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Left Front's 2006 Victory in West Bengal

In the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal, in terms of the number of legislative seats and vote share the Left Front came out far ahead of the other political parties. With a fractured opposition, democracy, if not marginalised, is certainly a casualty in this state. Given the failure of the opposition parties the ruling party needs to discharge the role of a responsible opposition from within the government. This article also discusses the changing nature of the Left Front leadership and its ideology in a reinvented form

Left Front’s 2006 Victory in West Bengal

Continuity or a Trendsetter?

In the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal, in terms of the number of legislative seats and vote share the Left Front came out far ahead of the other political parties. With a fractured opposition, democracy, if not marginalised, is certainly a casualty in this state. Given the failure of the opposition parties the ruling party needs to discharge the role of a responsible opposition from within the government. This article also discusses the changing nature of the Left Front leadership and its ideology in a reinvented form

BIDYUT CHAKRABARTY

T
he 2006 elections in five different states in India (West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Pondicherry) confirm that the texture of Indian politics has undergone radical changes. What we saw in the 2004 Lok Sabha poll seems to have set a pattern from which there is no escape. An era of coalition has begun and gone are the days of single party majority rule. Neither of two pan-Indian political parties, the Congress and its bete-noir, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is capable of mustering a majority in any of the recently-held elections to the state legislature, just like the last national election when they failed to win a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. The juggernaut of the Left Front seems to have swayed both the urban and rural voters in West Bengal. Besides almost completely decimating the opposition in the state, the Left Front constituents, especially its leading partner, CPI(M), have made significant inroads in Kolkata and other peripheral towns across various age groups. This election is a watershed in West Bengal politics with farreaching political consequences not only for the Left Front leadership, but also for the state that seems to have eschewed the orthodox Marxist state-directed development paradigm. In theoretical terms, the Left Front is closer to the west European social-democratic path as some major policy decisions regarding industrial revival in the state of the newly-elected government clearly indicate. This has not, by any chance, happened overnight. The aim of this article is to dwell on the changing nature of the Left Front leadership and its ideology which is not exactly the classical Marxist, but in its reinvented form.

Context of the Poll

The 2006 West Bengal assembly election is not at all different from the earlier ones since the electoral outcome remains identical. The Left Front returns to power with a comfortable majority. Yet, this election is perhaps most dramatic in a number of ways. First, for the first time, the Election Commission (EC) took charge of the election in the state in an unprecedented manner. The state government was largely, if not completely, bypassed for its alleged partisan role in election. Two reasons account for such “an abusive role”: First, the incumbent Left Front government was charged with manipulating the voters’ list and hence the intervention of the EC was hailed by those opposed to the ruling authority. One of the charges that gained currency was the inclusion of “bogus” voters. The EC found a large number of them in various districts. During the clean-up operation, the observer found 13,00,000 false names [Banerjee 2006] in the list of voters, and struck them off. Hence, the charge seemed authenticated and media thus attributed the sustained electoral victory of the Left Front to “the bogus voters”. The stringent measures that the commission undertook, however, alienated a large number of people who found them “unwarranted” and “undemocratic” as well because in the name of correcting the voters’ list, the commission acted in a “high-handed” manner. Thus a commentator informs,

...the state was virtually under the control of the EC [Election

Commission]. Imported police and paramilitary personnel pen

etrated all parts of the state; route marches by them were organised

in every constituency, sometimes twice a day [AM 2006].

The EC was made to believe that the law and order situation in West Bengal was as bad as that of Bihar. Given its remarkable success in Bihar, the commission resorted to the same strategy to contain “electoral malpractices” that appeared to have contributed to continuous Left Front victory.

The second reason, in order to hold a free and fair poll, the commission decided to conduct the poll in five fairly dispersed dates stretching almost two months. Again, the Bihar formula was accepted in the sense that the election was held under strict surveillance of the coercive instrument of the state. The commission requisitioned police and paramilitary forces from outside the state simply because the state police did not appear to be reliable. Because the dates were dispersed, it was possible to get adequate number of them to supervise the voting on the day of election. The state was under seize, as it were. It is true that, due to their presence, this election was almost free from electoral violence involving any of the contending political parties. Voters cast their votes without any threat. Secondly, what disturbed the voters was, however, the difficulty that they underwent to accommodate a large contingent of these forces before election. A large number of public buildings, including schools, colleges and libraries, were taken over, disturbing the normal life of the areas in which elections were held. Even the National Library was not spared. Instead of raising hopes, the very presence of such a huge contingent of coercive forces caused consternation and anger among the common voters. In fact, the existence of these forces was never appreciated by the voters. The very idea of disciplining them by force did never augur well with Bengali sensibilities, as an on the spot survey reveals. The voters expressed resentment on the ground that “the entire Bengali jati” was blamed for the misdeeds of a handful of miscreants.1 The high-handed manner in which the EC dealt with the poll preparation created an impression that it considered the people of West Bengal “a suspect species”. Perhaps, this also contributed to the close to 7 per cent increase over 2001 in the number of people who voted. They voted, as Ashok Mitra euphorically suggested, “with their feet against the innuendoes dropped by the commission” [Mitra 2006].

