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Has the CPI(M) Forgotten its Strong Federal Roots?

A post assembly elections analysis shows that the party may be ready to rethink its stance that the TMC and BJP are equally harmful.

On May 30, the West Bengal state committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came up with its assessment of the assembly election results, in which the party won no seats. The document explaining this disaster states that most of the 32 seats won by the Left Front in 2016 have gone to Trinamool Congress (TMC) – 23, to be precise.

At one point, the document says, in Bengali, “Because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) aggressive words, Trinamool’s election rigging, corruption, anarchy in every sector, absence of democracy etc. could not become electoral issues. People chose Trinamool Congress as the main opposition to the BJP. In addition, Trinamool was able to use the welfare schemes to garner support. There was extreme polarisation between Trinamool Congress and BJP. That is probably the main reason behind this result.”

This is as candid an admission of being wrong as you would get from the CPI(M). The West Bengal leadership has been maintaining since 2011 that the BJP and TMC are two sides of the same coin, so they have often dismissed governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s attempts to overstep his jurisdiction and Mamata Banerjee’s sharp reaction to these moves as ‘drama’. This document shows that the CPI(M) is ready to rethink the political line that regards both TMC and BJP equally harmful. The fact that the welfare schemes CPI(M) leaders called “doles” during the election campaign have been marked as reasons for TMC’s popular support is a significant shift.

One may have expected this document to impact the party’s behaviour, but this doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. Case in point is the ongoing battle between Banerjee’s and Narendra Modi’s governments.

Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty has termed the Centre’s decision to unilaterally transfer chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay as “vindictive”, but added that the chief secretary’s role has been reduced to that of a “ghatak (matchmaker)” under the TMC government. Earlier in May, ministers of the state were arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in a case where the chargesheet had already been submitted. CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha MP Bikash Bhattacharya, a lawyer, wasted no time in saying the arrests were fair. The Calcutta high court’s subsequent interim bail order, however, made it clear that it is not as straightforward as Bhattacharya made it sound. Even the CPI(M)’s official stance differed from his, but he has neither been censured for his comments nor asked to explain them.

This proves there is still no consensus in the party ranks about the ways to deal with the TMC, and the CPI(M) does not regard the BJP’s repeated attempts to destabilise the West Bengal government as a threat to federalism but as a usual political tussle between TMC and BJP. During the election campaign, the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front combine had talked about the need to break the TMC-BJP binary. It looks like the CPI(M) itself is still stuck in that binary, and does not recognise the greater issues at play. It would not be out of context to delve into history at this point.

Also read: Is This the End of the Road for the CPI(M) in Bengal?

The party at the Centre trying to destabilise an opposition party’s state government is not new. The first party at the receiving end was the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). The Kerala government led by its legendary leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad was toppled in 1959, and finding out how many times Indira Gandhi’s government used Article 356 of the Constitution could exhaust a seasoned statistician. But the BJP’s consistency and determination in breaking the back of federalism is unparalleled.

What is happening in Bengal is basically the logical progression of what began with the dilution of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. It continued with passing a law that makes the Arvind Kejriwal government subservient to the Lieutenant Governor. The arrests and the fight over the chief secretary are not attacks on the chief minister or the TMC. These are attacks on the rights of state governments and the political courtesies governing Centre-state relationship. This is about showing who’s boss.

Jyoti Basu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is exactly what the Jyoti Basu-led Left front government fought against in the 1980s. Basu maintained all along that the Centre was not in charge, and states should be on equal footing. His cry was not just for a bigger share of the Centre’s revenue; his was a principled stand for all states. Then state finance minister Ashok Mitra was his mainstay in this fight. It was as much a demand for more administrative rights as economic independence; that’s why they found other non-Congress chief ministers like Ramakrishna Hegde, M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao and Farooq Abdullah by their side. They held two meetings in 1983, in Srinagar and Kolkata, and a sub-committee was formed to draft a list of demands. Mitra led that sub-committee. Their commitment to the cause is best proved by the case of Jammu and Kashmir.

