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How Hegemonic Parties Decline

Theory and Evidence from West Bengal

Subhasish Ray ( teaches political science at the National University of Singapore, Singapore.

This article examines the electoral disintegration of the Left Front, which governed West Bengal for a record three and a half decades. Contrary to previous research on the fate of erstwhile hegemonic parties, which has emphasised the importance of pragmatism in reviving defeated hegemonic parties, it is argued that the case of West Bengal illustrates a different dynamic. Specifically, it was too much pragmatism, not less, that led to the LF’s rapid demise. The coalition’s inability to pursue a programmatic strategy of industrialisation to tackle West Bengal’s agrarian crisis resulted in massive preference falsification among voters, and subsequently, a swift electoral decline.

The author would like to thank panel participants at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association for their useful feedback on an earlier version of the article. Thanks are also due to an anonymous reviewer of this journal for helpful comments.

On 20 May 2011, Mamata Banerjee, leader of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), created history when she became the chief minister of West Bengal. Prior to the TMC’s accession to power, West Bengal had been ruled continuously for three and half decades by the Left Front (LF), a coalition of moderate left-wing parties dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M). The long reign of the LF was remarkable because no other political formation had ruled for such a length of time in any Indian state. Moreover, throughout its long stay in power, the LF was “hegemonic,” that is, opposition parties did not have a realistic chance of winning elections.

The core instrument of this hegemony was the extraordinarily dense party organisation of the CPI(M), which penetrated into each and every aspect of life in rural West Bengal, where the majority of the population of the state lives.1 This point is important because it is this attribute that not only distinguished the LF regime from other state-level party regimes in India, but also from subnational party regimes in other democracies—the Christian Democratic Party’s lengthy dominance in southern Italy being a rare exception. Though less rare, hegemonic party regimes are also infrequent at the national level in countries that are not formally one-party states—the Republican People’s Party (RPP) in Turkey, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico, the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan, the People’s Action Party in Singapore, and the Barisan Nasional in Malaysia—are a handful of past and present examples. Indeed, the very idea of party hegemony, whether at the national or subnational level, is an anathema for even the most minimalist definitions of democracy as a system that allows for alternation in power(Przeworski 1999).

Yet, despite commanding such organisational power, which had been so effective in preventing an alternation in power for so long, the LF is today a shadow of its old self. The electoral decline of the coalition has been remarkable, both in its extent and its rapidity.

Decline of the Left Front

The first serious electoral shock to the coalition can be traced back to the 2008 gram panchayat elections. Though the coalition won in 69% of the zilla parishad seats, this tally was considerably lower compared to the 2003 gram panchayat elections when it won 87% of the zilla parishad seats. The next electoral shock was delivered in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the coalition only managed to win in 16 of the 42 parliamentary constituencies from West Bengal, less than half the number of constituencies it had won in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections (35).

The biggest shock, however, was delivered in the 2011 vidhan sabha elections when the coalition only managed to win in 62 of the 294 state assembly constituencies, a result that ushered Mamata Banerjee and the TMC into power. In effect, the LF had been downgraded from super-majority to minority status within one electoral cycle—it had won in 235 of the 294 state assembly constituencies in the previous vidhan sabha elections held in 2006. What followed next can only be described as “bleeding”(Cheng 2008). In the gram panchayat elections held in July 2013, the coalition was only able to win 24% of the zilla parishad seats. This trend continued in the subsequent municipality elections, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and culminated with the 2016 vidhan sabha elections when it was able to win in only 28 state assembly constituencies.

At the same time as the LF has declined, the TMC has grown as an electoral force at all levels of the state polity. The party won in 182 of the 294 state assembly constituencies in the historic vidhan sabha elections of 2011, up from 30 in the 2006 elections. It won 55% of the zilla parishad seats in the 2013 gram panchayat elections, up from only 16% in the 2008 elections. In line with this trend, it dominated the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning in 34 out of the 42 parliamentary constituencies from West Bengal, and won in 211 state assembly constituencies in the 2016 vidhan sabha elections.

Furthermore, over and above winning electoral majorities, the TMC has also been able to reproduce the aura of electoral invincibility associated with the LF in its heydays. As noted by Manas Bhunia, ex-president of the West Bengal unit of the Indian National Congress party, and currently a TMC member, the number of gram panchayat seats won uncontested by the TMC (6,625) in the 2013 gram panchayat elections alone was close to the maximum number of seats won uncontested by the LF (6,850) in any of the eight panchayat elections held during its 35-year tenure (Anandabazar Patrika 2013).