Following the discovery of “bogus voters” in various parts of the state, the apprehension of manipulation in preparing the voters’ list gained ground. It was also found out that with its enthusiasm for a free and fair poll, the commission also struck off names of a large number of genuine voters that surfaced only during the election.2 How was it possible for the commission to emerge as “a messiah” in a state that is politically conscious and largely free from prejudices, linked with ascriptive identities? One of the reasons was surely “the media hype” that arose once the commission-appointed observers emerged on the scene. Wherever the observers went, the leading newspapers gave an extensive coverage of what they discovered as “bogus voters”.3 The purpose was to authenticate the allegation of “manipulation” of voters’ list. By so doing, the media actually upheld the charges of the parties in opposition that the sustained electoral popularity of the Left Front was largely possible due to “extraordinary corrupt practices at all levels” that made “scientific rigging”, as it is euphemistically defined, possible. The local bureaucracy was held responsible. As a former bureaucrat argues, “either they slipped up negligently or more probably they connived stealthily with the interested political groups to manipulate the voters’ list in their favour” [Bandopadhyay 2006]. The 2006 assembly election is thus a clear break with the past.

Poll Outcome

This election is historic if for nothing else, but for “the zeal shown by the Election Commission in monitoring this election lends the result a special meaning” [Yadav 2006]. There were three major coalitions of parties in the electoral fray. Besides, the Left Front, the other two coalitions of parties were the Trinamool-led alliance and the conglomeration that formed around the Congress. As the results show, the Left Front is far ahead of other contending political parties both in terms of the number of legislative seats and also the share of votes. In fact, there has been a steady increase in these counts since 1996.4 Unlike the Left Front, the opposition experienced “a poll debacle” because of the dramatic decline both in numerical legislative strength and share of votes. Table 1 is illustrative.

As the tally of seats and percentage of the share of popular votes reveal, the Left Front victory is most impressive though the most spectacular win happens to be the 1987 assembly election when, in a tally of 251 seats of the Left Front (out of a total of 294 assembly seats), the CPI(M) won as many as 187 seats. Yet, the 2006 poll results evoke surprise because of the dramatic decline of the opposition parties. There is hardly an opposition worth its name.

The poll outcome in West Bengal was not dramatic in the sense that it was more or less anticipated. The stringent measures of the EC to ensure “a level playing field for all” in the state – resulting in the highest voter turnout – denied the opposition the chance “to explain away the defeat by pointing to the election malpractices” [Dam 2006]. From the point of view of the Left Front, the verdict is, as commonly defined, both a change and continuity. Given the retention of power in the Writers’ Building, the 2006 poll is clearly a continuity. But with the growing importance of the new leadership in the front, this election has also endorsed its new face.

Brand Buddha5 in Rural Bengal

The achievement of the Left Front in the rural areas in particular

  • its land reform measures, the registration of sharecroppers (operation barga), the panchayati system – has ushered in a significant process of radical changes in the political layout of the state.6 Much of the economic change in rural West Bengal since 1977 has been made possible because of a significant political process, initiated and carried forward by the Left Front government. Important here has been the devolution of power
  • including considerable financial powers – to the elected panchayats. This step together with a strong political commitment to implementing land reforms, has ensured a process of genuine democratic participation by the rural poor in the remaking of their lives and their socio-economic environment. Although the enactment of the 73rd Amendment Act is a significant step towards revamping the panchayati institutions in the country, the Left Front initiated the process as early as 1977-80 by giving panchayats a substantial power for local development.7 Since the programmes for poverty alleviation, sponsored by New Delhi or other agencies have been closely supervised through the party hierarchy, they are better implemented in West Bengal than in any other states. Such a supervisory role has developed and sustained a constant interaction with the people at the grassroots which, inter alia, accounts for the consolidation of the Left Front in rural Bengal. Furthermore, with its long tradition of political mass mobilisation, the Left Front has not only sustained, but also gradually expanded its organisational network within the state. As Table 2 shows the Left Front appears invincible in rural Bengal.
  • This is one side of the coin. The story of the Left Front ascendancy can also be told in a different way. The fact that the

    Table 1: The 2006 West Bengal Assembly Results

    Parties Seats Won Seats Won Percentage of Percentage of 2001 2006 Votes 2001 Vltes 2006

    Left Front 199 235 48.4 50.2 CPI(M) 143 176 36.6 37.0 CPI 07 08 1.8 2.1 AIFB 25 23 5.6 5.7 RSP 17 20 3.4 3.7 WBSP 04 04 0.7 0.7 RJD 00 01 0.7 0.1 DSP 01 0.4 0.1 Independent (LF) 02 0.4 0.1 Congress 26 21 7.9 15.0 Trinamool Congress 60 30 30.7 26.3 GNLF 03 03 0.5 0.1 JKP (N) 00 01 0.2 0.2 Independent 09 04 5.0 3.8

    Source: Drawn on The Hindu, May 16, 2006 and Frontline, June 2, 2006, p 6.

