By Prabhat Patnaik
All these images of Jyoti Basu have their own validity. And they all share a common perception: that of a remarkably courageous and straightforward person, totally devoid of cant, and capable of seeing things without the blinkers that most people have a habit of choosing to put on. I prefer here, however, to dwell on the image of Jyoti Basu that my generation has, namely as the builder of a new Bengal, because in my view that is a role which none other than Jyoti Basu could have played.
Before the Left Front came to power, West Bengal presented the quintessential picture of a state in decline. Once the centre of British power east of Suez, it had witnessed, over the half century before independence, an absolute decline in agricultural production per capita, and an even steeper absolute decline in foodgrain production per capita. Though the post-independence years had witnessed some reversal of these dire trends, it was far from adequate: West Bengal was afflicted by a deep-rooted and long-standing agrarian crisis. Its traditional industries, tea and jute, originally owned by British managing agencies and subsequently taken over by mainly Marwari businessmen, faced inelastic world demand and overall bleak prospects. The engineering industry which had come up mainly during the war years received a jolt from the mid-sixties recession from which it never really recovered. The freight equalisation scheme had hurt the state badly. The social crisis created by pervasive unemployment among the youth, refracted inter alia through the Naxalite movement, was captured chillingly in artistic creations of the time, such as for instance Mrinal Sen’s film Chorus. While a social revolution remained a distant dream, the way forward short of it was not clear. It appeared to be a society incapable as yet of making a leap, but hopelessly lost without such a leap. And this turbulent stasis came increasingly to be sustained through the use of semi-fascist terror by the State.
The remarkable turnaround in this situation which the Left Front achieved within a few years of assuming office under Jyoti Basu’s leadership in 1977 would appear unbelievable to any one who had witnessed the earlier situation. Indeed the dynamics of that turnaround are still not very clear and require a substantial theoretical endeavour. There is only one thing however that one can say about it with certainty, namely at the core of it was the overcoming of the long-standing agrarian crisis.
Lord Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement had left two important legacies in Bengal’s economy. First, since the revenue accruing to the colonial government was fixed, the rate of return to the government from any investment in irrigation was nil, or at any rate way below the minimum rate of return which the colonial government insisted on earning on all its investments. Hence, Bengal saw very little irrigation investment in the colonial period. There was an additional reason for this: following the report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1926) a view had gained currency that the problem of Bengal agriculture arose from too much water and not too little. This neglect of irrigation from the colonial period, though slightly reversed after independence, continued to haunt West Bengal’s agriculture.
The Left Front confronted both these constraints head on. Land reform measures, initiated by the short-lived United Front governments earlier, were carried forward through the recording of sharecroppers under Operation Barga, through the conferring on them of rights to land, and through the distribution of ceiling-surplus land. This was followed by the setting up of an alternative institutional mechanism in the countryside, the panchayats, which not only entailed decentralisation of power and decision making but also provided an alternative to the traditional power-structure dominated by the jotedars. The balance of class forces was altered in the countryside in favour of the oppressed peasantry and against the jotedars, which, apart from strengthening democracy, also encouraged productive investment by the peasantry, and hence the development of the productive forces. At the same time there was a substantial step-up in public expenditure on rural development in general and on irrigation in particular.
As a result of these measures a sea change occurred in the cropping intensity and in the cropping pattern. Areas which for centuries had witnessed only a single crop now started growing three crops. Local level plans began to be drawn up with the help of the democratically-elected representatives of the people serving on the panchayats. And agricultural growth in West Bengal began to pick up.
To some extent, even before the Left Front came to power, the potentials of, and the scope for, multiple cropping had become evident in small pockets in districts like Bardhaman and Birbhum, where potato and boro rice had been cultivated as a third crop in addition to the traditional aman and aus. But what had remained confined to small pockets now became the common practice over large tracts of the state, so much so that in the decade of the 1980s West Bengal witnessed the highest rate of growth in agricultural production among all the states in the country. In the nineties, the growth rate came down everywhere, a result inter alia of the neo-liberal policies adopted by the centre which squeezed the peasantry even as they forced a curtailment of public investment in rural development. Even so, among the states, West Bengal continued to be a high performer.
Rapid agricultural growth, together with increased government expenditure in the countryside, enlarged the rural market in the state, both for foodgrains and for a variety of simple industrial goods. It is interesting that among all the states in India, West Bengal and Kerala were the only two that witnessed a steady increase in the per capita cereal consumption by the rural population in the decades of the eighties and the nineties. The increased demand for simple industrial goods in the countryside brought about a remarkable “industrialisation from below” in West Bengal, with substantial employment effects, whose reach and significance have been inadequately appreciated till now. And with rising incomes, the state government’s revenues also rose, making possible enhanced social sector expenditures, and a general improvement in the quality of life of the people.
