CPM’s Vajpayee? More like CPM’s Advani
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Surprise will be a constant if we carefully examine Basu's political-economic legacy in Bengal.
The first surprise for those who assess Basu on the basis of accumulated national chatter on the Bengal CPM is that he was actually a career moderate. It wasn't a hardliner Basu who, after 23 years as CM, picked a moderate Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as his successor. A moderate chose a moderate.
Basu's moderation was lost on the national audience because, till economic reforms changed the language of politics, the Bengal CPM could afford to advertise itself nationally solely through an aggressive exceptionalism. The Basu the national audience knew employed rhetoric like this: "Our objective is to raise (people's) political consciousness¿ so that they can¿ realize the alternative path which will free them from the shackles of capitalism¿". This was Bengal's CM, in the middle of his second term, discussing the state's industrial policy. Even in pre-reforms India, it sounded odd.
But during the same term, he also said, "People are feeling confident that more stress is being laid on the private sector — when well-known companies come in — it helps us." This was a language India could understand — the language of a moderate. Moderation didn't come as a price of power. It was always there. Recall that, in his first term, Basu had said, "Let capitalists understand us¿ we shall also try to appreciate their point of view".
As CM, Basu wanted to hand over Bengal's bankrupt Lily Biscuits Company to Britannia, an MNC. He wanted Bengal's public sector electronics venture (WEBEL) to have a joint venture with Phillips, another MNC. Bengal's businessmen would say they felt comfortable with Basu. Bengal's radical academia would disapprove of praise for him from such votaries of "monopoly international capital" as the Economist.
But in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, a communist CM from Bengal didn't face the growth competition pressure that made Basu's successor put such sentiments and efforts on the front burner for a national audience.
The second surprise follows from the first. Given that he was a staunch Left moderate, Basu should have governed as a de facto social democrat, stressing effective welfare provisions. He didn't.
The biggest scandal in 30-plus years of Left rule in Bengal (of which two-thirds saw Basu as CM) is not poor industrial progress but the fate of the aam aadmi. There are tons of statistics. A few will make the point.
A warning first. Whenever Bengal's data is assessed it is useful to remember Kolkata (Calcutta during Basu's days in office) is an outlier, being by Bengal's standards far richer and more modern than the rest of the state. To understand Bengal, one should look at its other 18 districts.
Consider, for instance, that Bengal's official Human Development Report estimates that over 78% of Purulia's population is below the poverty line. This is a shocking statistic for a state ruled for 20-plus years by a progressive moderate CM, whose policy centrepiece was agrarian change. Overall poverty levels in Bengal are better only compared to states like Bihar, UP, MP, Orissa and Jharkhand.
Bengal does poorly in schooling — its dropout rates for primary students are worse than all states save Bihar and some North-eastern states. Assam has more schools per lakh people. Himachal Pradesh has a better teacher-student ratio.
Nearly 48% of Bengal's poor don't have cards giving access to subsidized food. But nearly 44% of the non-poor have such cards. This is a classic example of a failing welfare state.
In the 1991-2001 decade, India urbanized at an unimpressive (given global standards) rate of 2.8 %. Except that Bengal was even more unimpressive, urbanizing at less than 2%.
The political-economic explanation for why Basu's Bengal (and Bhattacharjee's Bengal now, as well) was such a huge welfare state failure rests on CPM's political strategy: initially successful land reform and for-a-while robustly growing labour-intensive agriculture on small plots created a pro-CPM middle peasantry; that, combined with staggering institutional capture, kept CPM going electorally.
But that doesn't by itself explain why Basu as a moderate didn't see the need for real welfare provisions.
Basu's many obit writers, irrespective of their politics, refer to him as a tall and visionary leader who often seemed bigger than the party. CPM's Vajpayee, as it were.
Here's the third surprise: Basu was actually CPM's Advani. He had personality by the spades. But like Advani, Basu couldn't rise above the party. He didn't even try. He was very much a part of the party's political think tank that downgraded real welfare provisioning. He never seemed to recognise the limitations of the CPM-is-Bengal/Bengal-is-CPM mantra. Indeed, he was its showpiece.
Jyoti Basu could have reworked the Bengal CPM model. He had the political heft to do it. The final surprise: he never saw the need.
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