Thursday, March 22, 2007

The bullets have flown and found their mark. The blood of children has flowed, as Neruda once wrote, without fuss, like children's blood. The dust has not yet settled, as Nandigram seethes, but an uneasy truce prevails. The villagers, as they promised to do, have given up their lives but not their land, and have driven out CPM cadres and policemen (or 'police-cadres', as they call them there) from their villages. The SEZ has been scrapped for the moment, but the local hostilities in Nandigram continue unabated. Rumours abound. Will more bodies be found, will the trail of blood the papers spoke of be traced to its source? Will the chopped limbs of children be found buried, will we uncover mass graves? Is Lakshman Seth gearing up for another offensive? Are local cadres regrouping to avenge their expulsion from their villages by the resistance movement? The Left Front partners are divided, but have reluctantly crept to Buddhadeb's side. The Politbureau and many affiliated intellectuals have, against the conscience of some within their ranks, thrown their lot in with the Bengal unit. The tail wags the dog. Real political confrontations have broken out again on the streets of Calcutta, after over two decades of dormancy. Things have fallen apart, the centre has ceased to hold, the state government has lost what legitimacy it had amongst the poor of West Bengal and, yes, among all leftists of any integrity. It's still difficult to write with balance, but the time's come, perhaps, for some colder stocktaking, to apprehend the political dimensions of what happened last week.

Nandigram was a Pyrrhic political victory for the resistance to the Salim plant. The blood and trauma - both of which are unredeemable - should not allow us to forget that, for the first time in the country, neoliberal economic strategy has suffered a defeat at the hands of a popular movement. It is absurd to attribute this to the machinations of the Trinamul and the Naxals, as the Politbureau has done. They were there, but only as a part - and by no means the major part - of a grassroots movement as spontaneous as any mobilization can possibly be. An ideological principle, which asserts the right of capital and state to conspire, without accountability or check, to take over land, destroy livelihoods, and displace and disperse people in their thousands, has been handed a moral and political defeat by a massive uprising of peasants. In its nature, if not in form or substance, this resembles similar successful backlashes against neoliberalism elsewhere in the world - the defeat of the coup in Venezuela, the rout of water privatization in Cochabamba in Bolivia, the resistance of French students to legislation endorsing repressive employment contracts. An SEZ in Nandigram would have meant the establishment of a regime of extraterritorial sovereignty for a company accountable to no one but its shareholders, not subject to the compulsions of national law, unhampered by legally enshrined labour rights. There will be other SEZ projects, on other sites, accomplished with force and coercion by the state in the service of global capital. But Nandigram, it seems, may preserve its freedom from such despotism. The Salim group - run by the man who financed Suharto's genocide of the Indonesian Left - will probably lose a major profitmaking opportunity.

What is hard to get one's head around is that this singular defeat of capital by a peasant uprising is also a defeat of the organized Left in India. This happens to be the very kind of movement the central party leadership, and the Party's affiliated intellectuals, have been eager to celebrate elsewhere in the world, and the SEZ policy, as initially formulated by the Indian government, found its bitterest political opponent in the Left. In its rhetoric and at least some of its practice, the national CPM and its junior allies stood at a sharply divergent angle to India's current economic policy of keep-the-rich-happy neoliberalism. How could this have happened, then?

In the first place, the tail is clearly wagging the dog - the central party leadership does not control the West Bengal unit, but is actually hopelessly dependent on the latter's continued electoral success for its presence as a significant force in Indian politics. And once we wade into the muck of the West Bengal CPM, a party that at national level still seems to stand for political principle becomes transformed into a gross inversion of itself. In Bengal, the culture of the organized left is defined by cronyism, corruption, local-level thuggery, intimidation of political opponents and dissidents, and electoral rigging. Further, the state has witnessed, in the last decade or more of Left rule, a total collapse of many basic social services - public health, for instance, is absolutely abysmal. Since the state-level New Industrial Policy in 1994, the CPM has lurched dramatically to the right. The Governor recently said that just one primary health centre has been opened in West Bengal in the last ten years, and it is clear that medical services are being thoroughly privatized. Hawkers have been brutally cleared off Calcutta roads to prepare the city for the visit of a right-wing British politician - this was in 1994. Buddhadeb's ascension coincided with a massive attempt by the party to court middle-class popularity, in the form of new luxury apartments and malls, amusement and water parks, housing enclaves for the super-rich on agricultural land, and - as in other metropolitan cities - the tying of the economy to the drives of real estate speculation. Buddhadeb's SEZ policy, in common with that of other states, sought to introduce industrial capitalism into West Bengal on the most unfavourable terms imaginable for labour, local livelihoods, and the environment.

