India - The communist parties' long walk to reformism (2)

Jan/Mar 2012

In the first part of this article (Class Struggle issue #93 - October 2011), we described the beginning of the political deterioration of Communist Party of India (CPI), the party which had been originally built by the Indian communist activists, through their intervention in the struggles of the working class and poor masses, often in the most difficult conditions. The second and last part of this article retraces the final stages of the degeneration of a communist movement which nevertheless still remains one of the world's most numerous - and potentially powerful.

By the time the CPI was split by factional rivalries in its leadership, in 1964, neither of the two resulting communist parties - the maintained CPI and the CPI(Marxist) - retained much of the political tradition which the movement's founding fathers had fought to build.

As we saw previously, the initial justifications for this split (the Sino-Soviet conflict, Moscow's "revisionism", the Indo-Chinese war, etc.) were just that - justifications - at least for the leaderships of the two parties. Of course, with the passage of time, these alleged "ideological" differences were to disappear into thin air, especially after the readmission of China to the imperialist fold and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Despite the more radical-sounding rhetoric sometimes used by the CPI(M), the two parties shared the same political agenda - their only perspective was that they should be co-opted by the Indian bourgeoisie into the institutions of its state, just like any "normal" political party. The only differences between them were over the best tactics to use in order to achieve this objective - whether it should involve operating in the shadow of the Nehru's Indian National Congress (INC), as the CPI argued under Moscow's instruction, or by forming electoral coalitions with whomever was willing to challenge the INC's rule, as the CPI(M) leaders argued.

Ironically, however, even these tactical differences soon became increasingly blurred, while the crass opportunism of the two parties became more prominent. So, for instance, just 3 years after the split, the CPI and CPI(M) were involved together in an anti-INC electoral coalition in West Bengal. In a number of subsequent state elections, the CPI was a junior coalition partner in anti-INC coalitions, while, in others, the CPI(M) gave its electoral support to one faction or another of the INC. The climax in this politicking game was probably reached in 2004, when, after standing together as part of the same anti-INC coalition in the general election, the two parties then joined forces to shore up the weak INC government which came out of it!

In fact, the differences between the two parties have become so tenuous, that, for a number of years now, there have been talks, and behind-the-scenes negotiations between them, over a possible reunification. And if there is any obstacle to this, it is certainly not political - but rather over who will get which position in the leadership of the reunited party.

Nevertheless, for all their opportunism, the two communist parties retained, by 1964, a common originality compared to all other Indian national parties, due to their history and their particular relationship with the working class and poor, who still formed the core of their social base.

Naxalbari - facing the explosive land issue

In March 1967, coalitions in which the CPI(M) was the dominant force won the state elections in the party's two strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal. However, the Indian bourgeoisie was still reluctant to entrust its affairs to the communist parties and in both states the new administrations were to be short-lived.

In Kerala, just as in 1957, the CPI(M)-led coalition fell apart after just over 2 years due to systematic harassment by the INC federal government. It was replaced by an INC-led government involving the CPI, which was to remain in office until 1979.

In West Bengal, events took on an even more chaotic turn. There, the new United Front coalition was immediately confronted with the explosive question of land redistribution. Ever since independence, this issue had been left on the backburner, despite the repeated promises of a Congress party which was always more bent on promoting the interests of the landlords, than those of the hundreds of millions of landless peasants. And the election of the United Front government, with its programme promising rapid progress in land redistribution, backed by the record of communist activists in organising landless peasants, was bound to raise expectations.

Once elected, the United Front administration appointed a veteran CPI(M) peasant leader, Harekrishna Kunar, to head the agriculture ministry and prepare a programme of land redistribution. But, within a month of his appointment, Kunar was to acknowledge that his attempt to enforce the law of the land as defined by the INC's own land redistribution legislation, was already running into intractable difficulties due to a flood of law suites filed by landlords challenging his ministry's orders.

