Merely the other face of Congress?: Probing the real motive behind the Left Front’s land reforms in West Bengal

By Krishanu Mandal. April 16 2010

I Introduction

It is well known that the non-left electoral political parties – Congress, BJP, Trinamool, etc. – represent the different faces and facets of the Indian ruling class: the coalition of dominant powers in non-urban areas maintaining a stranglehold on inputs for production (including, but not exclusively, land) and big capitalists most often acting as junior partners of multi-national imperialist capitalism. It is also well-known that these parties, in their interest, usually maintain some form of parliamentary institutions in India as flagrant doing away with that institution, as the lessons of the 1975 Emergency showed, can inconveniently accentuate the perception of oppression among a large section of the poor people. Since the ruling class more or less continue to maintain the game of parliamentary elections, in their play of this game the political parties use different strategies: direct semi-feudal or state-sponsored coercion, constructing and using patron-client relations and finally some populist ploys as well.

However, the revisionist left in India, CPIM being their largest and the most glaring star, are also very fond of this parliamentary game. The main reasons they vociferously put forward in defence of this fetish of theirs are that (a) the left should fully utilize the parliamentary institutions even to expose its shortcomings (as they never fail to pay lip service to some kind of nebulous “revolutionary” struggle to take place at some undefined future) and (b) by being within this parliamentary system they can utilize the system to provide partial relief to the oppressed classes. The example in support of the reason (b) that they quote most frequently (and almost incessantly) is that the continued hold on governmental power of a large coalition of the revisionist left in West Bengal, namely the Left Front Government, enabled them to facilitate large-scale land reform which has enriched and empowered a large section of the rural poor in West Bengal. Since `land to the tiller’ is conceived as one of the main programmatic tasks by the revolutionary left also, the land reform programme implemented under the rule of Left Front is also enshrined by the revisionist left as a shining example of their basic unwavering commitment to revolutionary ideology.

Some serious technical academic writings in Economics (e.g., Banerjee, Gertler and Ghatak (2002)) have established that indeed Operation Barga has been beneficial for a section of the rural poor. A recent such paper by two extremely well-known economists, Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mookherjee (Bardhan and Mookherjee (2010): available as: http://people.bu.edu/dilipm/publications/wbpelrefaerrevfinalsubrev.pdf) has analyzed a related interesting question: they tried to discover the real motivation of the Left Front behind its land-reform related attempts. The paper is considered to be a serious academic contribution: it is forthcoming in the American Economic Review.

Below we try to summarize this contribution of Bardhan and Mookherjee (often BM hereafter) from the perspective of an activist.

II The question asked in Bardhan-Mookherjee

At least two possible motivations for land reform are possible. It may be that the revisionist left are sincerely committed to the upliftment of the rural poor by land reform and that motivated them to do so. Else, it may also be that the promise/implementation of land reform merely acts as sops to the potential voters (to the extent democratic space, in the sense of mature western capitalism, has been existing in West Bengal). These underlying motivations are unobserved and unknown, but each of these motivations will lead to rational choice of different policies. These different policies will be reflected in different histories of patterns of intervention in land reform. Bardhan and Mookherjee observed and analyzed the history actually obtained in West Bengal and from that they tried to decipher, in a rigorous manner, what motivated the Left Front. The exercise is a non-trivial one. One can always say, based on sundry limited personal or anecdotal evidences, that this or that motivated certain actions (see Endnote 1), but to establish any such conjecture rigorously from the observed data on actual actions taken is quite non-trivial.

III The theoretical models and their predictions

If one admits that the voters can relatively freely exercise their right to vote, then there are two polar models in Economics to understand the policies adopted by rational political parties. The first one, which may be called the `ideological’ model, presupposes that a party is committed to certain ideological positions and roughly, it will rationally try to adopt a set of policies closest to their ideological positions: the party is motivated to do so. If this model is applicable to land reform implementation in rural West Bengal, then the volume and intensity of reform in a Gram Panchayat (often GP hereafter) area should increase as the Left front becomes stronger in such a Panchayat. The opposite model, which may be called the `opportunist’ model, presupposes that political parties are basically devoid of any strong ideological positions. Their only goal is to win elections (and possibly to get some additional gains from holding office). Under these circumstances, if the motivation of a party is merely to win elections and if attempts toward land-reform is costly for the elected officials, then, once CPM (say) becomes unassailably strong in a Gram Panchayat and loses the fear of losing an election, its effort toward land reform will, in fact, go down.

