Reflections on the CPI(M)'s Suicidal 'Bengal Line'

SOME fifty years ago, when the Congress faced its first major phase of decline on a pan-Indian scale in the wake of the 1962 India-China war, the demise of Nehru, and the profound economic crisis of the mid-1960s, the CPI(M) in West Bengal found a temporary tactical partner in the Bengal-based breakaway Congress formation called the Bangla Congress. In the first non-Congress dispensation that came to power in West Bengal, JyotiBasu served as Deputy Chief Minister in a government headed by the Bangla Congress leader Ajoy Mukherjee. If an ascendant CPI(M) benefited then from that tactical collaboration with a Congress breakaway outfit, culminating a decade later in the rise and consolidation of a CPI(M)-led regime headed by JyotiBasu, in a strange quirk of history it was another Congress breakaway formation that eventually dislodged the CPI(M) from power three decades later.

Even more striking perhaps is the metamorphosis undergone by the CPI(M) in this period. Given its uninterrupted stint in power for decades, large numbers of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs, and of course the vast network of Party organisations and mass organisations backed by a massive contingent of members, cadres and supporters, the West Bengal unit of the CPI(M) was always the biggest and most influential among the various state units of the CPI(M), with the power-centric ‘Bengal line’ with its ever-growing streaks of pragmatism and opportunism casting a growing shadow over the entire party. But even then the party had the occasional strength to defy the ‘Bengal line’ – the most notable instances in the last couple of decades being the CPI(M) Central Committee’s rejection of the offer to make JyotiBasu the Prime Minister of a Congress-backed UF government at the Centre and the eventual withdrawal of support to the UPA-I government in the wake of the Indo-US nuke deal and the expulsion of the veteran CPI(M) parliamentarian Somenath Chatterjee for refusing to resign from the Speaker’s post and carry out the Party decision.

But strangely enough, a much weakened CPI(M) in West Bengal – indeed a very pale shadow of the party’s powerful presence a decade ago – now manages to exert much greater pressure on the party’s central political line and its implementation. One look at how the West Bengal leadership had its way not only to forge an electoral alliance with the Congress but also to stifle the post-election debate within the CC, with a CC member having to quit simply for stating the obvious – that the Bengal electoral alliance was a violation of the party’s central line and decision – and the extent of the domination of the ‘Bengal line’ becomes crystal clear.

An emboldened West Bengal State Committee now wants the CC to fully legitimise the Bengal line as the continuing trajectory of the party in West Bengal. And now renowned CPI(M) intellectuals are joining in to defend the Bengal lobby, asking the party to follow the Bengal line effectively as its all-India line. First we had Prabhat Patnaik asking the party to delink the struggle against neo-liberalism from the struggle against specific governments and parties inflicting the neo-liberal agenda on the people – all in the name of targeting the BJP and its Hindutva fascist offensive and demarcating neo-liberalism from its specific advocates and agents. And now we have Irfan Habib recommending an anti-fascist alliance with the Congress, blissfully oblivious of the fact that the Bengal alliance with the Congress was forged not so much against the BJP as the TMC and that if anything it has only expanded the political space for the BJP in West Bengal.

The crisis of most of the CPI(M) intellectuals began much earlier when they failed or refused to question the party’s surrender to the neo-liberal agenda in West Bengal, and remained silent even after the Singur-Nandigram moment of rupture. That was when the CPI(M) was much stronger and the BJP had just been voted out of power at the Centre and Modi was still widely isolated for his central role in the Gujarat genocide. In fact, the failure of the CPI(M) central leadership to intervene at this juncture was far more damaging than that of the intellectuals. Simply because the party was still in power in West Bengal, the central leadership of the CPI(M) chose to either look away or even actively peddle neo-liberal ‘development’ as the contemporary model of class struggle and blame the people opposing the Singur model as Luddites and enemies of development. From that moment of silence or complicity to the present moment of surrender, it has been a steady logical progression.

