Siddhartha Chatterjee
The Unstoppable Rise and Rise of Bengal’s Left
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

In the beginning there was only left….
“I still believe that there is no viable alternative to Left Front in Bengal today”, thundered a proud Marxist intellectual after Left Front won its mandate with an unexpectedly huge margin in 2006. Mamata Banerjee, the strongest rival of CPIM, bitterly complained about “scientific rigging” (booth capturing by CPIM thugs in the booths where they know rivals are stronger) or bullying and intimidation of CPIM goons. Election after election, we heard the same demands and same complaints. We never heard the criticism of economic policies, the disastrous political culture of strike and bandhs, the unproductive work culture that inspired more Cricket punditry than actual work and the trend of extreme violence in rural politics that resembles better with rural American west of nineteenth century than the rest of modern India. Today as I see Left Front unseated from their throne in West Bengal and Mamata Banerjee walking towards writers building with a confident majority, I realized that it is the left front that lost the right to govern, left is still in control, firmly. This is confusing, I am sure but I will explain.

Being a Bengali who spent most of his career outside Bengal, every now and then I faced this question: if the left is so bad, why are Bengalis keeping them in power for so long? Sometimes, it is harshly put: what is wrong with Bengal? Or at times, specially my Northy friends put it with a bit of a sarcasm: Something is wrong with the air and water of the state. These questions and comments are direct outcomes of the misunderstanding of Bengal’s cultural landscape and the unique political heat Bengalis were subjected to. More often than not, native Bengali commentariat is responsible for promoting this misunderstanding of the people from other state. Rest of this post tries to remove this veil and seeks to explain, in logical terms, why we Bengalis love and hate left so much. This post would also explain why I believe left is still in control and why it would take more than a generation of Bengalis to unseat the left.

A “harmless and humble” start
In 1920, two expat Bengalis – M N Roy and Abani Mukherji along with Ahemd Hasan and MS Siddiqi began Communist Party of India (CPI) in Tashkent of the former USSR. Hundreds of political parties by expats have been found in the west, very few made the kind of impact that CPI made in India and specially in Bengal. To understand how CPI grew in it’s early years, we have to understand the man named Manabendranath Roy a bit more. MN Roy came from a humble background of a poor village. A brilliant man but without much access to formal education, he taught Sanskrit and English to himself and went on to found first communist party outside Russia – Communist Party of Mexico in Paolo Alto in California. After spending few years in Tashkent and working under Lenin and earning the dubious distinction of being the first South East Asian enemy of Joseph Stalin thereafter, he came to India and found a like minded audience in mass leaders like Sri JL Nehru and Sri Subhas Chandra Bose. But it was not this connection that established CPI in India, it was a revolutionary organization called Anushilan Samiti that provided the much needed fertile soil.

Anushilan Samiti, largely inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s call for strong spine in Hindu community and helped by a growing sense of Indian identity among the affluent section of Bengali salaried class, is sort of a cross between a secret society, school to learn the forbidden art of bomb-making and social service organization. MN Roy, before he left India, was an enthusiastic member of Samiti and a strong believer in Sri Arobindo Ghosh’s (later Sri Arobindo) militant nationalism. By 1920, however, Samiti was struggling to remain relevant in the face of challenges like British crack down,condemnation of it’s violent ways by Gandhi-controlled Congress, loss of leaders like Sri Arobindo Ghosh and CR Das, it’s own infighting and competition with a splinter group named Jugantar.

MN Roy, in a bid to establish CPI in India, contacted his old comrades in Samiti. The new members of Anushilan Samiti, who found Gandhi’s non-violent ways as deplorable as British dominance in India, found the communism as new road that is dear to heart. British government initially condemned this development. By the end of the twenties, new reality dawned on them, writes Koenraad Elst (emphasis mine):

revolutionary prisoners were given Marxist literature, because the British knew that the Communists opposed terrorist violence and aimed for a mass uprising in the long term,thus leaving British (and other oppressors’) lives out of harm’s way until the time of the Revolution, which moreover might never materialize.

