Red Calcutta


kol-red-flags-on-parade.jpg We were recently caught in a massive demonstration of the Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI-M). There were thousands of people peacefully marching through the streets of Kolkata waving large red flags. The buses were full and the city was literally brought to a stand-still. The state of West Bengal, of which Kolkata is the capital, is run by the communists; and the rally was semi-organised by the state. If the walls of Kalimpong were decorated with symbols of the Gorkha Movement, those of Kolkata are inundated with hammers and sickles. But India seems to entertain a strange relationship with Socialism.

Recently, I read in that in order to be eligible for recognition as a political party by the Indian Election Commission (EC), a vow to socialism is obligatory. This rule came as a result of a constitutional amendment during the Emergency in 1977 when democracy was briefly suspended by Indira Gandhi (not related to Mahatma Gandhi). This was a time when India was closer to the Soviet Union, when India thought that the capitalistic model of the West was morally corrupt and instead opted for launching vast development programs at every five-year plan. This was a time when Indira Gandhi irritated Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state at the time, to the point where he referred to her a as “bitch” as was revealed recently by the release of declassified documents.

kol-communist-poster.jpg And so for the past thirty years, all parties of India have had to do the pledge and swear by Socialism – even parties which policies have clearly departed from socialism and now openly promote the exact opposite. This now seems quite strange if not a little hypocritical. The very same constitution promises to guarantee freedom of thought and speech; so logically political parties should have the liberty to choose their own ideology. It was quite amusing to read in the press the intellectual contortions of those who feel the vow should remain in place despite the contradiction in having dozens of parties swearing by socialism in a pluralist democratic system which promises to secure freedom of thoughts.

Also, India is now a very different country; most parties have abandoned the socialist ideology of the early post-independence years. Even the ruling communist party in West Bengal has been trying to attract private investors and develop partnership with businesses. In fact, the Tata group almost named its latest car after the name of the state’s chief minister, Buddhadeb, to thank him for facilitating the setup of a plant in West Bengal. Indeed, Buddhadeb was criticised for his heavy-handed approach to seize land from the farmers in order for Tata to build its factory. I am not sure Karl Marx would approve such docility in the face of the Kapital. But it is after all very Indian – in the sixties, Nehru himself described the collaboration between the state and rich industrialists as “Revolution by consent”. Ratan Tata was recently included in the Fortune Magazine Power 25, the twenty-five most powerful business people in the world.

kol-new-india.jpg The Sensex, the Bombay stock exchange index, has been booming these last five years. There are now more dollar millionaires in India than in any other country. Knowing that the average annual per capita income is less than AU$1000 or 600 euros; I wonder what happened to the socialist ideals. The social inequality is absolutely shocking in cities like Bombay where Mukesh Ambani, who was briefly the richest man in the world, is planning to build a 60-storey luxury home for his family and his hundreds of servants. Not far from there, millions of people live in the slums; most of them do not have electricity or running water more than a couple of hours a day – if at all. No wonder that the saying “capitalism for the rich, socialism for the poor” can be found to describe India’s schizophrenic economy…

Meanwhile, as the massive flag waving crowd invades the street and swallows the traffic; we have no choice but abandon our taxi and join them to walk the last couple of kilometres to reach our hotel…