ON May 13, history will be made in West Bengal. If the current trend continues, and if the findings of various pre-poll surveys reflect the ground reality in this State, then the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government will be voted out of office. The Trinamool Congress-led opposition alliance, which includes the Congress as a minor partner, will be swept to power. The final results could see the Trinamool Congress getting an absolute majority on its own; some are predicting a two-thirds majority for Ms Mamata Banerjee.
There are three explanations for this tectonic shift in power politics in West Bengal. First, to which most pundits subscribe, is that Ms Banerjee is riding the crest of an incredible popularity wave, almost a tsunami of support. If true, this would be a reversal of the 2006 Assembly election results when incumbent Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led the Left Front to a thumping victory, smashing all opposition and pushing the Trinamool Congress to the margins of West Bengal politics. This time, the Trinamool Congress will secure a positive vote.
Second, the people of West Bengal are tired of the same regime winning seven successive elections; the Left Front looks jaded; and, the Government has run out of ideas. An entire generation of voters has retired ever since the Left Front was first voted to power in 1977. The second generation that grew up under Left rule is disillusioned with the Government’s performance. The new generation has little time and even lesser inclination for ideology: They want to see instant and immediate delivery and they believe poriborton, or change, can ensure that. In other words, it will be a vote for ‘let us try the alternative’.
Third, the voters are disappointed with the Government’s performance; frustrated with a string of failures that has halted industrialisation of the State; and, angry with the CPI(M)’s party bureaucracy which, over the past 35 years, has emerged as a state within the state. The ‘Party’, as the CPI(M) has come to be known, is now associated not with popular aspirations but financial corruption, organisational sloth, retributive violence and power-driven arrogance. So they will vote against the Left; not for the Trinamool. Hence, Ms Banerjee will be the beneficiary of a massive negative vote.
These are, of course, matters of detail and of interest only to political scientists and analysts looking for reasons as to why people have voted in a particular manner. Conversely, such details are inconsequential and of little relevance for the masses. In popular perception, what matters is victory and defeat. If Ms Banerjee wins this election, it is unlikely she will spend too much time on analysing the results. On the other hand, the Left will have all the time for such analysis.
Which brings me to where we began: History will be made on May 13. If the Left loses this election, as it is widely expected to, then the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist Government in the world shall fall. The amazing power of the ballot in a democracy will be on full display. Elsewhere in the world, regimes that have been in power for decades are being sought to be brought down through ‘revolution’. In India that will be achieved through elections.
And, if the Left manages to win this election, which is extremely unlikely, it will be a historic event too. Nowhere else in the world has a Communist Government retained power through the ballot for eight successive terms in office. For the moment, we shall discount this possibility although elections are known to throw up strange, unexpected and inexplicable results. Let us go back in time.
One generation of Bengalis voted in the CPI(M)-led Left Front with a whopping majority in 1977. Jyoti Basu, who had sworn vengeance on the Congress for ensuring the failure and collapse of the United Front Government, had his sweet revenge. Along with his long-time foe Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Congress was swept aside and he came to occupy the Chief Minister’s office at Writers’ Building, the Secretariat from where the Government of West Bengal functions as it did during the Raj. Clerks who once laboriously wrote out documents in triplicate have been replaced by clerks who now abhor labour of any kind; the only exception they make is when they join Coordination Committee rallies to raise slogans against imaginary grievances.
Between 1977 and 2011, at least three generations of Bengalis have been witness to the world’s longest-serving elected Communist Government. Many have actively participated in keeping the CPI(M) in power; others have migrated to seek their fortune elsewhere rather than be stuck in a State with dwindling employment opportunities. The CPI(M) was swept to power on the promise of poriborton (change). That promise was fulfilled, during the two-and-a-half decades Jyoti Basu was Chief Minister, in the most perverse manner by changing the face, seemingly forever, of West Bengal’s thriving industrial landscape by turning the State into a graveyard of industry.
Boxwallah companies that once boasted of their head office being in the Empire’s Second City either went bankrupt and folded up or fled to other cities with whatever they could salvage of their businesses. The ruins of Dunlop Nagar over which promoters are now raising housing blocks were once a bustling self-contained township where liveried khansamas waited upon management trainees in their plush chummery. All along the Hooghly stand rusting chimneys of factories closed during those early years of Left Front rule. Burrabazar’s Marwaris and Alimuddin Street’s Marxists discovered they were kindred spirits; it’s only natural that traders became industrialists, a tag that they used to strip newly acquired factories of their assets and invest their windfall profits in ‘investor-friendly’ States. Meanwhile, the working class, heady with the excitement of participating in violent gheraoes and strikes, allowed itself to be fooled into believing that union leaders were actually negotiating a deal for their betterment behind closed doors. What they got instead were layoffs and closure notices.
