Spare A Thought for West Bengal

The election dust is all settled. There is indeed no final settlement in politics, and today's victors and vanquished can change positions almost overnight. But while everything is transitory, there is one enduring truth, politics is cruel on people and parties who refuse to learn.

And we shall see. The results of this election lead to continuity, in governance and in political equation overall. Except in one state, that is. Indeed, West Bengal just experienced a mini-revolution. After 32 years of Left Front rule, this is suddenly the first time when the opposition has done better than the ruling left front.

No one expected this. In fact, the Left Front expected a better show from opposition - there was a palpable voter fatigue - but they were benchmarking the opposition performance 1984 - 16 out of 42 seats. This result, 26 out of 42 seats, reducing the communists to an insignificant 24 seats in the parliament [which is the all India tally of the left parties], was unforeseen.

This is already creating a flutter. Yes, even the boring, unemotional communist leadership is shaken. Besides, this is being seen as the Semi-final of the power struggle in West Bengal. The state elections are due in two years, in 2011. [The opposition being in power in Delhi may also look at various pretexts to dismiss the state government before that and force an early election] The media is already abuzz with speculation of impending fall of the communist rule in Bengal. Even the leftists are confounded - there is talk of a public sentiment against them and everyone for the moment trying to gauge what went so wrong. And, it is proving to be difficult to pin down what really went wrong - and several theories, on the left and the right, are floating around.

The dominant theory is, of course, that the industrialization in Bengal has backfired. The people have voted against the land acquisition in Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere. Mamta Banerjee campaigned successfully against these projects, rolling back the proposed projects and scaring investors away from the state. The most convenient theory is this is what has worked for Mamta now.

The other factors that indeed worked is the alignment of Congress with Mamta Banerjee, thus making a potent force against the left coalition, and avoiding cross-voting like last time when Mamta was aligned with BJP. Some people will also say that this is a vindication of Mamta Banerjee's long struggle against the communist rule and they would surely demand an early election forced by a premature dismissal of the State government in any pretext.

I have an alternative theory to offer, and I shall say it now. I do think the voter fatigue and the Congress-Mamta coalition have all worked, but only marginally. After all, CPIM has been in power for 32 years, and we tired of them quite a while back. Besides, the party Mamta leads is only an offshoot of Congress, so such alignment may not necessarily have brought new voters in the fold.

I am also not sure people in West Bengal voted against industrialization and progress. That will make them unique in the whole country. I am not sure whether we are really looking back when the rest of the country is looking forward. The demographics are similar in Bengal and there is no reason to believe that people are less aspirational here, and therefore, their voting behaviour is completely different.

Besides, Mamta Banerjee has not done herself any favours recently as a leader. She pursued an opportunistic strategy, trying out the alignment with BJP and becoming BJP's Rail Minister, and after an indifferent stint, leaving NDA without a proper severance. She allied with Congress at a time when she had no other choices. I am not sure the voters in West Bengal, who are politically matured, are looking forward to see Mamta Banerjee as their Chief Minister.

On the contrary, I do believe that the vote in West Bengal is indeed in line with the rest of India, for progress and continuity. After all, West Bengal is also a big beneficiary of the recent progress, even though it may not measure up against some of the Western and Southern states. Collectively, I would think people of West Bengal wants to catch the bus and move forward, and their voting behaviour reflected the same.

So, why vote against the left when they are 'industrializing' Bengal? Well, because they are actually not industrializing, they are posturing. Tatas left West Bengal not because Mamta was agitating, but because the Government did not do enough to resolve the issues. Nandigram erupted because of the arrogance that the government displayed in handling the issues. And, overall, very little have happened in Bengal despite the noise. I have written this before, and will say it now - the industrialization of West Bengal is showtime industrialization, lot on paper but nothing on the ground. I did talk about the government's failure to encourage the entrepreneurship in the state. All the West Bengal government wanted to do is to prove that they are in the game by allotting free land for a car manufacturing project, several years after Tamil Nadu has taken the lead in Car Manufacturing in the country [West Bengal and Tamil Nadu used to have leadership position in Automobile manufacturing in the early years of Independent India]. The government started talking about software and outsourcing several years after almost all the states have done. Industrialization in West Bengal was more a Rip Van Winkle affair than an example of leadership and foresight.

