By Swapan Dasgupta
As someone who visited Kolkata after more than a year, I was struck by a curious phenomenon: the abrupt disappearance of the CPI(M) from public spaces. For the past three decades, the sight of the daily Ganashakti pasted on improvised billboards and adorned with the ubiquitous red flag was drearily familiar. I don't know how many of the aam aadmi actually ploughed through the small print while waiting at bus stops, but ideological indoctrination was never the main point of the exercise. Rather, it was intended to convey a sense of the party's constant presence in every locality.
Today, the hoardings and wall writings of the CPI(M) are few and far between. There are few portrayals of muscular workers and determined peasants marching with the red flag. Also shrinking are evocative slogans declaiming against some perceived injustice. Instead, there are umpteen makeshift hoardings of a benign but somewhat stern Mamata Banerjee and streams of Trinamool Congress (TMC) buntings in the mohallas. If flaunting of party flags and agitprop are intended to convey a sense of a locality's political affiliation, it is clear that the TMC has upstaged the CPI(M) from most of Kolkata. The Left Front may still be ruling from the Writer's Buildings but it has ceded control of the streets to Mamata.
The State Assembly elections are not due until April or May of 2011 but there is already an anticipation of change. The unemployed (and, sometimes, unemployable) youth who frequent the corner tea shops appear to have moved en masse to the side of Didi, as Mamata is popularly referred to. Indeed, it probably takes some courage for CPI(M) supporters to proclaim their political preferences, in urban West Bengal at least. The CPI(M) was decimated in Kolkata and the adjoining districts in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. It took the verdict in a spirit of resignation and has withdrawn into its shell. As of now the TMC seems to be guaranteed a landslide in the cities and towns in the Assembly elections. The Left activity is mainly centred on trade unions which, unfortunately for them, influence voting behaviour peripherally.
It is different in the countryside. The CPI(M) is very deeply entrenched in rural Bengal thanks to its control of the panchayats. In the past, this control, coupled with the goodwill it had earned through the redistribution of land under Operation Barga, had ensured the Left Front of huge majorities in rural constituencies. In districts such as Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura, West Midnapur and Purulia, both the TMC and the Congress had difficulties finding credible candidates for rural seats.
The situation has changed perceptibly after the Lok Sabha election. First, the CPI(M) hold over other districts, particularly those located in North Bengal and around Kolkata has weakened considerably. There are four basic reasons for this erosion of support.
First, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Muslim voters appear to have made a conscious decision to back the TMC-Congress alliance.
Secondly, a net result of the Left Front over-zealous land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram is the erosion of the party's credentials as a champion of the poor peasantry. The beneficiaries of Operation Barga are first generation landowners and their attachment to their small holdings verge on the fanatical. This section has been unmoved by the government's arguments that industrialisation necessitates compulsory land acquisition. With her catchy but somewhat vague slogan of Ma, Mati, Manush (loosely translated as mother, land and mankind) Mamata has emerged as the champion of the rights of small farmers. She has given her TMC cadres (who invariably tend to be petty businessmen and sons of yesterday's large landholders) the necessary political opening to woo a section the Left took for granted. This incremental support may cost the CPI(M) dearly in constituencies that, while being rural, also have urban clusters.
Thirdly, the Left Front had hoped that the growth in rural prosperity through land reforms would trigger the revival of manufacturing and services in the state and provide job opportunities to the rural youth. This hope provided the basis of the Left Front's landslide win in 2006. However, the optimism surrounding the "revival" of West Bengal largely dissipated after the Nandigram fiasco and the willingness of investors to sink their money in the state evaporated after Tata Motors moved its Nano plant from Singur to Gujarat. The fiasco left the Chief Minister rudderless and called into question the Left Front's ability to secure economic growth in West Bengal. The CPI(M) is experiencing the backlash that comes with a failure to deliver. It is not that Mamata necessarily signals hope, but she personifies the mood of protest.
Finally, the CPI(M) has been adversely affected by the mushrooming of support for pro-Maoist groups in the more inaccessible parts of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura. The areas which today have a Maoist "problem" are those where the CPI(M) and its allies exercised a monopoly of power and political presence. The Maoists appear to have entered into a tacit understanding with the TMC to join hands against a common adversary. This informal alliance won't be enduring but, for the moment, it serves a mutual convenience. It has left the CPI(M) vulnerable in the unlikeliest of places.
The CPI(M) is unlikely to give up West Bengal without a spirited fight. It is aware that in the event of defeat, the party will be fiercely targeted by Mamata's party for its 30-year-old record of petty tyranny. Turf wars in West Bengal tend to be extremely bloody and this may be reflected in pre and post-poll violence—something that the Election Commission should factor into the poll schedule.
Additionally, the last card before the CPI(M) is to try and somehow scuttle the Congress-TMC alliance. The TMC genuinely feels that many of the Congress' central leaders would be happy to exchange its support with that that provided by the Left. Mamata is hoping for the best but simultaneously preparing for the worst. This sense of anticipation is the only common ground left in a Bengal that waits anxiously for the summer to settle the political uncertainty.