Inside West Bengal, then, the CPM had almost completed the journey towards becoming an objectively right-wing party, devoted to neoliberal capitalism, some time before last week's carnage. The very term 'Brand Buddha', touted by a press which learnt in degrees to love the new-look CPM, is enough to demonstrate that. So is the slogan Tata Buddha Lal Salaam, routinely chanted by party cadres during the Singur land acquisition. The Left could boast a long history of goodwill among the Bengal poor, a goodwill earned by years of brave political struggle prior to the assumption of power and the enactment of radical land reforms in the 1980s, but all this had begun to change some time back. Effective power inside the party was no longer wielded by committed Communists - however dogmatic - and political activists, but by local musclemen and ganglords, who ran their electoral domains like fiefdoms. Lakshman Seth, the local MLA from Tamluk and probably the chief architect of the massacre on the 14th, exemplifies this degeneration of a party of principle into a party of semi-criminal bosses and contractors. People like Lakshman Seth and his subordinates mobilize CPM voters in their thousands, intimidate political opponents and their sympathizers, run networks of patronage and corruption, and this, more than the strength of the government's record, keeps the wheels of the Left Front electoral winning machine oiled. And it is through these networks, principally, that the CPM cadre in the state reproduces itself. The rot is not solely or even chiefly in the leadership. It is in the rank and file.

In Nandigram, not only last week but over the last few months, these two elements of Left Front rule - the shift to the right in economic and social policy, and the stabilization of uncontested power at local levels through the deployment of patronage, violence and intimidation - came together. And equally seriously, it demonstrated the accumulation of arrogance that three decades of uninterrupted power has bred in the Left. Did Buddha really believe that his SEZ policy could be passed by fiat, on the strength of his massive majority in the Bengal Assembly? Did he really believe that peasant smallholders, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers would give up their homes and livelihoods without a fuss? Had he really forgotten the sense of a right to the land in rural Bengal, shared by rich peasants and poor labourers alike? Did he expect no resistance? And when resistance did happen, and he was forced to withdraw from the SEZ policy, did he really believe that Nandigram could be retaken by the state authorities without violent confrontation? Had he, above all, forgotten the long political heritage of the Left in West Bengal, which outlasts the actual demise of radical or democratic principles and practices within the government? Unbelievably, the answer to all these questions seems to be yes.

In the second place, beyond the politics of West Bengal, the Indian Left as a whole may be undergoing a major, and cancerous, rightward shift. Many of us on the left had lost faith in the CPM in West Bengal, if indeed we ever had that faith in the first place. (Enough has happened since the initial assumption of Left Front power to shake any such naivete to its roots, beginning with the massacre of settlers in Morichjhapi in 1979 by the first LF government - and that was 'back in the good old days'.) But we managed to optimistically drive a logical wedge in our minds between the 'good CPM' - the party at national level, and in states other than West Bengal - and the 'bad CPM' - in a word, West Bengal. This was not without foundation. Who, after all, did we instinctively turn to as the Babri Masjid came down and Gujarat burned? Who did we take refuge behind when the BJP was in power, and Hindu Rashtra, at times, seemed like a real possibility? Who did we trust to take a consistently anti-neoliberal line in Parliament, in the days of the NDA, but also from within the UPA, as a progressive force of pressure? Who did I march with on every march for democracy in Delhi, even as I mentally cursed their authoritarianism and easy assumption of the high moral ground? Which intellectuals did I turn to to explain the implications of India's economic and foreign policy in our times? Who led the unorganized workers of the capital on their successful struggle for minimum wages? Who organized concerted public campaigns against the police attacks on workers in Gurgaon? Who embodied a clutch of memories and histories, a gesture towards a brighter horizon, despite the present, and despite itself? Who did we - did I - ultimately feel grateful for, in a sense politically indebted to, despite frequent feelings of disappointment and impatience? Who, though always, always disappointing, also represented possibility? Always, and alone, the Left.

