LEFT scripted its DEFEAT

Unless the CPM puts its house in order, it has to remain in political wilderness for decades ahead. Even Left Front partners can desert it sounding the death knell for the party
Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi/Kolkata

AN HOUR BEFORE counting began on May 16, a CPM candidate fighting the Election 2009 in the suburbs of Kolkata was brimming with confidence, "Just watch, I'll win by a huge margin."

Supporters of CPM candidate from Dum Dum parliamentary constituency, Amitava Nandy, had taken out a victory procession even before the counting began.

Ironically, both lost to their Trinamool Congress adversaries. Within the first few hours of the counting, the euphoria in the rank and file of the CPM and other Left Front constituents had begun to disappear.

The scene at the CPM state headquarters at Alimuddin Street in Kolkata was telling. On the counting day of every election in the last 32 years, this would be a beehive of activity. There would be whoops of joy, slogans of "Inquilab Zindabad" would rent the air as news of victory came in. Winners from Kolkata and adjoining areas would troop into Alimuddin Street with their supporters; cadres would smear each other with red abir.

This election was different. Alimuddin Street wore a deserted look as news of the impending doom trickled in. "The silence at the office was eerie," a party veteran said.

It was eerie and symbolic, a portent of things to come. The voters had dealt the Left Front a body blow. From 35 seats in 2004, the Left's tally was reduced to 15. CPM, the biggest Left Front constituent, managed to win only nine seats. In 2004, CPM alone had won 26 seats.

This was the worst-ever performance by the CPM and its Left allies, in their 32-year rule, worse than 1984 when the country was swept by a pro-Congress sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Then, the Left had won 26 seats and CPM 18 out of a total of 42 seats in Bengal.

This time, Left's loss has been Trinamool Congress' (TMC) gain. From a lonely one in 2004, the TMC's tally shot to 19. The Congress tally, however, remained unchanged at six.  Statistics reveal that the Left Front polled 43.3 per cent votes this time, around eight per cent less than votes polled by the Left in the 2006 assembly election. The Congress-TMC combine raked in 45.67 per cent votes. BJP's vote share has remained around six per cent since 2001.

Out of 294 assembly segments, the Left lagged behind in 193. It suffered heavy losses in the assembly constituencies of 27 ministers in Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's team.

THE LEFT HAD expected a loss of seats but they hadn't foreseen this downslide. Known for its fabled election machinery and party organisation who read elections remarkably well, this time the Left failed miserably in deciphering the writing on the wall.
Only party patriarch, Jyoti Basu, seemed to have got it right. Age hadn't blurred his foresight and pragmatism. This was the first time since 1946 that Basu, 95, hadn't cast his vote. He remains confined to his Salt Lake residence. Yet, on the eve of the counting day, when Left Front chairman, Biman Bose, confidently told him about Left faring well, Basu disagreed. The former CM, who had ruled Bengal for 23 years, was proved right.

In the aftermath of the poll debacle, knives are out and blame game has begun in the Left Front. While the postmortem by Left apparatchiks continues, there are some obvious reasons for this disaster, which many feel, was waiting to happen.
That Left leaders failed to predict the magnitude of the disaster is a clear sign of the rot setting into its organisation, which once was highly regimented. With the exponential growth of the Left, party discipline slackened.

Senior leaders in the state admit that the party is fast drifting away from the people. It was an uncharacteristic confession from an old CPM warhorse, "The arrogance of our party leaders down to our cadres have antagonised the common people. Not just the middle class urban bourgeoisie, who never had much love for the Communists. but also the rural masses, who formed our foundation, resent this."

An important reason for the Left's debacle was desertion by the Muslim community, a key to the Left's electoral successes. In Election 2009, a large chunk of the Muslim electorate deserted the Left and voted for Mamata Banerjee's TMC. Findings of the Sachar Committee battered the pro-Muslim face of the Left. It revealed that only 2.1 per cent Muslims have government jobs in Bengal, where the community constitutes around 25.25 per cent of the population.