Meanwhile, within the ranks of the CPI(M), a section of West Bengal activists claiming allegiance to "Maoism", chose to put into practice the policy they had been advocating for some years already. Against the electoralism of the CPI(M), these activists had been arguing that revolution was on the agenda in India and that it should follow the "Chinese model", by building a peasant-based "Red Army" which would encircle the urban areas and eventually overthrow the existing social order. A first stage in this direction was to be the establishment of a growing number of "liberated zones", by arming the local peasants to keep the repressive forces of the state out, carry out land redistribution and terminate the rule of the landlords.

This ultra-left "Maoist" line certainly echoed the impatience caused by the amorphous parliamentary line of the communist parties among its young recruits, while seeking to capitalise on the frustration of the landless peasants. But it amounted to relying on the scattered forces of poorly armed peasants to defeat the well-equipped repressive machinery of an omnipresent, modern state apparatus - something that Mao-Tse-Tung himself never had to deal with. This, instead of addressing the need to rearm the far more powerful battalions of the urban proletariat, demoralised by the catastrophic setback of partition and disarmed by the CPI's post-independence policies. If anything, the "Maoist" line was a recipe for disaster.

Nevertheless, after the election of the United Front government, the "Maoists" in the CPI(M) seized what they saw as an opportunity to capitalise on the poor peasants' aspirations, probably expecting that the new administration would protect them from the reaction of the police. To launch their "revolutionary war", the "Maoists" chose one of their strongholds - the district of Naxalbari, in northern West Bengal.

Naxalbari is the strategic narrow band of land linking India to Assam, measuring 300 square miles. Its population was mainly formed by poor tribal tenant share-croppers and tea plantation workers. In 1966 there had been a 16-day strike in the plantations thanks to the efforts of Communist activists who had been organising among the area's poor peasants for over a decade.

Within days of the United Front coming to office in March 1967, a peasant conference organised by the Naxalbari unit of the CPI(M) called for the setting up of peasants' committees to redistribute the land, and the organisation and arming of peasants in order to counter the landlords' resistance. Agriculture minister, Harekrishna Kunar, tried to reach a deal with the Naxalbari rebels. But when the peasants' committees started to occupy the land and burn land records, his attempt was immediately cut short by the police hierarchy, acting under its own initiative.

The first serious armed clash took place on 23 May 1967, when a police force sent to arrest a peasant leader was met with live fire, causing the death of one of the police attackers. Two days later, a police raid killed 9 peasants in retribution - 6 of them women and 2, children.

Within a month, armed clashes had become daily occurrences in Naxalbari. The CPI(M) had lost any control they may have had over the police and paramilitary forces, which received all their instructions directly from Delhi. The CPI(M) was now facing a rebellion from within its own ranks, over its failure to stop the repression and its failure to yield to the rebels' demands. 19 prominent leaders of the CPI(M) were expelled. In July, a large-scale police operation succeeded in arresting most of the Naxalbari leaders, causing a lull in the uprising.

Three months later, Delhi's INC administration stepped in, sacking the United Front government and replacing it with a minority INC-led government which was to last just over one year, until the March 1969 election, which brought the United Front back into office.

This time, the CPI(M) and its allies in the United Front tried to pre-empt the emergence of more "Maoist"-inspired "liberated zones", by taking the initiative of organising land-grab movements. Nevertheless they were confronted, once again, with a "Maoist"-led peasant guerilla force, this time in the jungle area of Mindapur (near the border with Orissa and Bihar). In an attempt to avoid a direct intervention from the federal authorities, the United Front government made the worst possible choice: it called in the state's East Frontier Rifle regiment to crush the rebels. However, this catastrophic initiative did not even earn the CPI(M) any favour from the INC Delhi administration. In March 1970, presidential rule was imposed in West Bengal and a ruthless wave of repression spread across the state.

The CPI(M) leadership blamed its predicament on its "Maoist" members, 10,000 of whom left the party or were expelled, including 7,000 in West Bengal. But although the "Maoists"' ultra-left policy certainly complicated the situation for the CPI(M) in office, the real problem was elsewhere. It lay first and foremost in a policy which tried to lure the deprived masses into thinking that it was possible to change their fate within the legal framework of a system entirely designed to protect private property.

