Fri, Oct 29, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Communists in India struggle to remain relevant

The communists face criticism that they betrayed the rural peasantry and presided over the decline of West Bengal — once the intellectual and economic center of India

By Jim Yardley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, CALCUTTA, INDIA

Lenin’s statue still rises near the center of the city, and portraits of Stalin and Marx still hang inside the biggest union hall. Anyone doubting the local political dominance — and Cold War humor — of India’s communists need only visit the street in front of the US consulate: It was long ago renamed for Ho Chi Minh.

In the past 33 years, India’s communists have built a political dynasty in the state of West Bengal, staging one of the most remarkable runs in any democracy by winning seven consecutive statewide elections. This would seem to be a ripe moment to expand their influence: India is a nation of deep inequities, with millions of destitute farmers and laborers disconnected from an increasingly capitalistic economy.

Instead, the country’s communists are struggling to remain relevant. For years, they have largely failed to capture the imagination and the support of the masses beyond their regional strongholds of West Bengal and the state of Kerala. And now even their three-decade hold over West Bengal is disintegrating as critics accuse them of betraying the rural peasantry and presiding over the decline of a state once regarded as an intellectual and economic center of India.

“I never thought I would write against them,” said Mahasweta Devi, one of West Bengal’s most famous intellectuals and a social reformer who is now deeply critical of the governing Left Front coalition, which is led by the communists.

“Leftist politicians are losing the battle because they have not cared enough to deliver the goods to the people,” Devi said.

Only six years ago, the communists were kingmakers whose support enabled the Congress Party to form a rickety coalition national government. However, that influence has steadily diminished; the communists were trounced in last year’s parliamentary elections and are facing the strong possibility of losing control of West Bengal in statewide elections next year.

Now the Congress Party is allied with Mamata Banerjee, the fiery political leader whose Trinamool Congress Party is favored to unseat the communists next year. At the same time, Maoist rebels in the West Bengal countryside are a constant source of agitation. Analysts trace the communist decline partly to the inevitable excesses of any party so long in power.

POLITICIZED

Institutions like the police, schools, universities and hospitals have become deeply politicized, critics said.

But the Communists have also been undermined by the same volatile political forces reverberating elsewhere in India, where industrialization is fueling conflicts over the control of land.

Inside the Writers’ Building, the hulking red brick edifice from where the British once ran colonial India and that now serves as the seat of power in West Bengal, there is the feel of the last months of another crumbling empire.

“I don’t think it is a crime to be in government for 33 years with the mandate of the people in a parliamentary democracy,” said Surjya Kanta, the state’s minister of health, sighing when asked whether the Left Front coalition had held power too long.

However, he conceded: “There has been some erosion in our support base.”

To a large degree, the communists’ problems are rooted in their early success. When a communist-led coalition of leftist parties took power in 1977, they began a sweeping campaign that redistributed land to small farmers and codified legal protections for tenant farmers. Today, roughly 84 percent of rural land in West Bengal is owned by ordinary peasants, compared with a national average of about 43 percent. Politically, the communists also sought to decentralize power by establishing village-level assemblies known as panchayats, a model that has since been emulated nationwide.

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