People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 25

June 24, 2007



Consolidate This Alternative


BY any standard, in fact, by all standards, the 30th anniversary of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal is a remarkable event. By winning seven consecutive elections to the state assembly, the CPI(M)-led Left Front has established a record not only in India but in any parliamentary democracy globally.


What is more significant is that this remarkable achievement comes at a time when ‘anti-incumbency’ has virtually been elevated to the status of a natural law in contemporary Indian electoral politics. Why has the CPI(M)-led Left Front been able to negate this anti-incumbency factor? One must find the answer to this question in the circumstances that, in the first place, create this phenomenon. In an era of neo-liberal economic reforms, whose unconcealed preoccupation is solely with increasing corporate profits, the people’s livelihood standards, barring a minority, are constantly declining. This is best seen in the continuously widening hiatus between the ‘shining’ and `suffering’ India. Through these columns, repeatedly in the past, we had substantiated this reality. These, hence, need not be repeated here.


The consequent popular discontent over the declining standards of living and the glaring and growing gap between the rich and the poor invariably reflects electorally in the defeat of the ruling dispensation. If the concerns of the poor and their vulnerability are addressed in right earnest by the ruling dispensation, then anti-incumbency is effectively negated. The liberalisation pundits have often dismissed this reasoning by taking recourse to hurling baseless charges of ‘scientific rigging’ against the CPI(M). This was resoundingly debunked in the 2006 elections when the Left Front polled more votes and won more seats under a very strict and unprecedented five-phase election. The Election Commission had chosen to depute on duty security forces and administrative personnel from outside of the state under the apprehension that those belonging to Bengal would be partisan. At that time itself, the CPI(M) had publicly declared that as long as voters are not brought from outside, people of Bengal will not defeat the Left!


How has Bengal been able to cater to the people’s needs while in much of the rest of the country, the onslaught of liberalisation has been generating growing popular discontent?


Let us take a look at the economic development in West Bengal.


In the post-reform decade between 1993 to 2003 the average growth of net state domestic product was 7.10 per cent – the highest amongst the sixteen big states in India. This is well ahead of the media favourities like Maharashtra (4.74 per cent), Gujarat (5.87 per cent), Karnataka (6.27 per cent) Andhra Pradesh (5.27 per cent) and Tamilnadu (5.24 per cent). This is from a study done by the Centre for Policy Alternatives quoting statistics from the Central Statistical Organisation, the Economic Survey and RBI bulletins. Studies by the World Bank (2000); Montek Singh Ahluwalia (2000) corroborate such findings. In terms of per capita income, West Bengal has registered an average growth of 5.51 per cent as opposed to the national average of 4.01 per cent. This has happened despite the fact that the annual population growth was 1.64, much higher than the high flying states like Tamilnadu (1.06). The study notes “without doubt, the seemingly uncontrollable and unabated migration, particularly from Bangladesh but also from Nepal and neighbouring states like Bihar and Orissa, has contributed to this relatively high growth of population. Whatever are the reasons for this we can only surmise that the rise in per capita income could have been higher if there had been no population influx into Bengal.”


The more significant aspect of West Bengal’s performance is the fact that this was a growth led by agriculture in complete contrast to the national experience. Land reforms are often seen purely from the humanitarian aspect of providing a source of livelihood for those who otherwise have none. This is definitely an important aspect. But a proper rational land distribution also contributes to a growth in productivity (both land and labour) and enhances the purchasing power in the hands of a vast majority of the people who otherwise are excluded from the market. All these three aspects are visible in Bengal today. Nearly 13 lakh acres of agricultural land was acquired by the Left Front government and distributed to the landless poor. Nearly 25 lakh of people have benefited as a result. Even if one were to assume the value of one acre of land to be a conservative Rs 1 lakh, then this land distribution amounts to Rs 1,30,000 crores of worth of resource transfer from the rich to the poor. Such a massive redistribution of wealth has contributed to making West Bengal the fastest growing rural economy today. In addition, nearly 20 lakh sharecroppers have been recorded; meaning that the landlord cannot now evict them. They have also been conferred hereditary rights to cultivation. Combined, these two measures have radically transformed the lives of nearly 50 lakh individuals or nearly 2.5 crores of people if we include their families.


Such a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of people is – not surprisingly – resisted by the reactionary vested interests who continue to seek its reversal. Every election an effort is made by all these reactionary forces to try and defeat the Left Front hoping that this would permit them to regain their past glory.


What is often passed off as murderous clashes of political rivalry in Bengal masks this reality. Land reforms in rural Bengal has given a new economic status and the consequent new social and political consciousness to the rural poor that was denied through centuries. Today they seek to defend these rights against attacks by the vested interests.


