CPM in West Bengal

One thing that is interesting about Indian politics is the fact that states have a great deal of autonomy, and there are parties based in various states that are distinct from both Congress and BJP. One of those parties is the Communist Party of India, which has evolved into a pro-poor, anti-capitalist electoral party that has renounced violent revolution, following a split in CPI in the 1960s. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM or CPI(M)) emerged in the 1960s as a serious electoral party, and it has governed directly or through left coalitions in West Bengal and Kerala since the late 1970s. CPM gains between 5% and 6% of the national vote, and currently there are 46 CPM MPs in Parliament (out of 790). (The Wikipedia entry on CPI(M) provides a detailed timeline of the party’s role in India since the 1960s. Here is a link to the People’s Daily, one of CPM’s key publications.)

Here is a table of seats won in elections between 1952 and 1987 in West Bengal:

(source: Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent, p. 274)

Many progressive Bengalis looked at the party as a pro-poor, progressive force in West Bengal during the 1980s. But substantial and rising criticism has developed in the past five years. So where is CPM today?

First, consider the positive view. Distinguished American political scientist Atul Kohli treated West Bengal in detail in his The State and Poverty in India (1989), and he credits CPM for much of the improvement of the status of the poor over a 20-year period in West Bengal.

It is argued that the capacity of the CPM to initiate a systematic attack on rural poverty stems from its political and class characteristics. The type of leadership, ideology, and organization the CPM regime brings to bear on the operation of political power enables it to perform two essential tasks: first, penetration of the countryside without being captured byt he landed classes; and second, controlled mobilization and incorporation of the lower classes to buttress state power as a tool of social reform. … To gain an understanding of the CPM regime in West Bengal, one must begin by analyzing the nature of its leadership, ideology, and organization. The important thing to note about the leadership is that is neither concentrated in the hands of an individual nor, as one might expect, in the party alone. While the party wields great influence, leadership is shared by the three “wings” of the CPM, namely, the party organization proper, the Kisan Sabha (the peasant wing) and the parliamentary wing. (96-97)

Kohli gives an overview of CPM in West Bengal in his 1991 Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability:

The Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), has repeatedly been elected to office in West Bengal since 1977. The party is communist in name only and is essentially social-democratic in its ideology, social program, and policies. The party’s disciplined, effective organization has minimized the debilitating elite factionalism and the related elite-led mobilization and countermobilization so common in some other states. The CPM has also consolidated a coalition of the middle and lower strata by implementing some modest redistributive programs. That systematic incorporation of the poor has reduced the attractiveness of populism and its emphasis on deinstitutionalization. And finally, the CPM has adopted a nonthreatening approach toward property-owning groups, whose roles in production and economic growth remain essential for the long-term welfare of the state. (267)

Here is Kohli’s summary assessment in 1991:

After having been one of India’s most chaotic states in the late 1960s, West Bengal has emerged in the 1980s as one of India’s better-governed states. Surely there are lessons in this turnaround for any study of India’s growing crisis of governability. For purposes of this concluding discussion, these lessons can be broadly divided into prescriptive and analytical.

The prescriptive lessons are limited. What has worked in West Bengal may not work in other states in India — and is even less likely to provide an all-India model. The emergence of the CPM as a disciplined ruling party in West Bengal is a product of an unusual sociopolitical configuration — its long regional traditions of elite radicalism and centralized organization, the weakness of caste as a principle for political organization, and the historical weakness of the Congress party….

In spite of the limited utility of the West Bengal case for generating any direct prescriptions, the analytical implications … are very important. The West Bengal case highlights the significance of a well-organized reformist party for generating political order. The roots of the political chaos between 1967 and 1977, though complex, were mainly two related political conditions: the fragmentation of the state itself, and virulent elite-led mobilization.

The emergence of the CPM as a ruling party tamed many of the conflicts within West Bengal. As a well-organized party with a clear electoral majority, the CPM was able to create a cohesive government and fill the existing power vacuum. Organizational discipline also enabled the CPM to limit elite factionalism and the debilitating elite-initiated political conflicts that often follow. Thus, organizational cohesion at the heart of the state was crucial for taming political chaos.

