In 1957, Milovan Dilas, the Yugoslav communist leader turned dissident, coined the term “new class” in his eponymous critique of the communist system in eastern Europe. The term was meant to convey the emergence of a new class of privilege, power and control that the working of the communist parties created.
The phrase found particular favour with critics of the communist system in the western world because it came from an insider, someone who was once part of Yugoslavia's communist regime. Even if one removes the political import, the insider view of the conduct of communist parties while holding power can serve as an important perspective.
In India, this has been in short supply. The glaring lack of such accounts has been particularly felt when one looks back at the 34-year run – from 1977 to 2011 – of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in West Bengal. Sourjya Bhowmick’s Gangster State, published by Pan Macmillan, tries to fill the gap with a thinly-disguised chronicling of his experiences as a student leader and youth activist in the heyday of the CPIM’s dominance in Bengal’s power politics.
Bhowmick uses Rajat as a narrative device to recount his days as an activist for two CPIM affiliated bodies, the Student Federation of India (SFI) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI). He revisits the alleys of Presidency College and Calcutta University as an active participant while turning his retrospective gaze to the intermingling of power games, criminal interventions, and patronage structures. More strikingly, he traces the dogmatic delusions of the power-drunk party which led it to promote and defend different forms of criminality in the name of ideological causes and sway. In the process, the party spawned its fiefdoms in so many spheres of public life and space that it hardly had any chance of democratic conduct.
In a more menacing sense, it took a form where electoral banditry and techniques of booth-jam and rigging were elevated to craft. It descended to a point where party-sponsored lawlessness was seen as political entitlement.
The book straddles the unfolding political scene of contemporary Bengal, much of which would be current affairs for many, and reliving a young party worker’s experience. In doing so, the retelling takes too many detours. Sometimes it impedes the flow, sometimes it’s rewarding.
Bhowmick’s attention to the particular is more effective when he gives slices of what the party meant by the idea of the public in Bengal. It stretched to settling even domestic disputes with the party cadre acting as a kangaroo court. Similarly, the detailing of the wide patronage system erected by the party – ranging from suppliers of building material in different localities to awards and appointments in educational institutions – mirrors the all-pervasive nature of the governing dispensations in Bengal.
However, the CPIM’s most lingering legacy in Bengal politics would be its focus on establishing street power. It meant that violence, or the potent threat of producing it, became an important arbiter in the conduct of power politics in the state. The way the powerful Trinamool Congress inherited that role in recent years had precedents that go a long way back. Perhaps the violence-scarrred body politics in the state from the late 1960s to mid 1970s cast long shadows on the state’s body politic.
Even in its years of unchallenged claim on the power levers of the state, the tensions within the party were intriguing. The faction-ridden politics of the Left could be seen in smaller arenas like universities too. “When you do not have any opposition, you become your own opposition,” Rajat observes cryptically.
The incongruence of the party, as the book cheekily reminds its reader, to the everyday concerns of its voters was seen when party activists were explaining to slum dwellers the dangers of the India-US nuclear deal. The polemics of anti-Americanism was anyway the default line for the party, whose vocabulary in universities was confined to Bottomer’s Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Interestingly, the book explains that as late as 2007, it was the CPIM which used the phrase “urban naxal” to berate the stereotypical Maoist sympathisers in Kolkata. In the years to come, the phrase became handy for party supporters because the TMC was seen to align with Maoist causes in Nandigram and Salboni. This came at the back of the debacle that economic reform-minded Buddhadeb Bhattachrjee faced in attracting private investment in Singur.
The threat of preemptive and retaliatory violence – a reality of Bengal’s party competition – could be one of the influencers of voting behaviour in Bengal. The book offers many episodes where it became the last mile that the Left Front was open to cover, even in low-stake university and college polls. In state politics, the opposition could lose sight of the threat. In this context, the book recalls how Mamata Banerjee insisted on the deployment of central forces in the regime-changing 2011 assembly poll. On an ironic note, though not surprising, Banerjee’s aversion to the presence of central forces in the 2021 poll could be lost to short public memory.
In its essence, the book is also a coming-of-age reflection of a political apprentice who can look at his disillusionment from a distance and with dwindling bitterness. The roadmap that the author suggests for the CPIM to reinvent itself shows the participant-narrator can afford detachment. That also ensures that some parts of the book are tinged with the memory of space too. One could, for instance, see how Bhowmick looks at two colonial urban constructs of Calcutta and Bombay on similar grounds while registering the divergence in their political and cultural personalities.
In many ways, Gangster State reminds us about the pitfalls of a political party extending its hegemony to produce state-party fusion. That was even more ironic coming from a party whose founding philosopher made a utopian prediction about the state “withering away”. In its long stay in Writers’ Building, the party ensured that the state was identified with the party. In the meantime, the “new class” were the new rulers. Even the party’s most lasting imprint on rural Bengal , the Operation Barga land reforms, couldn’t escape this charge.