“Why, it’s not double standards, comrades, it’s dialectics!”

How do we explain opposing Tata in Kalinganagar and welcoming him in Singur? How do we oppose globalisation and imperialist capital in other areas of the country while endorsing both in West Bengal? It was in response to many such doubts aired by some delegates to the 19th all India congress of CPI(M) that the above remark was made by one of the most visible and articulate leaders of the party. To what extent this ingenious application of Marxist philosophy enthralled his audience is anybody’s guess. Very interestingly, in a post-congress exclusive interview, a pro-party magazine like Frontline questioned the re-elected general secretary about the opinion that the “policy framework being given to the party-led State governments would be at variance with the national policy perspectives of the CPI(M) congress with regard to liberalisation”. This did indicate something, and Karat was further asked, “Would not this lead to a kind of confusion among the CPI(M) cadre?”

At the top of confusions and debates, however, it was West Bengal which really stole the show at the 19th congress. Bengal leaders dominated the cut-outs marking the Coimbatore skyline. The biggest attraction of the inaugural session was a video-recorded speech of the leader who had laid the foundation of today’s much-hyped Bengal model of industrialisation. Who could forget the tenacity with which the then octogenarian Jyoti Basu used to trot the globe in the 90s in quest of capital, never minding the meagre success he would score? He has been the only communist in history whom a host of bourgeois parties wished to see as Prime Minister of India. Even to this day he most religiously maintains a fine equilibrium of what he famously termed “mutual interdependence” with the Congress, allowing his colleagues to safely engage in occasional outbursts of anti-Congress and anti-Centre rhetoric without any jolt to the time-tested friendship. No wonder, then, that though he was not in a position to physically attend the congress, his personality and his politics were very much present there. It was for him alone that the post of “permanent invitee” was created in the Politburo -- another first in the annals of the party.

Following the inaugural session, eulogisation of Brand Buddha dominated the proceedings. A congress document supported the economic policy of the West Bengal government in great detail, project by project. This was only to be expected, because development of that policy has always been a joint endeavour of Bengal leaders and the party centre. As far back as in the party’s 12th Congress in 1985, BTR (yes, the same BT Ranadive who as the General Secretary of the undivided CPI in 1948 had sought to plunge the entire party into an adventurous insurrection to overthrow the rule of capital represented by the Nehru government) came down heavily against opponents of state-private joint ventures, helping Chief Minister Jyoti Basu take a big stride forward in his drive for industrialisation. From then onwards, top leaders including General Secretaries have offered all assistance and guidance to the process of continual rightward drift in the Left Front Government’s economic policies. Joint ventures, or what we would call PPPs today, proved to be a transitional step towards privatisation and then the neoliberal industrial policy document of 1994. Through all such steps right up to the West Bengal SEZ Act of 2003 and the current craze of corporate industrialisation, the central leaders stood solidly behind the Bengal leadership, providing theoretical justification to whatsoever the latter did, or wished to do. In 2005, for instance, the 18th Congress opened up the gates to foreign investment. By and by it became clear to all that there was actually no such thing as Kolkata line versus Delhi line. The Bengal line was and is the central line. To be more accurate, the Bengal practice has always been the motive force in the evolution of the all India political perspective. (In this congress too, the party adopted a policy document that further liberalised the economic policies of state governments run by it.) Politburo member Sitaram Yechury made this amply clear in Coimbatore when he said, “What is happening in Bengal is not anti-liberalisation. We are open to foreign capital. Whatever we are doing in Bengal, we are asking Manmohan Singh to do for India”.

Focusing the spotlight on Bengal and its Chief Minister was a carefully considered political decision. BB is obviously the brightest poster boy of the new-look CPI(M). It is he who best represents the aggressive version of social democracy which works directly and violently for big capital and against peasants and workers while still carrying the red flag. Highlighting him is the party’s way to project its own brand of neoliberal developmentalism as the best selling point to improve the stakes in the corridors of power at the central as well as state levels.

And this was also necessary to send the proper signals to the lords of capital in India and abroad. To be sure, they do rely on the likes of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram -- and their counterparts in the BJP -- for managing their affairs in India. But when it comes to marketing the economic philosophy of liberalisation-globalisation, their best bait after the fall of the ‘computer savvy’ Chandrababu Naidu is the ‘pragmatic communist’ BB. Long ago GD Birla advised his class colleagues: rather than forming our own “capitalist party”, let someone who has abdicated all property speak for us. The allusion was clearly to the “Mahatma” in loincloth. Today Buddhadeb and his party enjoy far greater credibility than Congress, BJP and others in speaking for Tatas and Salims, for World Bank and Wal-Mart. Certainly the latter would feel reassured when they see their brand ambassador being accorded the highest prominence in the all India meet.

But how about the bad name earned in Singur and Nandigram? Well, it was precisely for the purpose of covering up the stigma that a high level of praise was considered necessary. Of course, the customary one-line self-criticism was also there: a political and administrative mistake has been committed in Nandigram. The General Secretary conceded that Nandigram had supplied the anti-left forces throughout the country with a suitable handle for criticism. Singur was not forgotten either. A formal caveat was pronounced: it is better to spare agricultural land for industrialisation unless absolutely necessary. For the rest, it was declared that SEZs are fine -- though not so many and so big as contemplated by the centre -- and land acquisition by the state government on behalf of industrialists but “in the interests of peasants” will go on. Not all delegates were satisfied with this, though. A few from Maharashtra reportedly voted against a resolution that endorsed the concept and practice of SEZs.

