Flying Here: the Red Flag, from Berlin to West Bengal
Can there be a more vivid panorama of the arc of the Communist movement than the view from the foundations where once stood the Nazi SS headquarters at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8? Before one’s eyes are photographs of men like the German Communist leader, Ernst Thälmann. He was arrested on March 3, 1933, a few weeks after Hitler came to power, taken to Albrecht-Strasse 8 and tortured. Never released, never formally tried, he was murdered in Buchenwald on August 18, 1944.
Looking at the big photo of Thälmann –one of scores posted along that block of German Communists and Socialists one can honor courage but also remember epic failures: the blunders of the Third Period, the defeat of the Popular Front in Spain where the German volunteers in the 11th Brigade of the International Brigades, named their unit for Thälmann when it was formed in 1936.
Raise your eyes from the line of photos and glance north and there, a few yards to the north is a stretch of the Berlin Wall, which ran a bit further west past Martin Gropius-Bau, a museum, then swung north along Ebert-Strasse, across Unter den Linden, leaving the Brandenberg Gate in East Berlin and the Reichstag in the West. Here, at the end of the 1980s , the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, the East German government threw in the towel. Soon most of the wall was rubble, along with –so it seemed –the movement that grew from the writings of Marx and Engels who both studied at Humboldt university, a few hundred yards eastward along Unter den Linden from the Brandenberg Gate. The other side of the street from the university, at a spot where the Nazis started burning books, there’s a big stone sculpture of volumes from the German canon. They include the anti-Semite Luther as well as Hegel and Goethe, but no Marx, no Engels.
Movements and political parties wither away when they lose touch with the onward march of history, barricade themselves behind dead ideas and policemen. Look now at a braver prospect that continues to unfold –as it did through the twilight and collapse of Communist Parties in the GDR and the Soviet Union –thousands of miles east of the old Prince-Albrecht-Strasse. In India, as in Latin America, the disastrous neoliberal years elicited retribution and victories for the Left. Whether these victories can launch a long-term counterattack is the great world story of our time.
Early this month a Left front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) swept West Bengal with a three-fourths majority, 233 seats out of 293 declared. It was the coalition’s biggest win since the heyday of the CPI (M)’s –hereinafter –land reforms in 1987, the Left’s seventh straight win in polling for West Bengal’s state legislature and the fifteenth straight victory (if you take elections to the central parliament from West Bengal into account) since the Left was voted into power in Bengal in 1977 and rammed through the most ambitious land reforms program India has seen, the reward for the Left in West Bengal being victory after victory in every election since. They have also smashed the Congress in every one of eight polls to the central parliament since 1977.
This time it was widely assumed in most of the Indian press that the benefits of land reform had run their course and the Left would be turned out. However, the CPIM-led Left has also managed to break into the urban middle classes and educated youth. So while keeping its rural base, it has actually added new voters.
In a country where every other type of government mostly fades after five years, the Left’s repeated victories in Bengal have surprised and irked the prfess, the vast bulk of which is of course anti-Left. Hence the imputation this time that those past victories at the polls were won by ‘scientific rigging’. This charge in the press was seized upon by the central Election Commission as an opportunity to conduct the 2006 polls in Bengal in five phases under unprecedented police control. All policemen working the polls were brought in from outside Bengal. All government officials manning the election posts were also brought in from outside the state. This time around no one could level a ballot-rigging against the Left which duly won with a much larger margin than in the last election, adding 40-plus seats to their previous tally.
There’s no precedent for such a triumph for the Left, in India or indeed anywhere for a state with a population of close to 100 million. Around 40 million people, close to 80 per cent of the electorate, voted in West Bengal to give the CPIM-led Left front this kind of win.
The Left has also swept the south-western state of Kerala, population of 32 million, with a three-fourths majority, the biggest Left victory ever in Kerala’s history. The Left Democratic Front won two-thirds of the seats, with the CPIM itself prevailing in 61 of the 98 seats secured by the alliance.
