Monday, May 18, 2009

Bonfire of Left vanity

Kanchan Gupta /Comment

Early Saturday morning, CPI(M) cadre who had gathered outside the counting centre at Dum Dum parliamentary constituency not too far from the seat of Marxist power in West Bengal, decided that they need not wait for the result to be declared to begin their victory celebrations. After all, the CPI(M) could not lose in Dum Dum. So, they set off crackers and jubilant supporters raised stirring slogans. That was before counting began.

By mid-day, all that remained of the celebrations were tattered red flags being kicked around by triumphant Trinamool Congress activists. Along with other bastions of the Left, Dum Dum too had fallen to the mighty Mamata Banerjee wave.

True, Mr Saugata Roy has won in Dum Dum with a slender margin of 2,550 votes, but the margin of victory in this constituency is inconsequential. What is of import is the defeat of Mr Amitava Nandy of the CPI(M).

If the Trinamool Congress winning Dum Dum has come as a surprise, so has the victory of its candidates in constituencies like Jadavpur, Krishnanagar, Hooghly, Diamond Harbour, Uluberia, Serampore and Birbhum. These constituencies were considered impregnable fortresses of the CPI(M). They have now been breached by a middle-aged bard, a matinee idol fallen on bad times, a fading Tollywood star, a part-time human rights activist and well-past-their-prime politicians who ‘shone’ in the 1970s during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Anybody who contested on a Trinamool ticket has been declared a winner. Among those who have had to suffer the ignominy of defeat in their presumed strongholds are — or should it be were? — stalwarts of the CPI(M). Mr Roop Chand Pal, we can be sure, will take a long time to reconcile himself with the new reality, as will Mr Hannan Mollah and Mr Santasri Chatterjee.

There is understandable disbelief at the CPI(M)’s headquarters in Alimuddin Street. When I met him days before the first round of polling, the party’s State secretary and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose told me that the contest would be tough, but the Left Front’s tally would not go below a certain level. “People are talking of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance winning up to 10 to 12 seats. That will not happen. It’s an impossibility.” Mr Bose was not being insincere in his assessment or misleading me on purpose. He was obviously unable to gauge the extent of popular resentment — you could blame it on him or local party leaders. They either kept the truth a secret or couldn’t care less, firm in their belief that in the end, the people would meekly go and vote for the CPI(M). This is the way it has been for the past 32 years.

In an assessment of the possible election outcome, which factored in the Trinamool Congress’s expectations, I had made bold to suggest that the Left’s tally could come down from the 35 seats it won in 2004 to 22 seats in this election. In the event, even that was way off the mark: It has come down to 15 seats, with the Trinamool Congress increasing its tally from one seat to 19 seats. The Congress has not gained from this election; it has merely held on to its 2004 tally of six seats. But the SUCI has walked off with one seat, creating a record of sorts. The 42nd seat has gone to the BJP, courtesy the GJMM: Mr Jaswant Singh has won, as predicted by this newspaper, with a huge margin.

The Left today stands forlorn in a corner, shamed and shunned by the same people who earlier enthusiastically voted for the CPI(M), regardless of the candidate. For, let there be no mistake about those who have turned on the Left with such ferocity: They are supporters, sympathisers and supplicants who have turned renegade. Without their vote, the Trinamool Congress would not have been able to tip the scale in its favour.

In Kerala the Left may have suffered on account of infighting within the CPI(M). The unedifying sight of supporters of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan pouring scorn and ridicule on party State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and of street-fighting between the rival camps could not have encouraged people to vote for the Left.

But in West Bengal the story is vastly different. Apparent divisions and differences in the party were set aside, if not papered over, before the election. The party’s senior leaders reached out to those who had distanced themselves from the CPI(M) but could influence voters. Forgiveness was sought for alleged and real sins of omission and commission. A full review was promised of all contentious policies. Cadre were instructed to turn out in full strength. The CPI(M)’s fabled party organisation, which is virtually a parallel administration, was pressed into service.

All this and more did not help. The party has suffered its worst ever defeat since 1977. The Congress’s performance in 1984, when it won 16 seats in the election held after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, pales into insignificance when compared to the Left’s rout in this election. If the trend which began with the Left losing comprehensively in last year’s panchayat elections continues, then the CPI(M) could well find itself in the Opposition after the 2011 Assembly election. Ms Mamata Banerjee does not subscribe to the virtues of understatement. But she can’t be faulted for declaring that the “Communists are now a political minority in West Bengal”.

It’s difficult to say which comes first after being in power for 32 years: Conceit or deceit. What can be said without fear of contradiction is that the CPI(M) in West Bengal today suffers from both. Nandigram is not merely about a botched attempt to acquire land for industry; it is an idiom of the Left’s political bankruptcy. Singur is not about the Left embracing capitalism but promoting crony capitalism.

The ‘Party’ that once claimed to represent the people’s aspirations is now despised by the same people. Fear of the ‘Party’ has given way to courage to stand up to the ‘Party’. This could well mean unsettling the political stability that has prevailed in West Bengal and disturbing the status quo. The ‘change’ which the Trinamool Congress promises remains undefined and untested. But people are willing to take the risk.

Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should be a worried man.

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