Swiftness of Decline

What explains the rapid electoral demise of the LF? Before answering this question, it is worth pointing out that the goal of this article is not to explain the general phenomenon of the decline of left politics in India. Other scholars have done this ably(Bhattacharyya 2016; Chakrabarty 2014). Instead, this article seeks to explain the swiftness of the LF’s electoral decline after it experienced its first electoral jolts.

Answering this question is important from the larger point of view of understanding how political party systems develop when a once hegemonic party is no longer dominant. In an important study, Cheng(2008) argues that political institutions are key to understanding variations in the manner in which hegemonic parties respond to electoral shocks. Comparing the RPP in Turkey, which disintegrated rapidly in the face of electoral shocks, to the PRI in Mexico and the KMT in Taiwan, who have re-emerged as viable contenders in multiparty systems, Cheng notes that Turkey’s parliamentary form of government with a plurality electoral system was responsible for the RPP’s quick demise, whereas presidential (Mexico) and semi-presidential (Taiwan) forms of government with electoral systems tending towards proportional representation kept the PRI and KMT afloat. This is because parliamentary–plurality systems have the tendency to shut out election losers permanently, making them vulnerable to defections, whereas presidential–proportional systems give election losers the breathing space to “strategize their political recovery” and prevent defections (Cheng 2008: 140).

At first glance, Cheng’s argument about the RPP would seem to be applicable to the LF since India has a parliamentary–plurality system. However, being a federal polity, India has multiple tiers of Government in India, and elections for these tiers are held non-currently. Hence, even though a party has been shut out of any particular tier of government, it can rally its members to reclaim power at another tier of government. As noted above, the LF has bled in elections at all levels of government since 2008. Moreover, defections from the coalition have been so rampant that the TMC has been forced to institutionalise these defections. The ruling party recently modified the panchayat act governing defections by allowing panchayat members to retain their seats as long as they defect en masse from their parent party (Anandabazar Patrika 2014). The relevant question then becomes why the LF has failed to stop the bleeding despite having the institutional opportunities to do so?

Perhaps the LF’s inability to stem the tide of defections is a result of a dogmatic Marxist–Leninist orientation. Analysing the varying fates of ex-communist parties in East Central Europe after the transition to democracy, Grzymala-Busse(2002) argues that the parties that successfully reinvented themselves under democratic political competition, such as the Hungarian Communist Party (rechristened the Hungarian Socialist Party), had developed a pragmatic orientation towards oppositional politics in the last years of communist rule, which gave them the blueprint to implement organisational changes that would subsequently serve them well in democratic politics.

By contrast, parties that failed to reinvent themselves, such as the Czech Communist Party (rechristened the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), had taken a hard-nosed ideologically driven approach to political opposition in the last years of communist rule, which made them ill-prepared for the challenges of democratic politics. It is instructive to note that while the LF has resisted significant organisational changes thus far, it cannot be treated on par with the ex-communist parties of East Central Europe because it exercised power in a subnational unit of a formally democratic country. This implies that it has always been attuned to the rhythms of electoral politics. Indeed, as noted by Kohli(1987), the CPI(M) successfully combined two elements that have not traditionally mixed well in the Indian soil: a party organisation structured on Marxist–Leninist principles that was devoted to winning electoral super-majorities. In other words, the LF’s “post-hegemonic” trajectory ought to have been closer to the Hungarian Communist Party than the Czech Communist Party.

Too Much Pragmatism

In contrast to Grzymala-Busse(2002), the central argument of this article is that it was too much pragmatism, not less, that led to the electoral disintegration of LF. After experiencing rapid growth throughout the 1980s, a product of the historic land reforms initiated by the coalition in its early years in power, West Bengal’s agrarian economy has been in the grip of a low level productivity trap since the 1990s. This productivity crisis has manifested itself in, among other things, the growth of a large informal economy, whose activities are not regulated through the formal legal system(Chatterjee 2009). As documented by Das(2013), serious ideological differences emerged within the top-level CPI(M) leadership about the appropriate strategy to counter the agrarian impasse. While one faction of the leadership was in favour of promoting private industry as a way out of the impasse, another faction was less sanguine about adopting this path. Although the pro-industry faction ultimately prevailed in this ideological struggle, it was unable to formulate a coherent political programme around industrialisation, in part because regardless of what policy options were debated at the top, the final arbiter in policy implementation was the local party machine.

