Communist 'Good Governance' in a Postcolonial Democracy:
On the Left Front Rule in West Bengal, 1977-96
By Prasenjit Maiti
Department of Political Science
Burdwan University, West Bengal, India
and Research Associate, Institute of Federalism
University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Our paper addresses certain prescriptive lessons that may be derived from (what is generally regarded as) the Left Front's
remarkable track record of social democratic governance in West Bengal, India during 1977-96 as a new paradigm of 'good
governance' in South Asia, especially after the demise of the South East Asian Tigers and decline of the so-called Asian
Values that had once informed their fast-track economies and authoritarian régimes. We argue that transition from 'actors and
institutions' to 'actors in institutions' is an enabling exercise so far as the problem(s) of rule are concerned. Our paper exposits
the problem in a theoretical manner, and investigates the findings empirically, conjoining theory and praxes in the process.
We would address in our paper certain empirical and prescriptive lessons that can be extrapolated from Left
Front governance in West Bengal, India during 1977-96 as an emergent model of 'good governance' in
South Asia, especially after the demise of the South East Asian Tigers and decline of the so-called Asian
Values (Fukuyama, 1998: 23-7) that had once underpinned their fast-track economies and authoritarian
The interregnum during 1967-77 in the state of West Bengal was a decade of anarchy, chaos,
lawlessness and misrule when emergent political actors were 'against' existing institutions, had even
subverted such institutions, and were not in consonance to reconcile their worldview(s) with either the ethos
perception or the culture root paradigms of a postcolonial liberal democracy (Ray, 1989, 1996).
However, the situation changed for the 'better' since 1977 with the coming to power of four consecutive Left
Front governments in West Bengal during 1977-96. Our paper interrogates the possible reasons behind
such a turnaround, and makes an attempt to develop a neoinstitutional argument to underpin explanations
of the LF's performance in West Bengal during 1977-96.
The level of governance in West Bengal demonstrably peaked from the earlier decade of disorder, and
pro-people institutions were being actively sponsored by the new 'communist' bhadralokian rulers to
entrench an almost unprecedented domination of a legitimate political order identified more or less with the
Communist Party of India (Marxist), the 'moving spirit' behind the LF governments. Sanjeeb Mukherjee
(1985: 127) is of the opinion that ". . . political leadership is now no longer in the hands of the ruling classes,
but resides in the Bengali petty bourgeoisie, ie the intelligentsia and the bhadralok with their close
organisational connection with and domination over the working class and the peasantry through the
established left parties based on a social democratic reformist ideology."
What is significant here is the fact that the rulers now in political office in West Bengal were all 'actors in
institutions' rather than being 'actors against institutions'. Atul Kohli (1991: 295) is convinced that "After
having been one of India's most chaotic states in the late 1960s, West Bengal has emerged in the 1980s
as one of India's better-governed states. Surely there are lessons in this turnaround for any study of India's
growing crisis of governability."
So it would appear that post-1977 West Bengal is a 'watershed' of sorts. A relatively better quality of
governance has made it 'one of India's better-governed states', if not the very best. There are reasons that
substantiate such a contention: West Bengal has had uninterrupted cabinet stability during 1977-96 (Mitra,
1978) while political violence has been 'minimized', especially since the chaos and lawlessness of the
There is yet another angle to this 'extraordinary' success on the part of the LF to combine / coordinate and
synchronize both government and movement; this happens to be the consideration and consolidation of a
Marxist régime within the ideologically 'other' domain of a bourgeois set-up. This is a rare event, not even
anticipated Karl Marx or Lenin, the constant ideological reference points of the CPM (Nossiter, 1988).
