Geopolitical notes from India
M D Nalapat
Friday, June 04, 2010 – Visitors to China will go to book stores without seeing a single copy of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the “Communist Manifesto”. In contrast, should they visit India, several bookstores carry the works of the two, while in cities in Bengal and Kerala, communist literature is plentiful. Jesef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin may have been tossed aside in Russia, but not in these two States, where even today, they are lovingly commemorated in conferences and even in curricula. Indeed, the first place where a communist party came to power in a free election was Kerala, which elected the Communist Party to office in 1957, only to have the central government dismiss it in 1959,after an agitation led by the Catholic Church that was backed by the daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress President Indira Gandhi. Soon afterwards, in 1967, the Communists were back in power, not only in Kerala but also in West Bengal.
Nationally, the only time that Communists have held office was during 1996-97, when the Home portfolio was looked after by Indrajit Gupta. Indeed, there was even a prospect of India getting a Communist as Prime Minister, something that would have choked off the economic liberalisation that has powered this country’s ascent since the 1990s. Luckily for the economy, a section of the Marxist leadership sabotaged the chances for West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to move to Delhi, thus clearing the way for the Karnataka leader H D Deve Gowda to take charge, although only for a year. After that, the high point of Communist and Marxist influence in the central government came in 2004,when the government led by Manmohan Singh was forced to depend on the 61 MPs of the Left to ensure a majority in Parliament. In the 2009 polls, the Red bastions fell, and today, the two Communist parties are once again sitting on the outside, except in Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala States. While the Communist parties (the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India and the pro-Beijing Communist Party of India-Marxist) have both won and lost elections in Kerala, in Bengal they have been continuously in power for more than three decades, a record of longevity only equalled by the Congress Party, which was in office in India from 1947 to 1977 without facing defeat. The long years of “Red Rule” have changed the culture and mindset in Bengal, pushing to the sidelines the courtly, aristocratic culture that has for hundreds of years been the hallmark of the Bengali. In days past, visitors to Kolkatta (then named Calcutta) would marvel at the charm and politeness of every local citizen he or she encountered, from taxidrivers to hotel receptionists to shop assistants. They were matched in good behaviour only by the old Lucknow aristocracy, which to this day retains the formal traditions of the Mughal Court.
However, not any more. Since the Communist parties took over, in a demonstration of their contempt for national boundaries, they freely allowed more than ten million Bangla Deshis to come to West Bengal, the part of the British Bengal province that remained with India. These days, Bangladeshi migrants have become ubiquitous even in the administration of the state, so that those newly arrived from across the border can be assured of getting a warm welcome (and papers such as ration cards and passports) from Bangla Deshis who had settled in Kolkatta and other West Bengal cities before. The new entrants have brought in their own culture and set of attitudes, which is much closer to the frontier toughness of Bihar than to the gentle charm of Old Bengal. No more can it be said that politeness is the norm, or that women are safe anywhere in Kolkatta. The Marxists have happily accepted these demographic and cultural changes, mainly because they were assured of a steady Vote Bank comprising of the Bangla Deshi migrants.
In those days when the people of West Bengal were happy with a “roti”, a little “sabzi” and a humble mud “makan”, they did not mind that Communist rule meant that the state was losing out on economic growth. The rate of growth in West Bengal has been one of the lowest in the country, and few businesspersons have the confidence needed to make large investments there. However, one of India’s most respected businessmen, Ratan Tata, decided to set up his revolutionary Rs 1 lakh car project in Bengal. Almost immediately afterwards, there was an agitation against the factory (which was suspected of having been funded by business rivals in India and abroad),and the Tatas had to re-locate their factory to Gujarat, a state as business-friendly as West Bengal is business-phobic. Ironically, the politician most responsible for this withdrawal of investment from Bengal is the very person who has gained the most from the Communist failure to assure growth. Her name is Mamata Banerjee, and she is now the Railway Minister of India (although spending 80% of her time in West Bengal) Mamata Banerjee is an unmarried ascetic, who leads a very simple life, with no interest other than politics.
Unlike other lady politicians in India, who have wardrobes of saris that cross into the thousands, Mamata has only a dozen-odd saris in her possession, all of them low-cost cotton rather than expensive silk. She shuns fanfare and luxury, and is known as a good friend and a dangerous foe. Over the years, she has taken away the anti-Communist vote bank from the Congress Party, and since she withdrew from her alliance with the BJP six years ago, has emerged as the preferred choice of West Bengal’s very influential Muslim electors. Indeed, it is the loss of support of the Muslims that has been the single most important factor behind the weakening of Communist rule in West Bengal. For three decades, the atheist Marxists were favoured by the Muslims, because of the assurance that they would be neutral in matters of religion. However, now that Muslim youths – like Hindu and Christian youngsters – seek a good job and comforts such as a personal vehicle, a television set and a good job, they are of the view that such things are not possible so long as the Marxists are in control. They have therefore moved over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC),led by Mamata Banerjee,which has just administered a humiliating defeat to the Communist parties in the West Bengal civic elections. Out of 81 civic bodies, the TMC has won 25,a gain of 13,while the Communists have won only 17,a loss of 37. In Kolkatta, the TMC has won 95 seats out of 141. The Communist parties in India, although they are very friendly with Beijing, have not kept pace with the new model of communism originated by Deng Xiaoping, who made China the economic powerhouse it today is. The Left has always obstructed business in India, and has particularly sought to cut India’s growing ties with the US, a country much admired by the Indian middle class, and which has become the leading strategic ally of Delhi. Indeed, just after the Strategic Dialogue with China, the Obama administration is holding the Strategic Dialogue with India, and it is expected the President Obama himself will attend the Washington banquet in honour of visiting external Affairs Minister S M Krishna.
By the end of the year,P resident Obama is expected to make a state visit to India, to remove apprehensions that he is less keen on strong ties with India than President Bush was. The fact is that President Obama has little choice in the matter. US business wants close ties with India, and what US businesses want, they get. Should India choose the US-built F-18 for its 126-aircraft Air Force order to the announced shortly (although the Obama team is pitching for the obsolete F-16), defense ties between India and the US will get a huge boost. The difference between India and Pakistan is that Pakistan costs money for the US, while the US can make a lot of money from India, which is why the longer-term prospects for ties between Delhi and Washington seem brighter than that for Washington and Islamabad.
Had the Communist parties adopted the pro-business policies of the Chinese Communist Party rather than continuing with the anti-business line of the now defunct Soviet Union, they may have won over the Middle Class, the fastest-growing voting segment in India. By blocking economic reform, the Communist parties have become unpopular with young voters, who want a bright future for themselves. Judging by the West Bengal civic election results, it is clear that the Communists will face defeat in Bengal and also in Kerala by next year. Hopefully, the party leadership will then abandon Josef Stalin and follow Deng Xiaoping. Today, the Indian voter seeks economic progress, not ideology or abstruse questions of religion. As Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Will India’s Communists get the message, before they disappear into the past?
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.