We must not lose what we have achieved through economic reform. But it is equally true that the next phase of economic growth is going to be impossible without a far greater commitment to equity and social change.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has buried the ghost that hovered over Jyoti Basu’s table for two decades — that his remarkable run of victories was tainted by rigging. It was an easy accusation to make, and an easier one to believe outside Bengal, precisely because India had never witnessed anything like the democratic miracle engineered by Basu and the CPI(M). The facts of course did not quite justify the accusation. Marxist support was anchored in solid economic benefits for the underprivileged, and lifted by the unique charisma of Jyoti Basu, a charisma that magnetised the Bengali voter. But it was the only accusation that a hapless, and then a hopeless, Opposition could make.
This charge was essential to the self-esteem, and therefore survival, of the Congress and its truculent child, the Trinamul. Without self-esteem you cannot offer hope; without hope, you cannot have a cadre. Mamata Banerjee can sustain her individual self on a diet of negative and near-hysterical cacophony. But why should the young, or even the old, person in search of a political career invest in her if all she can offer is forty years in the wilderness?
It is a fair bet that, after Moses, the Congress family in Bengal is the only leadership that offers forty years in the wilderness and hopes to survive. The journey to nowhere began in 1977. For 29 years the Congress family has been staring at a lost horizon. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has now set course for at least another eleven years. We shall check horizons again after the elections of 2016.
And Buddhadeb Babu has done it in style. The Election Commission pulled out all the stops in its determination to prevent any rigging. This election was as clean as it gets. The results were as overwhelmingly one-sided as possible. The difference was so huge that even the opinion polls could not get it wrong. Every government tries to use state machinery to its advantage, but no government has been able to change the course of a tide.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s great achievement is that he corrected the course of the tide when he found that it just might go the other way, and set about this task almost from the moment he inherited Basu’s extraordinary legacy. He introduced the dialectic of change into Marxist terminology. Like any Marxist, he is a child of ideology, but he rescued dogma from dogmatism.
He was ahead of the youth curve.
The biggest danger for any establishment is to run adrift of the shifting perception of the young. Every generation rewrites the rules of economic aspiration, within the context of new technology and emerging opportunity. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee saw the future in the Chinese model, but not quite in the way we imagine. There was a subtle variation, even as he understood that Communism had to integrate with market forces. He realised that the Chinese Communist Party could survive a Tiananmen Square because the system was essentially despotic. But in a democracy such an upsurge would have been sufficient to unseat a government in the subsequent election. His responsibility and challenge therefore was to prevent disillusionment, and ease the anger of the young before it erupted.
He did not succeed in isolation, as is sometimes made out to be. He was not a voice outside the party’s Politburo. The CPI(M) is now led by younger men and women with a vested interest in the future. And they are going to find that future with the steely determination of the generation that has provided them with an invaluable legacy. Till yesterday, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was a chief minister of Bengal. Today he has become a leader of his people.
Obviously he has been helped by the fact that the Trinamul and Congress had nothing to offer except emotional, non-intellectual and often unintelligible mishmash. Mamata Banerjee is the headmistress of the tired school of clichés. She confuses street theatre with politics. Bengalis may love jatra but they don’t vote for drama queens. And as drama queens go, Mamata Banerjee is no Suchitra Sen.
But she also emerges from a political tradition in Bengal. Marxist historians must never forget to thank three Bengalis for the rise of the CPI(M): P.C. Sen, Ajoy Mukherjee and Pranab Mukherjee. Sen was Congress chief minister after Dr B.C. Roy, and led his party to defeat almost as surely as Dr Roy led his party to victory. Sen fell in the elections of 1967 to a United Front crafted by Ajoy Mukherjee, the ageing Congress rebel, Pranab Mukherjee, the rising young tactician, and Jyoti Basu. (Pranab Mukherjee is an ageing tactician now, but still a tactician.)
1967 marked the beginning of a decade of struggle and trial for the Marxists: through the fires of Naxalite havoc, Congress repression in the state and then the nationwide Emergency. In 1977 the Emergency was lifted and the mood of the north was passionately anti-Congress. Sen, now leader of the Janata Dal, did the Marxists an unparalleled favour. Basu offered an alliance. Sen arrogantly rejected it. The Left Front swept to power in 1977 in Bengal. No one has discovered the means to remove it in three decades.
A historic blunder (the phrase is Jyoti Basu’s) in 1997 prevented the Marxists from taking a quantum leap forward in their political evolution. The CPI(M) Politburo prevented Jyoti Basu from leading a coalition and becoming the first Marxist Prime Minister of India. No party has used power to expand its base better than the CPI(M). Today, the Marxists have been restricted to two and a half fortresses (Tripura would be the half), and only one of those fortresses is under permanent possession (Bengal). With Jyoti Basu in Delhi, the party would have had a unique chance to take its message, as well as its management style, across the country. The results might not have been immediate, but they would have come.
A decade has passed since that historic blunder, and generations have changed. Can Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prakash Karat reverse that blunder?
They have one great advantage, which was not so evident a decade earlier. When Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh ushered in economic reforms in 1991, they promised emancipation to all. Their work was carried forward by governments that were hostile to the Congress: the Vajpayee coalition was as committed to those reforms as its originators. In a sense, these policies were endorsed by a Right Coalition, which could have evolved into a Right Front. Fifteen years later, it is obvious to everyone but the blind that economic reforms have been only a partial success. The Maoist insurgency is violent evidence of the despair in the darker side of India — the moonlit India, as opposed to neon-lit India.
We must not lose what we have achieved through economic reform. But it is equally true that the next phase of economic growth is going to be impossible without a far greater commitment to equity and social change. If the first phase of economic growth was sustained by a Right Front, then the next phase will need a non-dogmatic Left Front in power. The poor will not wait much longer. If they are not included in rapid progress then they could even destroy what has been achieved.
The only political party with any credibility among the poor within the democratic ambience is the CPI(M). The Maoists are a splutter of anger, an important alarm bell, but they are not the solution to this growing problem. Their relevance is limited. The CPI(M) can seed a Left Front that re-establishes Delhi’s equation with India.
Step forward, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.