Through its long years in power, the CPI(M) had allowed local party bosses to supersede the authority of local bureaucracies to implement public policies in a manner that would support the electoral renewal of the party(Das 2013). As a result, any programme of industrialisation had to be vetted by the local-level party organisations. Yet, unlike in the party’s early years in power, local party bosses had developed agendas and interests that ran counter to a programmatic approach. In particular, they had acquired a huge stake in “managing” the illegalities associated with the booming informal economy, and were unwilling to forego the rents they extracted from these activities. And herein, I argue, lay the crux of the CPI(M), and by extension, the LF’s rapid demise.

On the one hand, the party had become extremely unpopular in the countryside because the pace of industrialisation did not follow any publicly verifiable criteria. In fact, it opened up greater opportunities for rent-seeking for local party machines. On the other hand, there was mass “preference falsification” as a substantial fraction of the rural population continued to vote for the party, fearing reprisals by local cadres. As noted by Kuran(1991) in the context of Eastern Europe in 1989, this state of affairs is fraught with instability because a single act of collective insubordination can trigger a “revolutionary bandwagon.”

In the case of West Bengal, this moment arrived in 2006–07 when two events—both involving the acquisition of land from reluctant villagers for the purposes of industrialisation, and subsequent protests that became violent—showed up that the local party machines were less formidable than they appeared to be. The shocks from these events reverberated in the 2008 gram panchayat elections when the LF’s share of zilla parishad seats fell by 18 percentage points. This was a cue to voters in other constituencies to vote sincerely, which led to the LF’s worst performance in Lok Sabha elections since coming to power. With each successive electoral loss, the regime seemed less and less invincible to more and more voters, and this triggered the tidal wave of indignation that resulted in the TMC’s massive victory in the 2011 vidhan sabha elections.

The effects of preference falsification continued to resonate even though the LF lost its “permanent incumbency” status. Following the debacle of the 2011 vidhan sabha elections, a significant chunk of the CPI(M)’s electoral machinery switched over to the TMC. What made the switch possible is precisely the sudden shift of public support away from the CPI(M), which allowed these machine politicians—at least those who were not involved in egregious acts of violence against TMC activists—to credibly claim that they had been forced to work for the old regime against their will. I argue that this mechanism has been instrumental in the LF’s continuing electoral losses since 2011.

Programmatic Strategy and Preference Falsification

The central theoretical argument of this paper can be stated as follows: the LF’s electoral disintegration was a product of massive preference falsification, which, in turn, was driven by the coalition’s failure to articulate a programmatic strategy for reviving an ailing agrarian sector, where the vast majority of the population lived. The moving parts of the argument are the concepts of “programmatic strategy” and “preference falsification.” I discuss each of these concepts in detail and derive a set of empirical propositions that ought to be satisfied if the argument is valid.

The concept of programmatic strategy used in this article is in line with Stokes et al’s(2013) usage of the term as signifying a strategy of linking to voters, which involves (i) proclaiming prior to elections that the party will unconditionally implement a political programme if it is voted to power, and (ii) specifying criteria by which voters can judge whether the party has implemented the programme. Notice, this definition varies from other definitions in that it eschews any reference to the internal organisation of parties, that is, whether the party is structured hierarchically with each tier answerable to the one above or is simply a loose collection of individuals owing allegiance to a charismatic leader. I use this definition instead of organisation-centric definitions since the CPI(M) has greater organisational density than most political formations in India, and yet it failed to pursue a coherent strategy for tackling the crisis that festered in West Bengal’s agrarian sector.

The concept of preference falsification was originally developed by Kuran(1991) to explain why none of the transitions from communist party rule in Eastern Europe could be predicted a priori. It refers to the act of dissimulating one’s private preferences in public, that is, an individual has engaged in preference falsification if she publicly professes support for a regime, but her private preference is at odds with her public preference.

According to Kuran, there was massive preference falsification in the Eastern European nations prior to the breakdown of communist rule. This configuration of individual preferences made it difficult to predict the timing of regime transition since the power of preference falsification is such that a regime may remain stable although every citizen is engaging in preference falsification. This is because from the point of view of a single individual, every other individual, based on their publicly stated preference, is potentially a regime supporter, and hence it is irrational to oppose the regime publicly. Conversely, a single act of defiance can spark a revolutionary bandwagon since each dissimulator realises that there is at least one other individual who had been dissimulating, and this lowers the costs of collective action dramatically.

