January 24, 2020
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Fading Red

Jyoti Basu completes 20 Years of uninterrupted rule on June 17. The Left Front can't be complacent-party discipline is cracking, the economy is shaky, the patriarch is ageing.

Fading Red
Its a simple thing-so hard o bring about.
- Bertolt Brecht on communism, quoted by CPI(M) organ 'Ganashakti' in its '95 calendar

JYOTI BASU is not known to blow his top often these days. But last fortnight, the octogenarian leader of the longest running democratically elected communist government in the world summoned two senior ministers squabbling over removal of billboards marring the Calcutta skyline and gave them a dressing down. " Everyday the newspapers are full of stories of ministers fighting/" he admonished them. "Please stop it, and ensure that the work is done."

After two decades at the helm of West Bengal's CPI(M)-led Left Front regime, Basu can take credit for a lot of achievements-the civic cleanups, surplus power, a flurry of investments and stability. But he is slowly realising how difficult it has become to govern one of the last bastions of communism.

The dream soured with the Soviet Union's fall which robbed his party of its ideological raison d'etre. Now Basu, centrist soul of his party, is discovering that his pragmatism isn't yielding dividends: the politicised government is slothful, the fabled party discipline is cracking, and cadres are resisting changes.

"Basu is presiding over chaos," says a top bureaucrat at Writers' Buildings, the colonial red brick headquarters of the government. A sample of bad omens in the run-up to the LF rule's 20th anniversary this week:

* Kalipada Sarkar, a CPI(M) councillor from North 24-Parganas is shot dead by miscreants inside a packed local train. The killing is attributed to party rivalry and the close links of a section of partymen with criminals . In Ashokenagar ,the place of the killings, four CPI(M) leaders have been killed in such clashes in the last six months.

*Even as Bengal is sold as an eldorado for investors, the Culcutta-based Paharpur Cooling Towers declares a lockout, and Bata India threatens to stop fresh investments in the state. Reason: labour trouble.

*Power minister Shankar Sen, a former VC of Jadavpur University credited with bolstering production, castigates state electricity board workers at a meeting and says: "SEB officers don't pay heed to me." The helpless minister is referring to shabby maintenance of power installations, rising incidents of power theft, and delay in sanctioning new connections. The bottomline , according to Sen: 37 industrial units are unable to start production because their applications for power connections are hanging fire.

These profiles in chaos exemplify that something is rotten in Basu's Bengal. A sorry comedown for the CPI(M) and Left allies which swept to power under Basu in 1977, offering a reformist alternative to the goonda raj of Siddhartha Shankar Ray's Congress. "Twenty years on, there are serious concerns about how things are progressing in Bengal, says political scientist Partha Chatterjee of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.

The CPI(M)'s greatest strengths which helped in bringing down the number of people below the poverty line--27.6 per cent today, down from 52.2 per cent in 1977--seem to be fraying at the edges. Sweeping land reforms which gave over a million sharecroppers the inheritable right to cultivate land in small holdings has possibly outlived its utility. The panchayat system instituted to devolve power to the rural poor has served some purpose, but is now largely controlled by rural middle and upper classes and reeks of corruption. So, the party's primary support base in the villages--74 per cent of the 68 million population of Bengal live in villages-doesn't look wear-and-tear free.

The dictatorship of the proletariat also looks like a far cry. The CPI(M)'s 1964 party programme talked about "the leadership of the working class of India, and its political party". Three decades on, ground realities are grim. The state accounts for Rs. 158 crore of the national provident fund default of Rs. 223 crore to workers. There are 15,000 provident fund and another 2,000 Employees State Insurance cases pending in courts. Several thousand haven't been paid gratuity. More than 10,000 labour compensation cases are hanging fire. "Labour is under attack," says Nabo Dutta of Nagarik Mancha, a Calcutta-based NGO monitoring labour and environment issues.

