Mercifully, in the absence of a socialist revolution the communists in India never came to a situation where they were able to capture state power, though neither were they a complete failure. The CPM’s three decade old hold on the state of West Bengal is the closest they have come to establishing a single party rule. Kerala and Tripura, the other two states where the CPM has been in power at the state level, have played a sun and shade game with them, keeping the states alternating between Congress and CPM led fronts.
A feature of the communist leaders in India, till recently, has been the presence of many of them who participated in India’s struggle for freedom, often within the umbrella that the pre- Independence Indian National Congress was- people like Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjit, to cite just two examples. These have been replaced in the last few years by a ‘younger’ generation, though here one must keep in mind that an age when most people face retirement, for communists that is just a start to taking up the reins- I have Prakash Karat in mind here, as well as Buddhadev Bhattacharya. Lack of a historical association with grass roots struggles except perhaps college and university level student activism has created a leadership that may be more youthful in age, but has been nurtured on strong doses of a dogmatic Marxism and bureaucratic manipulations within the party, lacking the pragmatism and political sense of a Basu and Surjeet.
At the grass roots, there is a change too. Recently, former CPM Finance Minister Ashok Mitra has pointed out that over 70 percent of the party cadre in West Bengal has joined the party after 1991 and 90 percent after 1977- that is, after the CPM led Left Front came to power in the state. The communists’ record in giving due representation to Dalits and Muslims in the state is appalling.
Similarly, D. Bandyopadhyay, the former bureaucrat who played a crucial role in carrying out Operation Barga in the state, has pointed out in a recent article that West Bengal has one of the worst records in addressing rural poverty and in providing employment to agricultural workers. A survey of panchayats in the state that are responsible for implementing the National Rural Employment Scheme reveals that 93 percent of the representation in the Panchayats belongs to local landed interests, nevertheless spawned by the implementation of the land reforms. The CPM and the Left Front indeed need to be complimented on the implementation of the reforms, but these have also contributed to changing the class character of the CPM in the state- that is favourably inclined towards the upper and rich peasantry as Bandopadhyay points out.
In this context, the CPM’s attempt at attacking its own base by displacing agriculturalists may look contradictory, but given the history of communists elsewhere, is not really so. At one level, it is the relative autonomy of the leadership (‘the new class’), at another the arrogance which takes its support base for granted.
Communsits, whether during the forced collectivization in Soviet Union in the 1930s or during the Cultural Revolution in China, have done more to destroy fellow communists and their own people than any of their class enemies. Events in Nandigram indicate that CPM in West Bengal is intent on following in their footsteps. Mercifully, they have to operate in a much more democratic environment that the CPSU and the CPC ever had to, which interestingly may slow down their self- destruction.
In the context of the fall of the Soviet Union, Eric Hobsbawm remarked in his autobiography that communism, as we have known it, no longer exists. Just as the success of the communists in India was never as complete or as abrupt as in Russia and China, so too their demise may not be as abrupt or sudden. But the way things are going, it is certainly in a state of decline. Whether it will help to rejuvenate a new wave of peoples’ movement- in name whether communist or not, is yet uncertain.