India’s Left Going the Lula Way?

March 21, 2007

Source : Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Dec 7 (IPS) – India’s mainstream Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), are getting into an ugly confrontation with civil society groups and classes that are part of their own core constituency in the state of West Bengal, which they have ruled for three long decades.

The present tussle is over the construction of an automobile factory at Singur village, 45 km from Kolkata (earlier spelt Calcutta), for which the Left Front government is procuring 998 acres of land from peasant farmers.

On one side of the divide stand the Left Front and the Tatas, one of India’s largest business groups, which plans to manufacture small cars costing Rs 100,000 or 2,200 US dollars each at Singur. They are strongly backed by Indian and multinational corporations, for whom the Singur project is a litmus test of the West Bengal government’s commitment to promoting private business.

Arrayed on the other side are an assortment of political parties from the Left to the Right, and a broad spectrum of social activists, including the legendary anti-Narmada dam movement leader, Medha Patkar. The parties include the Far Left CPI (ML) and the Socialist Unity Centre of India, as well as the conservative Trinamool Congress which opposes the Left Front.

Opponents of the project say the Left Front is using repressive means to acquire land and has resorted to brutal police methods to prevent and punish popular protests. The Front’s leaders accuse the protestors of being in hand-in-glove with business houses hostile to the Tatas.

Matters came to a head last weekend when the protestors were arrested en masse and ejected from the site, around which the government has just finished erecting a 11 km perimeter fence.

Faced with the criticism that he is slavishly pro-Tata and dead-set against even meeting the protestors, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that he is willing to discuss issues raised by the project with Medha Patkar, but on condition that she does not visit the project area.

This has enraged the project’s opponents, who are planning to hold demonstrations against the CPM in the national capital and express their solidarity with the Singur protestors.

Among the grievances that Singur’s peasant farmers have relates to the price being offered by the government for land, about Rs 800,000 (18,000 dollars)per acre. Many claim that this is only about one-fourth of the market price.

Nearly 30 percent of the land is highly fertile and annually cropped more than once. Its acquisition runs counter to the Left’s own demand that multi-cropped land must not be procured for industrial projects.

Besides, some of the affected people are tenant farmers or sharecroppers who are not registered with the government and therefore not entitled to any compensation for the land that may be sold by its legal owners.

“The Left is losing a good opportunity to put in place a model land procurement scheme, which not only pays handsome compensation to farmers, but also guides them on how to invest it in secure and sensible ways,” holds Anil Chaudhary, an activist with ‘INSAF’, a nationwide coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At stake in Singur are a series of larger issues too: relations between the parties comprising the Left Front and between them and civil society groups, the power balance between the Left parties and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which rules India’s national government, and finally, the orientation of the Indian Left as regards economic neo-liberalism or “free-market” ideology.

“I think the Left parties are following double standards,” Booker prize-winning novelist and social activist Arundhati Roy told IPS. “The CPM has been prominent in the World Social Forum process, including the India Social Forum held just three weeks ago in Delhi, which sharply attack neo-liberal policies. One consensual premise of the Forum is that there must be no forced acquisition of land and displacement of people for corporate projects. But the CPM is doing just that at Singur. This is simply unacceptable,” adds Roy.

Singur could well become a turning point for relations between the organised Left and civil society. Over the past decade or so, the two have closely cooperated in opposing neo-liberal policies and ethno-religious sectarian politics, especially of the pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party variety.

But if the West Bengal government persists with its present orientation or the “Singur paradigm”, a wide rift will open up between the Left Front and civil society activists. This is likely to lead to erosion of the intellectual and social reservoirs from which the Left draws its cadres.

No less important is the growing distance between the CPM and the other parties which comprise the Left Front, including the older but smaller Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and the Forward Bloc.

These three have expressed strong reservations about the Singur project. They are also more critical than the CPM of proposals to set up export-oriented Special Economic Zones in West Bengal, and the labour and pension policy changes the UPA government is pushing for.

The CPI in particular dismisses all talk of “pension reform”, towards which the CPM has a softer attitude. The CPM-controlled trade union federation, called Centre of Indian Trade Unions, is closer to the CPI in this regard.

“One of the great strengths of India’s organised Left is its unity and internal coherence,” says Amit Bhaduri, a social scientist who until recently taught economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently affiliated to the Council for Social Development here.

“It would be tragic if Left unity gets eroded because of differences over economic policies, especially in the three states (West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura) where the Front is in power,” adds Bhaduri.

When the Left came to power in West Bengal in 1977, it was expected to follow innovative policies in favour of the poor. It implemented land reforms, decentralised governance, and launched schemes to empower underprivileged people.

But in recent years, the pro-poor momentum has weakened and the Left parties’ electoral base, in particular the CPM’s, has shifted towards middle-class and elite layers.

Since the late 1990s, the Front has attracted private corporate investment in West Bengal, after two decades of stagnation. However, this has meant passively accepting the terms laid down by corporate capital.

Argues Bhaduri: “The Left, especially the CPM, seems to be buying into the neo-liberal logic, which allows the market to be organised and its rules set not by socially accountable institutions like elected governments, but by corporations. Once you accept that, you have few choices and little bargaining power. You end up obeying capital’s dictates. If you don’t, corporations will threaten to leave and invest elsewhere. You become their prisoner.”

“This is what happened in Brazil,” adds Bhaduri. “When Lula (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) became president thanks to the Workers’ Party’s popular mobilisation, he promised radical changes favouring workers and peasants. But soon, he fell into the neo-liberal trap. The Indian Left must avoid that course.”

Unless the Left corrects course on Singur and changes its general policy stance, its bargaining power vis-a-vis the ruling UPA will get weakened. The Left didn’t join the UPA government in 2004 but decided to support it from the outside because it didn’t want to lose its “distinct identity”.

The Left Front also wanted to influence the UPA to adopt progressive policies. This will become increasingly difficult if the Left itself is seen to be embracing free-market approaches.

Unlike communist parties elsewhere, India’s Left parties have survived the Soviet Union’s collapse remarkably well. They have grown in membership and prestige, especially in the past six to eight years and now have their highest parliamentary representation ever.

India’s Left parties provide critical outside support to the UPA government and therefore enjoy unprecedented clout in policy and decision-making. They risk losing these gains if they stick to the Singur paradigm.