CPI (M)’s History of Moving Away from Committed Leftism from its Birth: Sankar Ray

Guest post by SANKAR RAY

History apparently allows freaks, whims and hypocrisy, but only temporarily. After all, Hegel as very succinctly stated, ‘History is a slaughter house’. It spares none, not excluding India’s once most powerful Leftist party in the parliamentary arena, Communist Party of India (Marxist) that once had 44 MPs in the lower house of Indian parliament, Lok Sabha. It now faces  a crisis of identity and existence. Hypocrisy and falsehood in politics and ideological positions have been two main reasons for the vertical decline of party’s influence and image.
Ten years ago,  Indranil Chakraborty in his Master’s thesis –“The Market Odyssey: Why and How Was ‘The Market’ Discourse Incorporated in the Party Program of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) During the Days of the Communist Party of China’s ‘Market Socialism’?” referred to CPI(M)’s open criticism of ‘the development of the personality cult of Mao( Tse Tung) , and the problem of left adventurism during the Cultural Revolution. He pointed out that the criticism evaded ‘the question of the relationship between socialism and democracy, and the role of the Chinese people in deciding policy matters of the state’.  He quoted Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s article in the party’s theoretical monthly, The Marxist in 1993 commemorating Mao’s birth centenary – ‘We cannot make a subjective analysis of a personality in cases where errors have been committed in the application of the theory to practice.’

Amusingly enough, Makkineni Basavaunnaiah, one of the founding Polit Bureau members and a top ideologue of CPI(M), praised the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ in the party’s weekly organ ‘People’s Democracy’ (2 October 1966): ‘In short, it is a great mass upheaval in the biggest socialist country in defence of socialism in defence of socialism, its present and future, against the determined resistance and counter-attacks of the overthrown bourgeoisie-landlord classes and their hirelings’ – typically parroting the so-called ‘gang of four’ comprising Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, who along with Lin Biao (announced Mao’s heir apparent, at the ninth congress of Communist Party of China in 1969) used to literally call the shots all through the GPCR.
Did the CPI(M) or Surjeet show the courage to admit that the party’s stand on GPCR  was erroneous in the early years – let alone issuance of a statement that Basavapunnaiah’s article too was based on wrong assessment of GPCR?
Self-criticism cannot be expected from CPI(M). In the Lok Sabha elections of 1971 another founder PB member Promode Dasgupta  aped  (not just imitated)  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League slogan, East Pakistan is a colony of West Pakistan that did bear fruit by not only helping AL win all but four seats from East Pakistan  in National Assembly seats in 1970 , but gave it absolute  majority in the National Assembly. PDG floated a slogan, ‘ West Bengal is a colony of Delhi’ which played the role of a catalyst in CPI(M)’s number of MPs from West Bengal in the fifth lower house of the Parliament from five to 17. Later, the central committee of the party censored PDG for the divisive slogan, but this was never made public.
A party that at times behaved more like  a Beriaite than Stalinist organization is  too cowardly to openly undertake  self-criticism. The Beriaite character of CPI(M) was reflected in several several misdeeds of the party in West Bengal after the Left Front, led by CPI(M) came to power. Take the Marichjhampi massacre  of 1979 that happened when eight of the nine founding PB members were very much alive. Puchalapalli Sundarayya had put in his papers as the founder general secretary in 1975. He also resigned from the PB and central committee. Various investigative studies and surveys and research papers thereof estimate that at least 4000 people, overwhelming majority of whom were of lower and very lower castes, were thrown into rivers, infested by crocodiles, sharks and other ferocious riverine animals. The perpetrators were party cadres who were helped by the police in Sunderban part of then undivided 24 Parganas district. In no state, so many people were killed in independent India at least, not even during the Gujarat riot of 2002. For a reliable  account of ‘fascistic’ Marijhjhampi cruelty, I would recommend  Deep Halder’s revealing book, Blood Island: An Oral History of Marichjhapi Massacre. He quotes Jyotirmoy Mondal, an activist who sided with the evictees, : ‘But between 14 and 16 May 1979, in one of the worst human rights violations in post-independent India, the West Bengal government forcibly evicted around 10,000 or more from the island. There was rape, murder and poisoning. Bodies were buried in the sea. Countless were killed even as some escaped, too afraid to tell the tale. At least 7,000 men, women and children were killed.’ I quote this to contrast what Dr Ashok Mitra, the first finance minister of LF government, stated in a Bengali fortnightly, Arekrakam: Hardly ‘100 people’ had lost their life. All CPI(M) ministers having gone to the party congress, he was in charge. This suggests he too imbibed ‘hypocrisy’ , leaving one to rethink whether he was more a ‘bhadralok’ than ‘a communist. I have to reluctantly put these words as I belong to hundreds of people like him, as a writer.