Facing the political crisis of the 1970s

The end of the 1960s marked the beginning of a decade of political and social crisis on an all-India scale. Nehru's death, in 1966, had opened a crisis of succession which the accession of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to the post of prime minister, did not resolve. For the first time, the INC's monopoly over Indian politics was put into question, by open factional struggles within its own ranks. Indira Gandhi's rule was increasingly marred with corruption, nepotism and ballot-rigging. At the same time, the material conditions of the population were deteriorating fast, as the first ripples of the coming world economic crisis reached India.

In July 1969, in an attempt to revamp her authority and contain the rising wave of discontent, Indira Gandhi nationalised the country's 14 largest banks. This spectacular move, which was hailed by both Indian communist parties - and denounced by numerous western commentators - as "socialist", was primarily designed to get the state to substitute itself for the cohort of parasitic Indian banks which had proved incapable of providing the Indian economy with the funding it needed at every level.

This "radical" policy did not save Indira Gandhi, however. Her promise that the banks' nationalisation would free the small and middle peasantry from the moneylenders' extortionate interest rates did not even materialise. By the early 1970s, the economic situation became catastrophic. A wave of retrenchments (job cuts) was compounded by increasing power outages due to lack of public funding. Over the two-year period to 1974, prices almost doubled on average, while wages remained frozen, when they were not cut.

In 1973, for the first time since independence, a direct challenge to INC rule emerged from within its own social base among the petty-bourgeoisie. It was led by Jaya Prakash Narayan, an anti-communist demagogue, popularly known as "JP", who had served as secretary to the industrial magnate G.D. Birla, and was currently a leading figure of the Socialist Party (a spin-off of the old Congress Socialist Party, after it had separated from the INC). Launched in the northern state of Gujarat, this movement sought to capitalise on the anger caused by huge food price increases and the regime's corruption and election fraud. While it brought together a wide array of forces spanning the whole political spectrum outside the INC, the Hindu revivalist right provided it with its organisational backbone and influenced much of its populist rhetoric. JP's own favourite slogan of "total revolution" and call for ending the rule of parliament and parties, was probably the most striking reflection of this influence.

Despite this, the JP movement managed to bring millions of people onto the streets. Even the state's repressive forces were affected, as was shown by the famous "Lucknow mutiny" when, in May 1973, in the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, members of the para-military Provincial Armed Constabulary rebelled against their inadequate pay and miserable service conditions by joining the ranks of student protesters they were meant to repress.

These were clear signs of a rising political crisis, which was taking on a social dimension by involving increasing numbers from the ranks of the poor. Yet, far from raising the banner of the specific political interests of the proletariat in the developing crisis, the CPI(M), in the name of its policy of supporting the broadest possible alliance against the INC, chose to support the JP movement without reservation. Never mind that this was putting the working class and poor in the tow of this movement's reactionary leadership. As to the CPI, it did not do any better, since it chose to stick to its policy of backing the discredited INC regime, under Moscow's instruction!

The working class erupts on the political scene

Meanwhile, social unrest was developing, despite all the efforts of the INC-controlled unions to contain the discontent. After the previous decade of relative lull in the class struggle, 1973-74 saw a series of high-profile industrial conflicts - a 33-day strike in the jute industry, a 42-day strike by Bombay's textile workers, a 3-month strike by junior doctors and 3-week lockouts of workers from Life Insurance Corporation and Indian Airlines Corporation, among others.

In Bombay, in particular, the CPI-linked union led the textile strike. However, just as the movement was threatening to spread beyond the textile industry as a result of a planned solidarity general strike, the union leadership abruptly called for a return to work, presumably to avoid rocking the INC's boat. This was to discredit the CPI in Bombay for many years to come.

The largest social explosion by very far, however, was to take place in May 1974 in the railways, India's largest industry with 1.7 million workers.

