February 13, 2007

India's Communists:Marxists here and markets there

- From Economist.com

AT THE headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a fine brownstone building in central Delhi, bald-headed Lenin busts glower at crazy-haired Che Guevara pictures. Soviet posters celebrating collective farms, all Cyrillic script and tractors, decorate the walls.
The symbols are meant in earnest. Prakash Karat, secretary-general of the party, concedes that “there is an economic rationale for industrialisation”, but with obvious distaste. The party views the collapse of the Soviet empire as merely a tactical setback for the communist and revolutionary forces.
Yet CPI(M), as the party is known, is a crucial ally of India's reform-inclined but complicated coalition government, led by the Congress party and its avuncular prime minister, Manmohan Singh. This government's stated aim is to reduce poverty by liberalising the economy, encouraging foreign investment, and hacking away at red tape.
The record of reform has been mixed and modest. The leftists have blocked deregulation in banking and mining. They have rendered cuts to bloated government pay-rolls a distant dream. And they have offended America by opposing its bid to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

All this is bad, but probably no worse than many recalcitrant lefties in the Congress party would have managed unaided, given the chance. The real surprise is how many relatively good things have passed into law, given the Communists' noisy pro-forma objections to anything smacking of liberalism. They initially barracked against foreign retailers' being allowed a toehold in India, for example. But single-brand stores and wholesalers have been let in, and the commies have kept calm. If they are not really serious about revolution, they are impressive survivors.
The further you get from Delhi, the more clearly the Communists' pragmatism can be seen. They control state governments in Kerala, in Tripura, and in West Bengal, which has a population of 80m. In May in West Bengal they won a seventh straight election victory. Unlike earlier victories, it was neither violent nor rigged. After three decades in power there, the Communists have learned how to make themselves popular.

Socialism helped at first. Early in their rule, almost alone among state governments, the Communists enforced laws to redistribute land to the landless. Peasants prospered¯and capital fled, sending Calcutta, the vast state capital, spiralling deeper into the poverty for which it is notorious. But in the past decade the Communists have lured some of the capitalists back.
Bhuddadeb Bhattacharya, West Bengal's boss for most of that time, is often reckoned the best chief minister in India. He is a visionary reformer, an architect of information hubs, business parks and special economic zones. Sensibly governed, West Bengal grew by over 7% a year from 1994 to 2003, becoming the third-biggest state economy in the country.

This is the curious contradiction of the Communists. To sustain its popularity in West Bengal, the party there has embraced reform. But to maintain their political identity, Communist leaders in Delhi have opposed those same reforms. At the same time, to stay close to power, they have allowed through a trickle of liberal measures.

Mr Karat and the rest of his politburo want to keep at least one foot in old-fashioned Marxism, because they sense a populist threat
This has made them maddening allies for Mr Singh. He has accused them of double standards. But hypocrisy and self-interest are nothing new in politics. Mr Karat and the rest of his politburo want to keep at least one foot in old-fashioned Marxism, because they sense a populist threat. The big winners at the 2004 election were a cluster of small regional and caste-based parties that collected almost half the vote.

India's Communists fear that these rising parties may eat much deeper into the vote. With that in mind, rather than risking a move towards the liberal centrists, as left-wing parties have done in many European countries, the Indian Communists are clinging all the harder to what makes them distinctive¯their ideology. Expect the busts of Lenin to go on grinning malignly in the Communists' Delhi headquarters, no matter how liberally the party rules in West Bengal¯at least until the building gets sold to Wal-Mart.

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