    Table 2: Share of the Left Front Votes in the Panchayats and Zilla Parishads

    Year Gram Panchayat Panchayat Samiti Zilla Parishad

    1978 70.3 77.0 71.5 1983 61.2 66.2 62.2 1988 72.3 79.0 73.5 1993 64.4 72.8 65.7 1998 56.1 67.1 58.1 2003 65.8 74.1 67.2

    Source: Computed from the data available from Paschim Banger Panchayat Nirvachan Tathya O Samiksha (1978-2003), Bharater Communist Party, Paschim Banga Rajya Committee.

    Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

    ruling party candidates’ win unopposed in a large number of panchayat constituencies8 is indicative of a dangerous political trend that hardly allows opposition to crystallise simply because they would not dare “to provoke a situation in which they would dare the combined wrath of the [party] cadres and police” [Bandyopadhyay 2003]. Furthermore, contrary to the Left Front claim, as a study reveals, the downward devolution of power has given way to the rising middle sections of the rural society who now control the panchayats. As a result, these bodies have become “synonymous with the elected popular bureaucracy” [Bhattacharyya 1994]. What it suggests is that the concentration and centralisation of power in the panchayats in the name of ushering in an era of participatory democracy in the real sense. Despite the overwhelming electoral and organisational presence of the poorer sections of rural Bengal, the process that seemingly cripples the panchayats seems to be strengthened presumably because of the rigid party control over these rural centres of democratic administration. Governed by what is known as “political-organisational perspective”, the CPI(M), for instance, justifies hegemonic control of the party in terms of ideological goal of “democratic centralism”. That the party cannot be bypassed is clearly spelt out by the CPI(M) state committee by saying that

    ... democratic participation [does] not mean acting at will. It means [that] the activation of panchayats in accordance with the principles of and ideals of the party. The basic issue involved here is giving party leadership to panchayats. This leadership consists of

    (a) political leadership, and (b) organisational leadership. … The political leadership of the party is established only when people in their own experience, accept the political perspective of the party as their own. Even though decisions may be correct, they are not automatically translated into actions. We need to activate our activists and the masses for carrying out our decisions. … The party has a definite aim. Panchayat activities should be conducted in such a way that they conform to the basic goals of the party.9

    There is thus no doubt that the panchayats in West Bengal are governed by the party in power. In order to translate the partyperspective, the CPI(M) state committee constituted, at the level of panchayats, a guiding cell (‘Parichalan Committee’) that is entrusted with the task of steering the panchayats in accordance with the directives of the party high command. The party therefore commands that

    [a]ll elected party members of panchayat samiti and zilla parishad will act under the respective committees. Generally the local and zonal committees of the party will look after the gram panchayat samitis. The final decision at each level will be taken by the Parichalan Committee of the party, although the elected members of the party may offer views if they are not satisfied with the decision.10

    The growing hegemony of the party provides, on the one hand, an organisational strength to the panchayats and, on the other, it strengthens the party functionaries who, despite being “outsiders”, continue to remain significant in the panchayat bodies simply because of their assigned role in the party directives. So, centralisation of power actually strikes at the very root of devolution of power. What thus emerges gradually is the politics of patronage and populist policies. Furthermore, because political parties compete in panchayat elections and the winner has direct control over the substance of the village level plan and the selection of the beneficiaries, “the panchayat system [invariably] indulges in politicisation of the planning process and the implementation of the public projects” [Ghatak and Ghatak 2002]. This probably explains the story of death and malnutrition in Amlasole in West Midnapur, in the tribal belts of Purulia, Nadia and eastern part of Murshidabad, in tea-garden areas of Cooch Behar (Koch Bihar) and the fringe areas of Dinajpur. Panchayats failed and the party functionaries appropriated these grassroot institutions to fulfil their selfish goal, as an important Left Front cabinet minister confessed that “the local panchayat leaders squandered the central government funds for development to buy liquor and build club houses”.11 Yet, the juggernaut of the Left Front seems unstoppable, as the poll verdict suggests. In fact, the Left Front has further consolidated its position in rural Bengal. In the economically backward districts of Bankura and South Dinajpur, the Left Front trounced other contending parties by winning all the 13 and five seats, respectively. Even in the district of Burdwan that always remains the centre of left consolidation, the poll verdict hardly makes a dent in the left support base. By using the state power for the social transformation of the marginalised classes, a commentator thus argues, “the government has created a climate of security (for these classes) and has provided more for the poor than other governments have” [Yadav and Kumar 2006]. What explains the continuity of the Left Front is the success in integrating the governmental ameliorating pro-people policies with the strategies of political mobilisation. By contextualising the Marxist ideology, the CPI(M)-led coalition shifted its social base from “being a party of the industrial proletariat” to that of marginal farmers, sharecroppers and the landless poor. This class base “carefully stitched together a coalition of socially marginalised groups that included dalits, adivasis and Muslims”. The sustained viability of the Left Front for more than three decades can be attributed to “this unique class-community coalition” that makes the Left Front invincible in rural Bengal.

    Brand Buddha in Urban Bengal

    The 2006 outcome is illustrative of the success of the Brand Buddha in expanding the Left Front support bases even among those who never stood by the left. The results in Kolkata demonstrate that the poll verdict is clearly tilted in favour of the beleaguered left. Kolkata was never the Left stronghold and the anti-incumbency factors always remained critical in voters’ preference. This time, the front victory in 10 constituencies in Kolkata and its suburbs translates its growing popularity among the urban voters. Similarly, results in the industrial belts of Howrah and Hooghly, the overwhelming majority of the front tells an identical story. In Howrah, the front won 14 out of 16 seats, out of which CPI(M) captured 11. Of the 19 seats in Hooghly, the Left Front obtained 17, of which the CPI(M)’s share is 13.