Entrenchment of the LF government through liberal democratic elections, therefore, is unique in Marxist
political history (Mukhopadhyay, 1985: 100-1):
The Left Front set out to implement a 36-point common minimum programme on the basis of which it had
fought the elections (1977). It contained proposals for socio-economic reforms to be effected by popular
initiative from below and by administrative measures from above. Further it laid stress on restoration of
democratic norms, preservation of basic individual liberties and protection of the rights of students,
teachers, employees in private and public sectors and of peasants to form associations and bargain with
and protest against their respective authorities. The Left Front also reiterated its demand for a restructuring
of centre-state relations and a review of the discriminatory policies pursued by the centre vis-à-vis the
constituent states of the Indian federation.
Another interesting aspect of LF rule in West Bengal during 1977-96 is the restoration of political order and
legitimacy that had coincided with the ascendancy of the Marxists to power. Political violence was reduced,
and 'sanity' returned to West Bengal after a decade-long near-absence of democratic institutions. This is an
apparent paradox as the class war thesis-driven 'revolutionary' ideology of Marxism-Leninism is rather
inimical to the 'bourgeois' notions of peace and stability (Gupta, 1995: 44): "(Atul) Kohli . . . commends the
West Bengal government for some of its exceptional features. This government is characterized by a
coherent leadership, an ideological commitment to exclude the propertied classes from direct participation
in the governance of the state, by a pragmatic attitude to the entrepreneurial classes which are
non-threatening in character to the political authorities, as well as by a party and political organizational
apparatus that is both centralized and decentralized."
We have noticed that the anarchy of 1967-77 was brought under control by consecutive LF governments by
cabinet stability, democratic rural and urban decentralization, political (re)institutionalization of mass
organizations, land (re)distribution, entrenchment of the cooperatives movement and grassroots
empowerment at the level of the panchayats (local self-government institutions) among other remedial
Mohit Bhattacharya and Prabhat K. Datta (1991: 187-8) are convinced that "West Bengal under the regime of
the Left Front has revitalized panchayat bodies by holding regular elections to these bodies . . . The core of
the rural development programmes in land reform which is being implemented by the bureaucracy under
close surveillance and in close collaboration with the panchayats which are no longer determined by the
landed gentry . . . (Atul) Kohli's study based on the policies pursued by the Left Front Government in West
Bengal (1987) . . . seem to suggest that regime attributes are of considerable significance in explaining
varying reformist capacities."
The régime (1977-96) had the image, acceptability and legitimacy of a 'people's government' despite
several limitations, ideological and practical. This period was an exemplar of a people's government in
action. There were attendant shortcomings, too, but conscious efforts were made (at least during the first 2
LF governments, 1977 and 1982) after the infamous interregnum to translate popular visions into public
action. The régime's principal attributes were, therefore,
1.creation of social opportunities,
2.perusal of democratic empowerment and social justice,
3.introduction of economic, especially agrarian, security and
4.consolidation of decentralized democracy at the grassroots.
"The most significant elements in the recent history of West Bengal are to be found in the attempts to devise
more democratic forms of social action to secure sources of livelihood as well as a public culture of dignity
for all sections of the people. These attempts have had a central coordinating focus in a politically organized
élite directing the machineries of government, but their applications have varied considerably from locality to
locality. It is in the locality - more specifically, the rural locality - that the urge for democratization has sought
out new forms of social practice that cut across the boundaries between state and non-state, public and
private, individual and collective, secular and religious. Caught in the iron grid of governmental practices,
such attempts to extend democracy to new domains of everyday rural life in West Bengal have often
floundered, but in some significant instances, even without an explicit theoretical language of description,
forms of collective engagement with questions of entitlement and fair allocation have emerged in the
localities that contain the potential for entirely novel arrangements of democratic governance" (Chatterjee,
The above excerpt captures the essence of reinstitutionalized politics in West Bengal during the LF régime
from 1977 till 1996. The earlier decade of anarchy had effectively destroyed the bases of good governance
and rule of law in the state. Such a situation had to be politically overhauled and, moreover, actors had to
relate meaningfully to the institutions they handle. The LF succeeded, with limitations that almost always
follow from entrenchment, on both these counts. This is significant while we are about to examine the
régime's performance in terms of governance from our neoinstitutional angle.