While the railways had been a CPI stronghold in the colonial days, the party had lost much of its support due to its wartime policy and subsequent postwar ultra-left course. As a result, unusually for a major industry, the largest non-INC railway union federation, the AIRF (All-India Railwaymen's Federation), which organised 37% of the railways workers, was dominated by the Socialist Party (a spin-off of the Congress Socialist Party after it separated from the INC).

This did not mean that the communist parties had no influence in the railways, though. The AIRF was a loose federation and some of its affiliate unions were also affiliated to either of the the CPs' trade-union umbrellas, the AITUC and CITU. At the same time, the CPI(M) had played a role, albeit not a leading one, in the formation of a number of militant unions organised on a regional and sectional basis, among drivers and mechanics, in reaction to the inaction of the AIRF. In the late 1960s, the AILRSA (All-India Loco Running Staff Association), an illegal coalition formed by these militant unions, had expressed the growing discontent in the ranks, by leading a number of successful strikes.

By 1973, the AIRF's leadership had come under pressure from an increasingly restive membership to take to the offensive. But probably equally important, if not more, to the federation's leaders, given their party's role in the JP movement, was their desire to use their industrial leverage to increase the pressure on a weakened INC administration. From this point of view, the railway workers' interests did not necessarily weigh very much in their calculations.

In June 1973, George Fernandes, a Socialist Party figure and well-known trade-union leader from Bombay, was elected president by the AIRF convention. The proposal of launching a general railway strike over wages the following year was adopted in principle. In the April of 1974, the decision was made for the strike to commence on May 8th.

Indira Gandhi responded to this decision by declaring the strike illegal under the provisions of the "Defence of India Rules", inherited from the colonial days.} At the same time, powers of unlimited preventive detention were immediately used against selected activists under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act - part of the State of Emergency introduced during the 1971 Indian war of intervention in Bangladesh and never repealed.

On May 2nd, six days before the strike was due to start and while high-level negotiations were still on, Indira Gandhi ordered the arrest of 300 leading railway activists, including Fernandes himself and some of his most prominent colleagues in the AIRF leadership, the whole central council of the AILRSA and the main CPI(M)/CITU railway officials. In many areas railway workers walked out spontaneously in response to the arrests. In some cities like Bombay and Calcutta, they were joined by other sections of workers. But, with the exception of a few southern areas in which the CPI(M) had a substantial presence, they were immediately ordered back to work by their leaders.

The 1974 railway strike - a turning point

Nevertheless, the strike started as planned on May 8th and it was massively supported. But then all hell broke out when Indira Gandhi threw the full weight of the state's repressive machinery against the strikers.

Ten days later, the left-wing "Economic and Political Review" was to describe the government's offensive against the strikers as follows: "Railway workers have been thrown in jail simply for not reporting for work. Others have been arrested for no more than attending meetings in support of the strike. (..) The police and the paramilitary forces like the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police have been systematically terrorising the railway workers. Houses of workers have been raided in the dead of night by armed policemen and workers offered, at gun-point, the choice between returning to work immediately or being arrested on the spot. Large numbers of workers have been thus forced to go into hiding, which has turned the wrath of the government against their families, especially those living in railway colonies. (..) Many railway colonies all over the country have had their water and electricity supplies cut off since the beginning of the strike. Families of workers on strike have been forcibly evicted from their quarters."

The same journal denounced the "organised brutality, spearheaded by the minions of law and order; the vicious bayonet thrust at bodies of the striking railwaymen waylaid by the police; the bundling into prison of thousands who refused to act as blacklegs; the deployment of hired goons to beat up workers and their families; the harassment of women and children; (..) the summary dismissals".

The scale and violence of the confrontation, as well as the issues at stake, justified and required that other sections of the working class should be brought into action. But despite the obvious sympathy enjoyed by the strikers, little was done in this respect. One week into the strike, on May 15th, the non-INC union federations went through the motions of calling a token one-day general strike in support of the railway strikers. But in the absence of any serious preparation, it was poorly supported outside Bombay and Calcutta. This, together with the absence of any follow-up, seems to have increased the strikers' feeling of isolation and contributed to their subsequent demoralisation.