Furthermore, it is precisely the element of unpredictability that is latent in these situations that allows individuals whose public preferences were not at odds with their private preferences, that is, supporters of the old regime to credibly claim that they were, in fact, regime opponents, who had to feign their preferences for fear of persecution. This last point is important because it explains another important facet of the Eastern European revolution, namely, the great deal of continuity, at least in terms of personnel, between the pre- and post-revolutionary regimes.

Having defined the two main theoretical concepts employed in the article, I now elaborate a set of expectations that ought to be satisfied if my core argument is to have some validity. First, there ought to be a causal link between the failure to adopt a programmatic strategy for tackling the agrarian crisis and preference falsification. Second, we ought to be able to identify a tipping point when the revolutionary bandwagon was triggered. Finally, we ought to observe certain continuities in the personnel and tactics of the pre- and post-transition regimes.

I turn to a detailed empirical treatment of these points, but before proceeding further it is instructive to ask why preference falsification was widespread in a regime that allowed public opposition? While Kuran’s formulation is certainly relevant for the erstwhile communist nations of Eastern Europe, where dissent was prohibited, it may be less relevant for an Indian state regime, which has to operate within the framework of a liberal democratic constitutional order.

The key to understanding this puzzle is the local party machinery of the CPI(M), which operated in a coordinated manner to render whatever opposition that existed ineffective during elections. The power of this machinery can be gauged from the political trajectory of the TMC. Since its formation in 1998, the party tried a variety of strategies, including violence, to carve a space for itself in village politics. These practices bore fruit in the 2001 vidhan sabha elections when the party performed strongly and established itself as a force to reckon with. However, the response of the CPI(M)’s electoral machinery to this shock was fast and decisive, and the new threat was quickly snuffed out. In fact, the LF achieved one of its most resounding victories in the 2006 vidhan sabha elections. It should also be noted that the TMC’s progress was hindered by the mercurial personality of its leader, Mamata Banerjee, who seemed to be predisposed to a strategy of permanent opposition, which created the impression that there was no credible alternative to the LF(Bhattacharyya 2004a).

Empirical Evidence

For the sake of simplicity, I present my empirical analysis of the LF’s decline in two parts. The first covers the period from 2008–11 when it was still in power. The second covers the period from 2011 until the present, when it is no longer in power. Although there are important continuities between the two periods, it is useful to consider them in isolation.

Why did the LF lose its electoral hegemony from 2008–11 when it had registered one of its most resounding electoral victories in the 2006 vidhan sabha elections? Furthermore, a survey conducted after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections revealed an astounding level of partisanship bias towards the LF(Bhattacharyya 2004b). Of those who identified themselves as left supporters, 85% claimed to have voted as such in the elections. The corresponding figure for those who claimed to be TMC supporters was only 74%—a difference of more than 10 percentage points. Most importantly, 70% of those who claimed to have voted for the left in the Lok Sabha elections also claimed to have voted for the coalition in the preceding vidhan sabha and panchayat elections. In other words, the partisan bias spanned across elections to different tiers of government. What then explains the rapid drop off in electoral support starting in 2008 from what seemed like a position of electoral invincibility?

The main proposition of this article is that the aforementioned partisanship numbers masked a profound ambiguity in the relationship of the average CPI(M) voter to the party. The origins of this ambiguous relationship can be traced back to the 1990s, when the signs of a productivity crisis became obvious in rural West Bengal.

Productivity Crisis

During the 1980s, overall foodgrains production grew at the rate of 5.5% per annum, in part under the impetus of the historic land reforms initiated by the CPI(M) in its early years in power (Sarkar 2006). In the 1990s, the rate of overall foodgrain production was down to a little over 2% per annum as the gains from the land reforms petered out and structural bottlenecks ruled out further productivity increases (Sarkar 2006). In tandem with the stagnation in agricultural incomes, there was a massive growth in the number of individuals involved in marginal occupations in the non-farm sector—small manufacturers, traders, hawkers, shopkeepers and their employees, autorickshaw drivers, and so on (Sarkar 2006). What distinguished these occupations was their small scale, which implied that those involved in them could risk not living by formal laws and norms(Chatterjee 2009). Yet, it was precisely this element of risk that made these populations vulnerable to expropriation by local party machines, which had, through the long years of the CPI(M) in power, effectively displaced the local bureaucracy as the true face of local power. Thus was laid the foundations of a fundamentally unequal relationship in which promises of security were exchanged for rents and votes.