It is interesting to note that Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), that caused much heart-burn among leftist intellectuals (they are offended by it’s very existence) actually has it’s root in Anushilan Samiti. After all, the founder Guru, Dr. KB Hedgewar was a former member of Anushilan Samiti. But I digress.

In many ways, MN Roy was role model for an Indian from a humble background. The self-taught poor village boy who went on to rub shoulders with world leaders like Lenin and found admirers like Sri JL Nehru by sheer virtue of his reputation, went on to become Neville Chamberlain of Bengal who established the murderous Marxism on the face of Bengal. Much later, MN Roy renounced communism and became one of the most vocal critic of communism. Beyond Sitaram Goel, it is very difficult to find another anti-communist Indian writer with his clarity of thought. But, by then, even he was unable to control the impact of the dice he rolled.

First Bengal and later Punjab provided extremely fertile ground for cult of Marx. There are other states where communists established smaller groups. But how did Congress leadership viewed this new kid on the block? While Sri MK Gandhi was a believer of some form of socialism that would be the presumable outcome of non-violent struggle, both Sri Subhas Chandra Bose (as well as his brother Sri Sarat Bose) and Sri JL Nehru was clearly attracted by ideology. On the other hand, there were realists like Patel or Rajaji who were in complete disagreement with communism. Regardless, staunchly Gandhian part of Congress showed considerable hostility towards communists through their control of the mass media. Communists responded with equal hostility. Sri S A Dange, the founder of first Indian Marxist journal, published a pamphlet called “Gandhi Vs Lenin” with predictable bias. However, the result of this hostility was that Congress workers could never welcome Marxist workers on the ground although certain meeting of minds were grudgingly tolerated. Communists, however, was not really successful beyond factory workers and university campuses density of which was quiet high around Kolkata at that time.

In the forties, a direction less communist party allied itself with Muslim League which went on to establish the first government on the Bengal province. It was a choice that would cost Bengali Hindus very dearly. Sri Jyoti Basu, then the rising young leader of communists became part of Suhrawardy government. During the murderous days of “Ladke Lenge Pakistan”, my grand father witnessed how the Hindu neighborhoods were being burnt by Muslim mobs while Muslim ghettos were guarded by young secular Marxist leaders like Biman Bose (now one of the main leaders of CPIM in Bengal). After the deadly genocide of Noakhali, when Shyama Prasad Mookerji protested the inaction of Suhrwardy government in the parliament, it was communists along with Sri Jyoti Basu and Sri Sarat Bose of Congress who completely denied that genocide was going on. Communists went on to support partition and found that the support would eventually cost them dearly in electoral politics.

There is no God other than Marx
Communists did not get much chance to have a say in Bengal government before late sixties. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, a very capable administrator, sought to re-build West Bengal by building vast infrastructure and better job opportunities. After his death, Sri PC Sen took over the administration. But then CPI was broken in two parts in the beginning of war of 1962 with China.

The party was polarized into two factions – the left which supported China in the war and right which supported – hold your breath – former USSR. What has USSR got to do with 1964 war? Well, USSR supported India, communists could not bring themselves to support the lowly nationalists of India, could they? The faction led by Pramod Dashgupta, mentor of Jyoti Basu formed CPI (Marxist) and the other faction came to be known as CPI, later an ardent supporter Indira Gandhi’s every action including emergency.

Anyways faced with a food crisis, Sri Roy took measures which coupled with a corrupt public distribution system and politically powerful rich rice hoarders resulted into severe food crisis. It always amuses me how crisis after crisis bring left closer to power. In 1967, Congress lost power and a communist government led by a hapless Ajoy Mukherjee and Jyoti Basu came in power. In 1971, CPIM won the absolute majority for the first time (and the last time) but a nervous central government sacked the new government and imposed president’s rule. In 1972, Siddhartha Shankar Roy, one of Indira’s thugs, came to the power as a result of a heavily rigged election. Jyoti Basu even lost his own seat. It was a humiliation for which he never forgave Congress.