I do not believe that we were - that I was - wrong in believing some, or even all, of this. There are many on the far Left who would disagree violently with this, but I do not believe these democratic, fruitful strands within the organized Left were wishfully imagined by us, that we were fooled and misled on every occasion. But there are signs that those hopes may be disappearing from us, that we may no longer have any kind of a claim on what we were habituated to see as 'the Left'. As an acquaintance on a recent demonstration against the Nandigram massacre sensitively remarked, 'I cursed this Party for so long, but always, in some sense, as my Party, in some form as internal criticism.' We shared something with this Left. Always officially committed - shamefully - to Stalinism, always so ready to trot out the party line, always so apparently rigid and full of certitudes that didn't match up to reality, this Left remained our Left, to rail against but to hope for the renewal of, to reject but to clutch on to desperately and fiercely, to mull over, to obsess about beyond what was good for our health, into the small hours of the morning. But 'to-day the present.' And what is that present? Where do we go, now?

Nandigram opened a wound in us that has not stopped and will not stop bleeding. To watch a Left in whose history and future you still feel complicit, organize gangs of cadres and policemen to mount an armed attack on a popular resistance movement, to watch them seal off a district and do whatever they bloody please - it does something to you. Turns you inside out. Hollows you out. And at this moment, silence - even consent - from the Politbureau? From intellectuals one trusted and respected? Many within the organized Left no doubt feel torn and anguished, angry with what happened. But party line overrides inner doubt, and all their private anguish comes to nothing. It feels like a guilty silence, but the fact of conscience does not absolve them of responsibility. And there is a bigger question at stake here. Rural populations are fighting, with their lives on their line, against the invasion of big capital, for their very right to exist, all across West Bengal, and across India. For any party or formation that considers itself in any sense committed to left-wing principles, there is clearly only one stand available. But the organized Left in India, bound by the compulsions of political expediency to the West Bengal line, is standing on the other side. You cannot support neoliberalism in Bengal and credibly oppose it in Gujarat. You cannot fight state brutality in Orissa and claim it as your prerogative in Bengal. You cannot resist SEZs in Maharashtra and embrace them in Bengal. What are you claiming, anyway - that you have the capacity to mould capital to your will, make it dance to your tune? The choice is stark.

And to not make that choice against this developmental strategy, this neoliberalization that takes away livelihoods and rights and irreversibly damages local ecologies, represents a failure of nerve. It signals that the party has given up, decided to play the game of capitalism on the enemy's terms, to not even think of constructing terms of its own. A failure of nerve, and of imagination. And it's particularly striking at this moment in history, when, after years of apparently living in 'the end of history', radical social movements and politics have resurfaced elsewhere in the world, trying in messy and contingent, but democratic, ways to formulate alternatives. Could conditions for a left-wing effloresence have been less propitious anywhere in the world than Latin America, the empire's backyard, multinational capital's favourite destination, the land of brutal right-wing dictatorships, civil wars, American military incursions and coups, and banana republics? But it is precisely there, and at this moment in time, that a wonderful patchwork of experiments in left-wing democracy have emerged, many of them romping to electoral success last year. Contrast this with the Indian Left.

And, darker still, is the possibility that this signals not just a lack of vision or courage on the part of the Left, but also a discernible rightward, neoliberal shift in its very heart. If we stand aside and assume an illusory objectivity for a moment, do we not see the patterns of a sort of political convergence, not irreversible, but nevertheless powerful? The patterns tell us a story. The enthusiastic adoption of a neoliberal strategy and the repression of any oppositional voices? Look to the Congress in Maharashtra, the BJP/BJD in Orissa, the BJP in Gujarat - and the Left in Bengal. The open use of state power to wreak terror and trauma upon the state's own citizens? The Congress - Delhi, 1984. The Right - Bombay, 1993, and Gujarat, 2002. The Left - Nandigram, 2007. The point is not that Buddha is comparable to Modi - he obviously isn't. The point is that basic forms of political choice and practice now seem shared across party lines, signalling an unprecedented political convergence.

