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February 21, 2001
T V R Shenoy
Left behindSome scientists claim that life began with a single cell. Over the millennia it evolved into the giant reptiles called dinosaurs. Then a meteor struck Earth, and the dinosaurs simply could not evolve fast enough to cope with the changes caused by that cataclysm.
That, in a nutshell, is why many people often describe Indian Communists as 'dinosaurs'. The truth is that India's second-oldest political grouping ceased evolving a very long time ago. And now the meteors are coming...
To go back a little, the Communists were once a force to reckon with in states such as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar. But the CPI-M could not win a single seat to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha in the last assembly polls -- despite being allied with the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party. In Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu contemptuously described the Left as 'baggage', dropping them for an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Again, the polarisation in Bihar between Laloo Prasad Yadav and the National Democratic Alliance has squeezed the Communists out of their strongholds. And while the Communists boast of being the workers' party, they have vanished without a trace in industrial centres such as Kanpur and Bombay.
Let us be honest: West Bengal and Kerala are all that stand between the Marxists and the outer darkness. (Tripura is really too small to count for much.) Now, with assembly elections coming in both the Communist strongholds, it is time for an accounting. What has the Left achieved in both states?
In West Bengal, the chief achievement of the Left was to lift Jyoti Basu out of obscurity and propel him onto the national stage. Chief minister for almost a quarter of a century, the veteran's tenure will be remembered most for the time that he lasted in office. Industry deserted the state in droves, it will take another seven decades to get electricity into the villages of Bengal, and the rate of female illiteracy in rural areas is almost as bad as in Bihar. As for law and order, well, the pyres of Hemnagar have barely stopped burning.
But the myth persists that Jyoti Basu was a good administrator. Almost as successful as his son, Chandan, in the business world. Basu Jr has done rather well for himself, owning cars such as a Lexus and a Mercedes Benz. Of course, the final report on his acumen is still to be written; the word is that he owes a lot of money to various banks.
The Communist chief ,inister of Kerala, E K Nayanar, has not been half as 'successful' as his comrade in Calcutta. (I must note that Nayanar's progeny too has failed to rise to the heights achieved by Chandan Basu). The last decade was one where Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu stole the limelight from Maharashtra and Gujarat as economically advanced states; Kerala, under Nayanar's stewardship, failed to profit from liberalisation. Twice chief minister of Kerala, Nayanar is best known in the state for his 'colourful' language.
Nayanar's vulgar language has become something of an embarrassment for his own party. The Left Democratic Front is aware that it has an image problem on its hands. Compared to the squeaky clean A K Antony, Nayanar's blemishes are all too clear. The Congress leader is careful to keep a safe distance from people with an opulent lifestyle; nor is any member of his family rumoured to have profited from the association.
You can say much the same of the chief Opposition leader in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamul Congress chief does not own any Lexus or Mercedes Benz. She does not even travel in such expensive vehicles. Her house in Calcutta is simple and unpretentious, not to be compared in any way to Chandan Basu's mansion.
The Marxists' worries about the elections around the corner are reflected in two things: the foul language of the leadership and the foul behaviour of the rank and file. It was depressing, if not particularly surprising, to hear a veteran of Jyoti Basu's stature speak as Nayanar usually does. Mamata Banerjee is young enough to be his daughter, and to do her justice she has never attacked the former chief minister, merely his policies. We must not forget however that this is the same Jyoti Basu who once boasted that he was 'not a gentleman but a Marxist'.
The ugly language used by the Marxist authorities is a matter between the men themselves and their conscience. (If that is, Communists believe in so bourgeois a concept as a conscience!) The behaviour of the Communist cadre is, however, an issue that must be tackled forthwith. The open contempt for the law, while the police looks the other way, is an open scandal both in West Bengal and in Kerala.
I spoke earlier of Hemnagar. Everybody outside the CPI-M admits that murder was done in that small village near Midnapore. Yet, months after the event, the investigation is still to take off. What of Kerala? The attacks on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers continue without pause in Kannur. Now, we hear of the events in Nadapuram where the victims were all Muslims. (Nobody can say that the Marxist rule in Kerala has been anything but secular!)
Once upon a time, the Marxists would appeal to people in the name of some ideal or the other. That is simply not true any longer. Today, they speak of winning polls because of the excellence of their 'machinery'.
Of course, they have nothing left to fall back upon. When the first Lok Sabha opened in 1952, the main party in the Opposition was the CPI. Five years ago, a Marxist almost became prime minister. Today, they will be happy if they can retain two chief ministerships.
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