In the end, despite the huge number of workers involved in the strike, the absence of a fighting perspective in the face of the state's repression led to its defeat, after three weeks of heroic resistance. By that time, 50,000 strikers were in jail and 15,000 had been sacked. As to the number killed or injured among the strikers, their relatives and their supporters - it was never disclosed, but it was certainly significant.

Subsequently, all union leaders concerned were quick to blame the defeat of the strike on Indira Gandhi's "anti-democratic behaviour". But hadn't her government demonstrated, since the announcement of the strike in April, that it was battle-ready and determined to use whatever means necessary to crush it? However, according to Fernandes' own later admission, little preparation had been made for the strike by the AIRF - nor had the railway workers been prepared, let alone organised, to face the brutal repression, of which the government had already given advance warning.

What's more, given the backdrop of political crisis faced by the INC regime and the mounting social unrest, the railway strike was bound to signal an all-out confrontation that Indira Gandhi could not afford to lose. Conversely, the working class as a whole, not just the railway workers, had a huge stake in winning this confrontation. But to be able to use its full collective strength it would have needed a class leadership that neither of the communist parties proved willing to provide.

Predictably, given its policy of supporting the INC, the CPI's participation was, according to contemporary analysis published in June 1974 in the "Economic and Political Review", "half-hearted and conditional. Within two days of the beginning of the strike, CPI spokesmen were saying that it should not and will not last long. On May 12, Bhupesh Gupta [a CPI leader and member of the Delhi parliament] had affixed his signature on a statement by Opposition leaders denouncing the repressive measures but tried frantically the whole evening to withdraw his signature before the statement reached the Press but failed. His explanation was that the CPI wanted to play the role of a mediator and therefore he could not sign the statement though he was against the repressive measures. The CPI thinks that the strike itself was adventurist, though Dange [a founding leader of the CPI] clarified this to say he would not hold the strike adventurist but some of the demands were certainly adventurist". Apparently, the CPI leadership's cosy relationship with the INC was far more important than the fate of the working class - or even than that of the CPI's own railway activists, who also received their share of the repression for their involvement in the strike.

The CPI(M), on the other hand, used a more radical-sounding language. Initially at least, its aim seems to have been, like for the Socialist Party, to use the railway strike as a lever in the mounting political crisis, to force the INC out. It was only in the third week of the strike, when it was already losing ground fast, that the CPI(M) changed tack and, through the CITU, started arguing for the need to extend the strike to other government workers as well as to rail-related industries like steel and coal. But it was too little too late. By that time, this suggestion sounded hardly credible and more like an attempt by CITU to revamp its militant profile. Later that year, a CPI(M) Central Committee report about the strike was to admit: "we failed to realise the political significance of such a countrywide action of the working class of India behind which the whole party and the masses following the party should have been mobilised".

Indeed, but this was the understatement of the decade! This was India's most powerful strike ever - no other strike has equalled it, to this day. And it was taking place against the backdrop of a political crisis in which large angry sections of the population were looking for an alternative to the corruption and parasitism of the system. By building on workers' capacity to mobilise their collective strength in the railways and beyond, this strike could have been a starting point for the march of the working class to rally behind its banner the massive ranks of the Indian poor against the parasitic bourgeoisie which sucked them dry. But that, of course, would have meant approaching the political crisis from the standpoint of class politics, using Lenin's communist programme, instead of the Stalinist rhetoric which the CPI(M) leadership used to conceal its attempts to gain a foothold in the institutions of the bourgeoisie through dubious electoral alliances.

The defeat of the railway strike was a disaster for the working class. It marked the end of the wave of industrial unrest which had began to re-emerge in the late 1960s. Then came the real cost: just over a year later, on 26th June 1975, Indira Gandhi finally brought the political crisis threatening her rule to an end - by reviving, permanently, the dormant provisions of the 1971 State of Emergency.

