CHENNAI, INDIA – A common joke used to make the rounds in Kolkata, where I grew up and found my footing in journalism. The joke was that West Bengal, whose capital city is Kolkata, was more Marxist than China — this in the heyday of communism. While China retained its Marxist model of governance, it was shrewd enough to open its market along capitalist lines.
On the other hand, West Bengal, the eastern Indian state, stubbornly refused to industrialize, scaring away potential investors, both from home and abroad.
The story of the southwestern state of Kerala has not been very different either. In 1957, it voted communists into power, the first parliamentary state (apart from San Marino) anywhere in the world to have taken this extraordinarily bold step in a global scenario where the Reds were treated like outcasts and viewed with deep suspicion.
Now with important legislative elections in West Bengal and Kerala over, their Marxist governments have gone. The red flags and the placards of hammers and sickles that have been an integral part of these two extremely literate and culturally vibrant regions have disappeared once the poll results were out in May. Even those who have been loyal to the philosophies of Karl Marx had seriously doubted that the communists would be back in office in either West Bengal or Kerala.
This mood was apparent at one such election meeting in Kerala that was reported in the media. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, struggled to keep the attention of the audience during an election rally he addressed. Those gathered there to listen to his speech appeared bored with what he was saying. His comments on food inflation, corruption and the other misdemeanors of the Congress in particular — whose coalition at the federal level in New Delhi not long ago included Karat’s party — produced a big yawn.
The people of Kerala have been benefiting from globalization. It is commonly believed that one of every four households in the state has at least one member working in the Persian Gulf, though with the region’s recent economic crash (especially Dubai, which has a large number of expatriates from Kerala), the picture may not be as rosy right now.
It was, therefore, quite likely that the communists would be shown the door. For, in the April elections, Kerala’s Christians and Muslims, who form roughly half of the state’s population, had reportedly discarded the Marxists. The people were angry about, among other issues, the attempt to cap fees at privately run religious schools, and Keralites are very sensitive about education.
The question of whether the ruling Marxist government would be defeated in Kerala appeared as a foregone conclusion. It had administered the state for 28 years out of the 54 that Kerala had been in existence. The state, which was part of the Madras presidency till 1957, has been otherwise run by the Congress for the remaining 26 years.
What may be all the more distressing for the communists was their defeat in West Bengal. The state is larger than Germany with 91 million people, and the Marxists had been at the helm of affairs there since 1977 — a whopping unbroken 34-year stint in which the Communist Party of India leader, the late Jyoti Basu, served as the chief minister for 23 years, the longest such record in India.
The communists in West Bengal must have by now understood that the electorate was thirsting for change. Admittedly, the Marxists, while neglecting cities and towns, took good care of villages. Farmers were delighted at the radical land reforms the government implemented in the late 1970s. But neglect of the urban areas, marked by an official apathy and hostility to business that led to the flight of capital from the state and collapse of textile mills, angered the elite, job-seekers and industrial houses.
In 2008, Tata’s small-car factory could not operate in West Bengal because that might have displaced many from their farms. The Tatas were willing to handsomely compensate the affected, and it is a fact that the farmers were more than happy to take the money and move on.
When the Tatas shifted to the western state of Gujarat, where the chief minister, Narendra Modi, infamous for spearheading riots in early 2000 that left, according to one estimate, some 10,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead — quickly grabbed his chance. He wanted to be seen as a suave executive doing every bit to make Gujarat the epitome of prosperity.
Such follies ruined the Marxists’ prospects in West Bengal, and an electoral pact between the Congress and the Trinamul Congress (whose leader, Mamata Banerjee, is now the chief minister of the state) looked strong enough to end Red rule in the state.
All said and done, the communists have probably been the only politicians with no money in Swiss banks. But their thinking has been somewhat dated.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a freelance journalist in Chennai, India.
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