Aware of these developments at the grass-roots level, the top-level leadership of the CPI(M) sought to identify strategies to break the agrarian impasse. However, this process soon hit a roadblock as fundamental differences emerged over the appropriate strategy to be undertaken. While one faction within the leadership was eager to promote industrialisation in partnership with the private sector, on the lines of the Chinese Communist Party, a rival faction was strongly opposed to this strategy(Das 2013). Although the pro-industry faction prevailed in this ideological conflict, it was unable to develop a programmatic strategy for pushing industrialisation. This point is worth emphasising since it was the same party that had ridden to power in the 1970s on the back of a programmatic strategy of agrarian reforms, which generated enough goodwill to keep it in power for another 20 years. What prevented it from taking a similar approach to industrialisation in the midst of an agrarian crisis?

The fundamental obstacle to the adoption of such a strategy was the local party machinery. This machinery had to be consulted by the top-level party leadership to implement any policy programme since formal bureaucratic channels at the local level had been hollowed out to ensure that public policies were implemented in a politically beneficial manner(Das 2013). And herein was the rub. A programmatic approach to industrialisation was unacceptable to the machinery because such an approach would cut into the strong stake it had developed in the persistence of the informal sector in the rural economy. Hence, any policy of industrialisation that was adopted at the top had to be piecemeal with built-in incentives for rent-seeking at the bottom.

The stage was thus set for the transitional dynamics that followed. Expecting a clear road map of industrialisation from the CPI(M)’s top leadership, the rural electorate was confronted with a fragmented piecemeal approach, which widened the already substantial opportunities of rent-seeking for grass-roots party cadres. Yet, voting against the CPI(M) was not a feasible option because of the fear of being excluded from the patronage networks controlled by the party’s local machinery. The result was massive preference falsification. What was missing was a spark to trigger the revolutionary bandwagon.

Land Acquisition

The spark was lit in 2006, when the newly elected LF government, flush from a resounding victory in the vidhan sabha polls, embarked on a project of land acquisition for a small car factory in Singur, a panchayat area located 45 km from Kolkata. The project was vehemently resisted by a section of the villagers in the area because the entire process of acquiring land and assessing the compensation to be paid to the owners was deliberately kept opaque to suit the political interests of local party bosses.

The resistance was so intense that the police had to be called in to quell the protesters. One person was killed in police firing. What added fuel to fire was the rape and murder of Tapasi Malik, one of the protesters, allegedly by local CPI(M) activists. It was at this juncture that Mamata Banerjee, the TMC leader, entered the fray and sought to give the spontaneous movement of the Singur villagers a specific political articulation. She went on an indefinite hunger strike that ultimately forced the Tatas, the would-be investors in the car factory, to cease construction work on the acquired land and relocate the factory elsewhere. In the words of Dola Mitra, a well-known journalist:

Mamata Banerjee’s arrival in Singur and putting her weight squarely behind the unwilling farmers added so much force and magnetism to the resistance that, within months, it had gathered all the velocity of a veritable political tsunami—a word that was constantly used at that time to refer to her powerful movement—drawing to itself, as it surged ahead, voices of support not just from the rest of West Bengal, but also from across the country and even around the world.(Mitra 2014: 85)

No sooner had the ink dried on Singur that trouble flared up in Nandigram, another nondescript panchayat area in rural West Bengal, which the government had earmarked for a chemical hub to be set up by Salem, an Indonesian business group (Das 2013: 275–81). Once again the process of land acquisition ran aground as villagers in the area suspected foul play by the local CPI(M) strongman, Lakshman SethDas (2013: 275–81). Emboldened by the success of the Singur movement, the protesters went one step further and dug ditches around the contested farmland to mark it off as a “liberated zone.” As before, the government sent in police forces and 18 persons were killed in police firing. It was alleged that the large number of deaths were caused by local CPI(M) activists who had infiltrated the ranks of the policemen and fired indiscriminately at the villagers (Das 2013: 275–81). As she had done in Singur, Mamata Banerjee stood by the Nandigram villagers and demanded that land acquisition be stopped with immediate effect. Once again, the government relented.

The twin events of Singur and Nandigram sent two clear messages to the West Bengal electorate: (i) the costs of collective action against the CPI(M) local machinery was lower than had been previously assumed, and (ii) the TMC could be trusted with a shot at governing West Bengal. The revolutionary bandwagon was triggered, ultimately culminating in the LF’s historic loss in the 2011 vidhan sabha elections.

The Second Phase

I turn now to the second phase of the LF’s decline. Why has the coalition been unable to rejuvenate itself from the opposition benches, where it has been sitting since 2011? The key to answering this question is to decode a popular phrase in contemporary political discourse in West Bengal—“nothing has changed.”

