Communists From India Seek the Help of Capitalists
May 16, 2004
By DAVID ROHDE
CALCUTTA - ON A RECENT FRIDAY morning, Buddhadev
Bhattacharjee, chief minister of West Bengal State and a
senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist),
met with an executive from an icon of American capitalism,
the I.B.M. Corporation.
"Outsourcing is a must in this era of globalization, and we
want to take advantage of this opportunity," Mr.
Bhattacharjee told the corporate executive. "We want you to
I.B.M. is one of a half dozen multinational corporations
that have set up shop recently in West Bengal, a state
governed by Communists for 26 years. They are part of Mr.
Bhattacharjee's unorthodox effort to create a "new
Calcutta" of software parks, factories and American-style
malls whose development will be an example for the rest of
"I can humbly claim that our model is the best in the
country," he said in an interview, a portrait of Lenin
hanging on the wall behind him.
Unexpected results on Thursday in national elections
suggested that this party - one of three Communist parties
in India - could play a pivotal role in determining India's
future economic policies. In an upset, an alliance led by
the Congress Party leader, Sonia Gandhi, defeated Prime
Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's governing Hindu nationalist
[The Congress alliance does not have enough seats to form a
majority in Parliament and is expected to ask the
Communists, who won a record 43 seats, to join its
government. The Communists' showing made them the third
largest party in Parliament.]
At times, the Marxist party has taken stands that could
discourage the foreign investment that has helped give
India one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Mr. Bhattacharjee's Communists say that "employment
generation" must be a focus of economic policy and that
profit-making state enterprises should not be privatized.
They also oppose the policies of the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund.
"The philosophy of the World Bank and I.M.F. is they want
globalization in favor of the rich countries at the cost of
third world countries," Mr. Bhattacharjee said. The United
States and Europe should be forced to end their own
agricultural subsides and open up their agricultural
markets, he added, before poor countries do the same.
He said his recipe for growth avoided the uneven
development that plagued other parts of India, where high
technology urban centers thrive and rural areas stagnate.
Seventy percent of India's one billion people still live in
the countryside and rely on agriculture for their
In West Bengal, the party has enacted sweeping land reform
for farmers, heavily invested in small-scale manufacturing
and attracted capitalist titans like Pepsi, Mitsubishi and
Mr. Bhattacharjee has also hired a team of consultants from
the American firm McKinsey & Company to help attract
foreign investors. He has convinced local Marxist labor
unions to end nearly constant strikes that paralyzed the
city. He also has encouraged investors to open glistening
American-style malls, where young middle-class Indians buy
Levi's jeans and Nike sneakers.
The party's political opponents contend that it has sold
out its principles, inflated its economic success and used
coercion to dominate the state. Critics contend that
opponents are ostracized and have even been killed.
"In the village, if you are against the Communists, no
barber will cut your hair, a sort of social boycott," said
Bobby F. Hakim, secretary for the Trinamool Congress, the
state's main opposition party. "They have totally destroyed
this democratic system in West Bengal, especially the
Mr. Bhattacharjee's top aides can be dictatorial,
controlling and arrogant, ordering visitors, for example,
to stand in certain spots in the hall outside his office.
At one Communist rally in the city, party cadres followed a
journalist trying to interview voters. Clearly intimidated,
residents refused to speak.
Mr. Bhattacharjee attributed those actions to a handful of
bad apples or people pretending to be party members.
Despite 25 years in power, the party still polices itself
well, he said.
The failure of Communism in the Soviet Union stemmed from
the party's unwillingness to accept dissent, he added, a
mistake he said the Communists of West Bengal would not
make. He smoothly pointed to his party's economic program
as an example. Investment from leading Indian and Western
computer companies has led to the creation of 20,000 new
high technology jobs. He admitted that the number was tiny
in a state with 80 million people but said that West
Bengal's strong education system, pro-manufacturing
policies and engineering colleges made it an ideal place
for foreign companies to invest.
"Globalization is a must," he said.
But he says he advocates a form of globalization in which
industries from rich and poor countries compete on a level
economic playing field. He promises that socialism, just as
Marx predicted, will eventually triumph over capitalism -
whose current dominance, he said, was a temporary situation
that must be accepted and used.
Mr. Bhattacharjee, 60, writes poetry and is an admirer of
Fidel Castro, Gabriel García Márquez and Noam Chomsky, but
he criticizes fellow Marxists, saying some of them fail to
accept new realities in the world. "Dogma will not work,"
he said. "Learn truth from the facts."
In his personal life, he says he remains a committed
Communist. He dresses in a simple muslin dhoti, or
loincloth, lives in a spartan one-bedroom apartment with
his wife and daughter and never watches television, which
he called the "idiot box." He said he never visited
Calcutta's new shopping malls.
"Consumerism leads to selfishness, cynicism and sometimes
pessimism," he said. "Michael Jackson: these are the
typical products of consumerism."
A small, soft-spoken man with a shock of unruly white hair
and round tortoise-shell glasses, he looks like the
academic he once was, and he is credited with ushering
younger leaders and new thinking into the party.
Four years ago, Jyoti Basu, the Communist leader who led
the party to dominance in West Bengal in the 1970's,
appointed Mr. Bhattacharjee his successor. The Marxists are
the only party in Indian history to have won six
consecutive state elections. In the rest of the country,
strong anti-incumbent sentiment typically sends parties
packing after one or two terms in office.
A few hours after meeting the I.B.M. executive, as he drove
to a Communist political rally, he said the party's rural
reforms were the key to its success. He said that India's
economy could not take off, and the country could not
become an economic power, until its countryside was
At the same time, foreign capitalists can be welcomed.
"China could not have eradicated poverty without the help
of multinational corporations and foreign agencies," he
As he spoke, his motorcade sped through a prosperous
farming village where spray-painted hammers and sickles
covered walls and men shouted, "Long live the revolution!"
Behind them were shops selling mobile phones, television
sets and refrigerators.
"Poverty is not our goal," he said.
© 2004 NY Times