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Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

West Bengal: Panchayat Election Outcome shakes the Roots of Left Politics

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Amitava Mukherjee


The results of the just concluded panchayat elections in West Bengal have opened up such possibilities and speculations as has never been witnessed in the 30-year-old Left rule in the State. The reverses suffered by the Left, particularly the CPM, have been so intense that the aftermath has shaken the roots of Left politics in the State. The CPM has been so unnerved that it has decided to go slow on its industrial policy whose principal feature is to please big capitalists at any cost by forcibly snatching away lands of poor farmers and then handing them over to the captains of industry even if the quantum of land thus acquired is far in excess of the requirement for setting up an industrial unit.

What is the message sent across by the poor people of rural Bengal this time? Previously the Opposition had two Zilla Parishads—Murshidabad and Malda—under its control and the Congress was in power in these two Zilla Parishads. But apart from these two districts the Opposition’s presence was negligible so far as the State as a whole was concerned. In Malda the Congress had won mostly on the popularity of the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury but had to take support from other parties, including the BJP, to form the board while in Murshidabad the Congress had no doubt built up a solid organisation under the guidance of the district Congress President, Adhir Chowdhury.

In 2008, however, the picture has totally changed. While the CPM has wrested the Murshidabad Zilla Parishad from the Congress by a wafer-thin majority, the Congress has retained Malda and added North Dinajpur to its account. But most important, the Trinamul Congress has won the all-important Zilla Parishads of East Midnapore and 24-Parganas (South), the two districts having a large number of parliamentary and assembly constituencies. Of the 18 districts of West Bengal the Left front has captured 13 Zilla Parishads and the Opposition, including the Congress and Trinamul Congress, have won five.

The Zilla Parishad election results, however, do not reveal the actual ground realities. At the panchayat samiti and the gram panchayat levels, the two most important tiers in the functioning of the panchayat system, the Left Front has virtually been wiped out in the districts of East Midnapore, 24-Parganas (North), 24 Parganas (South), Nadia, and North Dinajpur. Even in quite a few number of those districts where the Left Front has been able to maintain its domination in the Zilla Parishads, the Congress and the Trinamul Congress have done exceedingly well at the panchayat samiti and gram panchayat levels and have made heavy inroads into the Left vote-bank.

Left leaders, particularly those from the CPM, have developed cold feet due to several reasons. First of all, this panchayat election has proved beyond doubt that in any given constituency, a single candidate from the united Opposition can poll more votes than any Left Front nominee. In fact, at the panchayat samiti and gram panchayat levels the Trinamul Congress and the Congress, the two major Opposition parties, had struck unofficial understandings and this resulted in straight fights between the Opposition and the Left Front in many seats resulting in outright victories for the former. This has convincingly proved that in large areas of the State the Left commands numerically minority vote than the non-Left segment.

Secondly, the Left’s vote-bank among te minorities and the oppressed sections of the society has witnessed massive erosion. Surely the land acquisition policy of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government has contributed to a great extent to this process as a large chunk of the land proposed to be acquired for different projects of the Salim group was actually owned by people of the minority community. In addition the Opposition conducted a sustained campaign on the Sachar Committee report which has brought to light the miserable performance of successive Left Front governments so far as welfare and upliftment of the minority communities were concerned.

Thirdly, this panchayat election has proved that the common people are much more powerful than the army of cadres backed by a partisan government. The role that the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government has played in West Bengal is a slur on democracy. Just after the mayhem carried out by the police backed CPM cadres in Nandigram, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had said: “They (the poor people of Nandigram) have been paid back in the same coin.” Biman Bose, the CPM State Secretary and Left Front Chairman, had hailed the conditions in Nandigram after the abovementioned armed operations as heralding a “new sunrise”. Lakshman Seth, the CPM MP from the East Midnapore district, had said that the backbone of the people of Nandigram have been smashed. Such utterances are not fundamentally very much different from the tactics applied by Narendra Modi in Gujarat.

THE rot within the Left Front is deep. There is no meaning in holding only the CPM responsible for it. Every constituent of the Front must be held guilty of omissions and commissions. As a result there might be exodus from among the grassroot workers of smaller constituents like the RSP and the Forward Bloc. Even after the barbarous police firing on a Forward Bloc procession in Dinhata, Coochbehar district, the Bloc leadership is shying away from a proper response. The RSP has raised its accusing finger towards the CPM after bombs were hurled at the residence of a Minister from this party at Basanti, South 24-Parganas. Biman Bose went all out to prove that the RSP’s allegation is baseless. Yet the RSP leadership is hesitant to take the matter to its logical conclusion.

This is mainly due to the fact that almost all the Front constituents have lost touch with the common people because of corruption, high handedness and petty factional attitude. The average employment in West Bengal under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is abysmally low and the Front has performed badly in those areas where the rate of employment is even lower than the State average. Preparation of the below poverty line (BPL) list at the village level is full of corruption. In almost every village of the State one comes across allegations that only those close to the Front constituents, most of all the CPM, can get themselves enlisted.

This is not at all surprising where the Chief Minister himself makes a difference between ‘we’ (the Front partners) and ‘they’ (the Opposition). This phenomenon became glaringly obvious when the State administration threw away all pretensions of civility and neutrality as they stopped quite a few prominent cultural personalities from reaching Nandigram on the day of the panchayat vote.

A very important reason beind the fall of communist governments all over the world is the fact that the system does not allow any difference between the party and the administration. West Bengal has also witnessed enactment of this indecent drama during the last thirty years. Prior to their departure for Nandigram the aforementioned people had taken permission from the State Election Commission which, however, backtracked after Biman Bose came out with a statement criticising is action. It was a clear case of an independent government organisation succumbing to political pressure.

Although CPM cadres as well as the leaders are now speaking of reviving the party fortunes through rectification of mistakes, there is, in fact, little hope so far as its future days are concerned. The two most ominous signals for the CPM are its refusal to abandon the industrial policy declared by the Buddhadeb-Nirupam Sen-Prakash Karat trio and secondly its decision to educate the people further about its policies and programmes. Sadly the CPM leaders, separated as they are from the common people, fail to understand that the latter are more educated and do not need any further education.

The parliamentary election is approaching and after that the Assembly election will not be far off. The task at hand is extremely difficult for the CPM. There will be no State Election Commission to supervise those polls. The Central Election Commission has given a creditable account of itself at the time of the last State Assembly election and if the present trend of public opinion continues then it can safely be said that the Left Front is set to face a tough task at the hustings next year.

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