This had a damning effect on the electoral fortunes of the Left. The opposition led by Mamata Banerjee used it to their advantage to hit the Left where it hurt. Gradually, the sorry state of minorities came tumbling out. In the West Bengal Human Development Report, 2004, Murshidabad (64 per cent Muslims)and Malda (around 50 per cent Muslims) figure at the bottom of the list of 17 districts in terms of human development indices (HDI) - Murshidabad ranks 15 and Malda is last at 17.

Muslims have always looked up to the Left Front government in Bengal for assuring security. But, realisation dawned that besides security they have got little else. An emerging Muslim middle class looked for job opportunities but the state hadn't much to offer. Even as a sense of frustration and deprivation was building up in the community, the state government went on a land acquisition spree to set up industries.

That heightened resentment among Muslims, a large section of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Land acquisition angered not just the Muslims but also eroded Left's votebank in rural Bengal. What began with Singur continued as a bloody carnage in Nandigram. Singur and Nandigram used to be Left strongholds. But, land acquisition for a Tata Motors factory in Singur and for an SEZ in Nandigram changed all that.

The government failed to explain land acquisition to the people. Worse, the administration and the party used force to get their way. First, the state government kept Left's trade union and peasant wings (Krishak Sabha) out of the loop. These units, too, failed to reach out to the aggrieved masses. Movements to resist the state's efforts to forcibly acquire land gathered momentum as TMC, ultra Left and some NGOs galvanised the people's protest. Former Left members and loyalists, too, joined these protests.

Left Front constituents slammed the CPM for its treachery. But, CPM leaders stuck to their strong-arm tactics and set out to crush the people who had always voted for them. Even intellectuals in Kolkata, trusted Left loyalists, took to the streets against the CPM's torture. The youth and the urbane populace were horrified. But, the party was too arrogant to heed the warning signals.

Nandigram became an idiom for people's movements across the country and stimulated Mamata Banerjee's revival. First cracks in the red bastion were visible during the 2008 panchayat polls. Left suffered losses. But, they did nothing for damage control.

There was simmering anger for years against rampant corruption in all echelons of the Left and poor governance.  Going against its grain, party leaders warmed up to moneybags. In the name of industrialisation, concessions were given to a clique of businessmen and industrialists. The party came to be seen as a friend of contractors and promoters. The common masses were left clamouring for basic amenities - health, education, water, housing and infrastructure. Lack of job opportunities and economic development forced the youth to leave the state in droves.

Every institution of the state has been penetrated by the 'party' - education institutions, hospitals, police, prisons, you name it. The culture of "us" and "them" was unabashedly promoted and flaunted by no less than the CM himself. The writ of the Left in Bengal ran thus: "Either you are with us (read Left) or you are nowhere."

Factors like Left's decision to withdraw support from the UPA just added to its negative score. For more than a decade, the people in Bengal had been wanting to get rid of the Left. But, they had no option due to a highly fractured opposition. Division of anti-Left votes ensured Left rule. Election 2009 threw up an opportunity when the Congress decided to tie-up with TMC. It's not that the people voted for the love of Congress-TMC combine. But, they voted against the CPM-led Left Front. Left leaders, too, accept this.

Even as CPM leaders in Bengal train their guns on party's national leadership and trot out theories like: people voted for stability at the Centre and that composition of the Third Front put off the people, the real enemy lies within.

It's time for introspection and rectification. When Bhattacharjee became CM in 2001, he had promised a reformed Left. He failed to deliver. If the CPM doesn't act fast, it could also find its Left partners deserting it, death knell for the party. Already, Mamata Banerjee has been sending them strong feelers.

Unless the CPM puts its house in order, it has to remain in political wilderness for decades ahead, felt party insiders. And, that is a task as mammoth as cleaning the Augean stables.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2009

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