But beginning in 1972, he began to forge the very base of support that would sustain left’s 34 year long mis-adventure in statecraft. As a result of Bangladesh war, lakhs of refugees were living in camps near the border. Indira government found that the newly formed Bangladeshi government is unwilling to take them back. Fate of this largely Hindu refugees were hanging in balance. Communists gambled that these people would eventually be allowed to become citizen of India and proceeded to work among them. This turned out to be true and communists performed a great public relations coup de grace by successfully projecting that it was their effort that helped the refugees. The grateful former refugees who largely settled in southern Bengal became the biggest support base for the CPIM. There is a reason Sri Basu is greatly feared and respected among Indian politicians. There are politicians from Mayawati to Laluprasad and Karunanidhi to Omar Abdullah who run after one votebank or the other. But no-one other than Jyoti Basu manufactured a vote bank out of pure human misery.

The excesses of Roy’s government in handling the Naxalism movement, emergency and the refugee crisis resulting from creation of Bangladesh ended Roy’s tenure. Sri Basu, his able lieutenants and some small scale left parties along with old CPI stormed back to power in 1977 election. He learned to nurture his strong support base using government sops. It was under his direct leadership that India-Bangladesh border was transformed into a “melting” border. It is an open zone where people can simply walk into India, bribe Border Security Force, find the nearest CPIM office, give a fixed amount and get a ration card. Indian democracy, in it’s meager existence, never saw the bigger middle finger that the one Sri Basu and his cronies showed.

With much fanfare, Sri Basu and the comrades instituted “land reform” bill which also created large scale operations like “Operation Barga”. For various reasons I will describe later, the much hyped reforms failed to reduce any poverty. According to world bank data impact of land reforms on poverty is actually far less than compared to India where land reforms were not initiated in most states. This is not to say that I am against land reforms. British created a section of people called Zamindars (after 1947, the were called Jotedars) a great number of whom were debauch decadents enjoying life on the basis of government allocated hands and nominal effort. Such hedonistic groups thwart productivity and reduce competition in the economic fields. But the heavy handed and arbitrary manner the land reforms were carried out, the intended beneficiaries missed the benefit. I will come back to it later.

Sri Basu and his comrades went ahead with their own version of social engineering by creating three tiers of rural administration. In the process of implementing those novel ideas they also happened to find that loyalty is more important that integrity and skills and therefore, at some point, the continuously thinning line between party and administration disappeared and administration was “rescued” by the “the party”.

“The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions”
The merger of administration and party resulted in a thorough windfall of the “poor” mass leaders. Some supposedly homeless leaders managed to construct three stories houses, others managed to indulge in pro-poor initiatives such  as investing in places like Dubai/Singapore. Obviously the “reactionaries” would be disturbed in the heaven of the proletariat, but then there is a cost to looking after the poor peasants.The reactionaries would never get that.

One question then appears: what was the role of the opposition party, namely Congress? The truth is that Congress was mostly filled with Kolkata based leaders like Pranav Mukherjee who can not just organize a public campaign without help from the “high command”. The mass leaders of Congress from rural segment were mostly murdered during the rise of naxalism, those who took their place were petty thugs.

Ideology gave way to arrogance by the nineties and there are serious atrocities committed by the “comrades”. A poor laborer named Bhikahri Paswan was picked up from his residence and since then he could not be traced. His wife ran to courts to human rights commission, nothing happened. Then there was Vinod Mehta, deputy commissioner (Port), who was hacked to death in broad daylight in a place known to be safe heaven for certain “frustrated and angry” noble souls from our esteemed minority community. The main accused Idris Ali was killed in the police lock-up. A minister in Jyoti Basu cabinet was alleged to have masterminded Sri Mehta’s murder but we can not depend on such reactionary reactions, can we? Anita Dewan, a health care worker, was gang raped in a village near Kolkata, the sensitive main leader of proletariat shrugged and said <i>Emon to hoyei thake</i> (“such things happen”). Or when the massacre of Marichjhapi landed CPIM in hot soup, it’s pet intellectuals in the media and friends in human rights organization simply hushed it up. A Calcutta university professor named Manisha Mukherjee disappeared one fine day and she could not be traced after that. She was known to be close to one leader of the proletariat, but if the leaders could not take a little liberty with their relationship, how can they operate with the high stress of …well… being a leader?