The CPM’s reformist orientation has enabled it to pursue some redistributive programs without fundamentally alienating property-owning productive groups. The CPM’s performance in West Bengal has by no means been spectacular; it has left quite a few problems unresolved, and it has created some new problems. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that a reform-oriented, disciplined party has generated moderately effective government in West Bengal. (295-96)

So Kohli’s assessment of CPM is quite favorable, at least through the early 1990s. Land reform and policies favorable to landless workers had a significant impact on poverty in West Bengal.  Now move forward to the early 2000’s up to the present. Indian journalism suggests a high degree of discontent with CPM today. There are three large areas of criticism: cronyism and corruption; the use of political violence to silence opponents; and an economic development strategy that is too friendly to international business. And, for the first time in decades, the party is losing electoral support in West Bengal. Here is a fairly representative current critique of CPM in West Bengal (link). Here are a few key criticisms by Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

The governance failures of West Bengal, on virtually every indicator that matters — roads, health, education, nutrition, poverty, infant mortality — have recently been well documented in searing report by my colleague Bibek Debroy and his co-author Laveesh Bhandari. Even the much touted success in growth in agricultural productivity and decline in rural poverty has been tapering off for years. There is no question that West Bengal is ripe for a paradigm shift in its development model.

There is also no question that the local CPM has become a huge obstacle to the progress of the state. No matter how much Bengali intellectuals, out of a sense of misplaced nationalism, sanitise the issue, the CPM’s implication in violence, intimidation and coercion is extensive. It is now deeply implicated in the political economy of petty corruption in the state. It has virtually destroyed intellectual life in main institutions of the state.

One particular point of controversy has to do with the attempt to establish Special Economic Zones in West Bengal (link).  Here is a searing criticism of CPM’s use of political violence against peasants from Mainstream in an effort to push forward with its plans to create a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram, involving largescale land confiscations:

The irony is that even though the CPI-M has become pro-capitalist, it has little respect for democratic norms or rule of law. So, even before the State Government machinery, centred in Kolkata, actually made any formal requests to peasants for taking over of their lands, a local party bigwig and a Member of Parliament from adjoining Haldia (it is a port town and is apparently booming) deemed fit to send out a circular stating that lands of villagers in quite a few villages will be taken over for the purpose of creating an SEZ. That created a furore among the villagers and a resistance started; they vowed that they will not part with their land which they have tilled for generations. The State Police tried to break the peaceful resistance of the villagers on March 14, and the deaths of innocent peasants led to a plethora of protests from the Opposition political parties and groups and also from independent intellectuals of Kolkata and beyond. Even Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the present Governor of West Bengal, found the killings to be a horrific incident and himself tried to visit the place where the deaths happened but was stopped mid-way by the CPI-M cadres.

The criticism is two-fold: that CPM’s current economic policies are too favorable to international businesses; and that the government has been reckless in its use of force against peasants and critics.

Here is a rebuttal to these criticisms from LeftVoice. The document is interesting because it provides a defense of CPM’s current policies and actions (link).

The primary political and developmental strategy of the Left Front had two inter-related components – land reform and decentralisation of political power from the state bureaucracy to institutions of local government (i.e. to panchayats and municipalities in rural and urban areas respectively). Right from the start, it was the contention of the Left Front, that refoming the way land was owned in the rural areas, where the bulk of the poor lived, was crucial to tackling the problems of poverty and under-development in the state. In this article we shall see what kind of property relations existed in the state before the Left Front came to power in 1977, how these relations created conditions of massive rural poverty, how the Left Front attempted to undertake land reforms to alter these property relations, how it realised that decentralisation of political power to local government institutions was the best way to undertake such reforms and how this whole strategy reduced rural poverty and also politically empowered the poor in the state to a degree not seen in other states of India.

So the hard question today is this: has CPM maintained the political commitments and integrity it evidently possessed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that it remains a positive force for social reform in West Bengal?  Or has it devolved into “party politics”, leading to behaviors that have more to do with personal gain and party electoral success than social progress?



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