On July 2, 1984, governor Jagmohan dismissed the National Conference government led by Farooq. The then Karnataka chief minister, Hegde, chaired a meeting with non-Congress leaders at Karnataka Bhavan in New Delhi. The resolution release afterwards criticised the Centre for murdering democracy in Kashmir. A delegation reached Srinagar the next day to express solidarity with Abdullah and the people of J&K. Mitra recalls in his memoirs that Basu directed him to be present at the meeting in New Delhi and join the delegation to Srinagar. Delivering a speech to the public gathered in front of the National Conference office, he writes, was one of his fondest memories.

But senior CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim, while speaking to this writer, confirmed that his party views the ongoing conflict purely as a partisan issue. “There’s no question of federalism here,” he declared. “This is just the governments using their agencies against each other. Only the leftists think about federalism. Our party has fought for it in the past, we wanted Sarkaria Commission’s recommendations implemented. Neither the TMC nor BJP has ever thought about federalism. The bickering over the Narada accused or the chief secretary is nothing but the failed state’s attempt to divert the headlines. Mamata has failed to provide relief to people after Cyclone Yaas, the Centre hasn’t done anything either. That’s why the chief secretary is being made an issue. Similarly, when people needed vaccines and they couldn’t provide it, they fought over the Narada-accused leaders.”

In reality, though, the fight for federalism was put on the back burner while the CPI(M) was still in power. Mitra writes in Apila Chapila (translation by the author), “After I left Writers’ Buildings [he resigned in 1987 for reasons not relevant to this article], I found the West Bengal government has suddenly become a good boy. There’s no overdraft, spending is well within the scope of earnings, so the budget is zero deficit. My unequivocal opinion is, this complete change of stance is highly incompatible with the state government’s approach. Fat overdraft indicated the states are struggling because of the one-sided relationship with the Centre. Doing away with it means announcing to the world that all problems have been solved, there’s no financial constraint. Now we can sleep peacefully.”

Mitra wrote this in the early 2000s. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was not yet in existence. There is hardly any dispute today that the GST has further tilted the scales in favour of the Central government. And the chairman of the GST council that is credited with planning everything was Asim Dasgupta, Mitra’s successor in Basu’s cabinet. He resigned from the council in 2011, but by his own admission, 80% of the job had already been done. Dasgupta’s contribution was even acknowledged by then Union finance minister Arun Jaitley when the GST was launched in 2017.

The decay of the Left as an opposition has had huge implications for West Bengal, and the job of turning this seems to be getting harder by the day. A strong right-wing party has now become the only opposition in a state famous for its secular, socialist ethos. The CPI(M), still the biggest leftist party in terms of number of members, has no time to waste if they are to stay relevant. State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has already said he does not want to put up a candidate against Mamata Banerjee in the by-election at Bhowanipore. If Chowdhury’s party agrees with his proposal, it may mean curtains on the Left-Congress combine. In that case, comrades have a long fight ahead. What are they doing to ensure it is not a lonely one?

Also read: Continuity of Government Is a New Challenge for the Kerala Left

The state committee’s statement mentioned at the beginning of this article had said, “To turn this primary review into a comprehensive one, discussions will have to be held and opinions sought at the booth and branch level.” At the moment, the CP(M) is distributing a questionnaire among its workers and supporters via the district committees to do that. It has two sets of questions, under the heads ‘political’ and ‘organisational’. The first three questions in the first set are all about the party’s policy regarding the TMC:

1. Is it really true that there was strong anti-incumbency against the TMC before the elections? Did we overestimate that sentiment? Did we underestimate Trinamool Congress?

2. Did people reject our campaign about the understanding between the TMC and BJP? Which party was our main target across the election campaign? TMC or BJP? Or did we maintain equidistance?

3. How have the welfare schemes and subsidies from the TMC government impacted the recipients? Have we assessed that?

The answers, and whether the leadership is willing to make changes according to them, could hold the key to the CPI(M)’s future in West Bengal.

A section of the party, however, feels where they stand vis-à-vis Banerjee or the BJP is irrelevant. What matters is whether they can still identify with the poor and have the stomach to fight for issues that affect them. This view is best articulated in an article written in Bengali by young trade union leader and Darjeeling district committee member Sudip Dutta, for party mouthpiece Ganashakti: “We have to go to the rural and urban poor, and get the strength for class struggle from them. The most promising strategy for modern revolution is hidden amongst this socio-economic populace divided into innumerable groups.”

Pratik Bandyopadhyay is an independent journalist.