Just one set of figures will suffice to establish the point. In 1977-78, the percentage of rural population in West Bengal consuming less than 1800 calories per person per day, which really defines acute poverty (since the official poverty line is 2400 calories), was as high as 40 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for India as a whole. By 1993-4 the figure had come down to 17 per cent, compared to 18.5 per cent for India as a whole. True, this figure went up in West Bengal, like in the rest of the country, towards the end of the nineties and early this century, because the pursuit of neo-liberal policies by the central government undermined food security in the country as a whole; but even in 1999-00 the figure for West Bengal was just 22 per cent (though there are statistical problems in comparing 99-00 with the earlier years). The overriding objective of any government, functioning in a country like ours, must be the amelioration of poverty; by this yardstick the Jyoti Basu government’s record remains unparalleled in modern India.
The fact that something remarkable was happening in West Bengal was appreciated, before anyone else in the world outside could discern it properly, by that most insightful observer of the scene, EMS Namboodiripad. It was obvious to any participant at the first International Congress on Kerala Studies, organised through his initiative in 1994 at Thiruvananthapuram, that the question which haunted him was the following: why is it that Kerala with its remarkable record of land reforms and remarkable achievements in the social sector (which had prompted many to talk of a “Kerala Model” of development) continued to witness stagnation in the commodity producing sectors, while the other progressive state, West Bengal, had such remarkable successes in promoting growth in the major commodity producing sectors. EMS was not looking for “bourgeois” solutions, but solutions in keeping with the progressive traditions of his state which is why he had turned to West Bengal as his criterion for comparison. The answer he came up with was the role of the panchayats and accordingly launched his momentous “Peoples’ Plan Campaign”. But what is of significance for us is his implicit tribute to the “West Bengal model” (if one may call it that).
The travails of the Left Front government from the end of the nineties have been much discussed. But what is often missed by both the critics and even the supporters of the Left Front is that underlying these travails is the pursuit of neo-liberal policies by the central government. The hurdles created by the neo-liberal environment against the Left’s approach were not immediately obvious. Indeed it appeared at first, and not without justification, that the scrapping of licensing which had been used as a tool of discrimination by the central government against recalcitrant states like West Bengal, would usher in a new era of growth of modern industry in the state. And the state government, starting from the period when Jyoti Basu was at the helm, worked tirelessly for it. But there were two basic ways in which neo-liberalism impinged adversely on the Left Front’s strategy.
First, as the tax-GDP ratio of the centre declined over the decade of the nineties (the states in fact did much better in this regard), the centre not only cut back on its own expenditure, especially rural development expenditure, but even passed on the burden of its fiscal crisis to the shoulders of the state governments through reduced transfers to states and exorbitant interest rates (even exceeding the rate of growth of the average Net State Domestic Product) on its loans to states. The states thus became the victims of a fiscal squeeze imposed from the centre, and West Bengal was no exception. The problem of state indebtedness can be traced directly to this squeeze.
Having first imposed this squeeze, the centre then used it to force the states to fall in line behind its pursuit of a neo-liberal agenda. The eleventh finance commission insisted on a set of neo-liberal reforms which the states had to carry out even to qualify for the resources that were their constitutional due. The twelfth finance commission addressed the issue of state indebtedness by insisting that state governments pass fiscal responsibility legislation to qualify for assistance, which was both constitutionally questionable and uncalled for by the tenets of economic theory, and which the West Bengal government rightly refused to do. The origins of West Bengal’s fiscal problems lay inter alia in these developments.
Secondly, as a fall-out of the withdrawal of State support from peasant agriculture under the influence of neo-liberalism, the current century has witnessed a virtual stagnation in absolute foodgrain output, at least until 2006-07 (after which procurement prices were raised, in a reversal of neo-liberalism, and appear to have had a favourable effect on output). And West Bengal has not been spared the consequences of this stagnation.
The situation arising from the pursuit of neo-liberal policies continues to pose severe challenges before the Left even today. The fact that the Left will not have the benefit of Jyoti Basu’s sagacity in charting out a new course in this complex scenario is a great tragedy. But the legacy he leaves behind, and his counsel to comrades to be “always with the masses” and to “keep faith with the masses”, will no doubt help the Left to overcome its current challenges. And it can draw genuine pride from the fact that during the two decades or more when Jyoti Basu was at the helm in West Bengal, it achieved something, which, though somewhat unsung, was nonetheless quite outstanding.