In Kerala, many of the top leaders of the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front) were steamrollered in constituencies they had dominated for decades. In the upland district of Wayanad, which I visited last year and where farmers have been driven to suicide amid the devastations of liberal "reforms", the Left front won all three seats for the first time in the history of Kerala.
Among the biggest losers in Kerala was the reactionary Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), with countless thousands of Muslims, especially young people and women, going against them this time. The League lost seats it’s held for decades. The Muslim minority knew a few things about the Left: in no state ruled by the Left, when the Left was in power, has there ever been a communal riot and attendant sectarian violence. They could compare that with the record of the Hindu- fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. Indian Muslims also protested in hundreds of thousands when George Bush showed up here this year. Again, they found the only political force doing the same was the Left. On Iran and Iraq where they see a Congress government fawning on the U.S.A., they find the Left restraining it. (In Kerala last year, on platforms with my friend, the journalist, P.Sainath and also member of parliament Veerendra Kumar I vividly remember addressing a big left meeting on the war in Iraq, organized by the radical bank clerks’ union in Kozikhode, where there was a conspicuous presence of prominent local Muslims in the front row.)
Besides, poor Muslims in Kerala have also being crushed by the agrarian crisis that also hurt thousands of small traders, many amongst them Muslims. All this reduced their normal suspicion of the "Godless Communists".
In short, in two states with a combined population of close to 130 million, the Left laid the Congress-led opposition low. The BJP was not even in the race.
In the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, in adjustment with the Dravia Maunnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Congress, the Left took 16 seats in the assembly, its best tally in memory. The party of Ms. Jayalalithaa, the former actress who was the state’s (appalling) chief minister was defeated.
In Assam, the Left opened its account for the first time, winning two seats.
Meanwhile, the Hindu-fundamentalist BJP has taken a thrashing. In four of these five states (or rather four states and one union territory of Pondicherry), it drew a blank, even though it was in alliance with the powerful Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. In Assam, it had even postured as a contender for power in the past five years. It went nowhere in the race there, now with only a handful of legislators in single digits. In Kerala, its vote share dropped dramatically as compared to the time of the 2004 parliamentary polls. In Tamil Nadu it has been wiped out.
The Congress has held on to Assam, with its seats and strength much reduced, though it has now managed to form a government by accepting as junior coalition partner the Bodo People’s Progressive Front (BPPF) — previously the separatist Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) –which won 11 seats in the elections.(The disbanded BLT, which fought for a homeland for Assam’s Bodo tribe was noted for blowing up trains, including one in 1999 that killed 33 passengers. But last year it signed a peace deal with New Delhi and joined mainstream politics, forming the BPPF.)
All in all, this has been a round of enormously significant polls in which the story has been the Left victory, thus strengthening the Left at the center as well, which means it can prod the Congress-led national government a little harder on issues ranging from policies affecting the poor, to Delhi’s ridiculous Iran policy.
India has a central (or federal) Parliament and legislatures or "Assemblies" in each state. In 2004, the elections to the central parliament, or Lok Sabha (House of the People), saw the unseating of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP, the Hindu fundamentalist/chauvinist force. It had been assumed in India and worldwide that the NDA, which had furthered the "reforms" agenda initiated by the Congress Party, would sweep the polls that year.
At the same time as the elections to the central parliament, voting for several state legislatures also took place. The most famous was the elections to the Andhra Pradesh legislature, which witnessed the immensely gratifying trouncing of "Reform" poster boy Chandrababu Naidu (not part of the NDA formally but a key ally who contested those polls in alliance with the BJP against a Congress Party,
It was widely assumed that Naidu, loved by Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, the World Bank, et al, would sweep back. Instead, he was humiliated and both in the Lok Sabha polls and in the state legislature, his Telugu Desam Party was annihilated.