    There is no denying the importance of the party organisation in the Left Front victory. What is new in the 2006 election is the proactive role of the chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the new face of the front and symbol of continuity and change. The efforts at industrialisation and securing investments for the state by Bhattacharya seem to have paid electoral dividends to the front that he leads. The message that the new leadership gave by focusing more on industrialisation, urban infrastructure and urban middle classes has “kindled the hopes and aspirations of the new voters” [Chattopadhyay 2006]. In fact, the principal aim of the new government is to adopt policies and programmes for developing both the rural and urban Bengal to arrest the economic degeneration of the state that remained the industrial hub of the country in the recent past.

    While delineating his priorities as the chief of the Front government, Bhattacharya provided a blueprint for the future that he prefaced by saying that “the message that the people have given us with their verdict is that we give even more importance to what we are doing and we have to succeed”.12 In this press meet, he identified three important tasks that the front has to accomplish to fulfil the expectation of the voters. First, to continue to accord importance to agriculture sector because that is what sustains the economy in a big way; second, the improvement in agriculture has to be matched by similar growth in industrial sector which is possible if equal importance is given to industrial growth and investment in industries which create jobs and also contribute to state’s overall economic growth; thirdly, the mission is to ensure an overall growth of the state and also to take care of those who are still below the poverty line.13

    It is a tightrope walk for the chief minister who is clearly following an ideological path that resembles the European socialdemocratic practices. By adopting a guarded approach to liberalisation, Bhattacharya seems to be striking a balance between those hardcore supporters dismissing “economic liberalisation” as bourgeois-conspiracy and those revisionists willing to endorse the neo-liberal ideology so long as it contributes to the economic well-being of the state. This was evident in the first press meet which he addressed after the announcement of the poll results. By emphatically arguing that “not everything about liberalisation is right”, Bhattacharya further elaborated that “we are against the policy of hire and fire of labour and arbitrary privatisation”. Despite his firm commitment to socialism, that he is a pragmatic leader was evident when he mentioned that “we cannot avoid liberalisation because we live in a time where we have to work according to the market conditions”.14 He is in favour of inviting “private capital” for industrial rejuvenation of West Bengal because “this is the mandate (which) the Left Front cannot ignore”.15 He is critical of “isolationism” which was, according to him, responsible for the breakdown of the former Soviet Union. In conformity with “the Chinese reformist ideology”, Bhattacharya never found any contradiction between the private or even the foreign sector with the state sector when the primary mission is to “ensure economic well-being of the people”. Besides his social-democratic economic stances, he is favourably inclined towards multiparty democracy which is, according to him, most appropriate in a diverse society like India. Believing in the dictum of “let hundred flowers blossom”, the chief minister redefines the CPI(M) ideology by being critical to “rigidity and parochialism” in the party.16 It is too early to predict the consequences of these stances in favour of “restricted” liberalisation. What is, however, clear is the success of the Brand Buddha in garnering new support base in urban Bengal. As the poll results show, in greater Kolkata, out of a total of 48 seats, the Left Front increased its tally to 33 in contrast with its tally of 22 seats in the 2001 election. The main loser happens to be the Trinamool Congress that was routed in as many as 12 constituencies where it won in the 2001 election. Now, the Mamata-led Trinamool Congress retains only 11 seats from greater Kolkata. One of the reasons for such a reversal is certainly a clear vote swing away from the Trinamool Congress.17

    There is thus no doubt that the Brand Buddha reinvented the CPI(M)-led Left Front by seeking to adapt the governmental ideology to the changed environment.18 This electoral victory is a significant turning point for the Left Front that cannot afford to be an ideological monolith in the radically altered global circumstances with the apparent triumph of “the end of history phase”. The Front’s ascendancy is also indicative of the peculiar state-centric social, economic and political processes that perhaps explain why only one state has been able to remain insulated from the strong storms anti-incumbency that swept the rest of the country.19 And, also the unassailable popularity of Buddhadev Bhattacharya is also evident by the fact that he created history by trouncing his opponent by a massive margin of 58,130 votes that also shows the growing importance of the Brand Buddha in West Bengal politics.

    Election Machinery

    Furthermore, the success of the Left Front parties in elections is also attributed to a well-tuned election-machinery.20 The CPI(M) nurtures a strong organisation with a wide network to maintain a firm grip on the cadres and voters [Sarkar 2006]. Furthermore, employees in the formal sector constitute an important source of strength for the Left Front, especially CPI(M). There are approximately 30,00,000 industrial workers belonging to the CPI(M)-led Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The frontal organisations – the All Bengal Teachers’ Association, West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association and the West Bengal Government Teachers’ Association – control the teaching profession in the state. The coordination committee is one of the biggest and perhaps most powerful trade union organisation controlling the government employees. By securing benefits, these frontal organisations have gained enormous respect among their supporters. Furthermore, the Krishak Sabha with its huge membership among the peasantry constitutes “the life wire” of the CPI(M) support base in rural West Bengal. Unlike other contending parties which are revitalised once the poll dates are announced, these frontal organisations always remain active in their respective fields. By linking the government and the governed, they provide inputs to the policy-makers which may not be otherwise available. And, the government thus never remains a distant agency to those at the grassroots which undoubtedly consolidates the ruling party’s support base.

