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Left in government

Print edition : Jun 02, 2006 T+T-
June 21, 1977: Jyoti Basu takes oath as Chief Minister.-MINATI CHOWDHURY

June 21, 1977: Jyoti Basu takes oath as Chief Minister.-MINATI CHOWDHURY

The Left is now placed in a happy transitional period when it can get the support of rural toilers and urban middle classes.

THE victory of the Left Front in West Bengal for a record seventh time should come as no surprise. It is based on solid and historic achievements. Before the Left Front came to power in 1977, West Bengal presented the picture of a State in prolonged decline. Once the centre of British power east of Suez, it had witnessed, over the half century before Independence, an absolute decline in agricultural production per capita, and an even steeper absolute decline in foodgrain production per capita. The demands of war finance superimposed on this had produced one of the worst famines in recorded history by 1943-44. Partition had only added to the burdens of a State whose peasantry's plight at Independence inspired the haunting short stories of Manik Bandyopadhyay.

Though the post-Independence years had witnessed some improvement to the situation, it was far from adequate. The deep-rooted and long-standing agrarian crisis continued. The State's traditional industries, tea and jute, originally owned by British managing agencies and subsequently taken over by mainly Marwari businessmen, faced inelastic world demand and bleak prospects overall. The engineering industry, which had come up mainly during the war years, received a jolt from the mid-1960s recession, from which it never really recovered. The freight equalisation scheme had hurt the State badly. The social crisis created by pervasive unemployment among the youth, refracted inter alia through the naxalite movement, was captured chillingly in artistic creations of the time, such as, for instance, Mrinal Sen's film Chorus. While a social revolution remained a distant dream, the way forward short of it was not clear. It appeared to be a society incapable as yet of making a leap, but lost without such a leap. And this turbulent stasis came increasingly to be sustained through the use of semi-fascist terror by the state machinery.

The remarkable turnaround in this situation which the Left Front achieved within a few years of assuming office in 1977 would appear unbelievable to anyone who had witnessed the earlier situation. Indeed the dynamics of that turnaround are still not very clear and require a substantial theoretical endeavour. There is only one thing, however, that can be said about it with certainty, namely, that at the core of it was the overcoming of the agrarian crisis.

Lord Cornwallis' Permanent Settlement had left two important legacies in Bengal's economy. First, since the revenue accruing to the colonial government was fixed, the rate of return to the government from any investment in irrigation was nil, or at any rate way below the minimum rate of return which the colonial government insisted on earning on all its investments. Hence Bengal saw very little irrigation investment in the colonial period. There was an additional reason for this: following the report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1926) a view had gained currency that the problem of Bengal agriculture arose from too much, rather than too little, water. This neglect of irrigation from the colonial period, though slightly reversed after Independence, continued to haunt West Bengal's agriculture.

Secondly, as is well known, the Permanent Settlement had spawned a large parasitic class of rent receivers living off a pauperised peasantry. At the very top were the zamindars; but between them and the cultivators were several layers of parasites, up to 27 in some places, which obviously discouraged any productive investment on land. Post-Independence land reforms had removed the top layer of zamindars but already by the time of Independence, as the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha had pointed out in its memorandum to the Floud Commission, a new and powerful class of intermediaries, the jotedars, had emerged, so that zamindari abolition, far from freeing the peasantry from the stranglehold of these parasites, had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the latter. The disincentives to productive investment on land therefore continued, as did the abysmal state of the cultivators.

The Left Front confronted both these constraints head on. Land reform measures, initiated by the short-lived United Front governments earlier, were carried forward, through the recording of sharecroppers under Operation Barga, through the conferring on them of rights to land, and through the distribution of ceiling-surplus land. This was followed by the setting up of an alternative institutional mechanism in the countryside, the panchayats, which not only entailed decentralisation of power and decision-making, but also provided an alternative to the traditional power-structure dominated by the jotedars. The balance of class forces was altered in the countryside in favour of the oppressed peasantry and against the jotedars, which, apart from strengthening democracy, also encouraged productive investment by the peasantry, and hence the development of the productive forces. At the same time there was a substantial step-up in public expenditure on rural development in general and on irrigation in particular. A sea change occurred in the cropping intensity and in the cropping pattern. Areas which for centuries had witnessed single cropping now started growing three crops. Local level plans began to be drawn up with the help of the democratically-elected representatives of the people serving on the panchayats.

