This must rank as one of the funniest stories in a long while. The Marxist candidate for mayor for the municipal election in Bidhannagar, next to Kolkata, on 3 October was the now-venerable Asim Dasgupta, who served as Finance Minister of Left Front governments in Bengal for more than a quarter century; but this is not a joke about how the mighty have fallen. In fact, it goes to the CPI(M)’s credit that it does not permit anyone’s ego to interfere with a party diktat. If a lofty Finance Minister is ordered to try for a suburban mayor’s job, so be it. The joke lies elsewhere.
Comrade Dasgupta is canvassing in the old-fashioned manner, door-to-door. According to the Indian Express, he tells citizens, “Don’t forget to vote. And make sure you’re there early in the morning…because that’s when we expect the trouble and disruption by TMC [Trinamool Congress] hooligans to be the least.” He also distributes a pamphlet captioned “Nijer Vote Nije Deen”, or, “Cast your vote yourself”.
This is uproarious for anyone who lived in Bengal between 1977 and 2011, when the Left Front held what seemed to be interminable power. In every election, the Marxists supplemented their vote, and ensured victory, in precisely this manner. Their cadre would, with the confidence of hooligans protected by state police, capture polling booths where they believed the vote would go against them. Officials manning the voting centres were intimidated if they did not collaborate. It is always fun to hear a shrivelled pot calling a whistling kettle black. Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is doing unto CPI(M) precisely what CPI(M) did unto others. It is almost impossible to imagine Bengal’s Marxists as advocates of fair elections. But defeat works wonders. It can even make you virtuous.
The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men. The Leftists have neither reinvented their philosophy to restore their equation with the young, nor retired the old men who have long passed their sell-by date. Asim Dasgupta is 69 now. In other words, he was 40 when appointed Finance Minister. Why has CPI(M) not made a 40-year-old its candidate for mayor in Bidhannagar? Is it because the party does not have too many members who are young and capable? Or is it because they still suffer from what might be called the “Soviet Politburo mentality”, in which once you were taken into the charmed circle you remained there till God sent summons? Since the Marxist icon Stalin did not believe in God, he solved the problem with a periodic purge, but that option is not available to Bengal’s Stalinists.
The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men.
Irrespective of localised results in a municipal poll, it is unlikely that the red flag, currently at limp half mast, will flutter under the leadership of tired old men. The interesting question is this: can leftists ever regain the space vacated by them in India’s electoral equations? Has pseudo-Marxism in India become as passé as Marxism internationally? The last outposts have fallen. China’s Communists have egalitarian intentions, but no longer believe that they can create prosperity through old, formulaic prescriptions. Cuba’s Raul Castro is beginning to see the light of radiant religion. He welcomed Pope Francis to his country by signalling that he could return to the faith. The pillars of Marxism have crumbled, leaving only good intentions behind.
The secret of Bengal-Marxist longevity lay not in doctrine but in a party machine. Their nemesis, Mamata Banerjee, understood this, which is why she simply usurped enough parts of that machine and adjusted it into her own networks. Simultaneously, the challenge of poverty is being addressed by political forces that owe nothing to the Left, and view this as a national mission rather than as part of an international revolutionary project. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee wins because she has the support of the poor.
For three and a half decades, Marxists treated Bengal as their citadel, and it was a pretty effective fortress. Strangely, leftists never once believed that the doors of a fortress can also open outward; that it can be a secure base from which a realm, or an ideology, can expand. Instead they closed the doors upon themselves and retreated into an arrogant smugness.
Parties, like individuals, can become bed-ridden for many reasons; many have died an early death because of irrelevance. When an obituary of the Indian Left is written, it will be said that it died of complacency. It was not homicide, really. It was suicide.
Is it too late for recovery? No. But the Left does not need a doctor. It needs a miracle. Miracles require God. If the Left will not accept God, it should at least try a different Godfather.