    While the Left Front draws on the support of the frontal organisations in normal times, during the election campaign, the following structure, as elaborately shown in the following table, is created to effectively mobilise voters for the Left Front which is probably unmatched in any other electoral democracy in the world. Managed by the full-time party cadres, these committees play crucial roles both in the selection of the candidates for the assembly segments as well as in the campaign during the election. Operating within specified geographical boundaries, the activities of these committees are coordinated by the district committee, the apex body in the district which is put under the state-level committee, located in Kolkata. Although during the elections their activities are geared towards the elections, they continue to function even in the aftermath of elections as permanent local units of the Left Front parties, involved in day-to-day life of the people living in particular localities. In other words, they continue to remain as the link between the localities and the provincial party machinery which provides the basic input to the Left Front government in adopting the appropriate policies. Table 3 shows how the election machinery works by linking various sectors of the state. By linking them with “the election cell” in the party headquarter which also runs a propaganda cell for publicising the views of the party on various social, economic and political issues.

    Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

    The left bastion is thus well-maintained over the years due to a well-entrenched election machinery. This is certainly a significant factor in its consistently impressive electoral performance. Neither the Trinamool Congress nor the Indian National Congress has succeeded in evolving an organisation to match the Left Front. While for the former political mobilisation begins and perhaps ends with the election the Left Front is engaged in a continuous dialogue with the voters that perhaps is translated in votes during the election.

    Fragmented Opposition

    The Left juggernaut seems to be invincible because there is hardly an organised opposition to match the cast-iron organisation, supported by the trained cadres and an election machinery with its tentacles even in the remote areas of rural Bengal. Apart from remaining divided, the anti-Left political parties have neither “any leader” worth the name nor any organisation capable of competing with “the mass fronts of the parties constituting the Left Front” [Banerjee 2006]. The decline of the opposition began in the 2004 Lok Sabha election when out of a total of 42 parliamentary seats, the Left Front won 35, the Congress captured six seats (14.6 per cent votes) against one seat of the Trinamool Congress (21 per cent votes). The explanation has to be located in the failure of the opposition parties to come together against the perhaps the most organised political party in India. As against a fragmented opposition, the Left Front is a homogeneous unit willing to put the differences under carpet for the sake of the coalition. The outcome of the 2006 assembly election was thus predictable. It is not surprising that the Left Front secured more than 50 per cent popular votes, which is better than any of the contending parties. While the Trinamool Congress obtained 26 per cent popular votes, the share of the Congress and BJP remained 15 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. So the fragmented opposition was not match for the organised left. A study reveals [Yadav 2006] that one of the principal reasons for the Left Front victory is surely the vote split among the voters who supported the opposition against the left. Had there been no division of opposition votes, the number of the Left Front seats in the legislative assembly would certainly have been less. In a number of constituencies, the Left Front candidates won by default since votes were divided among the parties opposed to the ruling conglomeration. If there was “a mahajat” (grand collation) of three major anti-Left Front political parties, namely, the Congress, BJP and the Trinamool Congress, the CPI(M)-led coalition would have seen reversal in a large number of constituencies.

    Given the fractured opposition, it is fair to attribute the massive Left Front victory to lack of unity among the opposition parties. Hence, the victory of the front candidates is not an indicative of pro-left sentiments, but an inevitable outcome of lack of unity and factional squabbles among the contending parties. In fact, the failure to form an electoral coalition against the Left Front cost the opposition parties as many as 70 seats because votes split between the Trinamool and the Congress candidates enabled the Left Front candidates to win. Whether one can attribute this poll debacle of the anti-left political parties to “a serious strategic failure” is debatable. But there is no doubt that the opposition parties in West Bengal are largely crippled by the internal feud and whimsical nature of the leadership. Of the three major parties, the Trinamool Congress emerged as an alternative, though it, argues a commentator self-destructed itself, thanks to its creator, Mamata Banerjee who destroyed “the hopes by her whimsical behaviour that hardly inspires a great deal of confidence” [Ghose 2004]. Furthermore, though she is “an excellent rabble rouser”, underlines another analyst, “she is unable to think or execute any coherent programme for either the administration or the state [simply because] she is too temperamental” [Mitra 2006]. Besides her own folly, the organisation that she leads had shown serious cracks due largely to factional fights among her colleagues. Furthermore, what disturbed the Bengali sensibilities was perhaps her fickle mindedness in selecting coalition partners. At one point of time, it was the BJP, at another it was the Congress. The Congress is a weak-link because of its failure to rise above factional fights21 while the BJP lack the organisation and also the popular support that project the party as a formidable contender besides its failure to strike a chord with the politicallybaptised Bengalis presumably because of its endorsement of the so-called communal ideology. In contrast with all these contending parties, “the Left Front vote bank remains stable – with the Bengali electorate left with no option but to accept the [Front] as something better than others” [Banerjee 2006]. And the new leadership seems to have swayed the majority of the voters by appropriate socio-economic programmes for rejuvenating the state economy and revamping its infrastructure. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Trinamool Congress lost its grip due largely to a significant vote swing away from the party. As it is evident in Table 4.

