29 November 2013

By Praful Bidwai

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress has emerged triumphant in the just-held municipal elections in West Bengal, and reduced the Left Front to insignificance. The TMC’s victory run, from the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the 2011 Assembly elections and rural panchayat polls last July, has established it as Bengal’s pre-eminent party, ahead of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM).

The CPM—the world’s second-largest Communist party, next in membership only to the Chinese party—now stands humbled in a state it ruled for an uninterrupted 34 years. This fourth successive defeat in Bengal confronts the Left Front, including the CPM, Communist Party of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Block, with an unprecedentedly grim challenge.

Unless the Left addresses its ideological deficiencies, rethinks its political strategies, undertakes honest self-criticism, publicly admits its mistakes, revamps its state-level leaderships, restores its once-close relationship with the underprivileged, and lifts its cadres’ morale, it’s unlikely to overcome its crisis. The crisis is acquiring an existential character and could even turn terminal.

To return to the latest elections, the Left drew a blank in all five municipal bodies. The TMC swept four: (Howrah near Kolkata, Krishnagar in Nadia district, Behrampur in Murshidabad, and Midnapore and Jhargram in West Medinipur). The Congress won one body.

In two of the five bodies, the Left scored a duck. It was ahead of the Congress in only one. In many wards too, the Left finished third. This greatly dims its 2014 Lok Sabha prospects.

Overall, the TMC won 96 of the 143 wards (total, 145) in the five bodies whose results were announced. (Its 2008 score was 28.) The Left could win only 8 wards, and the Congress 36.

The TMC wrested the Howrah corporation and Jhargram municipality from the Left, which had ruled them for three decades. Howrah, where the TMC won 41 of 50 seats, is bang in Kolkata’s peri-urban industrial belt. Jhargram lies in a tribal area, and witnessed anti-TMC unrest only recently. Both results, especially Howrah, will have a bearing on the Lok Sabha elections.

True, the TMC practised coercion and captured some booths—just as the Left used to do earlier, albeit on a smaller scale. But that can’t explain the spread and magnitude of the Left’s increasingly humiliating defeat and steadily shrinking vote in successive elections.

Thus, the Left also fared miserably in the 12 municipal elections held slightly earlier, in which the TMC swept 9 bodies. In 29 recent ward byelections, the Left won just 4 wards against the TMC’s 23. These include a ward in Kolkata city. TMC victory margins were impressive too: about 10,000 votes in both the Kolkata ward and Ward 45 in Howrah, which have about 45,000 voters each.

The TMC’s municipal victory follows its sweep of 13 of 17 zilla parishads (district councils) in July’s panchayat elections. The Left won only one parishad (Jalpaiguri), but lost as many as 12 parishads won in 2008: 11 to the TMC, and 1 to the Congress. Its vote-share fell from 49.5 to 36 percent, well below the TMC’s 42 percent.

The Left’s most grievous losses occurred in 9 Southern and South-Western districts, considered its longest-standing bastions. These included Barddhaman (Burdwan), Birbhum, Hooghly, West and East Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia. Bardhaman has witnessed Bengal’s greatest land struggles and produced legendary peasant leaders Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Choudhury.

Many analysts concluded that Ms Banerjee’s rural support-base remained strong although she had lost some credibility in the cities because of her crass utterances about rape, her “off-with-his-head” commands, rising crime rates, the Rs 22,000-crore Saradha scam, harassment of academics over posting a cartoon, etc—issues to which bhadralok urban voters are particularly sensitive.

However, the municipal elections disprove this assessment. Ms Banerjee remains popular, or at least acceptable, in urban and semi-urban areas too—if only because the electorate doesn’t want the Left to come back. It has repeatedly sent this message beginning with the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, which brought the Left Front’s tally down from 35 (of 42 seats) to just 16.

The 2011 Assembly elections saw the Left’s rout. Its vote-share fell from 51 to 42 percent, and its seat-tally plummeted from 235 (of a total of 294) to just 62. Although detailed figures for the latest civic polls aren’t available, it would be a surprise if the Left’s vote hasn’t shrunk below the 36 percent clocked in panchayat polls.