For all the greatness thrust on him, however, the Chief Minister of West Bengal had a tough time facing a number of embarrassing questions too, from mediapersons as well as delegates. If there is so much of development, why does the state continue to be a laggard in areas like education and health services? The inevitable comparison with Kerala also came up. Buddhadeb apparently could not summon the courage to speak the truth and say that he had been too preoccupied with taking good care of his capitalist friends to look after these small matters. What he tried to say instead, not very convincingly, was something like this: yes we must do better... in Kerala, you see, the Christian missionaries set up many schools...

You say you are opposed to the centre’s “mad” rush after unnecessarily big SEZs -- asked some journalists -- why did you not move any amendments to the SEZ bill when it was moved in parliament? BB was clearly on the defensive: in fact we could not measure up the full implications at the time. You say you won’t allow foreign firms into the retail sector, but what do you do when Wal-Mart seeks entry in joint ventures with Bharthi? We are thinking over that, came the evasive answer.

But Buddhadeb is not given to wasting time in empty thoughts. He made it a point to go and meet the industrialists of Coimbatore. Come to our state, he said, you will get cheap and abundant land, electricity, labour -- you name it, we have it. But labour unrest? Don’t worry, now it is all quiet on that front, replied the confident Chief Minister. Incidentally Coimbatore itself has lately witnessed mighty and continuing waves of workers’ struggles led by the CPI (ML); naturally it did not occur to him or to other leaders to go and meet these workers.

But does it look good if the number one “Left” leader of Bengal comes to be known only as a friend of capitalists, a close confidant of Manmohan Singh and “Pranabda”? It does not. His predecessor in the CM’s chair used to do all these things, but that did not prevent him from waxing eloquent on the need to restructure centre state relations, moving resolutions on this topic in party congresses, and taking the lead in the “conclave politics” of opposition unity. Now BB is being groomed for that role too. This time around it was he who moved the resolution on restructuring of centre-state relations. With elections approaching, the party seems to be all set to project him as a firebrand “national leader” from Bengal.

With West Bengal occupying the pride of place in the 19th congress, all eyes were fixed on the new members of Politburo from this state. The election of veteran CITU leader Mohammad Amin in a position left vacant after the death of CITU General Secretary Chittabrata Mazumdar may have been more of a routine affair. But the election of Nirupam Sen from among a group of likely names was politically quite significant. Even as it embraces neoliberal developmentalism as its political mantra, the CPI(M) still needs to explain all the drift in Marxist terms, to try and show that some sort of left alternative is being put in place by the state governments run by it. Leaders like Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have never been great experts here; at the state level the job used to be done mainly by Anil Biswas. Erstwhile editor of the party’s Bengali newspaper Ganashakti and then Secretary of West Bengal state committee, he worked out a theory of “development as a form of class struggle”, later fine-tuned as “development and struggle”, for the purpose. Prominent among those who assisted him in this work was Nirupam Sen. After the departure of Biswas, Sen took up the main responsibility. And that not only in theory but also in practice, he being the Minister in charge of industries, commerce and development. His election to the PB is therefore seen as a further endorsement of the political line he best articulates. And after the congress the first job the new PB member took upon himself was to fly off to Germany -- not to pay tributes to Karl Marx, but to invite German capital to the state. So far, so good.

But is everything going well in the party’s Bengal bastion? Not exactly, according to reports placed in the party congress. The proportion of Muslim members in the party is decreasing in Bengal and elsewhere, says the organisational report. What it does not say is that the alienation is a very normal outcome of the Advani-like steps and statements (on madarsas, or the treatment meted out to Rizwanur, for example) on the part of BB and his government. In recent times the latter have taken many a measure like appeasing Muslim fundamentalism on the Taslima Nasreen issue and announcing sops for the Muslim masses just ahead of the panchayat polls. But results are yet to show up.

Then again, the proportion of women in the party membership on the national level remains at a poor 12 per cent, and a poorer 10.5 per cent in West Bengal. The party does not, of course, admit that this has anything to do with the absolute immobility of its women’s wing and the callous attitude of the party and government in the face of growing violence on women, frequently with CPI(M) activists involved in such cases.

However, the number of party members is generally on the rise in this state too. That this growth represents more of an attraction for power and privileges and less of an urge to serve the people is well known and even recognized by the leaders. What the latter are particularly perturbed over is the fact that many comrades are refusing to renew their membership. The media uses the derogatory term “drop-outs” to describe them, but they are the ones who have still some ideological commitment left with them. They have tolerated the party’s continuing degeneration all these years out of sheer loyalty to the cause, but cannot any longer. In them the party is thus losing whatever remained of its most precious resource. Moreover, in West Bengal the process had started much earlier than in other states. While the current rate of non-renewal is only 3.5 per cent, the cumulative absolute number in West Bengal is therefore quite large. With the growing shortage of sincere and efficient workers, the party is steadily losing its skill in “managing” various social and class conflicts and thereby retaining all sections of the vote bank. This naturally leads to growing reliance on muscle power and higher incidence of corruption and bureaucratic tendencies. It has been also reported that behind the electoral successes lurk some worrying changes in the vote bank. This again was only to be expected because changes in political policies were bound to be reflected in shifts in the party’s social base sooner or later.

In view of all this the 19th Congress has issued the call of yet another campaign to rectify mistakes at lower levels throughout the country. Once again this is only a ritual, an exercise in self-deception. With fundamental ideological problems originating at the top and flowing downwards, such an endeavour is bound to prove as futile as on earlier occasions. When the Gangotri remains heavily contaminated, what is the use of trying to clean up the Ganga at the lower reaches? 

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