Agricultural growth in West Bengal began to pick up. To some extent, even before the Left Front came to power, the potentials of, and the scope for, multiple cropping had become evident in small pockets in districts like Bardhaman and Birbhum, where potato and boro rice had been cultivated as a third crop, in addition to the aman and the aus. But what had remained confined to small pockets now became the common practice over large tracts of the State, so much so that in the decade of the 1980s West Bengal witnessed the highest rate of growth in agricultural production among all the States in the country. In the 1990s, the growth rate came down everywhere, a result inter alia of the neoliberal policies adopted by the Centre which squeezed the peasantry even as they forced a curtailment of public investment in rural development. Even so, among the States, West Bengal continues to be a high performer.

Rapid agricultural growth, together with increased government expenditure in the countryside, enlarged the rural market in the State, both for foodgrains and for a variety of simple industrial goods. It is interesting that among all the States in India, West Bengal and Kerala were the only two that witnessed a steady increase in the per capita cereal consumption by the rural population in the 1980s and the 1990s (It is not yet clear if, in the first five years of this century, as the effects of the neoliberal policies of the Central government have begun to make themselves felt, and the public distribution system has begun to be whittled down, these two States have succeeded in sustaining their remarkable record).

The increased demand for simple industrial goods in the countryside brought about a remarkable "industrialisation from below" in West Bengal, with substantial employment effects, whose reach and significance have been inadequately appreciated till now. And with rising incomes, the State government's revenues also rose, making possible enhanced social sector expenditures, and a general improvement in the quality of life of the people, at least until the Centre's neoliberal policies started hurting the State.

The peasantry and agricultural labourers have long memories, and they constitute the solid rural base of the Left which has remained consistently loyal. In addition, an urban middle class support base for the Left has developed of late. There is a certain tension between these two support bases which the Left will have to face in the coming years, but the results of the present elections are so overwhelmingly favourable to the Left because it is placed in that happy transitional period when it can get the support of both these segments.

This is precisely the time to anticipate some of the emerging contradictions. The urban middle class in West Bengal, like elsewhere in the country, has come off rather better than other strata from the neoliberal era, and would assertively demand the fulfillment of its aspirations.

Such fulfilment, however, is likely to impinge adversely on the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the rural poor. Its demand for shopping malls could ruin petty traders. Its demand for infrastructure like roads and bypasses, necessary in view of the growing number of cars, could entail encroachment on agricultural land. And its demand for housing complexes and amusement parks could lead to dispossession of the peasantry. In densely populated West Bengal, "land-for-land" compensation would be difficult to organise, and "cash-for-land" is a poor substitute, apart from its adverse effect on agricultural production and employment.

But, in addition to these obvious conflicts, some of which are already visible, there is a more potent contradiction which acquires sharpness precisely because of the neoliberal dispensation.

As the tax-gross domestic product ratio of the Centre declined over the 1990s (the States did much better in this regard), the Centre not only cut back its own expenditure, especially rural development expenditure, but passed on the burden of its fiscal crisis to the shoulders of the State governments, through reduced transfers to the States and exorbitant interest rates (even exceeding the rate of growth of Net State Domestic Products) on its loans to the States. The States thus became the victims of this fiscal squeeze, and West Bengal was no exception. The Centre used this fiscal squeeze in turn to force the States to fall in line behind its pursuit of a neoliberal agenda.

While the West Bengal government resisted this coercion and was much more judicious in its policies in this new environment, it still bears the scar of that fiscal squeeze. In this context, if it is to maintain some decent level of social expenditure, it will have two obvious courses to choose from: one is to turn to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the DFID, or such like agencies, which in the long run (though perhaps not immediately) would entail compromising its basic principled positions; the other is to use the available fiscal space for raising more revenue which would have to come from the urban middle classes. The overall neoliberal dispensation in the country thus forces a sharpening of the contradiction between the urban middle classes and the basic classes of the Left (peasants and workers).