Within one week, 3,000 political opponents were put behind bars, and this rose to 175,000 within six months. 26 political organisations were banned, and the only two states which were not under INC rule were brought under presidential rule. All strikes were declared illegal, workers' annual bonuses were cut by 50%, a general wage freeze was imposed and massive industrial reorganisation resulted in almost half-a-million permanent workers being laid off. Slum-clearances and evictions were carried out on a huge scale in working class areas, for the greatest benefit of real estate barons. Meanwhile constraints on foreign investors were relaxed, which earned Indira Gandhi the praise of western commentators relieved that the so-called "socialist" Gandhi was finally seeing the light. Of course, the same commentators forgot to point to some of Gandhi's least savoury "reforms" - such as her drive to forcibly sterilize 4.3m adults among the poorest sections of the populations, often at gunpoint.

The CPI(M) in search of a new social base

By the beginning of 1977, the INC had, unsurprisingly, lost a large chunk of its support. Indira Gandhi decided that the best thing for the party was for it to step back from power temporarily and try to rebuild itself.

In the general election called in January 1977, the INC's share of the seats was fell to 28%, while the Janata Party (the People's Party, formed by the main constituents of the JP movement) won 55%. The CPI lost 16 of its 23 seats, while the CPI(M) lost 3 of its 25 seats. In the state elections held that year, however, the CPI(M) did better. It won a majority of seats in the small northern state of Tripura - where it was to remain in office until 1988. But more importantly, it won a majority in the much larger state of West Bengal - where it remained in office, leading a "Left Front" coalition, until 2011.

Once in office, the CPI(M) administration's main concern was to avoid providing the Delhi government with a pretext for direct intervention, like in the 1960s. So it played by the rules - in fact it went even further than that. A political commentator noted later: "The hopes of righting human rights abuses however did not impress the CPI(M) now in government, and on the issue of releasing all the political prisoners, the government was found wanting. To add insult to injury, the CPI(M) regime took especial care to see to it that police personnel who had gained notoriety for human rights abuse did not suffer either, in furthering their career or in having choice postings." In other words, the CPI(M) had "learnt from its past mistakes". It was not going to get into endless trouble by antagonizing the police hierarchy, as it had done in the 1950s in Kerala, and in the 1960s in West Bengal. Too bad if some police thugs had got into the habit of racketeering and torturing workers or villagers!

The CPI(M) also proved reluctant to release political prisoners kept in jail ever since the Naxalbari days. In some areas of West Bengal, assumed to be guerilla territory, the provisions of the State of Emergency remained in force. One of them, the tribal area around north western tribal village of Lalgarh, came to prominence much later, in 2008-09, for the atrocities carried out by the police under CPI(M) instructions, until the party finally requested central government assistance and elite troops were brought in, which "cleared" all "Maoist" activity from the area.

Much the same concerns applied to the CPI(M)'s approach to the issue of land redistribution which came back onto the agenda after the end of the State of Emergency, in March 1977. This time, unlike in 1969, there was no longer any question of the CPI(M) and its allies taking the risk of rocking the boat by encouraging land-grab operations. They were determined to play strictly by the book. This meant that land redistribution would be implemented from above. In addition it would have to be subject to judicial challenge - something that was often used by landlords who were told to cede some of their land - within the framework of a legal system which was entirely devoted to the defence of their private property.

As Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) chief minister of West Bengal, was later to admit himself, his government had "limited powers. It has to operate within a capitalist feudal economy. (..) We suffer from a special disability because the Union government is ill-disposed towards our government. In such a situation, we have been explaining to the people why we cannot bring about fundamental changes". But what he did not say was that this impotence was the result of the CPI(M)'s political choice. After all, it sought to run the West Bengal state under such conditions.

