Fall of the Reds
There may have been several reasons behind the defeat of the Communists in West Bengal but all they need is an electoral change of fortunes for a fight back.
For many, the defeat of the Communist government in West Bengal is akin to the fall of the great Roman Empire. This school of thought – mainly comprising right-wing opponents – believes that Communism in India has outlived its utility, as has been the case in many countries around the world. While the party’s politburo is still analyzing the root causes of defeat, it is apparent that it was aided by the fact that West Bengal had a crumbling infrastructure and lack of opportunities and refused to industrialize, which scared away potential investors, both from within the country and abroad. This was committing harakiri at a time when even China had opened its market along capitalist lines.
Yet it took all of 34 years for the Leftists to actually lose its bastion. It was way back in 1977 that the wind had turned in favor of the Communists after the Congress party, which had ruled West Bengal for 27 years, was convincingly defeated. The then Communist Party grew from two representatives in the West Bengal legislative assembly of 1952 to a landslide victory. They rode on the wave of the post-emergency era and anti-incumbency sentiments post-Bangladesh-warrefugee crisis. The CPI (M) alone won 178 assembly seats out of the 224 it contested that year. For seven continuous assembly elections after that, West Bengal repeatedly voted Communists to victory.
The scenario for the Communist Party of India, however, has been gradually changing in recent years. Its steep decline between 2004 and 2009 confirmed the writing on the wall. By then the Communists had touched their previous lowest percentage of seats of 21.2 percent in 1962 at the height of anti-Left sentiments following the India-China war. But why is the Left in such a mess today? The blame partly lies in overconfidence because the comrades took their political supremacy for granted. The state, which was being ruled with the help of a well-entrenched party cadre that ensured grassroot support, was undergoing radical transformation that was largely ignored by the party’s top brass. Instances of exploitation and rowdyism in the name of party cadres were also being increasingly reported from all over the state. In recent years, Mamata Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress, presented itself as a credible alternative. It started making inroads capitalizing on resentment over largely local issues, thereby completing the process of change.
Then there was the large number of civilian casualties in Maoist violence in recent years. The Maoist movement – also called Naxalites – come from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) led by Charu Majumdar, initiated a violent uprising in 1967. Many tribal and other poor people joined the movement and started attacking local landlords.
A movement that started in quest of equal power to all sections turned into a brutal killing spree. In 2010 alone,
more than 300 people were killed. The rising influence of Naxalites and inability of the state government to control violence finally become one of the major causes behind the government’s fall.
Industrial growth and urbanization remained a concern but the sixth Left Front government emphasized on the rapid growth of information technology. Many IT MNCs set up units in the state. The government also expanded the agri-business sector in a significant way. Yet, it was too little and probably even too late for a state with vast human and natural resources.
If there was one X-factor missing for Communists in Bengal it was the absence of Jyoti Basu, the man who had become synonymous with the Communist rule in the state. During his time, the government brought about a major breakthrough in agriculture and allied sectors in Bengal by implementing land reform measures and introducing the three-tier Panchayati Raj system. West Bengal created a record in distribution of surplus land. Agricultural production witnessed an upward swing and the literacy rate jumped to as much as 78 percent. The percentage of people living below the poverty line came down to less than 26 from 52 in 1978.
As soon as Jyoti babu exited the scene, the state government started committing blunders, one after another. Bringing the automobile industry to the land of Marxists was perhaps the biggest of them all. In 2007 an agreement was reached between the state government and Tata Motors for the Nano car project. The Singur Agreement – which led to the acquisition of 997.11 acres of land – was to promise jobs and prosperity. Unfortunately, it became the Achilles heel. Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee demanded that 400 acres of land should be returned to unwilling farmers. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Mamata Banerjee and other leaders of both the parties met Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the then governor of West Bengal to solve the matter but could not reach an agreement.
Trinamool Congress increased the intensity of agitation and demanded return of the 400 acres of land. Mamata Banerjee went on a 26-day strike. By the end of 2008, the Tatas finally moved the factory to Gujarat. Trinamool reaped rich electoral dividends by leading protests against land takeover by the industry. That triggered the slogan, time for change or poribartan, in Bengali. In the process the opposition party consolidated the anti-incumbency vote with the help of the Congress Party, which agreed to play second fiddle to Trinamool in West Bengal. The Congress is now an alliance partner in the state.
However, despite all that has gone wrong, the red army may be down but it is certainly not out. Communism in India has remained static and unchanged since Independence, unlike their counterparts elsewhere. Ultimately, the fatigue against the old system and the desire for change caused a turnaround in West Bengal. Electoral politics can be fascinating, especially in a country like India where several dynamics are at play.
Kerala, another Indian state with considerable communist presence has had a history of toggling between the Communist-led Left Democratic Front and another coalition led by the Communist party. Each time a combine loses elections, they prepare for an almost certain return to power in the next elections. Communists in Bengal would be hoping this history repeats itself in West Bengal. The writer is a Dubai-based journalist. She started her career as a print journalist and is now making documentaries. With about a decade’s experience in diverse spheres of journalism, her core interest is in issues related to South Asian migrant communities.
Bengal turns green.