    Although the vote swing of 1.2 per cent in favour of the Left Front is not terribly significant, the Trinamool Congress, as the above table shows, undoubtedly suffered a serious setback in West Bengal. The voters re-endorsed the Left Front for another term presumably because, it is perhaps, the only conglomeration that is capable of providing a stable government with reasonably persuasive economic programmes and political agenda which both the major contending parties miserably lack. Hence, an enthusiastic supporter of the Left Front sarcastically concludes that “to ensure free and fair elections in West Bengal, it was not enough to import poll personnel, poll observers and paramilitary security guards from elsewhere, one must also import voters from other state!” [Mitra 2006]. There is no denying that in some constituencies, the Front witnessed reversal which it had contained by gaining new constituencies of support. The Left Front, especially its leading member, CPI(M) seems to have acquired the characteristics of “a catch-all party” that is willing to adopt “reconciliatory stances” (even at the cost of its core ideological beliefs) to expand its support base. Whether this will rattle the

    Table 3: Election Committee for Assembly Segment

    Urban Areas Rural Areas

    Ward committees Area committee Booth committees Anchal committee Station or sub-station Branch committee Street-in-charge Booth committee Campaign workers Campaign units for groups of households

    Source: Available from the district committee, South Kolkata.

    Table 4: Electoral Performance of Trinamool Congress, 2006

    Region Seats Won Votes Swing

    Greater Kolkata 12 -5.7 North Bengal 01 -6.5 South East 08 -2.4 South East 09 -3.4 Total 30 -4.3

    Source: Computed on the basis of data available from The Hindu, May 16, 2006.

    “core supporter” or adapt them to the reformed party is not easy to ponder over at least now when the euphoria over electoral victory is high.

    Concluding Observations

    Democracy, if not marginalised, is certainly a casualty in West Bengal in the light of the last poll-outcome. This is an obvious conclusion given the large scale, if not complete, decimation of the opposition in the state. By winning 235 seats in the newly constituted state assembly, the Left Front is far ahead of both the Trinamool Congress (30 seats) and Congress (21 seats). Given the failure of the opposition parties to even win the required number of seats to gain the status of “an opposition” in the assembly, it would not be wrong to suggest that the ruling party needs to discharge the role of a responsible opposition from within the government. To what extent it is possible is a million dollar question. Will “democracy” thus be a casualty? The copy book answer is, yes, simply because of the absence of a sizeable opposition checking the governmental excesses. The obvious outcome of such a situation is that the ruling party tends to be autocratic since there is hardly a significant opposition to whatever the prevalent government decides to do. In other words, with the absence of “a responsible opposition” in the assembly, the government can easily get away with whatever decisions it adopts. This is highly unwarranted because the assembly floor is a space where serious debates take place on the merit of the governmental decisions which receive adequate publicity in civil society through print and visual media. So, opposition is not merely a group of people holding views contrary to that of the government, it also represents a politically vibrant section of society that is first to get exposed to the government’s decisions on the floor of the house. There is no denying the fact that the opposition will surely raise its voice though it is likely to be feeble given the massive numerical strength of the ruling party. Since “the majority principle” governs the legislative practices in a liberal democracy the opposition can, at best, register its protest by recording “a note of dissent”. The role of the parties opposed to the government is thus considerably marginalised. The failure of the opposition to provide “checks and balances” to the government will certainly weaken the “democratic practices” that are usually followed in the legislature.

    In view of the decline of the numerical strength of the opposition parties in the West Bengal assembly, the situation is thus grim. What is the way out? One can conceive of two different ways in which the opposition parties can redefine their roles. First, these parties, despite being numerically weak on the floor of the assembly, need to do their “home work” seriously before they participate in the debates on any decisions of the government. They need to abdicate their role as “a shouting brigade” to avoid being dismissed by those who matter in the assembly. Not only will this raise the standard of debates, it will also bring those points which may have escaped government’s attention. By redefining its role as “a responsible” unit of the legislature, the opposition will thus meaningfully intervene in the “legislative deliberations”. The second linked way in which “the reinvention” of the role of the opposition is possible is through its role as “an opinion maker” outside the assembly. As seen in most of the liberal democratic countries, the opposition stalled different atrocious legislations by mobilising opinion against governmental deeds through media and other democratic devices. By taking the debates outside the assembly in a larger civil society, the opposition can easily send politically-charged signals to the ruling authority which, if ignored, may have snowballing effect on the government. Apart from the marshalling views of the people, the public debates in various forums will certainly convey sentiments and vibes which the government can hardly ignore except at its peril. There is no doubt that the opposition to the governmental decisions, if drawn on serious thinking, will enliven the vibrant civil society in the West Bengal cities and small towns. Given the shifting of loyalty of the city dwellers to the Left Front candidates in the recently-concluded assembly election, it is not politically prudent to take the civil society for granted. Besides vote splits among the contending opposition parties, the Left Front candidates won on the basis of “positive votes” in a large number of constituencies both in Kolkata and other small towns. A rough calculation suggests that in as many as 170 out of a total of 235 seats, the positive votes account for the Left Front victory. So, the success of the Left Front can be attributed to the support rendered by the civil society. In view of the proactive role of civil society in West Bengal, the opposition, as a responsible opposition, will have a ready-made space to ventilate its anti-government views and strategies.