We would employ the following indices of governance in our paper to address the relatively higher level of
governance in West Bengal during 1977-96:
1. Law and Order;
2. Multiparty electoral competition;
3. Development and decentralization; and
4. Democratic Institutionalization.
These are actually dependent variables that inform régime quality in a political system. However, it must be
also pointed out that political institutionalization (as a situation-specific reality) can emerge as both a
dependent as well as an independent variable; it can either be a cause or an effect of 'good governance'.
Our neoinstitutional critique is actually modified institutionalism that takes into account actors' orientation
and compulsions - these tend to make 'all the difference' while deciding the obtainable level of governance
in a political system. So the emergence of 'actors in institutions' during LF rule in West Bengal (1977-96)
was actually an exercise in reinstitutionalization after institutional decay (Franda, 1971) during 1967-77. This
was largely made possible, among other developments, by the CPM's party building and proliferation of its
mass organizations on almost every conceivable front with mobilization potentiality like students, youth,
labour, women, teachers, peasants, state government employees, employees of other statutory bodies
among others (Kohli, 1991: 287-8, 289-90):
Part of the explanation for the CPM's effective ruling strategy since 1977 is its changed ideology. By the time
the CPM came to power in 1977, it had moved away from a revolutionary inclination to a reformist orientation
. . . That new commitment to reformism made the CPM more a social-democratic party and less a traditional
communist party . . . One reason that the CPM has succeeded in minimizing deinstitutionalizing populism
since 1977 is that it is a well-disciplined ruling party . . . The gap between promises and results, therefore,
has been narrower in the CPM's West Bengal than in many other parts of India . . . Though the CPM has
promised less, it has done more, especially for the lower strata, than most other ruling parties in Indian
The party succeeded in reviving decayed institutions in the process. This 'overhauling' systematically
ranged from the state legislature down to the three-tier panchayats, especially the gram panchayats at the
village level. The CPM had also 'democratized' these institutions of popular representation in the sense of
holding regular elections.
LF / CPM 'Hegemony', 1977-96
There was consensus within the LF coalition that fundamental 'revolutionary' changes were not possible at
the present moment given the existing realities; pending that, a 'safe and sanitized' distance from the
bourgeois institutions ought to be conscientiously maintained! So identification of actors with the
institutions they are supposed to handle was not allowed to reach its logical culmination. This 'cautious'
treatment as an ideological / strategic praxes is reflected in the CPM's party documents and inner party
Harihar Bhattacharyya (1999: 234) has pointed out that the "theoretical rationale for the communists'
participation in state governments in India is provided by the famous Article 112 of the CPI-M's Party
Constitution which is also linked to Article 71 that provides for communist participation in Parliament and
State Assemblies. The three basic components of Article 112 are to be noted: first, those State
Governments are 'transitional' form part of the party's 'transitional slogans', and signify only a transitional
phase of the communist movement; second, they will not bring about . . . fundamental changes, but will
introduce some reforms in order to raise the standard of living of the people, to some extent, and third,
through the limitations of these governments which will be formed only at the state level, not at the centre,
the party will make people aware of the limitations of the 'bourgeois-landlord' government in India, and
hence, the need for its final overthrow. The party's guiding principle has been that as a result of forming
such governments, the working class movement will be inspired, advanced and strengthened, and the
party's motive will be to 'utilise' these governments for developing class consciousness over the need for a
fundamental overthrow. These provisions, in effect, marry communist class struggle to 'bourgeois'
Such a 'qualified' approach to liberal democratic institutions was also reflected in the CPM's 1977 election
manifesto. But it is interesting that the party's attitude has not been disorder generating; it has actually
enhanced democratic institutional entrenchment in West Bengal during 1977-96.
