Daya Varma and Vinod Mubayi


The Left Front Government of West Bengal, of which the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) is the leading partner, embarked upon an ambitious industrial development program.


The first project was the acquisition of land in Singur where Tata Automobiles is planning to set up a “Peoples Car” factory to manufacture a small car that will be sold at the unprecedented price of Rs. 1 lakh.  The second project envisaged was at Nandigram where Indonesia’s Salim Group was to set up an integrated industrial complex. More projects were perhaps in the pipeline, but the violent protests initiated at Singur and Nandigram by a variety of political forces ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left, with various shades of environmental activists and assorted do-gooders thrown in, have halted the program beyond the project at Singur where construction has begun despite occasional bouts of vandalism. It seems that every political formation in the country has pounced upon the golden opportunity provided by the Left Front government’s plans to settle scores with CPM.


The guns arrayed against the CPM are of different make but the purpose of the war is the same. The former Prime Minister VP Singh, the 21st Century incarnation of Jaya Prakash Narayan, is going to collect a motley crowd to oppose what is termed the Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Brighter minds have invented repugnant terms like “Buddha’s Bengal”, “Buddha-ism”, Buddhdeve, the blue boy of CPM, etc. Historian Sumit Sarkar, a “life-time leftist,” made a trip to Singur to discover that the evicted farmers are dissatisfied. On the other hand, some of us  who never excused the CPM for splitting the old CPI in 1964 are convinced that the Left Front Government is doing what must be done – better late than never – but they seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t!


CPM leader Prakash Karat has written that CPM’s critics allege that the Party engages in “double-speak” and suffers from “political and ideological confusion” regarding “globalization, liberalization, and a booming market economy.” However, Karat’s own article shows that he suffers from confusion himself. At one place he writes “the all-India policy of the CPM has been to oppose the neo-liberal direction of policies, popularly termed liberalization, privatization, and globalization” and, a few paragraphs later says “It is not possible for the Left Front in West Bengal to implement the alternative policy program of its choosing. The Central Committee therefore approved of the State Government’s efforts to solicit private investment for industrial development.” It should be noted that this has very little to do with the fact that CPM is in power only in 3 states and not the Centre in India’s federal polity. One can ask, if the party was in control at the Centre, what else would it do? Would it oppose any discussions with private capital for industrial projects, would it bring back some version of the license-permit raj, or would it go wholesale to abolish private enterprise and capitalism and put in place state ownership of the means of production, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.? Karat points out, correctly, that “CPM will continue to refute the modern-day Narodniks who claim to champion the cause of the peasantry” and try to “strengthen the battle for secularism.” But his continual comments against privatization and liberalization, in the light of what Left Front is actually doing in Bengal, show his own confusion.


The opposition to the Left Front Government’s industrial plan is really triggered by CPM itself – by CPM’s past propaganda for a Stalinist model of development, opposition to privatization of anything publicly owned, general opposition to SEZ, relentless criticism of the UPA government, and pointless polemics with Indian Maoists. Indeed CPM has trained its cadre almost the same way as the parties of the extreme left opposition and fed them with the same outmoded rhetoric of what is revolutionary and what is not. And now CPM finds itself in a bind.


CPM should rather have followed its correct decision along with that of CPI to lend support to Congress-led UPA government not only to keep Hindutva forces out of power but also for many of its development policies focusing its criticism constructively rather than abstractly. Its model of economic development for West Bengal should be the same as for the rest of the country. Instead, CPM created the illusion among its cadre and outsiders that its policies in West Bengal are constrained because it is not in power in all of India (more on this later). It had a history of preventing Jyoti Basu from possibly becoming the Prime Minister of India and its leaders carry the vestiges of student activists rather than of mass leaders; that being so, erratic enthusiasm is natural. All this is happening in the populist wave of anti-globalization.


What then is the issue that every one who counts is up in arms and has congregated in Singur and Nandigram? India is a land of calamities and can keep lots of people with goodwill busy. Why then only in West Bengal?


The specific case we are considering relates to the policies of the Left Front Government concerning development, land and peasantry.  Sumanta Banerjee in his article “Peasant hares and capitalist hounds of Singur” (EPW, Dec 30, 2006) raises three issues. The three points are (1) clash between peasant interest and industrial development, (2) ills of production for consumerism by elite, and (3) development model.  


First, Sumanta Banerjee writes that the “dispute over Singur actually harks back to the more fundamental problem of reconciling peasant (see note 1 below)  interests with the demand of industrial growth.”  However, the interests of the peasantry are not inevitably tied to the land.  Of course peasants need land if they wish to carry on farming and remain peasants. Indeed a large scale migration from the countryside to the cities is greatly due to the inability of the land to provide livelihood or urban comfort (in case of families of rich farmers).  If all peasants had chosen to remain peasants throughout history and allowed or forced to do so, we would not be sitting in cities because the ancestors of all of us depended upon the village economy or lived in forests like Balmiki at some time – may be not too long ago. Land is immobile, peasants are not. There are many ways peasant interests can be catered to and the Left Front government is doing as much as feasible, albeit less than ideally desirable.


Second,  Banerjee says that CPM “seems to favor the Fordist model” to met the “demand (for a cheap car) from large sections of the Bengali middle class…whose economic status has improved in the last three decades of Left rule.” It is true that the development plan of the Left Front government also caters to consumerism.  However, the government cannot cater to consumerism without generating consumers, and it cannot generate consumers without creating well-paid jobs and cannot create good jobs without industrialization. There is no such thing as a good job on farms, no matter how fertile and how many crops they produce. Besides, farming is a risky, capitalist venture on a small scale, which frequently, and sadly, leads to crop failures, defaults on loans and suicides.  In any case, this point is relevant only if the issue is not just the acquisition of land but its utilization.    


