Disha Mitra examines the fall of the communist party in the Indian state of West Bengal.
It is early evening on the 13th of May, in the Indian city of Calcutta. Enormous green, white and orange flags dominate the skyline, throughout the city. People throw green powder in the air as rhythmic drumbeats electrify the crowds. There is dancing, chanting, cheering and green face paint. If you think this is some sort of cultural festival then you would be completely mistaken. Green is the colour of the Trinamool Congress (literally ‘grassroots congress’) Party. This is in fact the celebration of an election victory and regime change after 34 years.
The Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) had led the legislative assembly in the Indian state of West Bengal since 1977. This made them the longest running democratically elected communist government, in the world. However, their reign came to an abrupt end last Friday as the people of West Bengal decisively booted them out of office, in exchange for the more right wing Trinamool Congress (TMC). The result is perhaps not surprising considering the growing sympathy towards right wing politics throughout the world.
Nonetheless, the expansion of the political right cannot even begin to explain the astounding electoral numbers. In the last elections the CPI-M in coalition with a few smaller parties managed to grab 235 seats out of a possible 294. This year the coalition received a rather large slice of humble pie when their total number of seats was diminished to just 62. The TMC on the other hand made an unprecedented leap and turned around their results from just 30 seats in the last election to an extraordinary 185 seats in this one.
First Past The Post enthusiasts may wish to take note that the startling numbers are somewhat to do with the voting system. Elections in India both national and state are conducted under FPTP. It is interesting then that the CPI-M coalition’s loss of 173 seats is a consequence of losing only 8% of the vote share. Yet, it would be absurd not to give credit to the leader of the Trinamool Congress Party, Mamata Banerjee.
Banerjee, West Bengal’s first female head of the state assembly has been fighting the communist party for 27 years. She described her struggle against the party as being “like a freedom movement…freedom from atrocity, exploitation and tyranny of the Left”. Indeed there was tyranny. Miss Banerjee herself has been subject to it many times, including an incident in 1990 when she was hospitalized after being physically beaten by communist party workers, while on a protest. So what caused the deterioration of the left and a party, which came into power with worthy aims of tackling food shortage, unemployment from factory closures and the growing numbers of homeless?
Unsurprisingly, the CPI-M party fell into many of the traps endemic to communist governments. They began with admirable goals and to be fair, achieved notable success with certain policies. For example, they implemented reforms which devolved more decision-making authority to villages and so allowed the people of rural Bengal to exercise greater democratic rights. But, they later implemented a more controversial system of land reforms, which put a cap on the amount of farmland any one individual could hold. By way of a ‘Robin Hood’ method the government re-allocated from wealthy landowners to small farmers. The initial success of this policy was evident. Having ownership of land incentivized farmers to be more productive and agricultural growth shot up from 1.2% to 5%.
In the long run, reforms resulted in fragmented land ownership and pushed agricultural production costs up, thus reducing growth in the sector. This, along with the communists’ cultivation of militant trade unionism, discouraged investment in the state. Industry declined over many years and then came the inevitable defense tactic: industrialization overdrive.
This overdrive, strangely enough, meant taking back much of the farmland they had once given farmers. Understandably, farmers protested vehemently and the party took a hard-handed approach. In 2007, the government ordered police to open fire on unarmed civilians. The leader of the opposition party took the opportunity to go on hunger strike. Needless to say many of the industrialization projects stalled. Now, both the rural population and big business were angry. The consequences of unviable and mismanaged economic policies had infuriated many voters.
While this may be true, the downfall of the communists was not solely for economic reasons. The party engaged in what the leader of the TMC referred to as ‘party-cracy’, a type of authoritarian party rule of sorts. The party encroached into countless areas of citizens’ public and private life. Dissidence was often met with violence or arrests. The opposition party and its supporters were subject to gunfire and violence during protests. Party members were given preferential treatment in government or public sector jobs. Party goons were given the liberty to terrorize the population with violent tactics. One such case was the rape of a visually and hearing-impaired woman. The perpetrator was a member of the CPI-M party and was never arrested. It is alleged that he was spared because of his links with the ruling party. The disease of corruption had swept through the party ranks. The communists in effect, directly facilitated a landslide victory for their opposition.
Communism may not be dead in world politics, you just have to go north of the Indian border to China to find contentious communism alive and kicking. China apart, the CPI-M government was one of the last bastions of the communist political movement. The recent election results have left virtually no opposition party in the state of West Bengal. But failure of the communists should not be accepted as failure of the Left. The Communist Party has left a space for a fresh start; perhaps, just maybe a more compelling Left will grow from the ruins.