Yet the CPI(M) remained in power, winning election after election, its vote share swinging between 35.46 per cent (in 1977) and 37.13 per cent (in 2006). The first-past-the-post system, coupled with a well-crafted political alliance that has come to be known as the Left Front, ensured the Marxists got a majority of seats in West Bengal’s 294-member Assembly. The only time their strength dipped below the halfway mark was in 2001, but that did not reduce the Left Front to a minority in the House. Along with the Assembly elections, the Left Front also routinely swept the panchayat polls. If there was an Achilles’ heel, it was the Left’s uneven performance in urban areas and civic elections.
In 2001, Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led the CPI(M) into electoral battle, won a hard fought victory, and set about the task of freeing the Left Front Government from the legacy of the Jyoti Basu years. By then, Ms Mamata Banerjee had emerged as a contender for power, having occupied much of the space vacated by the Congress. Shri Bhattacharjee’s effort to put West Bengal on the path of industrialisation and shake up things helped him forge what came to be known as ‘Brand Buddha’ – that, coupled with his evocative slogan, “Do it Now!” saw him trounce Ms Banerjee at the hustings in 2006.
But it proved to be a short-lived victory, both for him and his party. The botched effort to acquire land for a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram, followed by the Tata Nano factory fiasco at Singur, gave Ms Banerjee the opportunity she was looking for to emerge as a popular leader with the courage to take on the mighty Marxist machinery. It also left the Left Front Government looking pathetically weak in resolve and spirit. Shri Bhattacharjee had dared to discard his party line and court capitalists; what he had not factored in is the blowback, nor had he checked on the credentials of the capitalists he wooed so ardently. Crony capitalism has never done any regime any good. His slogan, “Do it Now!”, suddenly sounded hollow.
If ideology drove voters to vote in the Left Front in 1977, it was pragmatism of a certain kind that kept them from moving away from the CPI(M) in the subsequent elections. To be seen with the ‘Party’ was necessary to survive. An elaborate network of patronage and a parallel party bureaucracy took over all aspects of life, including trade and commerce, such as it was, in Left Front-ruled West Bengal. Retribution for not being deferential to the ‘Party’ was swift, often horrific.
Today’s voters, many of them just out of their teens and most of them in their twenties, feel no similar compulsion to either feel obliged towards the cadre brigade or be fearful of retribution. Like the regime, the ‘Party’ too is tottering under the combined weight of sloth and corruption. In the past it was revered and feared; today it is pitilessly ridiculed for what it has become: As decrepit as the Congress. Meanwhile, the changing profile of the national economy has brought about tectonic changes in the aspirations of the new generation of Bengalis who were born in the early-1990s. The sights and sounds of today’s Kolkata reflect this better than anything else. This is no longer the city where Missionaries of Charity gathered the sick and the dying from garbage-littered pavements. Hotel Heaven now straddles the plot next to Mother House, marking the distance that Calcutta and Kolkata have traversed.
Ironically, if it was the desire for poriborton that fetched the CPI(M) victory in the summer of 1977, it is the clamour for ‘change’ that is likely to see it booted out of power in the summer of 2011. Thirty-five years ago, Bengalis had two options: They could either vote for the Congress or the CPI(M); they chose the latter. Between then and now, it was the proverbial TINA factor that helped the CPI(M) to win six successive elections. A decrepit, compromised Congress, whose leaders were scornfully described as tormuj (watermelon)-green outside, ‘red’ inside-was never an option in the interceding years; it still remains so. Yet, the earlier situation of there being no alternative to the CPI(M) or the Left Front no longer obtains. As the last Lok Sabha election has shown, the people of West Bengal have found an alternative in the Trinamool Congress and are more than willing to try their luck with a different political dispensation. The rainbow social coalition that once belonged to the Congress was taken over by the Left. It now belongs to the Trinamool Congress.
The story of the Left’s decline and the rise of the Trinamool Congress would be incomplete without a footnote whose irony would be lost only on unreconstructed Marxists and diehard minority-pandering secularists in the armies that will clash in a battle no less epic than the battle of Plassey this summer. It revolves around the BJP which may be a ‘non-player’ in the coming election but whose ability to garner votes could play a decisive role in the outcome of the polls. In as many as five Lok Sabha constituencies the CPI(M)’s candidates squeaked past their Trinamool opponents at the post in the 2009 general election thanks to the BJP’s vote share. The CPI(M)’s strategists are hoping, desperately so, that the BJP repeats its 1991 performance when the party got 11.46 per cent of the total votes.
Miracles are known to happen, just as superstitions are often proved to be true. As I mentioned in the opening lines of this article, Friday the 13th of May will witness a historic event in West Bengal, irrespective of who wins the Assembly election.