This isn’t just a succession of electoral setbacks, but a general political defeat for the Left in West Bengal, and a telling comment on its credibility and record in government. Things are so bad today that the Left parties, known for their committed cadre-base, are simply unable to bring their supporters out on the streets on any issue of public importance.

Many such issues cry out for mobilisation, including the Saradha scam—a Ponzi scheme run by an unscrupulous operator called Sudipto Sen that burnt the savings of 3-to-4 million families—serious law-and-order problems, including the Park Street and Kamduni rape cases and the broad-daylight murder of a police sub-inspector by a goon connected with the TMC, gross human rights violations, and urban governance issues including a bizarre ban on bicycles on 174 Kolkata roads.

The Left doesn’t figure in these struggles. It’s virtually paralysed. It conducts politics through television, leaving the real fight to Trinamool factions, which remains divided between the “Green TMC” (the original formation) and the “Red TMC” (mainly comprising defectors from the CPM).

The Left complains that the TMC is a party of lumpens and goons. This is doubtless true. But it’s equally true that the Left, especially the CPM, has no strategy to counter or combat the TMC. It’s as if its leadership were waiting for a near-miraculous, spontaneous revival of its organisation before joining battle. But the revival won’t happen unless the cadre is mobilised through mass struggles.

Decimation stares the West Bengal Left in the face, which just 10 years ago seemed invincible. How has this come about? Four factors explain the Left’s decline. First, the Left lived for far too long on the credit it earned from the positive initiatives launched soon after 1977, including the Operation Barga tenancy reform, devolution of power to the panchayats, release of political prisoners, restoration of law-and-order, spread of primary education, and return to coherent governance.

Some of these measures were modest. Thus, Operation Barga registered and protected tenants, but never evolved into radical land redistribution, unlike in Kerala. Nor did the Left acquire and distribute above-ceiling surplus land among the landless. Soon, the reforms’ impact petered out. Second, the Left Front, working under the constraints of skewed Centre-state relations, adopted relatively conservative economic and social policies early on. Agricultural growth was accelerated but made dependent upon Green Revolution techniques, including irrigation and high-energy inputs. There was little skill generation, and employment opportunities dried up.

The Left Front neglected the social sector. West Bengal’s health, education and labour welfare indices fell and are now among India’s lowest. Its school dropout rates are higher than Bihar’s. Its performance in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme is the worst among 20 major states and its Public Distribution System for food is among India’s most run-down.

Only 55 percent households in West Bengal use electricity for lighting (national average, 67 percent). And only 25 percent have access to tapped drinking water (national average, 43 percent).

The Front adopted an elitist and pro-Big Business industrialisation strategy. This derived from its dogmatic understanding of the “stages of historical development”, in which capitalist industrialisation must happen before the transition to socialism begins.

This entailed aggressive land acquisition and pitted the Left against its own base, as the bloodshed in Singur and Nandigram (2006-07) showed. Third, as the LF got bureaucratised and ossified, popular discontent grew against its subordination of the state, recruitment of musclemen, and abuse of power and patronage by cadres. By the 2006 Assembly elections, surveys showed, the Left’s vote-base among the rural poor shrank by 5 percent over 2001, while that among the urban middle classes and urban rich grew by 16 and 18 percent. This won it an unprecedented 34 of Kolkata’s 48 seats, but pushed it further Rightwards.

Finally, the Left failed to integrate issues like caste, patriarchy and ecology into its theoretical understanding. It also developed an organisational culture which outlaws difference and dissent and prevents free internal debate—and hence honest introspection. The Left will become marginal in Bengal unless it radically rethinks its politics. Its performance will probably improve in Kerala from 4 to 14-17 Lok Sabha seats. But that won’t push its national total much above the present 24 seats. That still falls short of the critical minimum needed to influence Indian politics.

The Left is one of the few currents in Indian politics which is committed to the poor, and relatively untainted by corruption. It has strengthened democracy and fought for underprivileged people’s rights. It deserves to survive. But unless it reforms, it will perish.—end--