As the tide of communism recedes around the world, the hammer and sickle are still flying high above Calcutta, the capital of the West Bengal state in India.
Last month, in what U.S. officials in Calcutta call a "classic mockery of free elections," the Communist Party retained power for five more years.
Calcutta, a city of 12 million people, is no jewel in the crown of communism. If Ronald Reagan ever needed a demonstration of the "evils" of communism, he could have pointed to Calcutta.
The filth, the squalor, and the chaos leave the impression that the city is reeling from an earthquake. This is a city where it is common to read newspaper accounts of people who sell their kidneys or their 8-year-old sons on the black market to be horse jockeys in the Middle East.
Our associate Jim Lynch traveled to Calcutta when the election results were still buzzing through the city. Protest rallies held up traffic and police shelled neighborhoods with tear gas to dampen the partisan ardor.
A drive through Calcutta betrays the failure of the communist regime. A dozen people lie head to toe in the fetal position on the crumbling curb at a busy intersection. Arms and legs protrude from beneath tattered tarps that pass for shelter.
Crippled beggars hobble to the cab window and wave hands that lack a full complement of fingers. A city bus is packed like a sardine can with a dozen passengers clinging to the roof.
Everything, including bricks, is carried on the heads of people, making one think that U.S. aid to India should begin with wheelbarrows.
One of the few new-looking buildings in Calcutta is the Grand Hotel, a place where Westerners stay and can shut out the scenes of the street. The masses of the city will never set foot inside. A few nights' rest at the Grand costs more than most people in the city will see in a year.
The city has attracted humanitarians, but never enough to make a dent in the poverty. Mother Theresa is the die-hard. Turn down a particular alley in Calcutta and you will see her name scrawled in inch-high fading letters on the wall of the Missionaries of Charity center. A nun will come to the door and lead anyone to see Mother Theresa if she is in. She tries to see all outsiders who want to meet her because the poor of Calcutta need all the friends they can get.
Calcutta has been on the skids since 1911 when India moved its capital from there to New Delhi. Yet the poverty here is nothing compared with that in the surrounding nations. Down-and-out Calcutta is considered the oasis in a desert of poverty stretching through neighboring Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal, three of the world's poorest nations. For many, Calcutta is the city of hope.
The real hopelessness in Calcutta is a colossal challenge for any government, especially one with few resources and archaic methods. It won't escape Calcutta's attention that communism is being tossed out like yesterday's newspaper all over Eastern Europe. It is likely that the hammers and sickles tattooed on the walls of downtown Calcutta will be painted over in anger before the next election in 1995.