The picture isn't rosy in other sectors as well. There are some 54 lakh registered unemployed in the state today, up from 52 lakh two years ago. Hospitals and health centres are crumbling. Schools and colleges have been systematically politicised. Education minister Kanti Biswas admits that the government has not been able to set up a single primary school in the past 10 years. Despite surplus power, only 76.8 per cent of the villages have power against the national average of 86.4 per cent which puts the state in the same league as Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. "Infrastructure is collapsing and the work culture has been destroyed. The government shows no sense of direction at all," says Congress MLA Sougata Roy.

Bengal's much-hyped political stability is helped by the rag tag Opposition. But a disconcerting rise in the number of political clashes--507 last year against 394 in 1995--points to the simmering tension between the ruling party, its allies and its rivals.

IN the twilight of his career, these cannot be happy tidings for Basu. Part of the blame would definitely lie with him. Surrounded by frightened partymen, obsequious mandarins and intellectual flunkeys, the chief minister has seldom encouraged open debate about the government and the party. Allegations of high-handedness and corruption against son Chandan, and an assistant in his secretariat are the talk of the town, but have never been followed up. Frankness is not a hallmark of the effete administration-an anonymous questionnaire to West Bengal IAS officers some years ago revealed that 45.65 per cent of the respondents would not even respond to the question whether political pressure on officers had increased under the LF. A trenchant inner-party document by the CPI(M) Burdwan committee, which admitted that the government had "not been able to meet the aspirations of the people", was withdrawn hastily. "The CPI(M) has ceased to be a reformist party, much less a revolutionary one," says Dr Ross Mallick, a social scientist at the University of Cambridge who has studied the government.

How does it feel for Basu to preside over the metamorphosis of a state which enjoys an enviable measure of communal harmony and a total absence of caste politics? An apparatchik close to Basu admits the leader has grown "increasingly cynical" about the future of the state, and the country. He told another confidant that only a "change in the Constitution" could bring about radical changes-hinting perhaps at a change in the federal structure. A senior bureaucrat says Basu's patience during meetings with ministers and official is also wearing thin. "His meetings have turned really strange, he says. "Participants engage in dialogues, monologues and soliloquy among themselves. Basu sits easy in an almost Sphinx-like silence. Then suddenly, he'll wave his hand and say, 'OK then, the decision is made', and suddenly everybody will be looking at each other trying to figure out what the decision was."

Not surprisingly, such a cavalier attitude has led to a crisis of authority. It has also spawned a fix-it-yourself populism where ministers hog the limelight removing garbage, hawkers, hoards and illegal encroachments. Basu, the bhadralok who is more comfortable enjoying the choicest Scotch, is often a helpless spectator--"These days he often comes to know what's happening in the government, and who's fighting with whom through newspapers," says a bureaucrat.

In a state of reactionary communist leaders and Congress pygmies, Basu definitely stands tall. Bengali novelist Nabanita Dev Sen, who lived opposite Basu's old south Calcutta home, remembers seeing the leader washing his own clothes religiously every day after becoming the chief minister He's also a man of extraordinary manners: a bureaucrat who accompanied him on a holiday in the hills remembers that when there was a power cut in the circuit house where the leader put up, Basu did not fret or fume. "See whether you can get some lights," Basu told him after waiting in the dark for some time. Confidants say Basu is a lonely man, having lost most of his friends, including the former advocate general Snehangshu Acharya. "He does not have anybody to pour his heart out to," says a CPI(M) leader.

These days, say confidants, the Middle Temple barrister-tumed-pragmatic communist is helplessly hoping that things will improve. A Centre for Studies in Social Sciences survey has revealed that some 40 per cent of popular votes in Bengal have now moved to urban areas, having 80 to 100 of the 294 assembly constituencies. This possibly explains the cleanup drive in Calcutta. For a tamed, divided and coopted party the prognosis for CPI(M)'s future could be hardly bright. "The CPI(M) would not be destroyed, but would remain a regional party, communist only in name as an alternative party of the Bengali establishment," says Mallick, who's authored a scholarly study on the Left government. Not something which would make Basu happy.

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