WHEN THE COUNTING STARTS IN KOLKATA on 13 May, most people in West Bengal will expect what was for long unexpected—the fall of India’s longest-surviving Red citadel. The left government in the state, undefeated for more than three decades, is in bad shape. There’s much tension between the alliance partners in the Left Front alliance on a range of issues, and many leaders of the smaller parties in the coalition led, through brute force of cadre numbers, by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are quite willing to explore the other option—that of joining the Trinamool Congress-led ‘Mahajot’ (Grand Alliance). They have said that they can no longer shoulder the dictates of the ‘Party’ or suffer the consequences of its misdeeds.
In the run-up to the assembly elections, though, the CPI (M) party organisation and its mass base seem suddenly rudderless, if not leaderless, which throws up the distinct possibility of the party being unable to translate into electoral dividend the one million left-sponsored ‘self-help groups’ (which on paper have 10 million beneficiaries in the state). There is also the possibility that the left might have been upwardly fudging the numbers; and there are indications that it has become unsure of the votes of the ‘marginal’ beneficiaries (each of whom makes `1,500-2,000), who will suddenly ask for more ‘benefits’ at this crucial time from a state government that has been broke for months and is surviving on loans from the centre.
For once, the CPI (M) leadership is unsure of precisely what will work, which is evident from the huge number of new faces among the candidates it has fielded. More than half the candidates of the Left Front (149 out of 294) will be contesting elections for the first time. It is like a one-day cricket team: if the vigour of the youth prevails, you have a good performance on cards, but if a lack of experience hamstrings the team, especially during a crisis, you have defeat staring you in the face. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who has been at the helm for 10 years, seems to have lost control of his administration; and party overlords are doing pretty much what they wish, especially in violence-torn area of Jangalmahal, where they used armed cadres (the so-called harmad bahini) to battle the Maoists.
CPI(M) insiders say that it is the chief minister’s determination to fight the polls with a vanguard of young candidates who are seen to be ‘clean’ explains why the party leadership has fielded so many “new faces”. Bhattacharya has argued that, first, the party cannot afford the adverse criticism that controversial candidates will bring with them, particularly those with “un-communist lifestyles”; second, a bunch of new candidates will be good for a test run for the future; and, third, the younger lot will not lack for vigour during the campaign and might actually come up with bright ideas that the party badly needs. In truth, though, this is a gamble, the best from among a slew of bad options.
For the first time in three decades, the mood for change in West Bengal is overwhelming.
“People from all walks of life want to try out Mamata (Banerjee),” says analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri. “It is like they are sick of the stagnation.” The CPI (M) may be accusing Banerjee of “cheap populism” but the party knows that, as Union railway minister, she is making a huge impact by bringing to the state a plethora of railway projects and related industries. The Marxists may finally have to pay for their policy of perpetual abstention from national power. “How can you expect us to vote for those who believe Mayawati is a better [prime ministerial] option than Jyoti Basu? They survived because of the steady support they got from Bengal but by not joining the federal government, they let us down,” says former corporate executive Soutik Chatterjee. Mamata Banerjee is out to exploit this chink in the left’s armour with a vengeance.
With the rural voters in the state turning against the left on the issue of land acquisition, Banerjee and her Congress allies should be able to slice away large chunks of a vote bank for long identified with the party, especially in the Muslim-dominant areas where anger at the lack of development is most pronounced. Furthermore, for the first time in three decades, the urban-rural political divide is narrowing. Mamata Banerjee is playing to the urban gallery, too, by putting up big-ticket candidates such as FICCI Secretary General Amit Mitra and economist Abhirup Sarkar—indeed, a host of film and cultural personalities who strike a chord in both urban and rural Bengal. Her team is full of former IAS and IPS officers who once served the left but now loudly complain about its work ethic and the ‘politicisation of the administration’.
“Most of her [Mamata Banerjee’s] close confidantes are typical streetfighters, the Madan (Mitra) and the Mukul (Roy) type, but she is giving the bhadralok a big hope by putting up the likes of Amit Mitra and Abhirup Sarkar, or former chief secretary Manish Gupta—a hope that there will be people who can run the administration and those who have a vision for the future,” says technical consultant Dipten Chatterji.
In the countryside, people want relief from the climate of fear that the CPI (M) nurtured over decades. “We have made a mistake of not understanding what the poor people want. They trusted us and they felt cheated when their lands were taken without prior consultation,” admits the state land revenue minister, Abdur Rezzaq Mollah. But he also adds, “Mamata is a magician who will soon be seen in her true colours.”
But people are willing, at the very least, to try her out. “She is bringing in projects, new railway routes, even industries. We can all see that. Even if 30 percent of her promises materialise, Bengal will see a new dawn,” says college teacher Shikha Mitra.
It’s not a cakewalk, yet, for the Trinamool Congress, though. Its biggest weakness remains its relatively lacklustre performance in the village panchayats and the municipal bodies that it wrested from the Left Front. “Some of them are as corrupt as the Left, or as incompetent,” says administrator Bula Dey. But she admits that this shortfall could get overlooked in the general mood of change that is sweeping the state.
Another unpredictable factor is how well the Trinamool Congress-Congress ‘Mahajot’ will work. Mamata Banerjee is trying as hard to marginalise the Congress in the state as she is to oust the Left Front. After the previous elections to Parliament, in which the Trinamool contested twice the number of seats than the Congress, Banerjee has been striving to whittle down the Congress’ share of seats. For the state assembly elections this May, she began the process of bargaining by offering just 45 seats to the Congress in a house of 294; at the time of going to press, she had slowly made her way up to the mid-60s, or less than one-fifth of the total seats. Congress leaders, hardly unaware of the double-edged sword she carries, are upset; they might not do their best for the alliance in the seats the Congress is not contesting. A Left Front trouncing may be certain, but unless the margin of the defeat—and of the Trinamool-Congress victory—is big enough, handling power may be more difficult for Bengal’s stormy petrel than winning it.