So political institutionalization can be actually viewed both as a cause and then as an effect (as already
mentioned earlier); this also applies to the other factors of good governance that are really explanatory
variables in our research design. The net result is an 'obtainable' level of goverenance that happens to be a
dependent variable. The CPM as the major LF partner has consistently expanded its support and
membership bases during 1977-96 in West Bengal. This exercise (in 'concerted' popular mobilization and
'focused' political recruitment) applies to its mass organizations as well. Moreover, the régime has been
successful in holding regular elections at all levels of the political system; this has 'ably' institutionalized
multiparty electoral competition / bargaining (even within the LF between its coalition partners masqueraded
as Independents, whether 'supported' or not) from the Assembly down to the local level despite occasional
malpractices and violence. Significantly enough, different issues were debated and contested in these
different elections, consolidating a democratic ethos in the process.
The new middle class bhadralokian actors, therefore, were 'domesticated' by the trappings of power and
parliamentary orientation, so to say. This informed the character of the regime to a considerable extent. The
CPM sought to use the existing liberal democratic institutions; however, according to the party, successive
LF governments were all underpinned by movement and mobilization.
Pressure was exerted on the government and bureaucracy by party clout and electoral mandate; but this did
not matter a lot subsequently as the CPM gradually fused its identity with the LF régime. However, there was
seriousness about electoral politics and utilization of the panchayats on the part of the CPM despite such
infiltration / penetration of the party into the everyday affairs of the administration. This resulted in 'better'
political stability while 'good governance' was translated into development and uplift of the poor (Nossiter,
1988: 138-9): "First, the CPI(M) and the Left Front have succeeded in identifying themselves with Bengali
resentment at what is perceived to be chronic central neglect of the difficulties of the state . . . Second, the
Left Front, both from conviction and calculation, recognized on taking office in 1977 that elections in West
Bengal are won and lost in the countryside . . . Third, whatever deficiencies there have been in the
performance of the Left Front, it is perceived as having a mission, discipline and leadership, which, by
comparison with anything else on offer, is worthy of respect . . . Last, the CPI(M) and its partners have shown
a capacity to learn from past mistakes: their ambivalent stance on law and order issues in the first and
second UF ministries and their collective reluctance to face up to the logic of necessity of capitalism as well
as its evil, in the short or medium term have been overcome."
Any 'high' measurement of governance can be regarded as a 'positive' indicator of the rule of law. This is
further clarified if we appreciate the salience of popular identification with organic institutions like the
cooperatives or even the panchayats during the LF régime in West Bengal during 1977-96. Successful
coalitional politics was also an enabling factor of relatively better governance.
Atul Kohli (1991: 294-5) has admitted that "the coalition underlying the CPM rule in West Bengal is stable . . .
The most impressive achievement of the CPM . . . has been restoration of political order - and that without
repression . . . Agrarian conflicts over share of crops and over land have . . . declined sharply. Moreover,
West Bengal remains relatively free of communal conflicts of various types, including caste and religious
conflicts . . . What is mainly responsible for this moderately effective ruling pattern is a well-organized ruling
party that has put together a coalition of middle and lower groups, has not made extravagant promises but
has delivered more redistribution than most other Indian parties, and has contained the usual debilitating
intraélite conflicts and the related attempts to politicize socioeconomic cleavages."
Kohli's assessment is justified in a relative sense. When we compare the level of governance achieved in
West Bengal during the earlier Congress domination (1947-67) largely symbolized by Bidhan Chandra Roy
with the level of political order and stability obtained during the LF régime generally benchmarked by its
longest-serving-Chief-Minister-in-any-Indian-state, Jyoti Basu, we notice certain obvious achievements as
well as failures during the period 1977-96. Moreover, West Bengal since 1977 has been actually ruled by
the CPM and not by the LF. So any talk of 'successful coalition politics' in the state being an exemplar to the
rest of India or elsewhere is not entirely tenable.
