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The CPI-M Old Guard is right
May 16, 2003
The pressures of a deadline can do funny things to a journalist's judgment.
In 1919, a young American diplomat called William Bullitt was sent to Russia on a fact-finding mission. Accompanying him was the highly regarded investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, who returned making the famous proclamation, "I have seen the future and it works!" Steffens never explained how he had reached this conclusion after barely a week in Moscow (much of it spent eating caviar and watching the opera from the tsar's box as Lenin's guest).
In the event, history proved him wrong.
Communism does not work. It never has, in any time or any place.
You may well ask, then, how Communists have succeeded in clinging on to power. Haven't they won election after election?
Frankly, most of these are as farcical as those ridiculous polls last year that confirmed 'President' Musharraf in Pakistan or supposedly testified to the Iraqi people's faith in Saddam Hussein. Or, as in China and in Castro's Cuba, there could be just one party on the ballot sheet. And then, of course, there is terror, pure and simple -- as we have just witnessed in West Bengal.
The newspapers on Tuesday morning were full of the 29 persons killed in Riyadh, the act of a madman belonging to Al Qaeda. Somehow, it seems to have escaped the media's attention that at least 26 men have died in clashes due to the panchayat elections in West Bengal. (The local authorities say the toll is 'only' 20.) But the fact remains that the persons who died in West Bengal were just as much murder victims as those in Saudi Arabia. And just as Al Qaeda cares little for the lives of fellow Arabs who fall when American installations are attacked, so too has Big Brother CPI-M ceased to be concerned about its fellows in the Left Front.
Mamata Banerjee has long been talking about the reign of terror unleashed by Marxist cadres before any poll, but the lady is such a maverick that nobody takes her too seriously. The first indication that she was frighteningly correct came when Tapan Sikdar -- one of the two BJP Lok Sabha members from West Bengal and a member of the Vajpayee ministry -- was attacked as he was campaigning. But worse was to come when Amar Chowdhary was hounded by CPI-M goons. Why? Because he happens to be a minister in the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya ministry. His sin was that he belongs to the RSP rather than to the Marxists proper.
The opposition says all this was deliberate rather than something that occurred in the heat of the moment. Some allege that three Marxist ministers were involved in violent incidents, leading the packs from the safety of their official cars. One, it is said, went to the extent of capturing 40 polling booths -- all to defeat a fellow Socialist party! I have no idea how much of this is true; it is a fact, however, that the owner of the house where poor Amar Chowdhary took refuge was himself attacked in turn, which suggests that there was an element of cold-blooded intimidation.
Where will this cycle -- for the other parties are sure to strike back -- of violence end? I suspect that it will finish with a civil war within the CPI-M itself.
Stray hints dropped by Marxists from Kerala speak of a rift within the West Bengal unit of the party. There is a Jyoti Basu wing, the 'Old Guard', and there is a new and untested Buddhadeb Bhattacharya faction. ('Faction' may be too strong a word for something that is still little more than stray individuals.) The new chief minister has been making a conscious effort to cleanse the party; he has already had some success in replacing bureaucrats compromised by their proximity to the old regime. If I have understood the situation correctly, the Old Guard is now fighting back, and the violence in the panchayat polls could be just another desperate ploy to sully the chief minister.
If this analysis is correct, it is both good and bad. The good news is that the winds of reform have begun to blow even through the musty attics of the CPI-M. The bad news is that it will take some time to run before the bloodshed ends, and that means more innocent lives will be lost as they come into the crossfire.
True or not, however, the fact remains that the Marxists no longer have any genuinely revolutionary ideas -- such as the first Jyoti Basu ministry's land reforms -- with which to inspire the people. The best that even Buddhadeb Bhattacharya offers is tinkering with the status quo.
He may be the Gorbachev of West Bengal -- and may just take down the party with him. The Old Guard is right, you cannot reform Communism, it is a theology that must be accepted or rejected in its totality.
And as the voters of Bengal are discovering, there are risks both in swallowing it or spitting it out.
T V R Shenoy