The recent panchayat poll in West Bengal is being seen by Trinamool Congress leader Mamta Banerjee and other anti-Left forces as the beginning of the end of the CPI-M rule.
This may not be so unless and until strong steps are taken by the Centre to end the rule of mafiosi that has become synonymous with CPI-M. Many intellectuals in the state feel that a spell of President'srule in the state would take the state to democratic path.
Though Left Front has lost some ground to Trinamool Congress, it has been able to retain its hold over other areas despite similar conditions prevailing. The CPI-M machinery remains intact there.
The CPI-M-led Left Front has suffered a jolt having lost two zila parishads in East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas?considered to be stronghold of the Front. The results have stunned the CPI-M because its minority vote bank has shifted to Trinamool Congress of Mamta Banerjee. The Congress has retained its tally of two zila parishads. Fears over losing land in East Midnapore, which comprises Nandigram, and South 24 Parganas took a religious colour, fed by discontent among the minorities brought out by Sachar Committee report. The acquisition of land for SEZ in Nandigram and Indonesian Salim group did the icing for the TMC. In the neighbouring, which Salim road project will touch and where notices for land acquisition have been served, the Left Front won by a thin margin of three with Mamta'sscore having soared from 2 to 16. Mamta won over 120 zila parishad seats. But in many cases like in Nandigram, Mamta has gained because a chunk of CPI-M cadre, for religious reasons, decided to side with Mamta. The Congress did not align with TMC. Had that happened there could have been more setbacks. State president and Union Minister P.R. Dasmunshi is happy having won his home district of North Dinajpur though Congress lost Murshidabad by a thin margin of one. Would it really be the beginning of the end? That is what stalks both the CPI-M and the opposition alike.
The panchayat election is being seen as a prelude to the run-up to the assembly and Lok Sabha elections. In a state with normal administrative functioning, such a surmise would be natural. West Bengal is, however, different in many ways. The opposition is splintered. Its strength is limited in pockets and not spread all over. The combined opposition vote percentage is higher than that of the Left Front. But it gets divided for two reasons. The opposition parties fail to unite and the CPI-M keeps some of the opposition parties in happier shape. Congress is often called the B-team of the CPI-M. There are allegations that selectively CPI-M/Left Front helps some Congress leaders in more than one ways. Congress leaders deny it and say that the CPI-M deliberately spreads such canards. If that is so, the opposition should be a major gainer in the coming elections. However, in private opposition leaders are sceptical. They do not doubt their strength but they are apprehensive of the strong-arm tactics followed by the CPI-M. The recent elections also saw a keen tussle, sometimes turning into a bloodbath, not only with the TMC and Congress but also between CPI-M and smaller Front partners. Some of them have won also and swear that they would stay in Front. But in ?off the record? conversation most of the smaller party leaders are apprehensive of the big brother, who they say is out to eliminate them for establishing a one-party rule. Democratic norms, they say, are there in the books and not in practice. The Congress and TMC also echo the same sentiment. The poll and post-poll clashes only establish their worst fears. The CPI-M cadre has wrought havoc on the anti-forces, be they from the Front partners or the Congress-TMC. The strength of the CPI-M is its strong cadres, supposedly often paid. They scour the allotted areas meeting people, ?taking care of their needs?, collecting funds, distributing copies of the party'sofficial newspaper Ganashakti. On the sly they keep a watch on the movement of each person and family and even on their visitors.
The labourers working in Kolkata and other townships suddenly vanished on the poll days. Binu Mondal of Murshidabad said that he had gone to cast vote along with many others from his village. Asked why he did so, he said, ?Bhoy (fear). If I had failed to cast vote, my son could have been eliminated and wife and daughter may have been abducted.? The electronic media was replete with stories of people being told how and where to vote. It helped the ruling Front. The anti-Front feelings, however, are growing. Anywhere in the state people are critical of the Front. Almost in unison they say that if one wants a job, a contract or a favour, he has to support the ruling clan. Even in offices, be it private or government, one'ssurvival or promotion depends on his closeness to the Front. If one moves around Jadavpur University, Calcutta University or Ravindra Bharati University?all in Kolkata, the fear can be seen writ large on the faces of the faculty members. Many of them are critical of the CPI-M but they talk in hushed tones. The faculty is even apprehensive of the students and not just the ?dadas? among them. The students even dictate them on improving percentages of select students. They have the blessings of Front leaders say some of the teachers. The teachers say left to them they would maintain a distance from the Front. That is not possible if they have to work in these places. Penetration of CPI-M is deep, not in ideological terms but in physical terms. The operation is often mafia type. The dictum is simple?either you are with us or nowhere. This is not limited to academia. It is only a small laboratory of whatever is happening all over the state.
The state of West Bengal is living in utmost fear. Even the opposition parties reflect that fear psychosis. Freedom of expression is restricted to the Constitution. In West Bengal, the local people prefer to forgo this unique constitutional right. If someone does he ?may get shorter by six inches? a term frequently used by the CPI-M cadre. It simply means one would be beheaded. If someone were keen on contesting an election against the CPI-M, his wife would be sent a white dhoti?a dress that a widow wears in West Bengal. It signifies that the wife should prevent her husband from contesting the poll or else he would be eliminated. The ?actions?, people say, are often effective because neither the central forces would remain there for long nor the Election Commission observers.
Post-poll attacks are seen as common ?political? phenomenon?though mostly only one party conducts the attacks. Party'sBengal secretary Biman Basu has already said CPI-M would strike back and ?gain confidence? of the people. This is interpreted as a warning to the people who had voted against the party. This is also said to be indicative of the stranglehold the party is keen on maintaining in the state. This only means reengineering its fascist mechanism. The party has the capability with its strong cadres, who are adept at bullying. As it is most likely to happen and nobody is in a position to prevent that, what is being seen as the beginning of the end may not really be so. To make that happen, not only the opposition has to function in a united manner, something not that easy, but the Centre also has to intervene in the state as the law and order machinery has totally broken down. The state police are only an extension of the CPI-M cadre and it cannot be trusted. The state requires a strong presence of central forces at the thana level for a prolonged period. If the Centre does that it would help revival of the democratic forces or else it may be the beginning of the end of the democratic process and not what Mamta Banerjee is saying. Even she knows it and remembers how in 1971 Congress had come back to power. Can that be repeated?
(The writer visited West Bengal and toured the state extensively.)