better price for their crops and economic support. The Gorkhas agitation for a separate state also casts a shadow over the election. The relatively autonomous territorial region has gained a lot of concessions from the TMC government, but the movement and the party has been split with one faction supporting the TMC and the other supporting the BJP. The movement has lost much of its steam with many of it’s demands already met. By and large, the mountainous far North of Bengal has become more distant from the politics of the plains.
Another important factor has been that of immigrant communities from other Eastern states, primarily Bihar and Jharkhand, as well as the business community of Marwaris in Kolkata. These feel more affinity with the BJP who already hold sway in the Hindi heartland. Many of Kolkata’s old industries relied on such immigrant labour from Bihar, especially around the erstwhile “jute belt” North of Kolkata, which had a cluster of large jute mills set up by Scottish entrepreneurs before independence. The communities who used to rely on the factory for work and sustenance now find themselves unemployed and living a precarious life after the state’s deindustrialization. The continuation of neo-liberal real estate driven growth has failed to create jobs in the state and especially so around the city. The working class have no one to turn to and are drawn on purely communitarian lines into voting either for the TMC or the BJP.
Thus, we come to a situation where the people have to choose between bad(TMC) or worse(BJP). In this situation, it is hard to rally the masses behind supporting the lesser evil. The continuation of the system of institutionalized corruption and gangsterism of the TMC is a terrible option, but the BJP might offer a much worse alternative by churning the old dormant communal cauldron in Bengal, and polarizing bengali society between Hindus and Muslims, using the dalits as front line soldiers against the muslims of the state. At the same time, one can expect attacks on the unique cultural fabric of Bengal, where secular and syncretic traditions and history would find itself under unprecedented attack. The BJP will never change course from the neo-liberal economic trajectory the CPI(M) had placed the state in, on the contrary, it might intensify the penetration of big capital in the state, bringing the much larger national monopolies (Tatas, Reliance, Adani etc) into the state.
The situation is far from ideal for revolutionary forces. The Stalinists made it impossible for a revolutionary communist alternative to emerge in the state, and effectively monopolized the leadership of the Communist movement. The decay of the political culture in the state and the cynicism of the masses makes it just as hard. An objective difficulty in organizing industrial workers in a situation of deindustrialization also poses challenges in building a working-class party of revolution. However, this is a necessary task.
BUILD THE REVOLUTIONARY PARTY!
NEITHER BJP NOR TMC OR CPI(M)!
FOR A REVOLUTIONARY BOLSHEVIK-LENINIST PARTY!
JOBS FOR ALL! LAND TO THE LANDLESS!
NATIONALISE THE TATAS & AMBANIS!