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Churning of the Social Base

   Churning of the Social Base It has been an unprecedented, seventh consecutive electoral victory for the Left Front (LF) in West Bengal. The front has won 235 seats out of 293 contested and 50.23 per cent of the vote, against 29 seats out of 285 contested and 28.27 per cent of the vote by the Trinamool Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine, and 21 seats out of 280 and 15.21 per cent, respectively, by the Congress and its allies. If one recalls the LF

May 20, 2006 E L L WEEKLY
Churning of the Social BaseIt has been an unprecedented, seventh consecutive electoral victory for the Left Front (LF) in West Bengal. The front has won 235 seats out of 293 contested and 50.23 per cent of the vote, against 29 seats out of 285 contested and 28.27 per cent of the vote by the Trinamool Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine, and 21 seats out of 280 and 15.21 per cent, respectively, by the Congress and its allies. If one recalls the LF’s near landslide electoral victories in 1982 and 1987, such margins of victory are not, however, unprecedented. But the times have changed, and so too has the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is the dominant partner in the LF. If one were to go by the electoral results alone and if electoral results were all that matter, as the mainstream parties appear to think, then the CPI(M) and the LF seem to have, on the whole, adapted well to the changed context since the 1980s. But the electoral results warrant a look from a social democrat and socialist perspective. A comparison of the present elections with the 2001 elections seems to suggest that while the LF has gained in support among the upper strata of the urban middle class, its “old” support base in rural Bengal among the peasants (especially those under tenancy) and agricultural labourers seems to have reached a plateau or declined. The Hindu-CNN-IBN post-poll survey results, compared with a similar post-poll survey undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2001, suggest various things. For one, the LF has barely maintained its support base among peasants, including those under tenancy. Clearly, the electoral gains of the past due to the implementation of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, which led to a significant improvement of the lot of a large number of ‘bagardars’ (sharecroppers) because of a concerted drive by the LF government and peasant organisations, have by now reached a plateau. What does this suggest? The LF has failed to take the land reform programme to the next progressive phase. Mutual aid teams now need to be formed in which households, while continuing to cultivate land on an individual basis, pool resources such as farm tools, implements and other resources, and occasionally labour services, and from there, the LF needs to gear the formation of elementary cooperatives. Land reform cannot be a one-shot affair. Second, the results of the 2006 post-poll survey when compared with the 2001 CSDS post-poll survey suggest that the LF has somewhat significantly lost in its support base among agricultural workers (landless agricultural labourers) and marginally among non-agricultural labourers. Here, it is significant to note that, unlike in other states where the CPI(M) has separate organisations for agricultural labourers and peasants, in West Bengal the agricultural workers and peasants are grouped together as part of the peasant organisations. And, in the peasant organisations, the interests of the owner peasants generally prevail. As a consequence, the panchayats make only a half-hearted attempt to pursue the implementation of minimum wages. The fact of a “no gain” in support from poor peasants and a decline in support from agricultural workers should be a source of concern for the new LF government in office. The question of conversion of barren and agricultural land into real estate has now come to the fore in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. The controversy arose in the context of the project proposed by the Indonesian Salim group. The land and land reforms minister Abdul Razak has so far saved the day for the small owner peasants, and for the LF. The latter has, as of now, agreed only to the takeover of barren and single cropped land. It should be noted that in the present election the LF has lost the Bhangar constituency seat to the Trinamool Congress, which had fought on the side of the peasants over the impending allocation of land to the Salim group. Third, a comparison of the 2006 and 2001 post-poll surveys shows that the LF has gained significantly in its support base in urban areas among business persons, professionals and white-collar salaried personnel. This seems to suggest that the LF is gaining the support of the upper strata of the urban middle class, including small and

medium business persons. A suggested indication of this is the victory of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate in Kolkata’s Burrabazar constituency, supported by the LF. Another factor is that the urban poor are by now disenchanted with the Trinamool Congress whose leaders seem to reappear on the scene only with the approach of elections. The new LF government has to be much more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the urban poor.

Speaking of urban metropolitan Kolkata, the LF government under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has been a great votary of leveraging West Bengal’s potential location advantage in business opportunities for information technology and outsourcing as also in establishing shopping malls and multiplexes, in view of the potential in providing jobs for college-educated youth and others, and this seems to have paid off in the recent elections. A hope has been created in the minds of educated youth that such investments in the state will create more and more employment opportunities, and the LF will now have to keep such hopes alive.

In the context of the structural change wrought by liberalisation and globalisation in the 1990s and beyond, the recent elections suggest a churning in the social base of the LF. The latter needs to be sensitive to this social churning while adapting to the changed context. rr:

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

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