Besides this, there was the question of sincerity. The CPIM continued to stifle the local businesses while they talked about industrialization. While the state 'opened' up, I was curious to see my favourite restaurants on Park Street closing down because of labour disputes. The government talked about work culture by exempting the software service companies from state wide General Strikes sponsored by the government itself. They talked about industry, but the state became power deficient - and the party tried to blackmail and then pull down the Congress government when it showed the boldness of moving forward with the Indo-US nuclear deal.

This last episode was of particular significance to the voters of West Bengal. I must admit that most Bengalis cherish the idea of seeing a Bengali Prime Minister or President one day. While Pranab Mukherjee failed to attain the position despite being close, Somnath Chatterjee, a CPIM veteran, was given the post of the speaker because the left parties extended crucial support to Manmohan Singh government in its initial years. During the nuclear deal, the party leadership, say Prakash Karat, dictated Mr. Chatterjee to step down, which the latter rightly refused saying that the Speaker's position was apolitical and he should remain in the job as long as the House does not impeach him. Mr. Chatterjee is a highly respected Parliamentarian, having been a Loksabha member for almost three decades, and being a Constitutional expert, his reasoning was indeed faultless.

In the events that followed, Mr. Chatterjee was expelled from the party though he continued as the Speaker. This event did two things: First, it made the debate about nuclear power a subject of discussion in West Bengal, and exposed the ambivalence and hypocracy of the Left position on industrialization; Second, it made the state leadership look powerless, as they stood by and watched one of their more senior colleague being denied the respect he indeed deserved.

In summary, I think the voters in Bengal voted for hope and progress, and voted against the duplicity of the CPIM leadership and the arrogance of Mr. Karat. CPIM unfortunately is not a party of accountability and transparency, which is a baggage these days. In the age of 24x7 media, Internet and a young voting population, their vocabulary of 'analysis', 'collective decisions' and 'reflection' are obsolete. Their MPs appearing on TV Talk shows since the election appeared like sacrificial goats, who knows nothing, says nothing, rather than gurgling out the few lines taught to them in advance. Listening to them and their analysis, it indeed becomes clear that they have run out of ideas and the West Bengal electorate has punished them for being so dull.

So, yes, I see the change coming to West Bengal and I am impatient about it. But I am also aware that this may not happen, if the opposition reads the situation differently, which they can easily do, and lose their way. So, my unsolicited suggestions to the opposition to end the left rule:

First, do not make the mistake of dismissing the government and forcing the President's Rule on Bengal. The voters will hate being denied their democratic rights and will throw out anyone who tries that.

Second, do not turn away from the industrialization agenda. That's exactly what the left will do - take a leftward lurch. The next election will be hope versus hopelessness; stay on the side of hope.

Third, project a Chief Minister other than Mamta Banerjee. If the voters are tired of CPIM, they are tired of her too. There are a number of very capable politicians in West Bengal, bring them out of the bag. Remember what Jyoti Basu achieved by putting Budhdhadev Bhattacharyya at the helm. A Mamta-raj will energise the CPM grassroots; stay out of that.

And, finally, participate in this new Government in Delhi and show some performance. There are many capable politicians in this new set of MPs and I am sure they should participate actively in the government and show the people that they are honest and they are able to work better than the leftists.

So, in summary, show some statesmanship! If there is one lesson from this election, Indian public has the necessary political savvy to see through their candidates. So, let the Trinamool+ alliance earn the right to power before they are given the power.


Unknown said…
Hi Supriyo... reading your blog is always a wonderful learning experience! The proper usage of words and your vast vocabulary is something I keep appreciating and amazed me to no end. Besides, being an extremely apolitical person like me you have kindled a certain level of interest. Earlier I used to be very confused where this political parties CPIM or TMC etc were concerned. But today somehow, I guess, I have got a slightly better grasp on this arena. Thank you soo much for your Sunday Post and making it soo much insightful and neutral!!!

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