The raw data on the measure of land reform and the strength of the Left Front in GPs show exactly this feature! In GPs where the Left Front became sufficiently strong, the further increase in its strength in fact reduced land reform!

Thus, an indirect evidence is obtained that land reform was being used by CPM merely as a ploy for winning elections–that party had hardly any intrinsic ideological commitment toward it!!

However, to establish this rigorously some further subtle problems are to be tackled. Also, some background on the land reform attempts in West Bengal may be necessary to understand the findings of BM.

IV The background: a quick summary

West Bengal comprises of 19 Districts. For administrative purposes, each District is divided into Sub-Divisions (except for Kolkata). These are, in turn, divided into urban areas, known as Municipalities, and Community Development Blocks (or simply known as Blocks). These Blocks consist of a number of rural areas governed by Gram Panchayats (GPs) and urban areas, known as Census Towns. Each such GP consists of 10 to 15 mouzas or villages. For election purposes each district is also divided into a number of State Legislative Assemblies and Lok Sabha constituencies. In effect, each person in a village elects officials for the GP, the State Assembly (MLAs) and the Lok Sabha (MPs) every five years.

Each GP is headed by the Pradhan. Each block has a Panchayat Samiti consisting of the Pradhans of the GPs and the MLA(s) of the Assembly constituencies within the block. Each Panchayat Samiti is headed by the Sabhadhipati who then represent the block (along with the MLAs) in the Zilla Parishad at the district level.

During the period under study by BM, 1974-1998, there were five GP elections (1978, 83, 88, 93, 98), five Assembly elections (1977, 82, 87, 91, 96) and six Lok Sabha elections (1980, 84, 89, 91, 96, 98) West Bengal Land Reforms Act was passed in 1971 and amended in 1972.

Land Reforms in West Bengal consisted of:

(i) appropriating excess land from large landholders (herafter, vesting)
(ii) distribution of vested lands in the form of land titles or pattas to landless households (herafter, titling); and possibly the most well-known of all–
(iii) tenancy registration programme called the Operation Barga. By registering the tenancy, tenancy became hereditary and eviction by landlords became a punishable offence. This programme also shifted the onus of proof of the identity of the actual tiller of a landholding onto the landlord.

It is worth recalling that in West Bengal, there was the infamous Congress government from 1972 till 1977 after which the Left Front formed the government and has continued to do so. In 1978 GP elections became compulsory. The GP officials became active and influencial in implementing land reform.

V: The analysis

a. The data:

Their analyses were at the level of villages. Although they used different sources to get the information relevant for their analysis, they mainly used data obtained by careful surveys conducted in 89 villages spread over 57 GPs in 15 districts. These villages were chosen in a scientifically acceptable way. Thus, the data they used to draw their conclusions should be above suspicion. The relevant period of study, as we mentioned, is the span of 1974-1998.

b. The findings: share of Left seats in GPs and land reform:

Using these data the authors sought to understand the nature of the impact of the increase in share of Left seats in a GP on the intensity of land reform. As we mentioned above, at a first glance, everybody should expect that with strength of the Left increasing in a GP, the degree of land reform should go up. But the data revealed anything but that. The observed pattern was that upto a point the degree of land reform indeed went up but as the Left grew stronger, the degree of land reform went down!! “…For the majority of the sample, higher Left control was associated, if at all, with less land reform”!

