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It's right to welcome communist support
for the government of india



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

June 24, 2004

LONDON - It's long been said that one needs a long spoon to sup with the devil, a saying that in the twentieth century was used often in the context of an alliance between democratic political parties and communists. For decades the Italians debated what they called a " historic compromise" and came very close to it at times, but it was always undone by the pressures from Washington and the Vatican. When Francois Mitterand first came to power in France it was in alliance with the communists but he convinced Washington that giving them cabinet positions was the best way of defanging them and indeed the communists rapidly lost electoral strength from that moment on.

Perhaps this is why after much internal debate the Indian communists, having scored unexpectedly well in India's recent elections, decided to support the government but not be part of it. They were nervous about losing their political identity and feared that at the next round of state elections they would then lose votes.

While they prevaricated on which course to take the Indian bourse nose-dived. The market's initial reaction was to fear the communists' influence. Second thoughts have been more sober and now that the communists have made clear the last week that they will not stand in the way of further economic liberalisation, despite their reservations on labour reform and the privatisation of profitable state owned companies, sentiment is moving in their favour and rightly so. The communists of India have much to be said for them.

The communists have two main power bases- the state of Kerala in the south and West Bengal in the east. West Bengal, with a population the size of Germany, is the more remarkable of the two. This is a state that in 1943 suffered one of the worst famines in world history. It has long been overcrowded, a situation made decidedly worst by the massive inflows of refugees following the civil war in Pakistan and the birth of neighbouring Bangladesh. But it is also the cultural powerhouse of India, producing great filmmakers, artists, novelists and economists, not to mention its five Nobel Prize winners.


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The communists first came to power here in 1967 in an alliance with centre parties. Their reforming agenda was violently overtaken by the Maoist Naxalites who tried to impose land reform by publicly burning title deeds and debt bonds and beheading landlords and moneylenders in front of the massed ranks of villagers. It took the authorities- including the communists- a decade to get on top of the problem. In 1977 the communists swept to power and have won every election since.

Their land reform program- the most thorough in India- met surprisingly little political resistance. The Naxalites had sapped the will of the landlords. Now it's hard to find anyone critical of what the communists have done. India's new prime minister Manmohan Singh, in conversation with me, held up West Bengal's success in giving title to sharecroppers as something he wanted to see emulated. Even the president of the West Bengal Chamber of Commerce, Biswadeep Gupta, a big time industrialist, says it has been beneficial: "In rural India this state has the highest savings. This is going to drive growth for investors."

Out in the villages the success is more than evident. Down country roads past village houses and shops with the red flag fluttering, emblazoned in yellow with the hammer and sickle, on past the seemingly incongruous rows of Hindu gods and shrines, past the ubiquitous village ponds filled almost to the brim, the visitor comes on long paddy fields where three crops a year have replaced a single harvest. Bengal has the highest rice production of any Indian state. Electricity is in most of the villages, and many peasants have television, fans and even refrigerators.

West Bengal's chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, admits that while the state progressed on the agricultural front, for most of the years on the industrial front it was moribund. " We made bad mistakes and we have paid for it," he says in an interview in his Calcutta office. "There is a Bengali word in the Oxford dictionary- gherao- which means the workers forcibly entering the office of management. That's what we used to do. Today we say labour productivity is not just the responsibility of management. The unions must cooperate too." For a decade now private investment has been encouraged and the militancy of the labour force gradually tamed. Questioned on globalisation he observes, "We have been to Shanghai and seen that it works". Foreign investment is now on an upswing in West Bengal and the state has one of the highest growth rates in India. Even in Calcutta poverty has been much reduced.

The new government of India cannot survive without communist support but the evidence suggests that on this occasion the long spoon can be safely shortened.


Note for editor 1) copyright JONATHAN POWER 2) dateline Calcutta. 3) I can be reached by e mail: or by phone :+44 7785 351172







Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




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