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Why the Reds turn Green
October 13, 2005
What kind of a future does the mainstream Left (not the Naxalites) envisage for India?
Their long-term vision may be about a dictatorship of the proletariat. But, for the present, they seem to be opting for measures focussing on the countryside which have played a part in sustaining their base of support.
A hint of this approach can be discerned in the ruckus created in their solitary political bastion in the country -- West Bengal -- against the setting up of an industrial estate by an Indonesian multinational company.
Although the state's pro-reforms chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, is trying to sell this project, it has run into strong opposition from sections of his own party, the CPI-M, and from its allies -- the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc.
Their objection is that the industrial establishment will rob the peasants of fertile land. Although the few pro-reforms elements in the CPI-M have sarcastically said that industries cannot be built in the air, their opponents are not listening.
Instead, they are insisting that instead of inviting a foreign multinational, emphasis should be placed on developing the state's 'traditional' industries -- jute, tea and engineering.
Nothing is being said, of course, about how these industries were destroyed in the first place by the Left parties from the time they assumed power in the Sixties and Seventies through their violent trade union tactics.
In his zeal to reverse this process of West Bengal's virtual deindustrialisation, Bhattacharjee has been quite categorical in condemning such 'mistakes' of the past. But the point to note is that barring him and a few others in the party and the state government, the majority of the Communists are not only unrepentant about the earlier flight of capital from West Bengal and its reduction to an industrial wasteland, but are not hesitating in putting up roadblocks against fresh investment so that it remains in its present moribund industrial condition.
What their obdurate stand implies is that the Left's preference now is for an agricultural West Bengal instead of helping it to recover its position as a leading industrialised state, as in the past. Although the Marxist textbooks describe the working class as the vanguard of the revolution, West Bengal's experience seems to have made our homegrown reds turn green.
The Communists may have initially built their base in the state through industrial unrest, but, once in power, they began deriving their main political strength not from the cities and towns but the rural areas. It is the land reforms which they carried out by recognising the rights of the sharecroppers which has enabled them to preside over West Bengal's political destiny for nearly three decades.
In the process, however, they seem to have lost their interest in industry. If Bhattacharjee is now trying to turn his party's attention back to industrial development, the reason is that the land reforms have run their course and are no longer able to absorb the surplus labour in the countryside.
But the majority of the Comrades are not accepting this line for fear of alienating the peasants although it is hard to believe that the latter do not see the advantages of the employment opportunities provided by an industrial revival.
But there may be another reason for the Left's apprehensions. The industries of today are not like the 'traditional' enterprises of the past. Instead, they come accompanied by the hedonistic glitter of the market economy.
For instance, the Indonesian company, which wants to build an industrial estate in West Bengal, has also promised to set up shopping malls and amusement parks -- a part of the neo-liberal consumerist culture which has the potential of undermining the dreary, tension-ridden politics of the Communists.
Besides, the industries today are fully automated and do not provide much scope for high employment. They deny, therefore, any chance to the Comrades to mobilise large numbers of workers through the trade unions to serve as storm troopers for the Left parties.
It is precisely for this reason that the Communists once opposed the introduction of computers since this technological innovation reduced the work force. One can see, therefore, the reason for the Leftist preference for an agricultural state even if Marx decried the 'idiocy' of rural life.
The same anti-industrial attitude marks the attitude of the Left's celebrated fellow travellers like Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy and prominent social activist Medha Patkar. Both are against dams and hydel power stations which, according to Patkar, were being built to attain "huge targets for electricity supply based on consumption indicators dictated by Western standards'. She would apparently like a return to the romantic idyll of village homes lit by lanterns.
In opting for these bucolic models, the sole interest of the Left appears to be in maintaining its present vote bank of marginal peasant proprietors and sharecroppers with a firm tenure of the land they till. If a state's industrial advancement is stalled as a result, it doesn't seem to matter to the Comrades.
The same indifference to the damaging fallout of their status quo-ist policies also marks the Communist attitude to the legislation concerning the rights of tribals to forest land. The patent objective of the measure is to legalise the encroachments on wild life sanctuaries, which have occurred over the years to the detriment of tigers, elephants and other animals which require large uninhabited areas for their survival. The cut-off date for approving of the encroachments was fixed at 1980, but now the Comrades want it to be brought forward to 1993, converting even larger swathes of the reserved forests into villages, roads, schools, health centres, etc.
What is ironical is that all these efforts on behalf of the tribals may not win the Comrades and their backers at the Centre, the Congress, their votes at election time since it is the Hindutva lobby which has been working assiduously behind the scenes to secure the allegiance of the vanvasis (forest dwellers).