    Is the West Bengal situation just a revival of the Congress system that sustained the Congress Party’s rule for almost two decades after independence? In the light of the absence of a numerically strong opposition and hegemonic presence of the ruling party in the legislature, this contention may not be without substance. There was hardly an opposition to the Congress Party either in the national Parliament or in the state legislatures till 1967. The old Nehruvian order, drawn a coalition of diverse interests succeeded because it “rested upon a discourse that entrusted largely to the state the responsibility of promoting the social and economic welfare of the people” [Kumar 2006]. This was further supported by the emergence of what Rajni Kothari characterised as the Congress system [Kothari 1964] that provided a mechanism whereby a plurality of elites, sub-elites and groups could both voice their claims and attempt to realise them. At the same time, the Congress could adequately mediate and settle these multiple and often conflicting claims. Underlying this was the reason for relatively smooth functioning of the creativelydefined Westminster model of parliamentary democracy which was never seriously threatened probably because of an effective mechanism of political communication involving various actors at different levels of Indian polity [Ray 1997].

    The decimation of the opposition is also a source of weakness for the Left Front government unless it imbibes “self introspection” in its true spirit. The party representatives forming the government need to be critical despite being part of the Left Front. Unless a mechanism of “checks and balances” is internalised, the Left Front government is likely to drift away from the ideological goal that accounts for a massive popular mandate in its favour. There is also the fear of “ideological distortion” given unassailable majority for the ruling coalition; there is also the tug-of-war between those following “orthodox” line of thinking and their counterparts redefining Marxism underlining the Trotskyite observation that “socialism cannot strike roots in one corner of the country”. There is no doubt that the West Bengal chief minister has captured the lost ground in urban areas on the dream of what a liberalised economy can bring to the state. Now he has to sell this brand of “economics” to those “hardcore” members of the party who are still critical to the organisation.

    Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

    Furthermore, the opposition of the CPI(M) labour union, CITU to “economic reforms” is undoubtedly a deterrent to the electoral promises that the chief minister made to the voters. How will the Left Front, especially the CPI(M) resolve this contradiction? This is too serious a contradiction to put under the carpet from the point of view of its “redefined character”. The sooner the Front addresses the contradiction the better; otherwise, the euphoria that was translated into positive votes for the Left Front will evaporate in no time.

    EPW

    Email: Bidyut@polscience.du.ac.in

    Notes

    1 Author’s personal interaction with voters in the districts of Birbhum andKolkata. This assertion is also corroborated by findings from other districtsof West Bengal.

    2 That the names of genuine voters were deleted became a bone of contentionand the Election Commission was inundated with complaints from theWest Bengal voters. In a large number of booths in Kolkata and someof its adjoining districts which are CPI(M)’s strongholds, several genuinevoters were denied entry simply because in the revised list their namesdid not figure.

    3 The major Bengali newspapers, like Ananda Bazaar Patrika and Bartaman, devoted a lot of space on the activities of these “central” observers andhailed their role “in restoring democracy” in West Bengal by ensuringa free and fair poll.

    4 Seats and share of votes:

    Name of the Conglomeration 1996 2001 2006

    Left Front 203 199 235

    (46.7) (48.9) (50.5)Trinamool-led Alliance 60 30

    (38.9) (28.5)

    Note: Figures in the parenthesis show the percentage of votes obtainedby the Left Front constituents.Sources: Ananda Bazaar Patrika, May 12, 2006 and The Telegraph, May 13, 2006.

    5 The expression, Brand Buddha, does not appear to auger well with theLeft Front leadership that explains the historic victory in terms of“organisation” and pro-people policies of the government over a period.The Left Front chairman, Biman Bose made this point in his pressstatement on May 15, 2006. Source: Ananda Bazaar Patrika, May 16, 2006.

    6 For a sympathetic account of the Left Front rule, see Atul Kohli,Democracyand Discontent: India’s Crisis of Governability, Cambridge UniversityPress (hereafter CUP), Cambridge, 1991, pp 267-96.

    7 Articulating the views of those who are critical of the West Bengalpanchayats, Poromesh Acharya argues that “[n]o doubt, there emergeda new generation of leadership in rural West Bengal but the class andcaste background of the new leadership” remain more or less unchanged.“There developed a new institutional structure, decentralised in form butstill dominated by the middle and rich peasants. The agricultural labourersand poor peasants, though not in proportion, have their representativesin the new structure but their participation in the decision-making processis still a far cry”. See Poromesh Acharya, ‘Panchayats and Left Politicsin West Bengal’, Economic and Political weekly, May 29, 1993, p 1080.

    8 Table showing the number of candidates who won unopposed

    Year Number of Seats Uncontested Percentage of Total Seats

    1978 338 0.73 1983 332 0.74 1988 4200 8 1993 1716 2.81 1998 600 1.35 2003 6800 11

    Source: Bandyopadhyay, 2003, p 4826.