In Kerala, where Achyutanandan is pushing from within the CPM for a very different kind of politics and economic strategy to the practices of the West Bengal government, there seems to be an open schism, and significant pressure from within the central party leadership for the adoption of Vijayan's line of conformity to neoliberal capital. It is clear, then, that the national Left's effective endorsement of what happened in Nandigram is spurred by more than political expediency. There seem to be strong pressures, at the heart and through the body of the official Left, towards another version of the world with no alternatives, where capital holds all the cards and the state is its policeman. What does this do to the many, many Communists working with courage and commitment, in states other than West Bengal, against the most destructive invasions of capital? What does it do to social movements that believed, for a while, that the Left could be a genuine ally in their struggles? What does it do to those of us who constitute, in our ideas or our practices, an independent left, who still haven't entirely stopped clutching at the shattered pieces of the clay image of 'the Left' we'd built up? I was treated to a poignant example of this recently at Delhi University, at a public meeting, when one of the most committed and eloquent left-wing teachers on campus virtually implored some SFI cadres sitting there: 'As Communists, you should commit yourselves to labour. You can't be spokespersons of capital. Capital will look after itself. Defending it is not your job.' It was a moving affirmation, in many ways, of the Left so many of us desired and desire, that we may have imagined into a spectral being that we loved, 'well but not wisely'. In any case, the appeal was answered in no uncertain terms. The cadres sat there implacably, and then one of them spoke. 'So the company is supposed to suffer, and not make any money? What will happen to the company?' Listen, everyone, hush. That's the Communist speaking.

For many who have opposed the CPM from the left for years, Naxals, sympathizers, and others, all of this may come, not unjustifiably, as a vindication of the radical claim that the official Left had 'always been like this', and that in a sense it's all for the better, 'because now they have been exposed for what they are.' And even if there was a time when things may have been different, when the CPM may have genuinely represented a force for the disempowered, that time is gone, and Nandigram has sealed its departure. As I write this, I can find no reason, here and now, to argue with those claims. But that produces a feeling not of vindication, but of sadness, and a great weight. For if we have lost that Left irrevocably, what do we have? Giving up on the Left means giving up on the entire legitimate political spectrum for any hope of meaningful change, for initiatives that will reverse our slide into political, economic and ecological disaster. If those initiatives will not come from the Left, they will not come from any other political party either. The intensity and range of our social movements are considerable, but where is the democratically accountable and representative political force that will take them on board and give them succour? If the Left continues on this trajectory, it will lose, for once and for all, its position as a force that could disturb and destabilize the complacent consensus politics of neoliberalism, and effectively question capital.

If there is despair, it came from Bengal. If there is hope, it also lies there, in the initial shuffling, and then the sudden vibrant explosion, of oppositional civil society. This remains largely limited to Calcutta, though elections in colleges in the Hooghly belt have recently dealt a blow to reigning CPM hegemony. Calcutta, the last time I visited it, as every time, seemed to me to embody a strange theatrical performance of politics, as a spectre. The forms - the husks - of once meaningful political rituals pervaded the city, sprang out at you through torchlit marches, blaring loudspeakers, street-corner meetings, walls bathed in political graffiti. But none of it meant anything, every ritualized gesture was held securely in place by the weight of three decades of virtual single-party rule, and the protagonists of each streetside political drama were clearly hired performers, doing what they had to do. In the last week, everything has changed. There has been a low-level simmering for a while, but it seems evident that now the city is a riot of political mobilization and commitment, and each demonstration - each bandh, even, in this bandh-infested city - is in its messy way a festival of democracy. Students driving the police back. Lawyers taking to the street. Doctors demonstrating against police and state brutality. Peaceful demonstrations of thousands being teargassed and then regrouping. Groups collecting money, planning resistance strategy, debating tactics. Individuals finding themselves faced with complex political choices and affiliations. It's all a mess, but it lives and feeds and grows, and it feels new. Even from afar, even from the TV screens, even from telephone conversations and email exchanges with Calcutta, it feels different. The consequences of all this are unknown - but the future's open.

And none of this new ferment is triggered by the Right. If anything, the popular revulsion at Nandigram is a testament to a left-wing structure of feeling, or at least a widely disseminated sympathy for the disempowered, that seems to have miraculously survived the demise of the Bengal CPM as a credible democratic force. Political sympathy, solidarity, that most intangible of sentiments, is out on the streets, muddled up as always with old feuds and rivalries and unsettled scores, a range of distinct and clashing motivations, daily sacrifices of principle, and undirected, violent anger. Nevertheless, it's all alive, and that matters. Or we had all better hope it does.