The Left in Kerala is also likely to face this same contradiction, if it is to eschew the temptation of following the short-term "soft" option, which the United Democratic Front had followed, of an ADB bailout. To be sure, the context in Kerala is different from West Bengal, as are the factors underlying the Left victory. Kerala has for long experienced slow growth in its material commodity producing sectors, but this has been counterbalanced by the massive inflows of remittances from the Gulf which have not only boosted incomes but provided whatever stimulus for growth there has been.

E.M.S. Namboodiripad had been much concerned about this: even as the world was celebrating the "Kerala model", he had been exercised over the State's low growth, as was evident at the first International Conference of Kerala Studies. It was in an effort to break this deadlock, to lift the constraint on the development of productive forces in Kerala, that he had launched the Peoples' Plan Campaign, which led to an unprecedented devolution of Plan funds to local bodies.

In fact, the growth rate of the Kerala economy did look up during the previous Left Democratic Front (LDF) government's tenure. In the late 1990s it was estimated to be the highest among the southern States. But the collapse of world agricultural prices, which started from 1996, hit Kerala hard, especially in a context where the Central government had withdrawn protection of the peasantry and gave up monopoly purchase of crops to allow private foreign companies.

Even though there has been an upturn in primary commodity prices of late, though not to the level prevailing earlier, Kerala's export crops continue to suffer. The collapse of incomes because of this, and because of its impact on the government's fisc, contrasts with certain islands of affluence sustained by the Gulf connection, and the sleaze that goes with such affluence. The Left's victory in Kerala can be attributed to the anger at this contrast and this sleaze. It is inter alia a response to the agrarian crisis.

It follows that the new LDF government, while providing succour to the peasantry, protecting traditional industries and sustaining the public distribution system, will have to mobilise resources for keeping up social sector expenditure and undertaking investment for enlarging the productive base, all of which may mean treading on the toes of the urban middle class. Euphoria over the Left's victory must not obscure the fact that whether in West Bengal or in Kerala, it has some very stiff tasks ahead of it, in the context of the current neoliberal dispensation, which it still does not have the political strength to roll back.

There is, however, one way in which the Left can keep faith with its basic classes without alienating the urban middle class that after all is a potential ally in the struggle against neoliberalism (when it gets hurt as it inevitably does, by such policies). In any system, especially in a neoliberal one, there is always a certain "slack", in the form of unutilised industrial capacity, unsold foodgrain stocks, unadopted innovations, and possible organisational changes with significant impact on potential output. This "slack" can be used to keep under control the contradictions that may emerge between the urban middle class and the basic classes of the Left. In other words, the problem mentioned above, where the Left is faced with a choice between ADB-World Bank style "reforms" (together with funding from these institutions) on the one hand, and having to squeeze the urban middle class on the other, may itself be kept in abeyance, without compromising the agenda of the Left, if the "slack" in the economy is used up (and ideological influence is used to keep the demands of the urban middle class in check).

Of course, the "slack" may not be existent to an adequate extent in the Left-ruled States themselves, but as long as it exists elsewhere the States can still benefit from it. For instance, the Employment Guarantee Scheme, for which the resources would come largely from the Centre, if implemented vigorously and scrupulously in the Left-ruled States, would provide succour to the rural poor, enlarge the rural market for simple goods and services, and hence carry forward the Left agenda.

In fact the Left presence in Parliament can be used to pressurise the Central government to enact legislation for relief to the poor. And the scrupulous implementation of such legislation in the Left-ruled States would enable the Left to keep faith with the people without exacerbating the contradictions between the different segments of its actual or potential support base. The Left, though faced with stiff tasks, can overcome them through imaginative handling of the contradictions, by searching out the "slack" in our economy, which can play the same role that oil prices have played in sustaining the Venezuelan revolution, and, through it, the other Latin American Left experiments.