So in 2004, riding on the huge anger of poor people and suffering farmers, the Congress came back into power –only to try and resume neoliberal reforms where the BJP-led NDA had Left off. This time, though, there was a problem. The Left had over 60 members in the central parliament and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) could not rule without their support. The Left compelled the UPA to draw up a National Common Minimum Program and declared that if the UPA stuck to this, there would be no major crisis and they would support the UPA even though this caused them problems in their home states and bases, where the main rival to the Left is not the BJP but the Congress. However, the Left takes a national view and realizes that the BJP’s Hindu Talibanism would wreck the country. So it swallowed its natural antipathy and made it possible for the Congress to rule at the center again, even though the UPA government would fall the day the Left withdraws support on a major issue.
This put the Left between a rock and a hard place. To keep the BJP’s crazies out, they had to support their main rival whose policies they abhorred. Realizing that the Left is trapped, the Congress has repeatedly violated the Common Minimum Program (to the extent it bothered itself with the program at all) and got down to the more important business of privatizing everything it could.
The major Indian national media, with the honorable exception of The Hindu and a handful of other papers, are overwhelmingly anti-Left. They made fools of themselves in 2004 when they predicted popular approval at the polls for the neoliberal reforms and were astounded when the opposite occurred. In 2006 they have made asses of themselves again. In West Bengal, they now offer the explanation that the latest CPIM victory is all due to the splendid personality of Buddhadev Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal, a man the elite see a great ‘reformer’, using the word to denote the imposition of the neoliberal agenda.
In fact the Left, in West Bengal and elsewhere, has always been pro-reforms, in a decent use of the word: land reform and labor reform. They believe these are a prerequisite to other kinds of reforms. Their position on foreign investment is not a regression to autarky. They favor it if it leads to more employment, adds to India’s technological base, does not undermine public interest and employment and if it’s in productive sectors and not merely an injection of hot money that will disappear at the drop of a hat.
The Left opposes privatization that simply means theft of public resources of the sort that Evo Morales has just reversed in the natural gas sector in Bolivia. In short, it’s against selling off the family silver, particularly profit-making public sector enterprises and public sector enterprises that may not immediately be making big bucks but which are capable of revival with a little investment. The Communists do emphasize trying to raise capital within India, do insist that loans from overseas with all sorts of unpleasant conditions attached to them, meekly rubber-stamped by the Congress Party are not okay with them, and so on.
The Left has led major agitations against privatization. On September 29, 2005, a Left-led strike swept through industrial units, banks, airports, and enterprises employing nearly 40 million workers. This was an explicit warning to the UPA against rampant privatization.
Despite this, the media pigeonholes such activity as mere ‘rhetoric’, blaring hopefully that ‘Buddha’ (Buddhadev, chief minister of Bengal) is a ‘reformer?’ and that this is why the Left won the elections this time around. This does not explain how the CPIM-led Left has won for 24 of 29 years without Buddha leading them, nor does it explain why the Great Reformer of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, bit the dust so badly in 2004. Buddhadev himself showed exasperation when reporters credited him alone for the victory of Bengal’s giant political force. "Try giving some credit to the people of Bengal," he said and added that they didn’t seem to understand how and why people support the Left.
In Kerala the Left is led by V.S. Achuthananda, a man dubbed as "anti-development’ and as a "Stalinist". So how come the same CPIM sweeps Bengal with a reformer and Kerala with a "Stalinist"? That’s why CPIM Secretary Prakash Karat dismissed a question on Bengal with "I don’t what this word ‘reforms’ means. Whose reforms? For whom?"
If an electorate as politically conscious as Bengal’s elects a communist party 30 years in a row, the CPIM must have got some things right, which it has –especially in the countryside.
Bengal has had a very different growth story from the rest of India. It is the fastest growing state economy –but the composition of its growth is very different from the other states . It is not driven by IT or services but by small producers, which means it has had greater equity in its growth. In fact, only Bengal seems to have bucked the trend on agricultural growth –which has been a horrifying disaster for all the so-called high growth states. For 11 years, Bengal’s agriculture growth has been way ahead of the stagnant national rate. Bengal saw land reform after the Left came to power in the late 1970s. When agricultural growth surges, many ordinary people do well. Bengal is the biggest producer of rice and vegetables in India and has been for a while.
