Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tremors in Bengal

Left's crucial test

Kanchan Gupta / Analysis / May 13, 2009.

On Tuesday, May 12, a day before the third and final round of voting in West Bengal where polling will take place in 11 parliamentary constituencies, as many as 10 of them with sitting Left MPs, in North and South 24 Parganas, three leading newspapers published from Kolkata highlighted three different aspects of an election that could mark a turning point in the State’s politics, overwhelmingly dominated by the CPI(M) for more than three decades.
Bartaman, the Bengali language newspaper which since its inception has struck a stridently anti-Left posture and is seen as the ‘voice’ of the Opposition in West Bengal, ran a banner headline on Tuesday’s front page, informing its readers that the “CPI(M) is all set for extensive rigging”. The story does not provide specifics of how the Marxists plan to rig the polls, but it indicates the possibility of party cadre being unleashed on voters to terrorise them. During this election Bartaman has published stories about electronic voting machines being ‘rigged’ to ensure the victory of Left candidates. In the past, this particular allegation has remained unsubstantiated. But it is a fact that potential anti-Left voters often find their names missing from the electoral rolls.
The first two rounds of polling in the State have been by and large peaceful. By West Bengal’s standards, the level of violence could be described as ‘negligible’. Hence, neither the Trinamool Congress nor its ally, the Congress, can allege that force was used to keep anti-Left voters away from polling booths. While it remains to be seen whether the final round of voting will be any different, and whether Marxist leaders and their cadre take recourse to intimidation to prevent Trinamool Congress supporters from voting, it is a fact that the CPI(M) and its allies are worried about their prospects in these crucial 11 constituencies.
In the 2004 general election, the CPI(M) had virtually wiped out the Trinamool Congress from North and South 24 Parganas, which were till then perceived as Ms Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold. Barring Ms Banerjee, all her nominees lost the election; she won with a reduced margin. The CPI(M) repeated that feat in the 2006 Assembly election.
But between 2006 and 2008, the situation has changed radically to the disadvantage of the CPI(M). The farmland-for-industry policy of the Left Front Government has met with popular resistance, most notably (and with disastrous consequences) in Singur, where Tata Motors had to abandon its small car project, and Nandigram, where land acquisition for a proposed Special Economic Zone that was to have been set up by Indonesia’s Salim Group could not proceed beyond a notice put up at the BDO’s office. Ms Banerjee has been in the forefront of the agitation against this policy. Small and marginal farmers, fearful of losing their land, their only possession, have rallied behind the Trinamool Congress’s flag.
The farmers’ agitation and their success in forcing the Government — and the all-powerful ‘Party’ — to back off has emboldened others who have been nursing a variety of grievances against local CPI(M) leaders. For a long time people, among them sympathisers of the Left, have been resentful about the high-handedness of the Marxist cadre, but felt either helpless or were scared of taking a stand. Now they feel neither helpless nor scared.
The results of last year’s panchayat elections were an indication of the simmering discontent with the Left Front Government prevailing in West Bengal’s villages boiling over, especially in the southern districts of the State. The Trinamool Congress swept the panchayat elections in what were considered as bastions of the Left Front, breaching the Marxists’ rural stronghold.
The import of the panchayat polls is being felt in this summer’s parliamentary election. The Left is facing a reversal in rural areas and, strangely, is on a stronger wicket in urban areas, which till now have voted against the CPI(M). Delimitation has resulted in large swathes of rural areas being made part of urban constituencies like Jadavpur in Kolkata.
Two years ago, this would have meant good news for the Left. Today, it means advantage Trinamool Congress. This is most palpable in North and South 24 Parganas. Hence, the deepening sense of alarm in the Left. The Trinamool Congress could notch up a sizeable tally if it performs well on Wednesday and, together with the Congress, bag upwards of 14 seats in the State.
On the other hand, if the CPI(M) is able to checkmate its political foe, it could minimise its losses. For that, the Marxists are willing to do whatever it takes. Old networks have been revived, favours are being called in and cadre have been asked to mobilise the faithful and ensure they come out and vote, notwithstanding the scorching heat.
Anandabazar Patrika, the leading Bengali language daily published from Kolkata, has played up two stories. The first is about maverick Marxist, Transport Minister and Jyoti Basu loyalist Subhas Chakraborty lashing out at Polit Bureau members who “sit in air-conditioned rooms and frame policies based on theory”, and daring them to contest elections. According to the newspaper, although Mr Chakraborty has not taken any names, his reference is to CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and Polit Bureau members Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat.
The second story, which has been displayed more prominently, is about Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s sharp criticism of the Trinamool Congress and Ms Banerjee’s equally harsh rejoinder — sort of a media generated debate. The charges and counter-charges have been classified under three heads: Ideology, Muslims and Singur.
Mr Bhattacharjee: “The Opposition has no ideological mooring. It is politically bankrupt. It lacks discipline and is anti-development.”
Ms Banerjee: “He should mind his language. The Left is politically bankrupt. That is why they are maligning us.”
Mr Bhattacharjee: “They are playing dangerous politics with Muslims. This is not the culture of this State.”
Ms Banerjee: “Must we learn culture from the man who is dangerous for the people of Bengal?”
Mr Bhattacharjee: “Why should I apologise for Singur? We will set up industry there. A decision will be taken after the election.”
Ms Banerjee: “He will have to go to Singur, seek forgiveness, rub his nose in the dirt and return the land to the farmers.”
Ideology is really not an issue in this election in West Bengal. It ceased to be so long ago. Cynics would suggest that both the Left and the Trinamool Congress are politically bankrupt; the Congress was never burdened by ideology.
What is an issue is the Muslim vote, which has been the Congress’s mainstay in north Bengal and integral to the Left’s core support in south Bengal. This time, Muslims are rooting for Ms Banerjee. Comprising nearly a quarter (unofficially, a third) of the population, Muslims can play a decisive role and their vote can be the ‘game changer’. Ms Banerjee has played on Muslim insecurities, especially about land.
The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind has added to Muslim angst by using its vast network of ulema to publicise the findings of the Sachar Committee which, ironically, show that Muslims are worse off in CPI(M)-ruled West Bengal than in Mr Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. The Jamiat has fielded a dozen odd candidates, but the real beneficiary of its relentless campaign on the Sachar Committee report is the Trinamool Congress.
Which brings us to the issue of Singur and industrialisation of West Bengal. The Telegraph’s main front page story is headlined: “Maa, mati, manush: Sounds nice but not for son who won’t farm”. The Trinamool Congress’s campaign is built around the slogan of “Maa, mati, manush” (mother, land and people), playing on the sentiments of rural Bengal. The story raises an interesting question: If West Bengal’s farmers are so attached to their land and their livelihood, why would 45.5 per cent of them dislike what they do, compared to 40 per cent nationally?
Elections are a tricky affair. Not till the last vote is counted can results be predicted with any certitude. “The people of West Bengal want to usher change,” Mr Saugata Roy, Trinamool Congress candidate for Dum Dum constituency, told me in Kolkata. “This is going to be an election for change.” He could be right. We will get to know for sure on Saturday, May 16.

[Opeditorial article in The Pioneer, May 13, 2009.]

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