There were heated debates over which peasants should benefit from the land redistribution and which should not. Back in 1967, the party's official line formulated by the Central Committee had been that the party's aim among the peasantry should involve "building round the rural labour and the poor and (..) organising these sections as the main backbone and driving force of the movement". But by 1977, all that was forgotten. In these debates, the consensus for the ceiling above which land should be considered as "excess", for the purpose of redistribution, was 25 acres - meaning that only 6% of West Bengal's land holdings would be affected! The main argument used by the champions of this position was that, instead of risking antagonising the middle-peasantry with a lower ceiling, this would win over its support, thereby providing the party with a more stable electoral base.

The same logic presided over "Operation Barga" which involved the registration of sharecroppers, together with legislation providing all registered sharecroppers with a guaranteed share of the crop (50 to 75% depending on whether the landlord provided the inputs or not) - and some hereditary rights over their tenancy. These measures did end some of the landlords' abuses, but because they were never fully enforced, many continued. But they hardly benefited the poorest at all. Indeed, only 12% of all sharecroppers were landless and most owned at least half of the land they tilled. In fact, by sharecropping several plots of land in addition to their own, many sharecroppers had effectively the same status as a middle peasant owner.

By contrast the 45% totally landless section of the peasantry, gained very little. The land redistribution of excess land from the richest landowners was soon paralysed by hundreds of thousands of drawn-out law suits. On average, the minority of landless peasants who benefited from the land redistribution over the 12 years following 1977, received only 0.55 of an acre of cultivable land - in most cases, not even enough for a family to survive.

The balance sheet of the CPI(M) policy was that, ultimately, it allowed the party to increase and stabilise its electoral support among the middle peasantry and the section of the rural population it could influence.

Capital's "responsible" managers

Since 1977, the CPI(M)'s political choice of acting as a "responsible" guardian of the state institutions of the Indian capitalist class, rather than leading the struggles of the working class and poor for social change, has driven the party's machinery into increasingly dubious territory.

In West Bengal, its rural policy did not bring much relief to the poor, but together with the setting up of local elected bodies to implement it, institutionalised a form of nepotism which was rationalised by the need for the party to maintain its electoral support. Much the same happened in the urban areas. And with this nepotism came practices verging on gangsterism.

As early as 1991, the Economy and Political Review remarked: "In West Bengal, there are already more than a dozen groups of 'disaffected' Marxist communists, either operating within the CPI(M), or out of it. (..) In Tripura, some two hundred members (..) have resigned from the party protesting against the leadership's 'anti-democratic' policies. In Orissa, developments have taken a more ominous turn with the killing of a dissident leader by CPI(M) 'loyalists'. Anant Rout, a leading trade unionist who along with a large section of the party, broke away from the CPI(M) and formed the separate Orissa Communist Party some time ago, was murdered by rivals on November 23, when leading a strike of mine workers. These disturbing trends are not sudden, but indicate a steady depoliticisation of CPI(M) cadres over a long period, and the induction of mercenary hoodlums into its ranks in the urban areas. One of the main grouses of the dissidents is that the party leadership had failed to train ideologically the ranks of the younger generation, who in West Bengal in particular had gravitated towards the party in recent years primarily because of privileges and largesse promised by the ruling CPI(M) there. Allegations of corruption against second-rank leaders, like members of local assemblies, municipality councillors and district and local committee leaders also feature prominently in the statements made by the dissidents".

The increasing corruption of CPI(M) rule in West Bengal went together with an increasing adaptation to parochialism and reactionary prejudices, for the same electoral reasons. The renaming of Calcutta to Kolkota was, for instance, part of an attempt to woo Bengali provincialism. Likewise, the CPI(M) went out of its way to placate Muslim religious organisations, for instance, by banning the autobiography of Bangladeshi feminist and anti-fundamentalist writer Taslima Nasreen, in 2004, and, in 2008, by refusing to prolong her visa to stay in West Bengal, where she had been living for the previous four years.

