Left down but not out

Left down but not out

The late Jyoti Basu (right), who made West Bengal the Left bastion. In West Bengal, the Left is surely down but is it out? Many of the Left’s growing brigade of detractors would like us to believe that the Left will be dead and gone once it faces what seems like an imminent defeat in the state’s forthcoming Assembly elections. That will perhaps not be the case. The Left Front, specially its largest constituent the CPI(M) will remain a powerful political force with a large regimented organisation in West Bengal.

It will be a formidable force in the Opposition, even if its numbers in the state assembly fall below the expected.

The reason for its possible survival as a powerful force is not because the Left has done much in recent months to go to town about  but because Bengalis are not yet ready to give up the Left from their menu list. They might like to try out the Trinamool Congress for a term or so because it has evoked powerful regional emotions that the Left only used to tickle up to stay in power.

But many Bengalis would not like the Left to wither away (using a Marxian expression) because they are not too sure how Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress will shape up in power. It is one thing to deliver a few big projects as federal ministers – quite another challenge to run a state government already crippled by a debt burden and a profligate spending from the state exchequer by a finance minister less than popular even in his own party.

Bengalis voted the Congress to power for the first two decades after Partition, before trying out a change in 1967, when the first United front government came to power with Ajoy Mukherji of the Biplobi Bangla Congress (a Congress breakway like the Trinamool) as chief minister and Jyoti Basu as deputy chief minister. Then followed four years of bloodshed and political instability marred by the Naxalite rebellion and police counter-action marked by fake encounters that Bengal pioneered like much else.

The Congress muscled its way back to power in the rigged 1972 elections when even Jyoti Basu lost his assembly seat to a non-entity by 40,000 votes. In 1977, Bengal voted the Left Front to power and it has been running the show ever since.

But inspite of the Left’s unusual run of electoral success, the Congress never withered away and retained more than 30 to 40 percent of the popular vote share until Mamata Banerjee broke away to form the Trinamool Congress in 1997. And now the vote share of the Trinamool and the Congress is sharply rising in the last five years. An alliance will cement the anti-Left consolidation and perhaps help Mamata Banerjee achieve her lifetime dream – but even she does not expect the Left to wither away .

Popular thought

Like an alcoholic suddenly waking up to the possible benefits of detoxificatioin, many in the Left (CPI-M included) wish to risk a term out of power to weed out the “undesirable elements” and revamp the party organisation. Some point to Tripura where the Left lost the 1988 elections but was back in the saddle after five years and has been in power ever since.  This, they say, would be ideal for the Left in Bengal – and India.

The Left is paying for crucial mistakes that has put Bengal back by years. Its decision to remove English from the primary level crippled a whole generation and put them at a disadvantage in all-India competition. The zeal with which it fought computerisation has been nothing short of the suicidal. Bengal’s decline in health and education cannot escape even the casual eye, regardless of Left claims that the rural poor has surged ahead in basic education. Bengalis now make a beeline for engineering and medical colleges down south for education and treatment alike.

An unionised and politicised police lacks the credibility and professionalism to handle major breakdowns caused by a fresh Maoist upsurge and a fresh campaign for separate Gorkhaland in the hills of Darjeeling.

Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s late rush to catch up on industrial investments with a call for “do it now” briefly generated some hope but his government’s mishandling of the Singur (from where the Tatas finally shifted their Nano car project) and Nandigram projects kickstarted the Bengal peasantry’s disillusionment  with the Left that’s finally going to cost it dear. In many parts of Bengal, the rural poor, once the Left’s most trusted votebank, is voting with its feet against the Left in successive elections since 2007. In an economy of small favours and smaller expectations, the Trinamools are asserting themselves with ease after Mamata Banerjee delivered a few projects to Bengal.

Bengali bias

Make no mistake, the Left will pay as much for perpetually staying out of power at the Centre, which limits its capacity to distribute favours, as for its muddled land acquisition policies that triggered the people’s resistance against the Tata Nano project and the Salem chemical hub project. Many Bengalis resent the Left’s policy of outside support to left-of-centre coalitions like Deve Gowda’s UF government – a policy that deprived Jyoti Basu the prime ministership of this country.

Mamata Banerjee is driving home this point with a vengeance – even at the risk of being accused of heavy Bengal bias. The more she is criticised for that bias in the rest of the country, the more sharply her popularity rises in Bengal.

A people divided by colonial intrigue and religious schism and ravaged by successive famines and the vagaries of the Partition seek both stability and growth to break the jinx imposed on it by very unkind history. The Left gave them stability but one that in three decades has degenerated into stagnation.  Mamata Banerjee’s populism is not good enough to drive away the fears of “a cow which has seen many cloudy days”, as goes a Bengali proverb . She raises high hopes and much Bengali pride.

By decimating the Congress and humbling it into submission, as no Bengali leader including Chittaranjan Das or Subhas Bose could, Mamata Banerjee has made Bengali regionalism come off age, though it does not have a pronounced agenda. But Banerjee is yet to generate the kind of confidence that will influence Bengalis into saying a decisive good bye to the Left. They would need the Left even at the peak of a Trinamool ascendancy as much as they needed the Congress at the peak of the Left’s rise to power. 

(The writer is a veteran journalist and author.)