If we look back into the history of CPI(M), we will see that from the very first congress (Calcutta, Sept-Oct 1964), the party had been shifting from its fire-eating left revolutionary position and  chasing events — charting a path of tailism of circumstances. This was revealed  in the minority position (led by Basu and Surjeet) at the 16th congress (Calcutta, October 1998) of the party  during the debate ‘On the question of participation in the government’ (compelled due to Basu’s explosive ‘historic blunder’ comment after the party’s decision not to form the centre-Left United Front government in 1996). The minority statement  disclosed, stupefying the majority of delegates who joined the party in the 1970s and thereafter, that para 112 in the 1964 party programme was incorporated as an amendment (amendment No 118) out of compulsion, if not exigency.
“Immediately after the party congress, the party in Kerala had to face elections. The issue arose whether being a majority party in Kerala, we were to raise the question of an alternative or not. It was in answer to the question that the amendment was proposed and incorporated” (Political Organisational Report, 16th Party Congress, Calcutta 1998) . It was a clause  to permit the party to participate in a government and conditions thereof. This was when the party’s slogan was ‘people’s democratic alternative’ or a people’s democratic government that left no scope in participating in a government under the conditions of a ‘bourgeois-landlord’ state  (party’s characterization of Indian state and ruling class). The amendment reflected a clear  reformist swing and fastening a  knot with parliamentarianism.
The minority position also jotted down how the shift to the right  was present continuous in the CPI(M) ,especially after 1965. At the 9th congress (Madurai July 1972), the party’s slogan was tilted  further from the Left position . The party raised the slogan of ‘Left Democratic Front’ and thereafter to ‘Left, democratic and secular alternative at the 13th congress (Thiruvananthapuram, December 1998-January 1999). The last slogan was virtually copied from the CPI, which from its 8th congress (Patna, 1968) kept sticking to a left, democratic and secular front.
The LF government, run under the diktat of CPI(M), too began moving away from Leftist stance from the very beginning. Let me cite some of them. During the Emergency, Jyoti Basu as vice-president of CPI(M) labour front, Centre for Indian Trade Unions, submitted a memorandum to the then chief minister of West Bengal, Siddhartha Sankar Ray demanding that distribution licence to the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation Ltd (then incorporated in London) be discontinued. In 1978, Basu as the CM recommended grant of licence for a power generation plant at Titagarh, near Kolkata. During the mid-1970s, CPI(M) opposed the ‘joint sector’  (investment and ownership sharing between state and private sectors  with majority shares in the state sector), but in the mid-1980s, the LF government entered  into a joint sector agreement with the Rama Prasad Goenka group for Haldia Petrochemical project. Basu and CPI(M) leaders failed to envision that the RPG group which never set up any industry would not implement the mega project in Haldia and was actually trying to get closer to Basu and biggies at the Muzaffar Ahmed Bhavan, the headquarters of West Bengal CPI(M), as the party was calling the shots in the state. But for Basu’s support, RPG could not acquire controlling shares in the CESC. How the CESC became the flagship company of the group by helping the CESC frequently raise electricity tariff trampling electricity-related-related acts and statutes under feet is another story.    
