BY SAEED NAQVI

The takeover of the country’s oldest Municipality in Shimla by young members of the CPM as Mayor and Deputy Mayor is a piece of history I witnessed by the sheer accident of being present in the celebrated Hill Station.

Most North Indian hill stations – Shimla, Naini Tal, Ranikhet, Mussoorie – have fallen from grace because of burgeoning populations.

Therefore, our expectations were low when we accepted friends’ invitation to escape the torrid heat of the plains to take refuge in their 100 year old cottage-bungalow, not far from the Shimla Railway station, itself one of the world’s wonders.

It was a surprisingly pleasant experience for several reasons. First, the road to Shimla is a six lane highway, like the New Jersey Turnpike, with clever deviations which by pass Kalka. A drive to no other hill station could be more convenient.

Contrary to the impression I had, the Mall is free of cars, except for the absolutely essential ones. It is the cleanest space for pedestrians. Apparently there is a fine of Rs.500 for spitting and sterner punishment for carrying or scattering polythene bags.

The restored Gaiety theatre resembles the finest of theatres in London’s West End, something the National School of Drama should take an interest in.

It is quite creditable that local Communists do not claim Shimla’s many improvements as their achievement. They give the credit where it is due – primarily with the administration of Yashwant Singh Parmar from 1963 to 1977 and Virbhadra Singh through four stints as Chief Minister intermittently from 1983 to 2004.

Indeed, it is the enlightened social base left behind by the earlier leadership that has created a secular platform on which the Left offers itself as an alternative to the quarrelsome Congress and the BJP.

It might please the Malabar Hill – Maharani Bagh bourgeoisie that the seven member state committee of the CPM are all public school alumni. The Secretary of the party, Rakesh Singha, passed out from one of the country’s oldest Public Schools, Lawrence School, Sanawar, founded in 1847. In other words it preceded Shimla’s elevation as the summer capital of the viceroys from 1864.

Mayor Sanjay Chauhan studied in St. Edwards and Bishop Cotton School. Deputy Mayor Tikender Singh Panwar is not only from Bishop Cotton School but also of Princely stock, against whom communists of earlier generations waged extended “class wars”.

These communists have not sprouted overnight. The solitary University in Shimla and six other colleges in the city have been in the grip of Students Federation of India (SFI) for decades.

A simple reason for the Congress defeat recently is the division in the Congress at New Delhi. Virbhadra Singh, four times Chief Minister, is not comfortable with Vidya Stokes, Kaul Singh and Anand Sharma who derive their power from Sonia Gandhi. If Virbhadra Singh finds himself ignored by the Congress High Command, he may break away and join hands with the Left and dissident elements in the BJP. This trio may well win the coming state elections in October.

In many ways, Himachal Pradesh resembles Kerala in its socio-economic structure. The enlightened Princely rulers of Travancore and Cochin, left behind an efficient administrative infrastructure.

Communism and the Christian missionary school system laid the foundation of a joint, formal as well as political education. Complete literacy in Kerala is matched by universal literacy in Himachal Pradesh. Like Kerala’s Rajas, Himachal Pradesh had 30 small “rajwaras” or principalities with as many State People’s movements, primarily anti feudal, but, with Congress support, anti colonialist too.

Here was an irony. While State Peoples Conference had an anti-colonial edge, it also sought facilities, the British had begun to provide in Shimla. This explains the countless Public Schools (in the British framework public school was a term for expensive private schools) which has begun to churn out the current crop of communists.

“What is helping the CPM are the application of neo-liberal reforms on civic bodies”, says Singha. For instance, the Irrigation Department provides 3.7 crore litres of water for distribution in water starved Shimla of which 60% is lost in leakages. The CPM has launched a mass mobilization drive to conserve water and it is working. Outsourcing of water will cost Rs.40.00 per thousand litres as against Rs.8.00 today. Outsourcing brings in the exploitative contractor. In a secular framework, the public organizations then begin to talk to the Left. So, if you wish to arrest CPM’s growth, sow seeds of communalism!

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)