West Bengal: A choice between a rock and a hard place

It is for the first time in over 33 years that the Left Front government is facing a strong anti-incumbency.

Saswat Panigrahi

Of the five provinces going to elections in April-May, West Bengal’s is the most interesting case. The election will be a tough test for the ruling CPI(M) as well as the opposition Trinamool Congress.

Till now West Bengal was seemingly immune to the anti-incumbency factor. With Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress emerging as a viable alternative force to the CPI(M), it is for the first time in over 33 years that the Left Front government is facing a strong anti-incumbency.

West Bengal’s present political scenario has its roots in its political history. To understand the difficult political calculus of the state, it is necessary to flip through the pages of the history.

The rise of Left

The year was 1977. Riding the anti-Emergency wave CPI(M) rode to the crest of West Bengal’s power centre ousting the Congress government led by Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Jyoti Basu, then 63, was sworn in as the Chief Minister.

Ever since the London-educated barrister Basu took over the reins of the state, West Bengal’s development graph continued to dip alarmingly, pushing the state into an era of decline and anarchy. The industrial slowdown in turn created a sizable number of unemployed youth who were often converted into CPI(M) cadre.

Under Jyoti Basu’s rule winning had become a habit for the Left. Under his leadership, CPI(M) tasted six consecutive victories in Assembly Elections.

It is not to dispute that Jyoti Basu built the Left citadel in West Bengal. Basu has to his credit the fact of being the longest serving Chief Minister of not just the state, but also in India, as he held the post for 23-long-years till he resigned on health grounds in 2000.

A vertical shift in CPM

The year 2000 proved to be the beginning of a new chapter in West Bengal politics. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a liberal among the Marxists, who was considered as a viable alternative to Jyoti Basu within the CPI(M), was sworn in as the Chief Minister. In sharp contrast to Marxist ideology Bhattacharjee opened West Bengal’s door for industries and investments. Some called him ‘CPI(M)’s renaissance man’ and others termed him ‘anti-Marxists’. But, Buddhadeb’s mega industry plank clicked in 2006, as CPI(M) swept the Assembly Elections.

A boomerang on CPI(M)

Post 2006, Buddhadeb brand of industrialisation began to have few takers. There is no denial that Bhattacharjee regime brought a number of investment projects to the state. But the other side of the story, of course, is the plight of thousands of displaced people who have been denied the benefits of these projects. Singur and Nandigram are two cases in point.
Ever since Buddhadeb took over the reins of CPI(M) in West Bengal, it has not been the same party with the same ideology. CPI(M) leaders in the state are no longer committed comrades. The party betrayed the bourgeois, the very section it claims to fight for. CPI(M) in Bengal is now battling the allegations of championing the cause of capitalism at the cost of the poor. Its so-called claim of being a ‘people’s party’ has turned out to be a facade. Years of grievances have produced growing disenchantment in the party cadres.

The Mamata phenomenon

Here Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, who was earlier lacking stability as a political leader, saw a ready-made opportunity. She closely identified the Left issues, hijacked them in a Left bastion and used them against the Left. She carefully toed a Communist line to woo people who are predominantly supportive of the Left. A sizable chunk of CPI(M) cadres, which was feeling uncomfortable with the changing ideology of the party, switched sides.

Mamata instilled a new Left thunder. Her formula of targeting Communists with Communism did wonders for Trinamool. The party swept the 2008 panchayat polls. In the 2009 General Election, Trinamool won 19 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. And in 2010, it won the Kolkata municipal elections.

Rakta Charitra of Bengal

Looking at the rise of Mamata Banerjee, CPI(M) mobilised its cadres for a ‘stop Mamata campaign’ in a desperate bid to retain power. On the other hand, Trinamool Congress brainwashed its cadres against the ‘misgovernance’ under CPI(M) rule. The result: a macabre fight between the cadres of the two rival parties.

The CPI(M) and Trinamool cadres were up in arms against each other in the run-up to the Assembly Elections. In the last few months a number of carefully orchestrated political killings took place in the state. In what could be rightly termed as ‘body politics’ both CPI(M) and Trinamool paraded dead bodies of their party workers. The state of political rivalry was at its ugliest.