An old woman in Kotalpur village in Bankura district in the western part of the state narrated her experience of voting in the 2013 gram panchayat elections to a visiting journalist as follows:

I am in trouble whether I vote or not. They came to my home and told me that I had to cast my vote for them. Moreover, when I was voting, they were peeking through the window to check whether I had ticked off on the right party symbol. What has the Trinamool done that is new then? (Bandopadhyay 2013, translated from Bengali by author).

The gram panchayat to which Kotalpur belongs is one of the many thousands that were won uncontested by the TMC in the 2013 elections. Narratives such as this poured out from different corners of West Bengal during the 2013 elections. An old schoolmaster in Labhpur village in Birbhum district in the central part of the state noted how the local block office, where candidates had to submit their nominations, was cordoned off by TMC “boys” with guns and bombs displayed openly (Chattopadhyay 2013). The CPI(M)’s current zonal committee secretary from Labhpur, Paltu Korar, admitted candidly:

Those who were in the leadership of the LF in this area have now changed sides and joined the Trinamool. Those leaders had cordoned off the local block office to prevent candidates from other parties from submitting their papers. (Chattopadhyay 2013, translated from Bengali by author)

In line with the theory of preference falsification, these narratives clearly show that elements of the CPI(M)’s electoral machinery had moved over to the TMC, rendering the party incapable of reinventing itself once out of power. A final question that remains to be asked is, who switched? The theory of preference falsification would predict that only the most egregious defenders of the old regime would find it difficult to make the switch. The tale of Saukat Mollah and Sattar Mollah from the Canning–Bhangor area in the South 24 Parganas district in the southern part of the state supports this hypothesis.

The two were trusted “generals” of the then CPI(M) leader, Rezzak Mollah, currently a TMC member, who hailed from the region. In CPI(M)’s heydays, Rezzak would descend on the region during any given election and direct the party’s campaign from the local party office, letting everyone know that he was the undisputed strongman of the region (Ghatak 2013). On the day of the gram panchayat elections, Rezzak made a brief appearance in the area to cast his vote and returned to Kolkata. What had changed? According to Rezzak, he had prior indication that there would be an attack on his life by TMC cadres if he lingered in the area for too long (Ghatak 2013). Sources from his own party, however, gave a radically different account of the situation. According to these sources, Rezzak had been defanged because his two trusted generals, who enforced his writ in the region, were no longer by his side. Saukat had switched sides and joined the TMC, barely a month after the historic 2011 vidhan sabha elections, while Sattar was languishing in jail on charges of murdering a TMC activist (Ghatak 2013).

Another example that supports my argument for the LF’s decline post-2011 is the case of Majid Master from the Sasan area in the North 24 Parganas district in the southern part of the state. Majid is a district committee member of the CPI(M). In the party’s heydays, he exercised complete domination over the area, which included, among other things, monopoly control over an illegal business in fisheries worth crores of rupees (Bhattacharya 2013). During the panchayat elections, Majid was unable to enter the area even to cast his vote (Bhattacharya 2013). Political power in Sasan had passed over to a new strongman, Mohsin Islam, whose wife contested the zilla parishad seat from the region on the TMC’s ticket and won by a huge margin (Bhattacharya 2013).

Concluding Remarks

This article examines the recent electoral disintegration of the Left Front, which governed West Bengal continuously for three and a half decades. Contrary to previous research on the post-hegemony fate of erstwhile hegemonic parties, which has emphasised the importance of pragmatism in reviving defeated hegemonic parties, I argue that the case of West Bengal illustrates a very different dynamic.

Specifically, I argue that it was too much pragmatism, not less, that led to the LF’s rapid demise. The coalition’s inability to pursue a programmatic strategy of industrialisation to tackle West Bengal’s agrarian crisis resulted in massive preference falsification among voters, and subsequently, a swift electoral decline. Had the coalition pursued industrialisation with the same mobilisational zeal that was invoked in ushering in the historic land reforms in West Bengal, its post-hegemony trajectory would have resembled the path taken by the PRI in Mexico or the KMT in Taiwan, and not the RPP in Turkey. The main implication of this finding is that neither pragmatism nor a programmatic outlook can explain why some hegemonic parties decline rapidly while others reinvent themselves. Whether a hitherto omitted factor can account for this variation is a subject for future research.


1 Bhattacharyya (2009) uses the conceptual frame of “party society” to describe the CPI(M)’s involvement with rural society.


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Stokes, Susan, Thad Dunning, Marcelo Nazareno and Valeria Brusco (2013): Brokers, Voters and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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