Singur and the Official Left’s Crisis in India

Pratyush Chandra

The Singur events are signs of a crisis borne out of a disjuncture between the Left Front’s pragmatic policies and the legacy of the movement and class interests that empowered it. For a long time, the open eruption of this crisis was evaded by the West Bengal government’s success in convincing its mass base of its ability to manoeuvre state apparatuses for small, yet continuous gains. It justified all its limitations and inefficacy by condemning the faulty centre-state relationship and a larger conspiracy to destabilise limited reformist gains – for instance, those from reforms in the Bargadari system.

The allegation of conspiracy seemed tangible only to the extent that parliamentary politics drives every opposition party to encash the difficulties incumbent governments face – by peddling popular grievances for advantages in electoral competition. This is the way a representative democracy disperses and defuses challenges to its stability. For illustration, one needs to just review the history of the exit-entry of governments and their economic policies over the past 20 years. There were economic grievances that contributed to the opposition’s success in destabilizing governments and forming alternative ones, yet there was a remarkable continuity in economic and financial policies. Because of the Indian State’s ability to contain popular opposition within the precincts of electoral democracy – the ritual of elections – it could evade any fundamental political economic crisis and did not have to deter from its neoliberal commitments.

Once the Left in West Bengal chose to play by the rules of parliamentary democracy, it faced the continuous threat of defeat in electoral competition. The internalisation of the need to evade this threat transformed its character, thus leading it to aspire beyond being a class party of workers and peasants. It had to become an all people’s party – a party that could internalise the dynamo of the status quo, negotiating between diverse, dynamic and antagonistic interests. In other parts of the country too the rise of coalition politics and the possibility of electing representatives decisively regimented the official left’s radical rhetoric.

A cosmetic radicalism though is advantageous in the states where it is the incumbent power. It can mobilise its traditional class base, by playing on victimhood, by ritualistic national strikes etc. The patent logic of the West Bengal government has been that in the absence of a friendly centre, it can do nothing but make the best out of the adverse conditions. Alongside, it has been increasingly using the threat of capital flight to justify its concurrence with the national economic policies.

Behind these usual mechanics of stabilizing its position in the representative democratic set-up resides an essential dilemma or crisis for the official left. The historical legacy of the peasants and workers’ movements that congealed its rule and continue to provide it stability has been both a boon and a bane. This has gravely severed its ability to use traditional means of state coercion for containing its mass base, forcing an informal accommodation or para-legalisation of the Left’s traditional mass organizations – their transformation into ideological state apparatuses. Herein lies the danger.

Once these organizations are identified with the officialdom, the grassroots are increasingly alienated and the scope for their independent assertion amplifies. In the history of Bengal’s left, this has happened many times – the most formidable one was definitely the Naxalbari movement. Another example was the self-organization of the Kanoria Jute Mill workers beyond bankrupt bureaucratic trade unionism in the mid-1990s. Singur is the latest case.

One can definitely question the motives of mainstream non-left political parties – like the Congress, Trinamool (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which compete with the Left Front to represent the interests of the neo-rich and landed gentry (which includes many absentee landowners) owning bigger portions of land, using ‘kishans’ – hired labours, bargadars, etc for cultivation. (EPW, Nov 18, 2006) This class, who the West Bengal government claims have consented to land alienation in Singur, joins such movements essentially to obtain various kinds of concessions – a higher price for giving up land to the State and perhaps also for increasing the price for future real estate speculation around the upcoming industrial belt. Moreover, until now the Left Front has succeeded in representing these class interests, which are the main offsprings of the limited agrarian and other economic reforms during its rule. But as opportunism is intrinsic to these interests, they are determined to utilise every available mechanism to gain concessions from the regime. Singur is a test case for the official Left’s pragmatism – being a local agency for reproducing the general conditions of capitalist accumulation, the Left Front government has to articulate larger neoliberal capitalist designs within the local hegemonic set-up, i.e., it will have to facilitate the representation of local hegemonies within “neoliberal state” apparatuses.

But there is a larger section of the landless, poor peasantry and those frequenting nearby towns for work; for them, the struggles like that of Singur are existential ones. There have been instances of reverse migration also with the closing down of traditional industries. These sections do not possess any faith in neoliberal industrialisation based on flexible, informal and mechanised labour processes. Recently in many parts of the country, these sections of rural poor have been the object and subject of radical mobilisations. It is the fear of their politicisation at the wake of its drive for competitive industrialisation, which is the real worry for the accommodated left in West Bengal, especially the CPM, which has traditionally resisted the mobilisation of the landless in the state, even by its own outfit.

However, the efficacy of capitalist parliamentarianism – the political arrangement suitable for the (post)modern “Eden of the innate rights of man” – lies in reducing class conflicts to lobby politics and competition for representation. Hence, the effective status quoist strategy would be to pose the systemic crisis merely as a temporary crisis of representation. The Left Front and the official opposition in the form of Trinamool and other mainstream parliamentary parties are effectively cooperating in this task. Efforts in this regard include the way the Singur struggle is being projected in corporate media and in political statements – as a Mamata-Buddhadeb tussle or even as manipulation by rival corporate interests etc. In order to make this strategy vital, the interests (rentier, concessionary or compensational) of local hegemonic classes need to be posed as universal and representative. This could happen only by subjugating the existential, need-based interests of rural poor and proletarians – these interests question the very logic of development within capitalism. Thus their subjugation through within-the-system representation effectively counters whatever counter-hegemonic potential such struggles have. The attempt to reduce the whole struggle to the issues of compensation and other kinds of concessions is part of this strategy. This allows an escape route for both the government and the official opposition – so that symbolic gestures negotiated between these parties can be posed as successes, which can be eventually played as trump cards in electoral competition.

Only the liberation of local struggles from such accommodation can decisively shape the continuity and effectiveness of counter-hegemonic mobilisations and struggles. But this requires radical segments within these struggles not to fall for the cosiness of politics based on vertically homogenised interests, as by default they are hegemonic.

This article has been published in a modified form in The Times of India, December 28, 2006 under the title, The Lost Left.

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