Things began to take sinister turn when a small-time congress leader from south Kolkata began to agitate against perceived heavy handedness of CPIM. The leader, Mamata Banerjee was warned by state Congress leadership for she did not inform the Congress leadership before the agitation. Couple of bloody heads, even bloodier strikes and hospital visits later she became the symbol of everything anti-CPIM and anti-establishment. It has to be noted with interest that she used the same instruments left used: indiscriminate strikes, hyperbole, strong media support, her own brand of intellectuals. Eventually she was forced out of Congress and created her own political party. During the end of last century, her party became so popular and agitation against Sri Jyoti Basu was so strong that many feared CPIM will loose power.

Sri Basu, much to his credit and political acumen, realized that he and he alone has become the eye of the storm. The old fox showed how big of a politician he was when, just before election, he simply resigned from the post of chief minister and brought forth his deputy Sri Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a man with intellectual credential and impaccable personal honesty. His analysis that his party has not lost much of their image was proved right. CPIM managed to project that under the new leadership it is capable of creating a far less corrupt administration. Mamata Banerjee lost once again. As much as I detest Basu the human or Basu the chief minister, as a student of strategy I admire Basu the politician, one of the most original political strategist in modern India.

The problem was that Sri Bhattacharya was a better human than a politician. It was Buddhadeb who once walked out of cabinet meeting and then assembly house by calling it a cabinet of thieves. In an industry less state that was West Bengal, he sought to build industry. The plan was not necessarily bad but he failed to get the support of the party’s old guard. But then so did a lot of reformers. Narendra Modi, for example, lost the support of RSS/VHP/BJP leadership when he decided to break temples to make way for high roads. Where did he go wrong? Land is always a big issue in West Bengal. This does not mean that there is not enough land for the industry. Most of such land is under-developed and needs to be connected using better infrastructure but Sri Bhattacharya did not pay nay attention to this. The agitations of Singur and Nandigram are just recent to waste lines here. In other words, Sri Bhattacharya actually handed issues after issues to his political enemy who found them too lucrative to pass.

It has to be understood that the heavy handed way CPIM tried to hush up the agitations are the main reasons little debates turned into a massive agitation. A simple example would illustrate it. In the beginning there was a small scale agitation of the farmers who simply demanded to deal with the business house directly and get proper cost of their land. As usual the middle men found it a tad inconvenient. If proletariat are treated fairly in the heaven of the proletariat, then who would join the revolution? The agitation continued. The local CPM leadership tried to stop agitation by bringing in “non violent and law abiding” cadres (well, let us say that they have few arms for their protection) while police remained silent. During the agitation, a girl named Tapasi Malik was abducted, raped and her life-less body was thrown to the field. Her father was extremely involved in the agitation. Allegation and counter allegation continued. The pet intellectuals decided to rescue the leaders of the proletariat by making a drama about the dead girl and her alleged relationship with her father. If that was not taste-less enough they also produced forged CD to back up the allegation. Sounds like a B grade hindi movie of 1970? Well, then take this – it did not end in three hours.

Now that it ended.. what will happen?
As I said before, it is the left front that ended it’s run, not the left. Most people who surround Maomata today are old intellectuals of the left who switched over or the old bureaucrats (like Manish Gupta who defeated the Sri Bhattacharya in the election) who flourished under CPM rule. They may change the political loyalty, but not the mentality. She herself became a leader by accident. Apart from her mass agitation skills, she never displayed her skills in anything constructive (not that any other left leader ever did). She herself has this to say about left: “I respect left movement”. I see no reason to expect a big change in the way governance would be changed in west Bengal. Some cosmetic changes will be made, but that would not result into profound.

George Fernandaes, then NDA convener, made some noises against MNCs and illness that they would bring in this country. His main target was international cola producing farms. After NDA got the opportunity to form government, dear old George did an about turn and declared: “Coca-cola company has nothing to fear about.” If Maomata pulls a George on her unsuspecting supporters, I would be pleasantly surprised. But that, probably, would not happen.

In a future post, I would like to analyze the kind of quasi-legal quasi-government structure CPM created that helped it to survive the changing world for 34 years.