The third  and most important point of Banerjee relates to an  appropriate development model without clearly pointing out what it should be.  He argues that what is happening in West Bengal is the same as happened “in capitalist states in the 19th century Europe and their socialist successors in the USSR and China”. This is not so.  The phase of increased industrialization in India in general and West Bengal in particular is qualitatively different and better than what happened in Europe, especially in England during the industrial revolution.  In India, land reform is leading to industrial development rather than industrial development mercilessly uprooting the countryside in search of labor as happened in Europe. Because of this, industrialization does not pauperize the peasantry; this is obvious in India.


 Indeed, the Left Front-instituted land reforms are better than anywhere in the rest of the country. It either consisted of implementing the policy of “land to the tiller” or provided alternate source of livelihood if peasants so chose. In other parts of India, like UP, it merely consisted of the abolition of the Zamindari system and that also with many loopholes. For this reason, a more aggressive industrial development should have started in West Bengal sooner than now and more land should have been acquired in an amicable manner.


Land reforms can never be sufficient to lift the country to meet modern challenges; on the other hand, they necessarily create conditions for industrial development. Coincidentally, they also eliminate the conditions necessary for armed agrarian revolution and the Naxalbari path.


Sumanta Banerjee refers to the “socialist experiments in the period preceding the collapse of the USSR” and is critical of the “neo-liberal economic order”.  Perhaps he suggests a repeat of the same model. In science, if an experiment fails, either the premise or the design is wrong. Fools will repeat it, scientists will redesign the experiment. We are not sure what “neoliberal order” means although the term is commonly used by NGOs and political economists, so we refrain from commenting on that.  Mao Zedong hinted at democratic revolution but ventured right after 1949 into the Soviet Model (of course the USSR had not collapsed by then). The real dimensions of Lenin’s New Economic Policy could never be known because of his premature death preceded by a long illness. Eastern Europe which shared the double burden of following the Stalinist model as well as serving Soviet national interests was buried by its population. Cuba is much better off than Korea, people feel freer but there is no reason for shortages of essential goods such as meat despite the US embargo. So what is the neo-liberal model? Could it be the one being practiced in China and Viet Nam? Could it not be the same as being practiced by the West Bengal government with all its limitations?


The Left Front government is operating in the real world and is responsible for the well-being of people in their territory. The Left Front is not in control of the central government but that really is not its central problem. The central issue is that the Left Front has come to power through democratic elections – no matter how faulty but democratic nevertheless. It has not happened anywhere else in the world. Even bigger communist parties like the ones in Italy and France could not do this. The Indonesian and Malayan parties could not withstand the brutal assault by the US and Britain, respectively. So the victory of the Left Front says a lot about CPM and CPI as well as the people of India. Left Front therefore has to respect not only the mandate but the process of getting that mandate. And it indeed is doing that. 


The West Bengal Left Front government is accused of gross violations of human rights. Even Amnesty International found an outlet for its anti-communist bias. But the problem is not one of dealing with legitimate protests. The two CPI (Marxist-Leninist) gave a call for Bengal Bandh.  We do not know how successful it was but we did not see any reports that the police forced the shops and offices to remain open at gun point, or arrest thousands of protestors like Indira Gandhi did during the 1974 Railway Strike. On the other hand, the blockade in Nandigram, burning of CPM office and physical attack on CPM leaders are not democratic protests.


Having said all of the above, we feel that in the short run CPM is likely to be a loser no matter what it does. If it does not proceed with its development plans and lift the economy of West Bengal to the level its people deserve, why should people continue to vote for it? That is the Mamata Banerjee and Raj Nath Singh strategy.  With the cancellation or postponement of its Nandigram project, CPM is buying a temporary respite for a long-term loss. On the other hand, if the Left Front Government proceeds with its Special Economic Zones project, it will face defections from its own ranks, the wiser ones of whom will become inactive and the enthusiastic ones will join the more radical left, which is the principal reason why the Maoists are so agitated. There is a history to it. CPM got a good section of its cadre because the split was based on a more radical (though not necessarily correct) program. A section of CPM left it because Naxalbari appeared more radical. The Kanu Sanyal type Marxist-Leninists lost their cadre to the more radical Maoists.  On the other hand CPM may treat such defections as desirable purges. After all, CPM’s responsibility is to the people of Bengal as a whole and not just to its members and cadres.   


So, either way, CPM could be a loser. But then, every problem has a solution. During the 1943 Bengal famine, the Communist Party of India led by magnetic P.C. Joshi established a popular support for the Party. Who will be the destroyer and who will be the savior of that base now?


Note 1. Peasants and farmers are not the same, economically, socially and politically. Briefly, a peasant is one who tills  the owned land for subsistence; market is not essential. In contrast, the land for the farmer is capital like any other and is primarily for profit  and the market is essential; because the land is capital, it is utilized as farm or sold depending upon what is more profitable in the short or long run (that is how Delhi reached in Gurgaon and Ghaziabad). The essence of the Farmer’s movement (Western UP, Haryana, Andhra, Maharashtra) years ago was to demand a parity in the surplus generated by farm and other capital. The issue in Singur is that of farmers and their sharecroppers and not of peasants.


The other point relates to single-crop and multi-crop land and everyone including CPM are  opposed to acquiring multi-crop land. It may be worth noting that land serves dual purpose: livelihood to the owner and produce for the country. Usually,  less fertile and single-crop land is owned by poor peasants. 

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