Stalemate in Bengal?

23 03 2009

For the first time in close to three decades, the Left Front finds itself on the defensive in West Bengal in the forthcoming Parliamentary elections.

[This is the draft of the editorial I wrote on the political situation in West Bengal ahead of the 2009 Parliamentary elections in India. This was published in the march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 edition of the EPW.]


For the past three decades West Bengal has been, perhaps, the easiest election to call. There have been minor variations in seat and vote share, but the stranglehold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led Left Front (LF) has never been dented since they came back to power with a large majority in 1977. The best that the opposition has been able to do was perhaps in 1984 when the Indian National Congress, rejuvenated by the sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi after his mother’s assassination, managed to win 16 of West Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats on the basis of a 48% vote share. Even though in the parliamentary elections of 1998 and 1999, the vote share of the combined opposition (the Congress, the Trinamul Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) touched 50%, they never managed to unite the anti-LF votes and thus pose a serious challenge to the ruling coalition.

The last parliamentary election in 2004, actually saw a three percentage point rise in the vote share of the CPI(M), with the LF getting more than half the votes polled. Parallel to this was the precipitous fall in the vote share of the three opposition parties which totalled only about 43%. This was partly due to the fact that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul went with the BJP as part of the National Democratic Alliance, rather than with the Congress. Yet, two years later, during the state’s legislative assembly election – held under unprecedented security to neutralise the CPI(M)’s alleged “scientific rigging”  – the opposition actually witnessed a marginal decline in its vote share laying to rest this bogey. 

Serious social scientists have for long pointed to the unprecedented land reforms, under Operation Barga, for providing the CPI(M) in particular and the LF in general, with a rock solid rural base of small and middle peasantry. Over 15 lakh tenants (bargadars) have had their rights recorded and protected under this. In total, over 11 lakh acres of land has been redistributed in the state. This translates to the revealing fact that 22% off all land redistributed in India has been in West Bengal. Some estimates claim that almost half the rural households in the state have benefited in some form or the other from the land and related rural reforms. Added to this has been the thorough going and pioneering devolution of power to the three tier panchayats. These have significantly altered power structures in the rural areas and also contributed to a high agricultural growth rate in the State. Together they go a long way in explaining the hold of the LF, not merely in terms of electoral victory but, more importantly, as a hegemonic organisational power.  

Given these trends from the last three decades, it seems unlikely that there will be any unprecedented change in the West Bengal results. But, as the introduction to a recently published set of special articles on West Bengal in this journal argued, while crises in stable systems often seem to come out of the blue, later historian are often able to discern critical or transformative events building up to the crisis. Is something similar at work in West Bengal. Some of the consequences of the very success of the land reforms are creating strains for the political and class alliances which support the left in Bengal. 

The flip side of the land reforms has been the continuous fragmentation of land often making it untenable as a livelihood option for the individual family. Moreover, the CPI(M) subsumed the struggles of the landless agricultural labourers under the larger peasant struggle. It is instructive that despite its rural dominance, the agricultural workers front of the CPI(M) does not have an independent existence in West Bengal but works through the unifed Kisan Sabha. While this can be understood as a tactical measure to achieve unity of the small, marginal and middle peasantry for success of Operation Barga, it is under strain in the recent years. As sections within the beneficiaries of the land reform consolidate their economic position and their control within the party and administration, the agricultural workers and small peasants may be getting left behind, unravelling the class alliance which has been the LF’s citadel. The LF decided, in its Industrial policy adopted in the mid 1990s, to address this through corporate led large scale industrialisation. But as recent events in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh have shown, these have merely exacerbated the problem and not helped solve it. 

Moreover, it now appears that the LF put almost all its proverbial eggs in the land reform and panchayat baskets. There are now unambiguous, and irrefutable, evidences to show that there has been a systemic neglect of crucial sectors like education, public health, public transport, etc which cannot merely be adduced to lack of funds from Delhi. Further, as the Sachar committee report showed, minority representation is abysmally low in West Bengal and a recent academic study indicates that the stranglehold of the upper castes in the legislative assembly is among the highest in the country. It appears that on a range of issues important to the poor and marginalised, the LF government of West Bengal has been caught flat footed. 

It is unclear how all these factors will play out in the coming parliamentary elections. Rather than projecting a bold new political programme to address these issues and chart a way out, the LF appears defensive and lacking the creativity in both which marked its economic policies and political manoeuvres. It has traditionally been helped, apart from its own strength, by an incompetent and divided opposition. Will it be the same story this time too or will the processes mentioned here reflect in the verdict? Whatever the actual results, this election is surely not easy to call.

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