There are few governments left claiming to be 'communist'. Two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, North Korea and Cuba come to mind. For some, even China and Vietnam remain in the communist fold, despite their capitalist aspirations. Few would realise that a handful of democratically-elected communist governments exist. Fewer still may know that two of these are state governments in India, a country glorified as the world's largest parliamentary democracy and, more recently, as an emerging giant of global capitalism.
But now the communists are in crisis. This is no insignificant matter. The southern state of Kerala has a population of over 33 million, while West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, Nepal and India's north-eastern states, is home to over 91 million people, more than Germany, Britain or Canada.
West Bengal's Left Front government, dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is on the verge of losing power in a state it has ruled continuously since 1977. At the 2009 national election, the CPI(M)'s share of the national parliament (Lok Sabha) fell from 43 to 16 seats. In June 2010, the Left Front's share of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation fell from 75 to 33 members. “This result leaves the rout of the Left Front in rural, semi-urban and urban Bengal virtually complete,” reported the Hindustan Times on 2 June. Instability in the state, and the threat of violence, has forced India's Electoral Commission to hold the upcoming election in six 'phases' over three weeks. This will form part of state assembly elections held in five Indian states between 4 April and 10 May.
Unless the communists somehow hang onto power, look out for a handful of triumphalist media reports that treat the election result as a lesson against state interference in markets. This might be predictable but it will miss the mark. Like many social-democratic parties across the world, the CPI(M)'s top leaders have assimilated the logic of neo-liberalism. In using this logic against many of its own supporters, the government has laid the basis for its electoral annihilation.
The Left Front swept to power in West Bengal in 1977 with the promise of land reform and village-level democracy. For years, the government seemed to bring stability.But it has found it increasingly difficult to reconcile its social-democratic ideals with India's gradual adoption of neo-liberal economic policies since the 1980s. The government objected to market-inspired policies formulated in New Delhi. This included opposition to privatisation, as well as to 'imperialist' policies like the 2005 deal to swap nuclear technology with the US. In contrast, and with no democratic debate, it adopted the idea that attracting private investment is the only way to develop West Bengal's economy. The Hindustan Times summed up this contradiction in its obituary to long-serving Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, on 17 January, 2010: “He was a Marxist to the core who was equally at home with bourgeois democracy and capitalist ideas”. While Kerala's communists have also followed this path, the brutal methods of their Bengali counterparts have taken things much further.
The results have been disastrous. In 2006, Basu's successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, won a tender for Tata Motors to build a new factory for the Nano, marketed as the world's cheapest car. The government used colonial-era legislation, the Land Acquisition Act 1894, to acquire a thousand acres of land around the town of Singur. But over 2000 landowners, covering about 400 acres, refused the government's paltry offer for compensation. In August 2008, protesters obstructed construction of the Nano factory. Two months later, billionaire chairman, Ratan Tata, announced the scrapping of the deal and the relocation of the factory to Gujarat in western India.
The government's barbaric handling of rural movements demanding land sovereignty has made things worse. In July 2006, it signed a deal with Indonesia's Salim Group to establish a chemical plant with the promise of tax breaks and subsidies. On 2 January, 2007, villagers in rural Nandigram were informed that 25,000 acres of land would be acquired for the plant. There was no consultation. A local movement emerged, digging up roads and destroying bridges to prevent police and party workers entering the area. In March 2007, police opened fired upon unarmed protesters. Officials admitted that at least 14 people were killed and hundreds injured. After the state forced its way back into local villages in November 2007, there have been numerous reports of arbitrary killings, rape and torture, with hundreds made homeless.
Further atrocities have been carried out in the village of Lalgarh in West Midnapur district. In November 2008, a landmine was detonated following a visit by Bhattacharya to inaugurate a steel plant, the first of its kind in the area. Police responded by raiding Lalgarh, claiming that villagers were harbouring Maoist insurgents responsible for the blast. In one incident, police entered Chhotopeliya village, beating locals, injuring 11 women and two schoolboys. One woman lost both her eyes, a pregnant woman was badly beaten and the local headmaster arrested and flogged.
There is no question that Maoists have participated in several confrontations. They have been known to 'take over' localised struggles and they operate in secret, militarised units that provoke additional trouble. It is a further indictment of the government that its policies have driven many locals into supporting these groups. Whether because of this support, or the fear of violence, voter turnout in Lalgarh was less than 13 percent at national elections in April 2009. There were many polling booths where no votes were cast.
The violence of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh has seen a backlash against communist rule. On 14 November, over 100,000 people marched in Kolkata against government atrocities. The main electoral beneficiary of the backlash has been the Trinamool Congress, a West Bengal-based breakaway from the main Congress party, which is well-placed to lead the new government.
So watch out for media reports celebrating the end of communist rule in one of its last strongholds. Despite the likely fanfare, the crisis of the left in India has little to do with excessive state intervention. As elsewhere, the real story is a social-democratic government uncritically adopting the neo-liberal perspective. In West Bengal, this logic has been used to attack some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in Indian society.
Tom Barnes teaches in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His research concerns the political economy of development, with a special interest in India. His doctorate focussed on the relationship between India's economic development and the growth of its informal economy.