    9 The West Bengal CPI(M) State Committee directives on Panchayats,CPI(M) state committee, January 31, 1994 (unpublished), courtesy lateBT Ranadeve.

    10 The West Bengal CPI(M) State Committee directives on Panchayats,CPI(M) state committee, January 31, 1994 (unpublished), courtesy lateBT Ranadeve.

    11 A press statement by Maheshwar Murmu, the minister for tribal affairs,on July 29, 2005, Dainik Statesman, July 30, 2005.

    12 The press conference, addressed by Buddhadev Bhattacharya on May 12, 2006, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, May 13, 2006.

    13 This summary of the press conference, addressed by Bhattacharya is drawn on Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, ‘Left Landslide’, Frontline, June 2, 2006, p 10.

    14 The press conference, addressed by Buddhadev Bhattacharya on May 12, 2006, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, May 13, 2006.

    15 Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s press in The Statesman, May 12, 2006.

    16 This is drawn on the press meet of Buddhadev Bhattacharya, held on May 15, 2006, Ananda Bazaar Patrika reproduced the views in its editionof May 16, 2006.

    17 The figures are drawn on Yogendra Yadav, ‘The Opportunities and the Challenges’, The Hindu, May 16, 2006.

    18 Thus it was not surprising that the strike over the hike of petrol price on June 13, 2006 was observed by resorting to only “five minute chakka jam” and street-corner meetings. This was inconceivable in the immediatepast when the CPI(M) cadres were instructed to paralyse the civic life. The CPI(M) leadership announced that it would restrict the strike to “token protest” because, as the chief minister stated, “it would give wrong signalsto the investors”. In order to highlight the changed perception of the LeftFront, a newspaper thus reports, “while Left MPs in Delhi were busycourting arrest, Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s cabinet colleagues and seniorbureaucrats were working on details of the land acquisition plan for thestate’s FDI projects of Indonesia’s Salem Group”, Indian Express, June 14, 2006.

    19 Paranjoy Guha Thakurta dwells on this question in his ‘When Left IsRight’, Times of India, May 17, 2006.

    20 In terms of organisational network, the probable parallel is the BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) that supports its electoral campaign with a wellentrenched election machinery. The BSP begins its electoral drill wellin advance by choosing the candidates for most of the constituencies forbetter and intimate interaction between them and the voters. Divided into 25 sectors (with 10 polling booths in one sector), each constituency isbeing looked after by the high command. Each booth, roughly with 1,000voters, is the responsibility of a nine-member committee comprising atleast one woman to motivate and mobilise women voters.

    21 The height of the Congress factional fight was witnessed in Murshidabadwhere the district president who is an MP, sets up candidates in twoconstituencies in his district to contest against the party’s official nominees.Such is the state of affairs in the party that he cannot be disciplined. He,in fact, shares the dais with the all-Indian party president, Sonia Gandhiduring the campaign, and nobody dares to even mildly reprimand him.The Telegraph, May 12, 2006.

    References

    AM (2006): ‘Suffrage in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLI (21), p 2048.

    Bandyopadhyay, D (2003): ‘Caucus and Masses: West Bengal Panchayats’,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 38 (46), November 15-21, p 4826.

    – (2006): ‘Elections and Bureaucracy in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLI (15), April 15-21, p 1417.Banerjee, Sumanta (2006): ‘Assembly Polls, 2006: Elections, ‘Jatra’ Style, inWest Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLI (10), March 11-17.

    Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (1994): ‘Limits to Legal Radicalism: Land Reformand the Left Front in West Bengal’, The Calcutta Historical Journal, Vol 16 (1), January-June, p 86.

    Chattopadhyay, Suhrid Sankar (2006): ‘Left Landslide’, Frontline, June 2, p 10.

    Dam, Marcus (2006): ‘Left Front’s Support Base Widens’, The Hindu, May 13.

    Ghatak, Maitreesh and Maitreya Ghatak (2002): ‘Recent Reforms in thePanchayat System in West Bengal: Toward Greater ParticipatoryGovernance?’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 37, 10, January 5-11, p 56.

    Ghose, Bhaskar (2004): ‘A Necessary Ritual’, The Telegraph, June 9.

    Kothari, Rajni (1964): ‘The Congress System in India’, Asian Survey, December.

    Kumar, Ravinder (2006): ‘Winds of Change across India and the Shapingof a New Polity’, South Asia, Vol 19 (1), April, p 164.

    Mitra, Ashok (2006): ‘Take It as Red’, The Telegraph, May 12.

    Ray, Amal (1997): ‘Coordinating Pluralism: The Federal Experience in India’

    in Rasheeduddin Khan (ed), Rethinking Indian Federalism, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, pp 98-102.Sarkar, Abhirup (2006): ‘Political Economy of West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, January 28.Yadav, Yogendra (2006): ‘How West Bengal Voted’, The Hindu, May 16.

    – (2006): ‘The Opportunities and the Challenges’, The Hindu, May 16.

    Yadav, Yogendra and Sanjay Kumar (2006):, ‘Why the Left Will Win OnceAgain’, The Hindu, April 16.

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