Chakraborty’s thesis narrates the rest . The first significant turn of the LF regime was the ‘New Industrial Policy’ in 1994 which Basu presented without prior discussion at the party’s state secretariat , let alone discussing with the allies in the LF. The latter made some noise stating openly that it did mean a sort of coalescence with the IMF-prescribed  economic and financial liberalisation under the Congress government during the prime ministership of P V Narasimha Rao with Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister. But the CPI(M) allies calmed down, proving how weakened became the parties like All India Forward Bloc, Revolutionary Socialist Party of India and CPI for accepting the role of junior partners sans power. Chakraborty briefly stated the essence of NIP of 1994. ‘The 1994 industrial policy was the first official document of the Left Front government led by CPI(M) in West Bengal where  the importance of private capital and joint venture investment was highlighted. Keeping in mind the new Economic Policy, West Bengal formulated its Industrial Policy Resolution in 1994 with a view to secure faster and balanced economic development with the active cooperation of the private sector. The key features of West Bengal’s present industrial policy are as follows: Appropriate foreign technology and investment are welcomed on mutually advantageous terms. The Government recognized the importance and key role of Private, Public & Joint sectors in providing accelerated growth and in improvement and upgradation of industrial as well as social infrastructure. Based upon the available opportunities and the potential of this region, the State Government has identified certain segments of industries as thrust areas for special attention.-http://www.wbidc.com/about_wb/policies_approvals.htm, (accessed on 14th Jan., 2011, ) p 18 f.n.’
The climax in the unidirectional shift from the fundamental commitment to people’s democratic revolution, the most important ideological reason for splitting away from CPI was the blatant surrender to neo-liberal and crony capitalism during the last five years of LF with the CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in his dogged insistence on going ahead with the so-called ‘peoples’car Nano automobile project at Singur in Hooghly district and petrochemical hub at Nandigram in Purba Medinipur district . This led to the ignominious defeat of the LF government in 2011 – the first indication was in the LS elections in 2009 when the LF’s tally dropped from 35 in 2004 to 15. Bhattacharjee went all out to help the Tatas without caring to listen to meaningful criticism even from within the LF that it would create less than 750 direct jobs and destruction of a vast agricultural area producing three crops a year. The Nandigram project was intended to be set up by the Indonesia’s crony capitalist Salim group (that had flourished by Anthony Salim’s father’s  tie up with Indonesian dictator General Suharto, the principal collaborator of CIA in the military coup in 1965 killing over five lakh members and fellow-travellers of Communist Party of Indonesia-PKI).  The Nano plant, transferred to Sanand in Gujarat, is practically closed. In 2018 Tata Motors stated officially, ‘Tata Nano produced ‘just one unit of Nano in June and sold just three cars in the domestic market’(https://www.businesstoday.in/sectors/auto/tata-nano-fades-into-oblivion-sanand-plant-badges-new-id/story/281107.html).’ The hoary-headed and adamant Bhattacharjee was ‘stupidly ignorant’ ( Basavapunnaiah’s jibe against Arun Shourie when he serialised a piece, scandalising the role of CPI during the ‘Quit India’ struggle in the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1980s)   about the corporate world . There was pessimism about the techno-commercial viability of Singur project among business analysts. The  CPI(M) leaders were mum when the LF government welcomed the Dow Chemical for the SEZ that was supposed to be set up in the proposed petrochemical hub at Nandigram, conveniently forgetting that the notorious US MNC produced ‘Agent Orange’ in the chemical warfare launched by the US army in Vietnam.
