The world’s longest-running democratically elected Marxist government governs India’s eastern state of West Bengal. In last May’s assembly elections the communists not only returned to power in West Bengal for a record consecutive 5-year term, but they also achieved a three-fourths majority.
The followers of Marx and Lenin have handled the affairs of 80 million people of West Bengal for the past 30 years. What is the secret of success for a political party that once believed in single-party rule and government control over most affairs? Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, says the Marxist party emphasized good governance over ideology: “You have to look at the West Bengal’s Communist party predominantly as a regional party, only secondarily as an ideological one.”
Manas Ghosh is the editor of Dainik Statesman, a newspaper published in West Bengal’s capital, Calcutta. He says the Marxist party has more or less become a social democratic party: “Now they don’t talk about following a revolutionary path," says Mr. Ghosh. “In fact it has become more of a social democratic, than a revolutionary, party. It has undergone a change in its character.”
But Ambassador Teresita Schaffer disagrees: “From the start it has accepted the democratic process in India, at least from the point they started winning elections. They were doing well. Why shouldn’t they accept it? If you ask what their ideology was, they would have given you a very much communist- style answer like more power to the workers. That is an important part of their ideology. But they have been able to get there by democratic means.”
Taking a cue from China, West Bengals’s Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has pushed through an ambitious economic reform program with an approach more capitalist than communist. He has invited foreign investment, privatized state-owned companies and properties, and is pushing to make West Bengal a major Information Technology hub - moves that have often earned him the ire of his party's Politburo members.
In an interview with the BBC, Chief Minister Bhattacharya did not hide the fact that he is inspired by the Chinese who are following capitalist policies while keeping communism intact. “The Chinese government initiated several new programs,” says Mr. Bhattacharya. “Now they say the socialist economy should also allow different types of ownership, state ownership, collective ownership including private ownership and foreign investment.”
But many young people in West Bengal say there is one point on which Communist West Bengal and Communist China will never agree: “Whatever we get to know about China’s policies, they do not practice human rights. We are not ready to sacrifice human rights to get people out of poverty, No."
Nonetheless, many Bengalis still distrust communism. Journalist Manas Ghosh says they fear that the original goal of the Marxists is still a one-party state and that the communists are using democracy as a means to that goal: “It is a Stalinist party which believes in a one-party system. And one day you will find they would certainly like to impose one-party rule in India.”
However, Ambassador Teresita Schaffer sees it differently. “I don’t know whether they dream of a one-party system," says Ambassador Schaffer. "If they do, they must realize that particular dream is not likely to come true. I think they are perfectly comfortable working in the multi-party system."
Analysts say West Bengal, along with the rest of India, is moving toward globalization and a free market economy. As is the case with other political parties ruling in several other states of India, the Marxist government in West Bengal has no choice except to follow a democratic path - if it wants to remain in power.
Our report was written by Subhash Vohra. For VOA News Now I'm Steve Ember.