West Bengal: A progressive coalition emerges

If the Left Front manages to clinch victory in West Bengal then a viable political alternative to the BJP might emerge
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

After being battered relentlessly by Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the leaders of the Communist Party of India Marxist CPI(M) that had ruled the state for 34 years were slowly reconciling themselves to the irrelevance of a life led at the electoral fringes. The top party leadership would rationalise their increasing discomfiture as an outcome of a paucity of funds and organisational brittleness. Some leaders from the upper echelons of the party talked about the 10 long years needed to revive their fortunes in a state that for long they had considered a stronghold. 

Expectedly, they did not think that they had even a remote chance of winning or even posing a serious challenge to Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. Not surprisingly, the leadership rued that they had neither money nor the muscle power, which had changed hands from one ruling party to another. The only thing they had were probably slogans and the intellectual wherewithal to understand the rapid changes in objective reality. Despite this clarity in comprehension, they knew they were too fragile to harm Banerjee’s electoral chances. It was around this time that the CPI(M) saw a change of guard in its central leadership. Sitaram Yechury replaced the incumbent general secretary of the party, Prakash Karat, during whose term the Left Front had first, helped to build the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2004 and later withdrawn its support from the coalition over the government signing the civilian nuclear deal with the US. His ascension to the top position in the party brought about interesting public declamations after his meeting with the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. Quite candidly, Yechury spoke about the importance of the Congress in fighting the communal challenge posed by the BJP grabbing power at the Centre and in states. Though his statements raised hopes of an alliance between the Congress and the CPI(M) in West Bengal, the troubling question remained: what about Kerala where the two parties are leading two different alliances. 

In West Bengal, the Congress and CPI(M) denied charges of opportunism, but the real reason why they chose to come together to take on the rampaging Trinamool Congress and the BJP was the realisation of a transformed ground reality. Growing economic distress accompanied by the aggressive disenfranchisement of the minorities provided the Left parties the foot in the door they were looking for. In West Bengal, although the Muslims were fervently wooed by Mamata, the minority leadership perhaps realised that the collapse of a national alternative which can reiterate and accord constitutional protection to them could hurt them more. Hence their desire to force the Left and the Congress to work together. A similar electoral constraint was visible in Bihar too where Lalu and Nitish were told to work together to defeat the BJP. 

The Left Front read the signs well. They knew that along with the Congress they could provide a meaningful challenge to the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in West Bengal. What also provided traction to this compact was the estrangement of the young, the farming community and the middle class from the BJP. The defeat of the BJP in Delhi against the ragtag Aam Admi Party provided enough indications that the masses wanted to protect their freedoms zealously from a top down-driven Rightwing view of the country. The BJP’s defeat in Delhi and later on in Bihar encouraged secular political parties to build social and political coalitions that could undo attempts of the Hindutva brigade’s attempt at social engineering. The growing resentment of the youth in many university campuses towards the HRD ministry and its appointees to curb their freedom of expression also helped propel this idea. This precedes the confrontation that we witnessed in Jawahar Lal Nehru University(JNU) over police action being initiated against some students allegedly shouting anti-India slogans. The government response to these slogans was excessive, to say the least, as draconian charges of sedition were levelled against the JNU student leadership. The police, which was acting against these leaders on the basis of videos that were later proved to be fake- showed the government to be absolutely unscrupulous. What the BJP had not bargained for was the resentment building within their own government over their mindless ways of  suppressing dissent. 

Then there was the burning issue of a slowing economy and rising inflation. As a CPI leader, Atul Anjan says:  “People are so upset with the price of pulses. In Mumbai, the price of Arhar has climbed to `230 per kg, which is now beyond the reach of even the middle class. What should the common man eat now?” Anjan has found the popularity of Prime Minister Modi plummetting so rapidly that he was not surprised by the extraordinary response the Left party rallies got in West Bengal. It is also a reality that no one really buys Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s claim that the rate of growth of GDP is 7 per cent. In recent times, these claims have been rubbished by respected academic journals and economists. Worse, the government has locked horns on this issue with the highly respected RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan. Recently, the Finance Minister and Commerce Minister downplayed his remarks that India’s situation was the proverbial “in a country of blind, the one-eyed is king”. Rajan has clearly pointed towards the fact that the economy is in a bad shape due to the massive amounts of debt and non-performing assets idling with the public sector banks. In his speeches he has made it clear that the economy cannot bounce back till the debt issue is resolved.

Despite a slew of overhyped policies—many of them old wine in new bottles—the revival of the economy rests entirely on the rains. Large swathes of the country are parched and people in these parts are chasing the mirage of water all the time. Their situation has got aggravated due to the inadequate resources that have been provided for rural development. It was only in this Budget that a sizeable allocation for the rural employment guarantee scheme has been made. It is not clear whether the funds have reached the intended beneficiaries, but the reports from the ground are apocalyptic. Rural indebtedness has been accentuated by this unprecedented drought compelling many farmers in different parts of the country to commit suicide. This sad and tragic story continues.

The drought has also impacted the industrial sector. Many units in drought-hit areas have closed down or are working at below capacity levels, leading to a snowballing retrenchment of contract labour. Instead of generating more employment, the deadly combination of apathetic economic policies and the harsh environmental conditions caused by low precipitation has brought the economy to a standstill. If one looks at the statistics closely, then it would become apparent how badly the economy is performing. The rate of growth of bank deposits despite a higher rate of circulation of money is at a 53-year low.  There is near universal unanimity that if the rains do not deliver this time too, then a calamity awaits the country. The flight of people from drought-affected areas will become an exodus to the big metropolises of India. How will the government then deal with it? 

In other words, the public anger is against the apathy of the Indian State and its constant resort to empty slogans. If the Left and the Congress coalition can take advantage of these anxieties which plague the mind of the voting public, then there will be greater clarity towards how politics will pan out in the coming days. The BJP, too, will get a chance to craft its response better when it finally wakes up to the fact that the challenges that it was trying to avoid are getting bigger by the day.

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This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2016