Maoists in West Bengal

Charu Majumdar, the architect of Maoism in India, was a CPI(M) comrade till he broke away from the party to launch Naxalbari uprising. It is said that CPI(M) maintained close links with the Maoists during the initial years of their movement. There is no doubt that the Marxists and Maoists share a common ideology that is Communism. In the course of time, the CPI(M) distanced itself from the Maoists realising a potential danger. By raising Communist issues against CPI(M), Mamata stepped in to fill that void. Maoists now see a new friend in Mamata.
It won’t be wrong to say that Maoists boiled Mamata’s Singur and Nandigram pots. The Trinamool supremo has openly sided with the Left-wing terror by paying homage to Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad in Lalgarh where she described his encounter as murder.

The Maoist-Trinamool nexus is certainly a poll issue with both CPI(M) and BJP flaying Mamata for romanticising Left-wing terror. But will that have a bearing on the poll result?

The minority card

Both CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress have a grip on minority vote bank. Both have understood that minority votes are crucial to the calculations of victory and hence are playing the minority card by doling out sops.

CPI(M)-led Left Front government has already announced 10 per cent reservation in government jobs for backward Muslims. In addition to that Buddhadeb government has extended reservations for Muslim students in higher educational institutions.

On the other hand, in an apparent bid to woo Muslim votes, Mamata Banerjee recently supported minority’s share in women’s quota. In addition, she has given tickets to a good number of minority candidates.

The coalition equation

The constituents in the Left front -- CPI(M), CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP comfortably decided to share seats for the Assembly Elections. But all was not well between the two UPA constituents, Congress and Trinamool, as far as the seat-sharing equation is concerned. After days of hectic political negotiations to break the impasse both the parties agreed to a seat-sharing pact. As expected, Mamata Banerjee turned out to be a hard bargainer and Congress surrendered to Mamata’s tough stance. As per the deal, in the 294-member Assembly, Trinamool will contest in 229 seats while Congress will contest in 65. The seat-sharing script appears to have been written by Mamata. The Congress is a junior coalition partner of Trinamool Congress in the state. The grand old party has only a fractional presence in the state and is desperately looking forward to share a victory after a gap of 33 years. It has no other choice, but to settle for a small share of the cake.

On the other hand, Mamata had her own arithmetic. She wants to come to power on her own, so that she could be less dependent on Congress after the polls. Trinamool made an official seat-sharing arrangement with Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and gave two seats from its kitty. The party could make a similar arrangement with other smaller players like Adivasi Mukti Morcha, Indian Muslim League, Jharkhand Disom Party, Gorkha Mukti Morcha and Chhatradhar Mahato-led pro-Maoist outfit People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities(PPCA) to add small pockets of support.
BJP, the new X-factor in West Bengal

BJP has played nationalism to the public gallery of West Bengal by launching its Rastriya Ekta Yatra from Kolkata, the birthplace of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. By doing so the saffron party has tried to tap the ‘nationalist sentiments’ in West Bengal. In its election campaign BJP will certainly draw lines between nationalist leaders, the saffron party and West Bengal. The party is capitalising on the prevailing anti-Left sentiments in the state and claims its stake as a “serious political alternative”.

The real fight

In the battle ground West Bengal, the real fight is ironically between a ‘capitalist’ CPI(M) vs a ‘communist’ Trinamool.

There is a growing discontentment against the CPI(M) in both urban and rural pockets of the state. In the division of anti-Left votes Trinamool would be the biggest gainer. Trinamool is essentially an urban party with a strong base in South Bengal, particularly in Kolkata. Hence there is a clear cut possibility that Trinamool will score an edge over CPI(M) as far as the urban votes are concerned.

Buddhadeb’s pro-industry plank has significantly alienated CPI(M)’s rural vote bank. On the other hand, there has been gradual erosion in rural vote base of Trinamool. Reading between the lines, CPI(M)’s rural votes have shifted to Trinamool.
It’s now a changed Bengal. The writing is on the wall, “Didi is marching towards Writers’ Building. Bye bye Left Front”. But still, it would be too early to predict the election result at this point in time because the ballots are yet to be cast. Wait, watch and wonder!

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