Furthermore, there have been not-a-few instances of State-sponsored repression in West Bengal since
1977; this is corroborated by the rate of custody deaths during the LF régime. Regarding agrarian conflict,
communal tension and general politicization of the societal set-up, we have to point out that Kohli's claims
regarding West Bengal's achievements during 1977-96 cannot always be substantiated if contemporary
narratives like Press accounts are examined.
Contemporary critiques of the LF régime in West Bengal have occasionally transgressed, if not actually
'violated', the rigor and objectivity of politico-scientific analyses in favor of 'moral hectoring'. However, this is
not surprising, either way. In the first place, there are normally great popular expectations from a left,
'progressive' régime in liberal democracies where such governments are ordinarily considered to be the
political 'other'. This is all the more true in West Bengal where the LF had rode a wave of considerable
popular support in 1977. Expectations would not have been so 'desperate' if other 'centrist' or even 'right
reactionary revivalist' political actors would have emerged as the ruling party / coalition in West Bengal after
the Congress misrule climaxed in the Emergency of 1975-77.
In the second place, governance is always a relative concern and cannot be discussed in isolation without
the necessary reference points. We have to examine the level of governance achieved in West Bengal
during 1977-96 with that of the immediately preceding decade of Hobbesian anarchy, cabinet instability,
escalating political violence, repeated elections resulting from coalition factionalism / daladali (Basu,
1990) and infighting, State-sponsored lawlessness and political disorder and the like.
Critics of the LF point out that the régime has failed both in its land reforms and industrialization programs
as well as in its performance in 'social service sectors' like health, education, employment and literacy;
charges of corruption, inefficiency (Mallick, 1993), partisan political attitude, nepotism and violence are also
leveled against the government and the CPM that 'runs the show' (as a necessary praxis informed by
ideological compulsion as pointed out earlier).
But we have to remember that political management and entrenchment of power / popular support (despite
occasional electoral malpractices) are ultimately some of the indices of a relatively better level of
governance. The LF régime in West Bengal has succeeded on both these counts during 1977-96 and,
further, has been able to translate its domination into development as an indicator of good governance.
Left Entrenchment, 1990-96
The Calcutta Municipal Corporation election in June 1990 further consolidated LF domination in West
Bengal. The LF secured two-thirds majority; this was a record since 1977. (The 1985 CMC election, it may
be recalled, had almost resulted in a Congress-CPM tie.) This result was rather significant as the Congress
had fared better than the LF in all the immediately preceding elections (the 1987 Assembly election and the
1989 Lok Sabha election) in Calcutta. Nevertheless, both the CPM and its 'formidable' network of mass
organizations were able to expand their respective support bases in terms of political mobilization and
recruitment during this period.
The LF decided to hold the Eleventh Assembly election in the state along with the Tenth General Election,
and began its campaign on 25 March 1991. But the freshly appointed West Bengal Pradesh Congress
Committee (the state unit of the party) president, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, and his associates could not
even finalize the list of the party's candidates by that time. The LF again achieved three-fourths majority and
returned to power in the state for the fourth time; the CPM also maintained its absolute majority (182 seats
out of the total 294 seats) in the Assembly. The LF (48 percent of the votes polled and 244 seats), the CPM
(36.82 percent) and the Congress (35.04 percent and 43 seats, a 'marginal' improvement upon its 1987
performance) - everyone suffered in terms of votes polled. This was due to the emergent 'BJP (Bharatiya
Janata Party) factor' in the state (from 0.51 percent in 1987 to 11.41 percent in 1991).
The Congress (as the principal party in Opposition), moreover, was plagued with organizational weakness
and infighting during this period. Its factionalism was severely exposed after Somen Mitra had defeated
Mamata Bandyopadhyay in the WBPCC presidential election held on 10 April 1992. This worked to the LF's
advantage as an enabling dynamic of régime consolidation, and foreshadowed its continuing domination in
West Bengal. As expected, the LF finally returned to power for a record fifth time in 1996.
