Mamata corners the Reds

Mamata corners the Reds

Trinamool Congress rally in Kolkata.

Brand Bengal, chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya's favourite concept, is up for an acid test in less than a couple of months. His is a battle of a different sort. Barely a decade after the retirement of Jyoti Basu,the Communist patriarch, from active politics,the monolithic Communist Party of India(Marxist) in West Bengal has been threatened with a rude jolt in the coming April-May assembly polls. Not from any rival at par, but simply a one woman-led army,comprising some disparate and motley group of men and women, some rank newcomers to politics.

There could be a debate on whose stakes are higher - those of the CPI(M)-led Front or the fledgling Trinamool Congress floated by Mamata Banerjee. A defeat in this election could spell doom for Mamata, who has risen like a phoenix from near oblivion in the last six years or so. For the CPI(M), a defeat would definitely be historic as it will herald the end of the more than three decades of uninterrupted Communist rule in this eastern part of the country. For Mamata, it could very much be the end of the road, given the hype and a bit of aura created around her if she fails to make it to the Writers' Building, the seat of power in Bengal. As for the CPI(M), the party would suffer a grievous loss, even if it does not peter out. Hence, the national gaze is on this watershed assembly election.

What led to this drift and decline of the CPI(M) and the rise of Mamata? Factors too many struggle for attention. Having lived with power for 34 years at a stretch, the Left comrades have built their own fiefdoms where only party lobbyists had a space and the door remained shut for the common man. Corruption in critical spheres of administration has been systematically institutionalised with the Alimuddin Street (CPM headquarters in Bengal) keeping a tight leash on all appointments, transfers and policy matters. The chanting of the disdainful mantra - ‘we’ (CPM men, sympathisers and cadres) and ‘they’ (rest of the folk)- grew so strong over the years that a genuine aversion towards anything that is Left has begun to take root in the minds of even those who are considered ‘liberal Left’, leave alone the commoners.

What surprised many is the germ of a typical complacency that was laced with an ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude, afflicting the CPI(M) with critical speed in the last five years, courtesy the thumping result in the 2006 assembly poll when the Left Front amassed 235 seats in a house of 294. The victory turned the comrades further boastful and blind, fuelling a passion to lose touch with reality.

 Prior to that, grounds for this present anti-incumbency sweep had slowly, yet steadily been taking place. The turning point in the polity of West Bengal was the introduction of Operation Barga which interestingly was not due to any new agrarian legislation but an enactment, introduced during the Congress regime in the ‘70s. But the latter could not implement it owing to the state of Emergency. After the CPI(M)-led Front rode to power in 1977, between 1978-81, about 1.1 million bargadars were recorded under OB and shielded against eviction by the land owners or police. This earned high praise from none other than International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Then, the food-for-work programme was implemented successfully, way ahead of all other states, earning eloquent praise from the World Food Programme. But the OB which gave the Communists a real taste of success, was slackened and in the next 20 years, less than 300,000 bargadars were recorded. A frustrated Benoy Choudhury, a revered CPI(M) leader, who made this happen, went into a huddle and his key man and land revenue secretary D  Bandyopadhyay went to the Centre on deputation. Hundreds of litigations -mostly stay orders/injunctions, were lodged to block the two programmes.

The then Advocate General Snehangshu Acharya and his successor N N Gooptu, did nothing  to vacate those stay orders and injunctions. Satyabrata Sen, chief of State Planning Board, was forced to quit. Thus, seeds of reversal of progressive agrarian reform and pro-landless labour were sown.

Rise of the opposition

When Buddhadev Bhattacharya took over Basu’s legacy in November 2000, the cloud of euphoria that greeted and gathered around him, began to disperse after he launched a massive industrialisation drive without taking the coalition partners into confidence.

Bhattacharya chose to wink at a crucial indicator that emerged during the last assembly polls - the popular votes by the combined opposition was almost 50 per cent and only a few percentage points less than that of the ruling Left Front. Fortunately for Bhattacharya, in 2006, there was no alliance between the Congress and Trinamool, something that proved the Left’s Waterloo in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

In his drive for rapid industrialisation, the chief minister managed to hurt the party’s main support base, the rural peasantry, including the minorities.Not that Bhattacharya failed to send a message that industrialisation would create jobs; but the manner in which the land was acquired, forced an obvious comparison with the practice observed in the Stalinist regime in the undivided Russia. The result was there for everybody to see -- Singur and Nandigram not only rattled the Left bastions, it has crossed Bengal borders and become the symbol of land agitation across India.

The sheer pride of power enabled the ruling clique to dump all sane advice, even from quarters close to the Left, facilitating an easy entry not only for Mamata, but also for the Maoists in such deprived districts as Purulia, Bankura and vast parts of East and West Midnapore. When the shocking exposes about the CPI(M) exploitation and brutality among the tribals made headlines in the local media, it effectively alienated a large section of the urban and semi-urban middle class from the CPI(M) and created sympathy for the Leftwing ultras in young minds.

For all her negatives and tantrums, it goes to the credit of Mamata Banerjee to have cobbled up a rag-tag outfit, the lone agenda being the ‘oust-the-CPI(M)’ call. In her mission, she did not hesitate to welcome bureaucrats, police officers, poets, singers and even disgruntled Congressmen into her fold.

However, what came as a rude shock to many is that a large section of the city’s intelligentsia and artistes who were once avowed Left supporters, joined Mamata’s campaign and instead of a self-introspection and sending feelers to these intellectuals, the CPI(M) chose to brand them either pro-Trinamool or pro-Maoist. And the real land-grabbers who operated under the guarded shadow of some CPI(M) leaders had gone scot-free. These are but symptoms of a larger malaise that presently afflicts the CPI(M) and the state it rules.  
 
Will Didi deliver?

Now, the biggest question that confronts Mamata Banerjee is will she be able to end the corrupt run and bring in qualitative change in various arms of administration that have acquired thick layers of ‘corruptive rust’ in the last three decades of the Left rule? Will the change she is likely to bring in, be more of a cosmetic nature than a lasting and sustainable one given her ‘frivolities’? While she will have to work hard to weed out the corrupt elements from the party who must have flocked in large numbers by now, smelling power and pelf, there are some who have already begun behaving as if Trinamool has ascended the ‘throne’.

Secondly, Trinamool’s alliance with the Congress has the blessing of AICC president  Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi. But many among the local Congress satraps consider it a curse and a complete surrender to Mamata as she left only 65 seats for the Congress, fielding Trinamool contestants in as many as 226. With the aggrieved Congress leaders vowing to put up independents against Trinamool in some North Bengal districts, the alliance sky is already overcast with clouds.

The band of new advisers within and outside her party fold might make or break the run-up to the polls where they are heavily banking on the image of Mamata as railway minister, besides the TINA (there is no alternative) factor.

The wood Mamata beholds, is ‘lovely, dark and deep’. In her race to the Writers' Building, she is no doubt, ahead of the CPI(M) and the Left Front. If she manages to make it, she will have to keep the ‘promise’ and deliver in real terms. Else, she will fade into oblivion faster than the Left.

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