Book Review: Government as Practice by Dwaipayan Bhattacharya

Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, a Marxist himself and a professor in the famed university writes an excellent book about the Left front rule in WB. He does not theorise much and much of the book is written from an the perspective of one who seeks to understand the dynamics and the instrumentalities of how the Left front managed to rule Bengal uninterrupted for 34 long years and win seven consecutive elections. The paradigm invented and perfected by the left to achieve this he calls ‘Government as Practice’. Some takeaways;

1. The two main instruments through which this ‘Govt as Practice’ as was initiated by the Left was the implementation of land reforms and creation of Panchayati raj institutions with elections on party lines. While the land reforms helped in creating a solid mass of support for the left in the country side, especially amongst the downtrodden, the acquisition of political offices by the cadres of the Left helped them in gaining administrative experience, curbed the power of the bureaucracy and created the localisation of government. These cadres at the panchayats and local level also acted as intermediaries between the society and the party as well as the government mediating and attuning govt policy to societal aspirations and controlling social fissures. This in turn helped in stability of governance. However, in implementing the land reforms left dumped much of its radicalism for pragmatism, stressing class unity rather than class divisions in the rural areas. So the biggest beneficiaries in the power structure were the middle peasants and small peasants, not the landless.

2. This also led to the development of what he calls a ‘party society’ in WB. Party became the dominant mediating presence between the people and the govt marginalizing in the process other traditional institutions like caste or religious networks. This party society was fundamentally geared towards winning elections and was different from the political society in the sense that in a party society the winner takes all.

3. He highlights the role the rural school teachers played in augmenting the organisational reach and political prestige of the left in the countryside. This became more pronounced with the massive increase in their salaries and emoluments. What is not mentioned in the book is the role that these teachers played in furthering the scientific rigging that Left had mastered as an art with these teachers as presiding officers during elections. In course of time however, Bhattacharya writes, the role of these teachers got attenuated in the set up and they were replaced by petty contractors, traders, fixers etc who hijacked the leadership of the party at the grassroots level.

4. As is wont to be with any political dispensation which stresses too much on agriculture growth at the cost of other sectors, in WB too agricultural growth petered out by the 1990s with fragmentation of landholdings, limits to productivity growth and rising input costs, govt with a view to control rural unrest created new opportunities of livelihood in the tertiary sector like wholesalers, petty contractors, brokers etc who in course of time aligned themselves with the party and took over its local leadership. However their support to the party was not ideological but transactional and when the fortunes of the left declined due to Singur and Nandigram, these groups shifted their allegiance enbloc to the TMC.

5. Bhattacharya believes that the party failed to mediate and communicate with the population and since the local cadres too did not have an ideological but a tactical commitment to the party, the communication channels broke down jeopardizing the whole praxis of ‘Govt as Practice’. The whole industrialization exercise now looked imposed from the top and bereft of any credibility.

6. He also highlights the spectacular social failures of the left wherein though they derived substantial electoral support from the downtrodden, the govt remained mostly a Bhadralok govt with negligible representation of the downtrodden communities. Further the state performed dismally in health and education. WB’s literacy during the entire left ruled period remained unchanged in comparison to 16 states and in infrastructure for primary education it continued to rank third from bottom. In the HDI index it remained 9th amongst 16 major states with its health indices hardly anything to boast of.
(Now these are figures authenticated by an intellectual Marxist from the famed institute so don’t attribute motives to me or tell me how great social revolution communism brings)

In conclusion a very interesting book, I need to make extensive notes. This has now made me want to read a book on the way TMC governs Bengal. Any suggestions are most welcome pl!!

BJP people should read this book, helps explain the chinks in the armour of these parties and organisation, how counter narratives and organisations built and who are the marginalised caste, class or groups which do not have a share in govt and which can be targeted. The author laments that much problem exists in the neglect of caste by left brushing it under the carpet of class. 

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