This is the reality. People support and defend the Left Front in order to defend their hard won rights. It is this simple truth that explains why, unlike anywhere else in the country, the Left Front continues to negate the “anti-incumbency factor”.


West Bengal is the third most intensely agricultural state in India with 76.61 per cent of its land under cultivation. However, only 28.1 of this is irrigated, unlike say Punjab which has 89.72 per cent land under irrigation. Despite this, Bengal today has the third highest average yield in India and its volume of foodgrains production is also third after Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Today it is the country’s largest producer of rice. In the early eighties the per capita net agricultural product in West Bengal was 18 per cent lower than the national average. Today it stands over 10 per cent higher than the national average.


One may well ask if all this is true, then why all the trouble in Nandigram where it is alleged that the peasants are protesting their land is being acquired for industrial development. The issue in Nandigram, today, has nothing to do with the acquisition of agricultural land from the peasantry. In the initial weeks of 2007, there was a genuine apprehension and concern amongst the people that the government was considering acquiring land for a chemical hub. However, when the people’s reactions were noted by the CPI(M) and the government, in early February, it was publicly declared that no land will be acquired in Bengal against the wishes of the peasantry. Thus, the issue of land acquisition should have simply ceased to exist as a bone of contention. That the agitation is continuing with violence and free flow of arms is a reflection of the contemporary politics in Bengal.


The opponents of the CPI(M) had adopted a technique mastered over a decade or so of entering a cluster of villages with arms, terrifying local population in order to establish their clout and, on that basis, hope to improve their electoral prospects through terror. Much has been written about this in these columns, hence, it would suffice to note that this is a political challenge being mounted against the Left Front government and it shall be met politically like it was done earlier in Panskura, Garbeta etc.


Be that as it may, the situation in Bengal has reached a stage where a further improvement of people’s living conditions can be possible only if on the basis of the agriculture-led economic growth a trajectory of industrialisation takes place rapidly. This is so because as a result of land reforms and the subsequent fragmentation of land, a situation has arisen where more than ten families are dependent together on one single acre of land. This was noted when the number of people who collected their voluntary compensation was a whopping 12,000 for less than 1000 acres of land in Singur i.e. 12,000 owners for 1000 acres!


Clearly, the existing reality was such that many were eking out their livelihood not from land alone but by doing additional sundry work. Unless employment can be generated in a massive way, further improvement in their livelihood is not possible. And, this is precisely what the CPI(M)-led Left Front is seeking in Bengal today – rapid industrialisation.


However, much of the political opposition to the CPI(M)-led Left Front has often charged that under the Left Front government, no industrialisation is possible. The oft-repeated charge that under the Left Front, there was, in fact, deindustrialisation continues to be hurled even today while the same forces prevent the new initiatives for industrialisation that are being undertaken. Those who hurl such charges deliberately conceal the full story.


Being the most industrialised state at the time of independence, there was a conscious decision by the government of India that in order to have a more balanced economic development in the country as a whole, it was necessary to prevent further growth of industries in West Bengal. The licence-permit system ensured that this happened. Further, in order to make investment in West Bengal less lucrative, a policy called ‘Freight Equalisation’ was implemented which made production of similar goods in West Bengal more expensive than in other parts of the country. Both these measures deterred the further industrialisation of West Bengal for full four decades after independence. While the first prevented the entry of new industries, the second encouraged the flight of existing industries to outside West Bengal. To attribute this flight of capital merely to "trade unionism" would be too facile. This situation, however, is fast changing with the dismantling of earlier policies. The significant factor heralding such a change is the growing purchasing power of the people. Calcutta was once considered as the jewel of the British crown. Kolkata is destined today to emerge as the jewel of modern India.


The future of Bengal and improvement of the living standards of the vast majority of the people lies in this trajectory of rapid industrialisation on the bedrock of the unprecedented advances made in agrarian Bengal. This is not a trajectory of industrialisation at the expense of agriculture and the peasantry. This is industrialisation based on the consolidation of the gains made in agriculture and safeguarding the rights of the people in rural Bengal.


It is this that the CPI(M)’s political opponents in Bengal oppose through methods of armed violence and terror. The reason for their opposition is simple. If the Left Front succeeds, then it shall once again negate the anti-incumbency factor sealing the fate of their electoral and political future.


The challenge before the Left Front government as it completes its three decades is to show the rest of the country that even under the present liberalisation onslaught, it is possible to safeguard people’s livelihood and improve it on the lines of the above strategy. Herein lies the alternative for the people of India and the partial redemption from the continuously growing onslaughts on their livelihood status under liberalisation. The advance of this alternative strengthens the struggle for the complete liberation of the Indian people through the establishment of the Socialist Republic of India.