However, to understand the relation between the Left share of GP seats and land reform, some subtle theoretical problems arise. For example, it may be that some intrinsic characteristics of the villages chosen may have vitiated the analysis. Or, think of the following conceptual issue. Suppose in a GP area, most people are intrinsically fond of leftist politics (say, for sundry historical reasons). Then they are more likely to vote for the Left front and at the same time any GP official elected from such an area, being of leftist orientation, would seek to implement land reform enthusiastically. Thus, in the observed data we will see both a Left candidate winning as well as a higher degree of land reform in the area. But in such a scenario, to draw any conclusion naively from the observed data about how share of Left seats affects the degree of land reform would be erroneous. In their statistical analyes, the authors identified a number of such possible subtle issues and tried to take care of them scientifically.

The type of statistical analysis that measures the impact of the possible factors on some observed phenomenon is called `regression’. To take account of the subtle theoretical issues (a couple of which we mentioned above) the authors ran a series of sophisticated types of regression.

Finally by their analyses the authors conclude that “we find no evidence supporting the hypothesis that land reform implementation in West Bengal since the 1970s was driven simply by the extent of control exercised by the Left-front coalition over local governments, combined with a stronger ideological commitment among the Left front to implement land reform.” Rather, the motivation of these executives of the Left front seems to have been simply to win elections and possibly to enrich themselves by doing so!

VI Some other already known but startling features of this land reform

Apart from this main conclusion of theirs, devastating for the spokespersons of CPI(M) bragging of their pro-people ideological credentials, some other extremely illuminating features are mentioned in this analysis by BM. Many of these, though, are already known; but these are still worth mentioning given the ground level data collection ensured by the authors.

1. Most of the vesting of surplus land was done before 1978! The Left front had little to contribute in this regard.

2. The land area distributed was only about a third of the total land vested! That is, for some reason or other, two-thirds of the land held by the Government was not distributed at all!
This feature also nullifies the possible caveat that after the initial spate of land reform, there would not be much excess land left to be distributed and hence after the Left Front does come to power in a GP and implements some redistribution, the momentum of reform is bound to go down.In fact, the authors put forward an additional conjecture (which they have not pursued in a full-fledged manner though) that it may be possible that the GP officials keep a stock of vested land under their control which can be redistributed, little by little, possibly to bribe voters whenever their electoral prospects get inconvenient!

3. The village-level surveys revealed that “[some of the] elected officials have been exploiting undistributed vested lands for their personal benefit in various ways…For instance informal accounts allege that undistributed vested lands are used by GP officials to allocate select beneficiaries to cultivate on a temporary basis, as instruments of extending their political patronage”. Sometimes GP officials also “extract rents from the assigned cultivators”. These reveal yet another of the multifarious forms in which the local leaders of the Left Front have been exploiting the rural people (see also Endnote 2).

4. The efforts of land reform suddenly pick up in periods immediately preceding elections! This is yet another unambiguous evidence that the Left Front merely uses land reform as a temporary carrot to induce people to vote for them!

Endnotes:

[Endnote 1: For example, Saroj Giri, in a recent article (http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1897/), posited that the the poor and tribal people currently rebelling under the leadership of the revolutionary left have transformed themselves into conscious subjective forces of revolution. If this is true, indeed that is a remarkable phenomenon. However, to discern that with some scientific rigour is a non-trivial exercise. While Giri is effusive in his polemics he has hardly provided any credible proof supporting his enthusiastic assertion.]

[Endnote 2: CPM theoreticians, e.g., Prakash Karat in his recent speech at JNU in 2009 (http://www.pragoti.org/node/3685), regularly taunt the characterization of the Indian state by the revolutionary left. Perhaps Karat should take account of such ingeniously non-capitalist forms of exploitation devised and perpetrated by his own party-people within a formally capitalist framework. Similarly, often merely some formal features of Indian agrarian economy are invoked to characterize the production relations in Indian agriculture without, at least, going deeper into the entire operational structure of exploitation and the actual labour processes (a recent glaring example being Basole and Basu (2009) (available at http://sanhati.com/non-excerpted/1506/) where the authors jump to characterize the Indian agrarian structure as predominantly capitalist based on their summary of some aggregate statistics on some formal categories of Indian agrarian economy). The prevalence of the kind of exploitation described above shows the misleading nature of such analyses.]