Subrata Sinha, ex-dy Director Gen, Geological Survey of India  and  ex-director, Centre for Earth Science Studies, Trivandrum) wrote an article in the Hindu Business Line a month before the WB state assembly election of 2011, on  my request, on the Nano project, touching upon the Nandigram SEZ project too (both dropped due to pressure from people outside the LF) . He wrote, ‘A key aspect of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin is the fertile Hooghly river valley, where year-round multi-cropping is possible. This is because of the copious groundwater and the network of channels. Singur received special attention and it yields a rich harvest of foodgrains and vegetables. Industrialisation in the area would destroy this infrastructure…. A key aspect of the Ganga-Brahmaputra alluvial basin is the Hooghly river valley, capable of diversified multi-cropping the year round. This is because of the rich alluviation during the monsoons, the prolific groundwater and the network of channels. Cultivated with care, virtually every bit of this land is a veritable gold mine. In fact, massive investments of more than a thousand crore rupees for irrigation, canals (DVC network) and large and small borewells have been made. Singur received special attention and it yields a rich harvest of foodgrains and vegetables. A major industrial unit would destroy this infrastructure not only in Singur but all around, by the innumerable smaller units that are bound to be spawned.This would pollute the life-support system of water and air. Already the situation is threatening human survival. Fumes and emissions aggravate global warming, while toxic industrial wastes vitiate the land and the water resources. The Singur area is especially vulnerable because of its geo-hydrological situation. The subsurface formations are almost totally sandy. The rich topsoil is built by the prolonged interaction of biotic elements through cultivation, but not sealed off. This facilitates its transmission into the aquifers along the Hooghly basin. Further west, beyond the Rupnarayan river, the sediments from the Chotanagpur plateau are more consolidated with the surface formations not permitting direct infiltration. This makes the belt near Kharagpur (with adequate access and infrastructure) more suitable, from the pollution point of view. In fact, ventures may be considered west of the Hooghly alluvial basin… Any project or a Special Economic Zone taken up on a food-producing piece of land would thus be suicidal.’
Subratada was very close to both LF government and CPI(M) leadership. He was on deputation from the GSI to the Government of West Bengal as director, Land Use Board and was a member of Tripura State Planning Board. He was president, All India People’s Science Congress, a pro-CPI(M) front. But his disillusionment with the CPI(M) began in the very-late 1990s.
There is an axiomatic perception that the CPI(M) was unflinchingly committed to ‘Operation Barga’ (‘legally empowering the rural sharecroppers (dubbed as “bargadars”) by virtue of a series of deft amendments aimed to ameliorate the dubious land tenancy norms in place at that point of time’. An eclectic demystification of Operation Barga –  Srinjoy Ganguly IIM Ahmedabad- http://plpr-association.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2015_PLPR_SARC_Ganguly.pdf, accessed on 29 May 2021)
OB was implemented with a gusto between 1978 and 1981 when Benoy Krishna Chowdhury (later a PB member of CPI-M) was the land reform minister and LR commissioner was Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, the architect of OB. During these years, over 9.5 lakhs of Bargadars were recorded, but in three decades thereafter, not even 1.5 lakhs were recorded. Bandyopadhyay who became a member of Rajya Sabha (upper house of Indian parliament)  as a nominee of Trinamool Congress was disillusioned with the LF government in the late 1980s. ‘Operation Barga programme was terminated in 1981’ ( Debabrata Bandyopadhay, ‘Paschimbanger Bhoomi Byabostha Samparhe Kayekti Katha – A few words about agrarian system of West Bengal, Parikatha, Dec 20),  The article briefly traced how the promised agrarian transformation was reversed from within the leaders of CPI(M).
The final blow to sharecroppers  came in 2002 at the W Bengal state party conference. The political-organizational report (not published and made available until 2008) stated that the peasant front and party leadership thought that ‘due to infiltration of capitalism in agriculture, it is bound to be a thing of the past…. Hence, we have to return the barga-lands to the owners with mutually agreed upon compensation. Alternatively, bargadars could purchase them…. The local units of Krishak Sabha will help in this’ – as if capitalism  in agriculture didn’t begin in West Bengal in the 1970s. This was missed by all commentators excepting this scribe.
The question coming up is whether the CPI(M) should be still called a communist party in the Leninist-Stalinist sense.  I refrain from expressing my perception. But did the CPI(M) degenerate due to utter neglect of theoretical-ideological responsibilities? I strongly believe this is a congenital fault line. However, this needs another discourse as here the scope for it is severely limited.

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