Having chosen to put itself in the position of running a state within the rules laid down by capitalism, the CPI(M) could only be trapped by its own choices. The disappearance of West Bengal's traditional industries and the impossibility to significantly increase agricultural productivity in such a backward state, led to an explosion in youth unemployment. As early as 1994, the CPI(M) adopted an industrial policy offering concessions to the magnates of the private sector and multinationals to set up industries in the state. Twelve years later, in 2006, following the announcement of a vast Special Economic Zone (SEZ) programme by the newly-elected INC-led administration in Delhi - an administration which had obtained the CPI(M)'s support - the party adopted a parallel line. Not only would job creation rely on attracting private investment with substantial incentives, but as one CPI(M) minister explained, "let industry grow on its own momentum; there is no need for any political interference in the process of industrialisation". Investors were, therefore, assured that the CPI(M) was prepared to write them a blank cheque.

The first announcement followed, with the Nano project. The giant Tata group had been convinced to shift the construction of a plant designed to build its Nano "people's" car, to Singur, on a 1,000 acres of fertile agricultural land close to Kolkota. Officially it was said that 2,700 workers would be hired by the new plant, but that up to another 14,000 indirect jobs would be created. However, given the skills required, there was little chance of many locals being hired. On the other hand, some 4,000 agricultural workers were to lose their jobs and a total 13,000 families were to be displaced.

There was a slow build-up of resistance to the project, but the CPI(M)'s erstwhile rival in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress together with some "Maoists" threw their weight into the battle to help protesters. Confrontations got nasty. When CPI(M) local activists were attacked by Trinamool thugs, the party retaliated using the same methods or worse, including against local protesters, resulting in a local CPI(M) leader and his gang being charged with raping and murdering a woman protestor. Eventually, after two years of protest, the CPI(M) was left with no option but to cancel the project, at great cost to the state.

But there was worse to come. In July 2006 the CPI(M) administration signed a deal with the Indonesian chemical group Salim to set up an SEZ at Nandigram, 100 miles from Kolkota. Although Salim was to use only 5,000 acres, the SEZ itself would occupy over 22,500 acres of farmland. This led to fierce opposition in what had been so far a Left Front stronghold. This time the CPI(M) chose to bring in the police in order to quell the farmers' rising rebellion, while, once again, various "Maoist" groups got involved. In January 2007, several protesters were injured by live bullets. The local CPI(M) office was then ransacked by villagers. A few days later, CPI(M) activists retaliated; 3 villagers and one CPI(M) member were killed, with 20 protagonists injured. In March another police attack claimed 10 dead and by the end of the year, after another bloody attempt by CPI(M) gangs to chase protesters out of their villages failed, the CPI(M) government had to withdraw its plan.

So, in Singur and Nandigram, at least, the mobilisation of the population succeeded in stopping the wholesale handover of their land to multinational profiteers. But how many other SEZs went ahead without meeting such successful opposition?

The substitution of police, or party gangsterism, for the democratic, conscious participation of the poor masses, had become a feature of the CPI(M) rule in West Bengal, long before it lost power in the May election last year. This certainly had a lot to do with the heavy Stalinist heritage of the CPI(M), but it was also within the logic of its political choice to manage the capitalist state institutions and, ultimately, serve the interests of the system itself. In this class society, no-one can stand with a foot on both sides of the class divide. The only way to take the side of the working class and poor is to fight for the destruction of this class society.

Today's India, which is so often hailed by western commentators as an "emerging economy", supposed to promise a new lease of life to the rotting corpse of capitalism, holds a very different promise. India is a mighty powderkeg created by the colonial era and primed by imperialist looting, whose explosive social dynamism has still to be seen at work. Its rich working class tradition could be rejuvenated, by learning from the old mistakes and subsequent betrayals of its communist parties. Its vast working class and huge urban and rural proletariat could be offered the perspective of fighting this decaying system on the basis of a communist programme inspired by the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, as part of the struggle of the international proletariat for its emancipation. Such a task is within the reach of those who, in India, whether intellectuals or proletarians, really want to see social change. Those who do make the choice of undertaking this task, and we can only hope that there will be many, will fulfill the promise of the Indian proletariat's past battles, by ensuring that these battles finally give birth to a fertile revolutionary communist movement.