"There is widespread agreement among diverse observers concerning the relative political stability that the
CPM has brought to Calcutta and to West Bengal as a whole. The left-leaning Economic and Political
Weekly . . . concluded its 10-year review of CPM rule as follows: 'In fact, there has been no report of any
communal riot or caste conflict in West Bengal during the last ten years. [The] Left Front can really take pride
in the political stability it has ensured'" (Kohli, 1991: 150).
Let us now address social capital at the grassroots during the LF régime in West Bengal (1977-96). We
have to keep in mind that such a level of social capital has been made possible due to the régime's active
'social engineering' (in a welfarist sense) in areas with potentialities for mass mobilization, recruitment and
support like the panchayats, cooperatives, democratic decentralization, popular empowerment (especially
of the hitherto underprivileged), even though with limited success. Our analysis has determined the
available stock of social capital and governance at the microlevel, involving indices like identity (with
institutions like panchayats), security / law and order (in terms of everyday affairs), democracy (in the sense
of active, or otherwise, political participation) and social capital itself (that indicates confidence, trust and
cooperation at the civil societal level). We find that the average level of identity is rather high compared with
the index of democracy; but one cannot ordinarily expect 'democracy' (in the liberal democratic sense) from
a cadre-based, hierarchical and regimented Stalinist party like the CPM that professes democratic
The CPM's rationality framework, like any other political party's, is nearly all about power. There is nothing
extraordinary in this worldview. But the reason why the party has been able to consolidate its domination in
West Bengal during 1977-96 is its 'commitment' to translate this power into an edifice of 'pro-people'
governance (Bhattacharyya, 1996: 23): ". . . the Left Front phenomenon in West Bengal suggests that,
despite odds, the regime could keep itself in power for close to two decades mainly because the CPI(M) . . .
could successfully bring a large section of the state's population (read electorate) from marginally to a
position proximate to the site where political power was actually exercised."
Moreover, the CPM's organizational machinery has transformed itself into a political resource that the
regime has actively employed both to expand itself and co-opt potentialities for civil societal engagement.
One case in point is the LF's land reforms program; this has occasionally been used to distribute political
patronage ie vested governmental land has been redistributed just before any election.
The CPM, however, has 'properly' implemented its popular mandate during 1977-96 in West Bengal as
there has occurred no 'organic crisis' in this period. Such a crisis is precipitated when the régime fails to
implement its mandate in the sense of performing according to its election manifesto and political agenda
that had lifted it to power in the first place. The people then dissociate themselves from the régime, and this
leads to a legitimation crisis. Further, the LF governments have had a high degree of cabinet stability as
against the chaotic Hobbesian 'state of nature' of 1967-77; the régime's electoral base has not been
considerably eroded despite occasional inroads. The government has never collapsed due to cabinet
instability or serious law and order problems.
This is not to suggest, however, that nothing was 'politically 'amiss in West Bengal during 1977-96; but we
have to always compare this régime with the earlier decade of chaos (and confusion) while assessing its
performance in terms of governance. The LF has been able to successfully 'manage' the politics of West
Bengal with the help of considerable popular support, formidable victory in elections at all levels, law and
order maintenance, cabinet stability and development despite the usual 'vices' of sustained entrenchment
in a liberal democracy like the use of violence, corruption in public office and nepotism among others. The
CPM, it may be added, views itself as heading a 'transitional' government committed to public relief till it can
actually launch a people's democratic revolution. The panchayats are an important component of this
strategy. ". . . West Bengal's early and wholehearted implementation of panchayati raj in 1978 . . . set it apart
from other states in India and made it an international leader in the decentralisation of political
representation." (Rogally et al, 1999: 13-4).