Unsurprisingly, the Left’s astounding victories are causing dismay in the media. The more you talk about the triumphs of the Left, the more you have to talk about ‘them", the Left. And the media might even have to admit the Left’s take on ‘reforms’ strikes a mighty chord with vital sections of the public. They might have to admit that it has been Left politicians and organizers who have been talking about hunger, starvation, food security, neoliberal reforms, the agrarian crisis, the public sector, and against privatization. But then, getting into that highlights ‘their’ agenda for your audiences. So best say it was all due to a charismatic chief minister.
The triumphant Left coalitions now face appalling problems, starting with one pervasive all-India problem –unemployed youth in large numbers. Hence the zeal to industrialize and get them jobs. (Here, Bengal is different from Kerala in that it has been an industrial base right from colonial times.)
Two, in such zones as the tea gardens of Darjeeling or the pepper groves in Kerala, prices have tanked thanks to volatility in gobal marklets, as I saw in Wayanad, Kerala.
Three, many of the policy levers affecting the agrarian crisis in Bengal and Kerala are not in the hands of the states. Import duties, quantitative restrictions on agricultural imports, minimum price supports –all these are in central hands, i.e., the congress-led UPA government right now (earlier the BJP and before them, the Congress!).
Four, central governments have discriminated very severely against Bengal between 1977 and 2004; so central allocations for Bengal have been dismal. The much richer state of Maharashtra has the same population as Bengal, roughly, but always got much better treatment.
This means that for Bengal to raise capital, it has to walk a tightrope. Where can it go? On what conditions? How does it try and get national capitalists to invest? What will be the trade-offs? Thus far, they’ve walked that rope well. It will get more and more difficult.
At the same time as the Left coalitions clash with the center, they also have to keep the governing coalition in New Delhi afloat, or risk the return of the BJP , which would be a disaster . So not only neo-liberalism, but foreign policy (Iran and Iraq) will spark trouble.
Kerala faces an even bigger problem. The agrarian crisis is deadly in Wayanad and Iduuki, but quite a few people outside these regions do not understand it or its intensity. Kerala’s economy is even more intertwined with global currents and is getting shafted on coffee, pepper, tea, vanilla. As Sainath has described in his reports in The Hindu, pepper prices have slumped by over 70 per cent across the past few years. Vanilla has fared far, far worse. The coffee economy is in a shambles in a district where it occupies close to 70,000 hectares and has some 60,000 small growers. Reaching 130 rupees a kg a few years ago, the coffee price is now around 24 rupees a kg and sliding. The better grades of cardamom have seen prices dip by 75 per cent. Tea prices, too, have slumped. As Sainath writes, many plantation owners have simply walked away, deserting their workers. Hence the new trends in this long-time UDF bastion.
Kerala, in Sainath’s view, cannot follow the Bengal route. It’s a different state and economy. Giant industrialization won’t work and will prove damaging. The Left can at least will start undoing some of the damage that commercialization of education has done. We may see Kerala’s first communist education minister in many years.
In a nutshell, the problems are huge and complex. Where there is comprfehension of what has to be done –the tools of policy might not be in the Left’s hands. The Left can turn its stunning victories to long-term political advantage only if the proper lesson is drawn from the different outcomes: even in periods of fairly high economic growth, governments such as India’s present ruling coalition, kept in power by the Left, need to pay attention to the reality of mass deprivation and do something about it.
In West Bengal Hidai Sheikh, a fifty-year-old farmer, told a reporter from the bi-weekly Frontline , "the CPIM is the only viable alternative we have. After all, in times of need, they are always there beside us." The red flags I saw last year in villages in Wyanad are not antique emblems, like the bric-a-brac now on sale at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point in the old days between the Soviet and U.S. sectors of Berlin.. In political terms they are alive and vibrant.
Footnote: thanks to CounterPuncher P. Sainath’s indispensable inputs into this column, a much shorter version of which ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday. See also Vijay Prashad’s terrific column, The Indian Road, on this site on May 5.