Irfan Habib is certainly not wrong in highlighting the fascist danger posed by the BJP and the need to counter and defeat it by all means. But his faith in the Congress as the anchor of a grand anti-fascist coalition is certainly misplaced. Even if one leaves aside the question of the political and class character of the Congress for a moment, in which it has often appeared just a shade lighter than the BJP’s sinister saffron all through the last three decades when the BJP has continued to expand and consolidate its influence despite a very weak electoral debut in the November 1984 Lok Sabha elections, and focuses just on the organisational strength of the Congress, one can easily see how it is primarily the Congress which has proved to be the easiest target for the BJP with the BJP even presenting a ‘Congress-free India’ as its declared political goal to cash in on the depth of popular disillusionment with and resentment against the Congress and Congress-led regimes at the Centre and in various states. The BJP victories before 2014 that set the tone for its victorious 2014 campaign came against the Congress (Rajasthan, where the BJP wrested power, and Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it successfully retained power, to give a few instances) and all its post-2014 victories (Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and now Assam) have also been at the expense of the Congress. It is only powerful non-Congress parties or coalitions (AAP in Delhi, RJD and JDU in Bihar, TMC in West Bengal, LDF in Kerala) that have managed to stop the BJP from snatching power or making any further political inroads.

Even as large sections of the Indian society resist the Hindutva fascist offensive and seek to oust the BJP from power, politics in a vast and diverse country like India cannot be reduced to the one-point agenda of fighting the BJP alone. The challenge before the Left must also include countering various state governments led by non-BJP parties and increasing its own strength in the context of the ongoing ideological and political contention among various non-BJP parties. The CPI(M)’s own experience makes it pretty obvious – in Kerala it is pitted primarily against the Congress-led UDF and in West Bengal against the TMC (in the wake of the CPI(M)’s alliance with the Congress in West Bengal and the BJP’s victory in Assam, the scene in Tripura has already begun to change where the TMC and BJP are now likely to emerge as the principal political adversaries of the CPI(M)-led Left Front). 2019 is still more than two years away and in the ongoing political contention and realignment of forces, the CPI(M) or any section of the Left can only weaken its own case by tying up with the Congress when the latter itself is facing its biggest crisis of credibility and existence.

The challenge facing the Left at this juncture is not so much of overcoming some alleged streak of sectarianism and dogmatism which is in fact a red herring for most sections of the Left but of renewing and rejuvenating the Left movement in all its dimensions and core areas of strength. There can be no overlooking the fact that the BJP is projecting itself as the answer to the misrule of the Congress, benefiting primarily from the political vacuum triggered by the Congress. The Left response at this juncture can only be enormously weakened and blunted if the Left is seen as a junior partner to the discredited Congress and not as a credible political alternative in its own right. On a more fundamental level, we must never forget that the Hindutva fascist offensive represents a rabidly rightwing combination of communalism and neo-liberalism and there can be no decisive overcoming of this lethal fusion without a powerful resurgence of the Left and the kind of organised popular struggles and sharp ideological resistance that the Left alone can bring to the table.

The dichotomous relationship Indian communists had with the Congress during the period of freedom movement can provide important lessons and points of reference but there can be no repeating history to script another round of Congress-Left collaboration as an answer to the recrudescence of the communal right. The Congress has steadily ceded space to various regional parties, parties of the so-called social justice camp, and now to the fledgling new political formation on the block,AamAadmi Party, and no amount of Left support can prop up the Congress on the all-India level, especially since, as the West Bengal experience showed us quite conclusively, the CPI(M)-led Left Frontsacrificed a good bit of its own strength and political credibility for the sake of its alliance with the Congress. All who wish to see a resurrection of the Left in West Bengal must resolutely reject the suicidal course being imposed and peddled by the CPI(M) West Bengal leadership and vigorously rebuild the Left as a genuine platform of people’s struggle and democratic aspirations in opposition to the authoritarian TMC rule in the state and the communal fascist BJP regime at the Centre.

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