The CPM and Panchayats
The first ever panchayat polls during the LF regime took place on 4 June 1978 after a gap of about 15
years. The panchayat minister, Debabrata Bandyopadhyay of the RSP, was instrumental in organizing this
event that went a long way toward consolidating rural power bases of the LF. However, the initiative was
promptly appropriated by the CPM when the party could appreciate the potentiality of the panchayats. The
CPM bagged 34,129 seats (61 percent of the total 56,000 seats) while the Congress managed to win in only
5,177 seats (9.25 percent). The CPM virtually transformed the panchayat networks as its 'ancillary
institutional domain' when it realized that it had to penetrate the countryside in order to mobilize 80 percent
of the state's electorate, and thus continue as the 'dominant' partner of the LF in West Bengal. This,
however, somewhat adversely affected the party's trade union front. But the CPM has managed, till the fourth
LF government in 1996, to reap the benefit of sheer numbers in this regard.
The first LF government also launched the Operation Barga (1979) to formalize its land redistribution
program, a 'major' agrarian concern since the first UF days. This was led by the land and land reforms
minister, Benoy Krishna Chowdhury. Almost 14,00,000 share-croppers were thus formally registered.
Agricultural loans were also liberally given to these persons in subsequent years: ". . . it is important to
discuss not only the possibility of promoting growth through institutional reform, but also the impact of
growth and institutional reform on the well-being of the population (Gazdar and Sengupta, 1999: 61).
The rural poor started identifying themselves (and their interests) both with the LF and the CPM. However,
there is another aspect to the story. Harihar Bhattacharyya (1998a: 186) has underscored that "The point that
is driven home here is that the self-governing institutions such as panchayats and municipalities, or for that
matter, popular participation and self-governance, are incompatible with the omnipotent presence of a
hierarchically organised and centralised communist party. One can mobilise
others, but cannot become the substitute for others' participation which is an activity valued in itself. The
notion of grassroots democracy cannot then, truly be accommodated within the discourse of communist
modernity which is dominating."
Still, we would maintain that the panchayats have 'effectively' contributed toward régime maintenance /
stability by generating both political order and legitimacy. We would also insist that democracy in the liberal
democratic sense cannot be expected from a regimented party organizationally contoured along the ethos of
democratic centralism. G.K. Lieten (1996: 222) has analyzed that "In its rural development policy, the LFG
(Left Front Government) since 1977 has focused on three interrelated types of intervention: modification of
the relations of production and the forces of production, reconstitution of the political power structure through
the revival of the panchayat bodies, elected along party lines, and playing its political cards expediently so as
to maintain a stable and orderly regime for a period unsurpassed in Indian history".
Harihar Bhattacharyya (1998b: 238) has also interrogated the near-absence of democracy at the grassroots
in West Bengal and holds both the CPM's style of local-level governance as well as the "conceptual
inadequacy of the masses" responsible for such a state of affairs. Bhattacharyya adds that "The party's (ie
the CPM's) panchayat discourses have accompanied . . . its exercise of power over panchayats, and
weakened the prospects for democratic governance in rural West Bengal, which is the guarantee for
ensuring political stability".
We have found while analyzing the history of LF governance in West Bengal (1977-96) that there is
academic consensus regarding the régime's 'relative' success in its agrarian programs (comprising mainly
of Operation Barga and land redistribution) and maintenance of law and order especially after the chaos
during 1967-77. But the CPM as the LF's principal motivator had to also grapple with an ideological
'anathema' because it was towing the constitutional parliamentary line as a party committed to launch a
'people's democratic revolution' sometime in the future when the combination of political forces would be
more propitious than the present realities. Moreover, its own logic of 'democratic centralism' was somewhat
incompatible with the ethos of a liberal democracy.
