The change in Bengal is likely to be momentous and damaging
By Swapan Dasgupta
From a media perspective, there are three markedly different ways of assessing the politics of an Indian state. There is, first, the worm’s eye view of events; there is the view from the discreet vantage point of the regional capital; and there is, finally, what may be called the Google-Earth detachment. Readers of these pages will be familiar with the first two approaches in viewing West Bengal. What follows is an exploration of how the present churning in West Bengal is being seen from a distance. The perception may suffer from the over-generalizations of a foreign correspondent’s report. However, since all decisions relating to the state aren’t made by those familiar with local nuances, it may be instructive for West Bengal to gauge its image in the wider country.
A convenient starting point may be the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year. In the aftermath of its disastrous performance, the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a sombre statement on June 22. The party, it admitted, “has suffered serious reverses”, having won only nine seats (its allies won a further six) in West Bengal. While noting that the 5.33 per cent popular vote it secured throughout India was only 0.33 per cent below what it polled in 2004 (but had yielded only 16 seats compared to 43 in 2004), it expressed “concern about the erosion in the Party’s support base in West Bengal and Kerala”. At the same time, it put on a brave face, pointing out that the Left Front in West Bengal secured around 1.85 crore votes and in Kerala the Left Democratic Front had polled 67.17 lakh votes. Its conclusion was characteristically blasé: “Though there is some erosion, the main base of the Party is intact by and large in these two states.”
Setting aside the details of the anticipated debacle in Kerala, where election results invariably follow a see-saw pattern, the central committee can be accused of being wilfully disingenuous in its assessment of West Bengal. True, the popular vote for the Left Front slumped only nominally, from 1.88 crore to 1.85 crore. However, in the context of the turnout and an enhanced electorate, its support fell by a staggering 7.42 per cent — from 50.72 per cent in 2004 to 43.30 per cent in 2009. The CPI(M)’s own vote share fell from 38.57 per cent to 33.10 per cent. More important, the Left Front lost nearly every seat in what is loosely called the FM belt around Calcutta. There is ample evidence to suggest that a substantial body of Muslim voters switched over to the Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance and contributed to the Left Front defeat. The ruling coalition just about managed to save face by winning a clutch of seats in the Jalpaiguri-Cooch Behar belt of North Bengal and successfully defending its strongholds in the outlying districts.
The electoral transformation of a state that has been a Red stronghold for the past 32 years — the LeftFront won a majority of seats in every Lok Sabha and Assembly election since 1977 — is calculated to have traumatic consequences. Left rule in West Bengal was qualitatively different from other states in India. It was based on the principle of ascending control: loosest at the very top of the social pyramid and rigidly suffocating at the base. Other ‘bourgeois’ political parties that run state governments operate primarily as electoral machines and build fledgling networks of patronage. They leave day-to-day governance and development projects to the bureaucracy. The CPI(M) politicized almost every aspect of administration in West Bengal. It empowered its local committees, particularly in semi-urban and rural localities, to work as a parallel administration, overseeing all government work including policing. The process began in 1978 during Operation Barga but gradually engulfed every institution, including the arbitration of local disputes. Education was a particular casualty of political control: the CPI(M) insisted on controlling every appointment, from the peon to the vice- chancellor.
The CPI(M) control of local administration proved politically rewarding. The party also became a permanent election machine, blessed with the ability to deliver votes through means both fair and foul. Dependant on spontaneity (the proverbial ‘wave’) and the charisma of individual leaders, its opponents were in no position to match this streamlined machinery of harnessing votes.
A structure based on over-intrusiveness could endure as long as electoral success was guaranteed. The undivided Congress always had a vote share of nearly 40 per cent — impressive, but never enough to take on a united Left. After 1997, a divided Opposition made the task of the Left very much easier but also added to its complacency and arrogance. The excesses of Nandigram and the perceived over-zealousness of the chief minister in Singur revealed chinks in the CPI(M) rural base. Muslims ended up being particularly agitated and the ultra-Left, a euphemism for Maoist fractions, entered into a tactical alliance with Mamata Banerjee to settle scores with the main enemy. The TMC-Congress alliance ensured a level playing field in electoral arithmetic. The chemistry of an all-India election did the rest.
The immediate effect of the Left Front defeat is that the structures of control are fast unravelling. Many of those who sided with the CPI(M) because it was locally convenient have switched sides and others, including a section of the police, are negotiating their safe passage. The Maoists have taken advantage of Mamata’s political umbrella and the indulgence of the left-leaning intelligentsia to both settle scores with the CPI(M) and build bases in outlying areas. A section of Muslims with a sectarian agenda is eyeing a post-CPI(M) dispensation as being favourable to a brand of politics that West Bengal hasn’t witnessed for a very long time. For the moment, the minority community is either with the Congress or the TMC. But will its sectarian fringe don true colours after the assembly election of 2011?
The Left is in a state of paralysis for two reasons. First, the more ideological of the comrades have realized that large contingents of the party’s foot-soldiers were mercenaries and fair-weather friends. They are relieved at their departure but also recognize the damaging impact of these desertions on the party’s election machinery. Secondly, the Lok Sabha election was a personal defeat for the development politics of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The verdict has made it abundantly clear that State-facilitated industrialization will be thwarted by the general opposition to land acquisition. The beneficiaries of Operation Barga, it would seem, are loath to abandon their attachment to land in just one generation.
To the outside world, these developments are alarming. Since 1967, West Bengal has acquired a reputation for being obstreperous, mindlessly militant, over-politicized and even violent. The impressions may have been based on stereotypes, but they were real and contributed immeasurably to the state being left out of India’s growth story. For a brief period, it seemed that the chief minister was reinventing West Bengal. Now that seems like an illusion. With Mamata trying to outdo the CPI(M) in being cussed and difficult, there is a feeling that the run-up to the assembly election will witness a rash of agitational politics and spiralling violence. To cap it all, as the CPI(M) loosens its control, there is the additional threat of Maoist violence and the growth of Muslim communal politics.
West Bengal may be on the cusp of momentous political change and the end of Left dominance. But the process of change is likely to be very damaging. At least that is what it seems from the outside.