The history of ruling West Bengal during 1947-96, therefore, has largely been a history dominated by a
'moderate' level of governance. Bidhan Chandra Roy had managed to achieve a relatively higher degree of
governance; both Ajoy Mukherjee and Siddhartha Shankar Ray had not been able to maintain this tempo
while Prafulla Chandra Sen may be credited with somewhat 'better' achievements. Jyoti Basu had started
on a rather 'ambitious' note but his administration was adversely affected later on by the 'inevitable'
limitations of a long stint in power (1977-96). However, following Subrata K. Mitra's (1978) paradigm (and
the methodology that it entails), West Bengal cannot really be described as a political system that faces any
significant crisis of governance till the point of time it can ably ensure, as it has during 1977-96, cabinet
stability. We have moved away both from Mitra's cabinet stability paradigm as well as the 'developmentalist'
argument in this paper to develop both our 'neoinstitutional' analysis and its implicit, embedded and
prescriptive lessons. Glyn Williams (1999: 231) has written that "The CPM claimed that its panchayati raj
programme was central to achieving these development aims: by instituting a system of democratic local
government, the party hoped there would be mass participation in the panchayats and increased
class-consciousness as a result."
Our findings suggest that while institutions like panchayats have been duly set up in West Bengal and a
democratic / welfarist ambience created in the state as a result, comprehensive 'organic' identification with
these institutions is still required to cohere units of interface like 'actors and institutions' that would further
enhance good governance. "Since coming to power, the CPM has sought to consolidate its rural power
base further. In order to incorporate the lower rural classes institutionally, the leadership has undertaken a
comprehensive penetration of the countryside. Central to this task are the new politicized panchayats"
(Kohli, 1987: 108).
This research adds to the existing discourse on India's governance by moving away from the developmental
/ modernization perspective to the neoinstitutional critique that examines the quality of interaction between
actors and their institutions and, moreover, focuses on the manner in which institutions are handled by and
cohabited with their actors. These indices ultimately determine the obtainable level of governance in a
We have further established in this paper that the LF in West Bengal during 1977-96 has been able to
evolve a new régime-enabling factor in addition to Kohli's (1987) inventory of such factors like ideology and
leadership. This factor can be described as 'ethos perception'. The LF has been sensitized all along to the
Bengali bhadralokian ethos that had developed a hiatus with the 'distant State' in New Delhi for different
historical reasons. This allegation of a 'stepmotherly' central government has been competently utilized by
the LF to develop its own regime attributes.
However, this is only a part of the reality. It is also true that the LF has been able to consolidate its
domination in West Bengal during 1977-96 due to its perception of the 'prototype' Bengali sensibility.
Institutions that generally deliver the goods, an administration that had restored law and order and is more
or less accessible, ministers who are professedly pro-people and who generally make sure the
bureaucracy emulates them - all these help enhance the image of the régime.
Among the factors of governance, we would like to point out that law and order and democratic
institutionalization are the two more important indices of governance, given our context. This is because one
of the central concerns of governance is maintenance of the political order while democratic
institutionalization is important to entrench the ethos of that political order. Nossiter (1988: 139) and Kohli
(1987: 98-9, 1991: 288) more or less concur that the CPM in West Bengal during 1977-96 has focused on
reformism and a social democratic image. This has further promoted the party's as well as the LF's
democratic consolidation in the state.
Kohli (1991: 295) has also talked of the prescriptive limitations of the West Bengal 'model' that has evolved
during 1977-96, and has pointed out that LF entrenchment in the state has worked due to a combination of
factors; the 'radical' tradition of West Bengal, its sociopolitical configuration(s) and the weakness of the
Congress in Opposition. But we would add that 'ethos perception' as an enabling factor of governance
holds the clue to political order. Actors in power have to first perceive the dominant ethos of their political
system and then proceed accordingly to raise the level of governance therein. It so happened that West
Bengal had a specific ensemble of sociopolitical realities that responded 'favorably' to the LF's treatment of
governance. Other ensembles may respond similarly to other treatments.
So what emerges as 'the' concern of governance is the successful transition of 'actors and institutions' to
'actors in institutions'. This suggests empathy and sensitivity on the part of the rulers while addressing the
requirements and redressing the grievances of the ruled. The LF régime in West Bengal during 1977-96
has been 'more or less' able to ensure this identification with the people. Herein lie the prescriptive lessons
for governance as extrapolated in our study.
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Prasenjit Maiti: "Communist 'Good Governance' in a Postcolonial Democracy. . ."